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Return to The Time of the Oath with Helloween

Helloween’s 7th album still rages 25 years later

Cover painted by Martin Zeissler

There’s still power in The Time of the Oath. 25 years since its release, Helloween’s seventh studio album possesses a biting strength and refreshing sincerity. Powered by a lyrical depth and fun too often missing from modern metal, The Time of the Oath belongs to a different era, but one sadly lost when juxtaposed against today’s djent ear demolition. It’s a combination of talent, heartbreak, and a return to form combining into symphonic gold.

No great art is formed in a vacuum. It’s the product of many elements coming together. The Time of the Oath is no different, so requires a run along the rocky road to its origin.

“Wake Up the Mountain”

For the uninitiated, Helloween formed in 1984. The original lineup featured Kai Hansen on vocals and rhythm guitar, Markus Grosskopf commanding bass, Michael Weikath’s lightning lead guitar, and Ingo Schwichtenberg thundering drums. In 1985 they released their first full-length record Walls of Jericho.

It laid down the foundation for the evolution of power metal. This subgenre involved slow steady chord progressions giving way to fingers blurring out of sight as they flew across frets. High velocity shreds that never sacrificed any melodious quality. Additionally, lyrical content began to explore more operatic storytelling.

There’s a taste of Iron Maiden in that first album, but over their next two records — Keeper of the Seven Keys part 1 and part 2 — Helloween left behind the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Michael Kiske took over as vocalist giving Hansen the freedom to focus on guitar, and they would then quickly mature into a sound wholly their own. One so potent it birthed the entire European branch of power metal. A singular accomplishment for any band.

“We Burn”

Comical pumpkin art for The Time of the Oath shows a jack-o-lantern that has set itself on fire playing with matches
Oops! We burn!

Unfortunately, for various reasons, the musicians stumbled on their next two records. Legal problems with their label prevented them from making another album for several years. Coupled with mounting internal tensions, the hiatus didn’t help them craft anything exceptional. Then in 1991 they released Pink Bubbles Go Ape followed by Chameleon in 1993.

In an interview for MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball, Michael Kiske put forth the band wanted to depart from predictably metal material as well as strive to do something different on each album. Chameleon certainly went in unique directions. It could be kindly regarded as a “Las Vegas revue for power metal” or be more vitriolically dubbed a bad joke. Either way, critics and more importantly fans didn’t care for the albums, especially the experimental Chameleon. The fact Kiske says they, “wanted to do something stupid” essentially closes the coffin on those records. However, one could contend they needed these missteps to eventually produce The Time of the Oath.

Pinks Bubbles Go Ape stumbled because the band couldn’t decide on a musical direction. Kai Hansen then departed opening the door for Roland Grapow to join the band. Tensions continued heating up until they boiled over during the tour for Chameleon. This led to the ousting of drummer and founding member Ingo Schwichtenberg as well as lead singer Michael Kiske. The vocalist fired mainly for creative differences, while Ingo was asked to leave due to his increasing use of drugs and alcohol to deal with worsening schizophrenia. Tragically, Ingo’s struggles with substance abuse and mental illness would result in his suicide a few years later.

“See me covered with sadness

And I’ll soon wish to die

When the overcoming madness

Is eating up my mind.”

Guitarist Michael Weikath had already been trying to recruit singer Andi Deris from Pink Cream 69. During the lineup change in 1993 Deris joined Helloween along with drummer Uli Kusch, who departed Gamma Ray. This new roster unified the band’s musical vision and produced their next album Master of the Rings (1994).

Regarded by many as a return to form, Master of the Rings renewed the bands’ passion. This along with increased record sales motivated them to pursue the course their new blood fueled. That enthusiasm and unified vision ultimately came together to create The Time of the Oath.

“Kings Will Be Kings”

Comical pumpkin art for Helloween's The Time of the Oath shows a saucy jack-o-lantern wearing a crown throwing up horns and the middle finger
Even pumpkin Kings will be Kings.

The evolution of metal in the 1990s typically meant a distancing from anything popular in the 1980s. The regrettable spectacle of hair metal glam rock tainted the image of the genre for years to come. Influenced by the rise of grunge, more angst driven emotionally revelatory lyrics took hold. Gone was the constant exaltation to party and get laid. Now began the era of damaged individuals atavistically howling their pain and gutturally growling for the power they felt denied by life’s injustices.

