Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Live Review: Helloween - Pumpkins United @ O2 Academy, Brixton


One feels tempted when writing about a live show to set the scene by granting it some exceptional quality in comparison to other live shows happening at the same time. However, it feels a little redundant so I say the following advisedly: we live at a point in time awash with nostalgia in music generally, and heavy metal in particular. Reformations, album anniversary tours, re-recordings of classics albums (ugh) – the results are ever-present and, shall we say, variable in quality. 

Tonight though, I am travelling to Brixton Academy, both in sore need of a musical pick-me- up and genuinely curious to see whether Helloween (a band I was never quite curious enough about outside of power metal classic Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt II and a smattering of other well-known classics associated with their Kiske-Hansen era) can pull off a genuinely great live outing on their 'Pumpkins United' setup. With, of course, the band’s contemporary lineup of Weikath/Grosskopf/Deris/Gerstner/Loble, and with the addition of returning frontman Mikael Kiske and guitar supremo Kai Hansen. No supports, essentially an “evening with” session spanning the band’s entire back catalogue with a heavy emphasis on the first three albums, regarded as genre classics. How will the multiple vocalist set-up work? Will the gig flow well? Will it all amount to a tired, by-the- numbers rehash through old favourites? I needn’t have worried.

A Helloween fan couldn’t realistically ask for a better starting point than the first two tracks played
tonight: 'Halloween' and 'Dr Stein', in which vocal duties are handled by both Andi Deris and Mikael Kiske in tandem. These two songs showcase the two key flavours of Helloween’s output: sweeping, epic heavy metal drawing on fantastic themes in the case of the former and goofy, self-deprecating rock, in the case of the latter, 'Halloween' particularly shines as I hadn’t expected to hear one of the “epics” open the set. The rendition includes what appears to be a genuinely clever use of the two vocalist set-up: -

The first two lines (“Masquerade, Masquerade, grab your mask and don’t be late”) delivered by Deris, at which point Kiske emerges to pick up the falsetto. This sets the tone well for the rest of the set; Deris' lower but powerful register complements Kiske’s histrionics well on the numbers they share vocal duties on. A series of short videos on the stage’s screen break up the set every two or three songs, showing a pair of cartoonish pumpkinhead mascots making visual in-jokes about band members, songs and albums. The humour grates somewhat but the skits are harmless enough and serve a purpose of killing time during gear/personnel changes. After the opening three numbers  I confirm that yes, we can expect a performance quality to do the classic material justice. The first third is front-loaded with more recent Deris-era material (broken up briefly by a returning Kiske for 'Kids of the Century' from the…divisive Pink Bubbles Go Ape). Of this part of the set, 'If I Could Fly' and 'Waiting For The Thunder' (the most recently recorded song featuring tonight) stand out as worthy.

For this author, however, the next real high-point arrives when Kai Hansen takes centre-stage to deliver 4-hit combo of speed metal fury in the form of 'Starlight'/'Judas'/'Ride The Sky' and 'Heavy Metal (Is The Law)'. Hansen really shines as a frontman in his own right as well as being a phenomenal guitarist.

Following the above section, Deris and Kiske continue to weave in and out of the show, building to the  “home-stretch” of the evening now, the setlist begins to lean more toward fan favourite material ('Sole Survivor', 'Power', 'Why?' and 'A Little Time' being particular bangers). This section is broken up briefly by a drum solo featuring a short video tribute to deceased drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg (adding some genuine emotion and gravity to the evening). This culminates in 'How Many More Tears' from Walls of Jericho, with vocal duties split three ways between Deris, Kiske and Hansen, sounding mighty triumphant.

Of course, we know this is not the end and the Pumpkins return for two (count ‘em) encores: The
first is focused on Keeper of The Seven Keys Part 2, with gargantuan chorus classic 'Eagle Fly Free' followed by 'Keeper of The Seven Keys' itself, in full. Seeing Keeper being played really feels like being part of something special: the band project this well and there’s a sense of awe in