That’s not to say such content never existed before. As Ian Christe wrote in Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, “ordained by Black Sabbath, heavy metal was a complex maelstrom of neurosis and desire. Formed into an unbending force of deceptive simplicity, it had an omnivorous appetite for life.” However, in the ’90s audiences seemed more inclined to the primal concrete sledge of bands like Pantera over Dio’s dungeons and dragons symbolism. Songs about riding tigers traded for the gritty realism of being plain fucking hostile.

It’s not to say one is better than the other. A hammer isn’t better than any other tool in the box. It’s simply designed for specific fixes. That said, the gritty realism of the burgeoning extreme metal movement sandblasted the candy-colored clowns of the ’80s. Stripped of any relevance, groups like Mötley Crüe and Poison quickly faded out of sight. Power metal seemed poised to follow suit. Then The Time of the Oath arrived.

“The Time of the Oath”

Going into their seventh studio album, with two bad stumbles behind them, the group knew their strengths as well as their weaknesses. This allowed Helloween to craft something that took the best from Keeper of the Seven Keys, a touch of the raw from Walls of Jericho, and a willingness to risk some fresh stylistic choices without getting too far from the familiar. They also found a way to incorporate that grim nihilism simmering throughout the metal environment at the time.

The Time of the Oath is partially influenced by the prophecies of Nostradamus. A French physician and supposed seer, Nostradamus wrote Les Prophéties which contained 942 poetic quatrains predicting the future. They seem to foretell various apocalyptic events such as a third world war, and the end of days. Interpretations of the quatrains saw these incidents unfolding by the year 2000, so the 90s experienced an uptick in Nostradamus related content; the grim idea that the end of the world was right around the corner. Andi Deris has stated he doesn’t believe in the prophecies, but as good artists, he and the rest of Helloween found fertile ground to harvest ideas from.

“Anything My Mama Don’t Like”

The Time of the Oath opens with an off-putting calliope lick that quickly explodes into the headbanging thrill of the song “We Burn.” Like many Helloween standards, this is an anthemic track that electrifies any listener into a fist pumping metalhead. Galloping riffs charge towards razorblade shreds none can resist. Only the dead inside are unmoved by the thrill, and early into the song, even a first time listener can catch enough of the chorus to sing along — “We Burn!”

From there, the album slides casually into the sinister snarl of “Steel Tormentor.” There’s a flavor akin to Judas Priest’s Painkiller, but it’s a similarity to be expected from speed metal cousins. The pace somehow accelerates as if “We Burn” were merely sizzling fuse wire crackling to ignite the rocket “Steel Tormentor” rides.

In no mood to slow down, “Wake up the Mountain” arrives on a squealing shred. It’s a demanding display not many can master let alone perform, yet here it feels deceptively effortless. Instead of catching their breath, listeners hold it in anticipation. Then the track bounces without derailing into a bass riff beckoning towards power metal perfection.

“Wake up the Mountain” paves the way for “Power.” A tune easily intended for live performances. Even alone in a car it feels like a stadium show. Another invitation to the metal chorus, not singing along is not an option.

Comical pumpkin art for The Time of the Oath shows a jack-o-lantern writing a love letter
A Helloween pumpkin pens a love letter.

Five tracks deep, the record changes gears for the first time. “Forever and One (Neverland)” is everything a power ballad wants to be. A sentimental song that remains powerful thanks to its instrumentation and fearless expression of emotion. It doesn’t feel like the glam metal ballads that often sounded like someone trying to seduce the inexperienced with faux displays of emotion. Vocals and guitars combine here to create a haunting atmosphere imbued with genuine sadness and loss.

Which is perhaps why the album dives back into the power metal vein straight after. “Before the War” lifts the listener out of the reflective low “Forever and One” inspires. However, this isn’t a retreat. It’s more of a comfort as The Time of the Oath risks darker themes by returning to familiar heavy metal thunder.

While there’s a certain catharsis in bellicose bellowing and blunt lyrical content, the storytelling element found in power metal, especially Helloween’s music, allows for an operatic quality that soars above reality. Clean vocals weave a rich tapestry indicative of Vikings singing in the beerhall. Think of it this way: it’s the difference between Platoon and Lord of the Rings. Both deal with themes of camaraderie, struggle, and hope in the face of hopelessness, but the former is grounded in a depressing realism that inspires alcoholism while the other explores those same topics in a more fantastical setting. This theatricality frees the listener to feel deeply while keeping a safe distance from darker themes. And make no mistake, dark themes lurk here like poison thorns.

The lyrical content throughout speaks to simultaneously uplifting and crushing possibilities. The song “Kings will be Kings” features the apt observation “So many ways to go… few will be chosen ones until we fade and die.” In “A Million to One” despite the lyrical hope to have given good life advice, the narrative tone is clear, “You will lose it all… you’ll be falling.” Even the positive aura of “Wake Up the Mountain” contains that uplift and crush combo with lyrics like, “Though I cannot change the world we’re living in I can always change myself.”

This sense of struggle yet refusal to surrender is a constant element throughout The Time of the Oath. Helloween acknowledges the awfulness in the world then provides a sonic cleanse for the soul coated in life’s sewage. A cleanse the band perhaps needed themselves following the trials and tribulations that led to the record. A palpable personal element apparent in several tracks gives the overall album an honesty that can’t be produced by audio engineering. It’s something that comes from people trying to deal with things like a faltering career, deteriorating relationships, and the tragic suicide of a friend.

When The Time of the Oath arrives at its titular track, the record closes dripping doom. There is still that distinctively metal guitar chug calling for fist pumps. The thunder of drums rousing the willing to battle. A steady bass urging ever forward. Although the musical tone is gloomy, it feels conquerable. This isn’t the end of the struggle, life goes on after all, but there is hope for those who persist. Even after 25 years, that empowering message still comes across.

(Various articles suggest the closer is inspired by Act V part two of Goethe’s Faust. Andi Deris supposedly plays Mephistopheles come to collect Faust’s soul, and a choir at the end sings Dies irae representing the angels rescuing Faust. However, I couldn’t find a source to confirm this — everyone mentioning it seems to’ve cut and pasted an unsourced passage from Wikipedia. As such, it’s my contention, if Faust is the inspiration, it’s more likely the Cathedral scene from part one, wherein Gretchen is tormented by an Evil Spirit. The dialogue is an accusatory torment implying her impending fate in the time of the Final Judgment and is interspersed by the Dies irae. Essentially, it fits the song as well as the overall themes of the album as a whole, but I digress.)

This album arrived following a defeated era in metal. During the ’80s the genre went mainstream, and “glam bands co-opted its imagery for poppier sounds” resulting in metal “losing its edge.” The rise of grunge drove the movement underground, where some bands kept the sharpness alive, but mostly, another crest of the cyclical wave asserting rock is dead rose again.

It’s a sentiment that comes around every few years, regardless of veracity. Some grim specter is always threatening to signal the death knell, and nothing hooks attention like the declaration a whole musical genre is bound for burial. A fresh wave is always waiting to rise. The attitude being rock is dead, or at best dying slowly. Its golden days far behind and though fans still exist, they’re regarded as people hanging onto a rotting corpse. Those who defend it at all do so with ironic distance. They claim to love it yet roll their eyes ‘n’ rock away before an acerbic volley labels them Wayne and Garth or Beavis and Butthead. YouTubers like Pagefire and Jared Dines seem to celebrate it but with tongue firmly in cheek. It’s as if in order to be an out in the open fan of rock or god forbid heavy metal a person must first be willing to immolate themselves in the public square.

Perhaps that’s why something like The Time of the Oath is so refreshing. This is an album that brazenly basks in the over-the-top aspects of the genre. Moreover, it isn’t just bombastically loud. The Time of the Oath is an excellent example of why heavy metal is an undeservedly maligned genre. There’s a complexity and skill in Weikath’s shreds and the vocals of Andi Deris that many musicians, regardless of genre, cannot match. That all combines into something gloriously defiant.

During a time when metal needed standard bearers, albums like The Time of the Oath arrived. It revitalized not only Helloween’s career but helped remind a lot of fans what made the genre glorious. Heavy metal is the music of epics, composed of grandiose songs painting larger than life images. It breaks away from the bounds of the everyday ordinary carrying the listener into the extraordinary. Something that grand doesn’t exist in one era, it persists across ages, and while the flame may dim, ignored into a smoldering coal, if that ember is The Time of the Oath, it can inspire a whole new generation of fire.

Granted, Helloween has often been more popular outside the United States. They aren’t a group one casually stumbles across. Even within the heavy metal fandom, introduction to the German band is often via a fan. In the ’80s they reached into a tattered denim pocket and pulled out a cassette. Nowadays, it’s a thumb drive or perhaps a retrospective article, but the result is the same: exposure to pure metal magic.

Some may argue The Time of the Oath isn’t a crown jewel in the heavy metal crown, but the album belongs in the royal treasury. It’s a masterful amalgamation of all the things which make Helloween power metal royalty. Moreover, it speaks in a language instrumental and lyrical that echoes across time. In another 25 years, this album will still be as potent as the day it first arrived.

Written by Jay Rohr

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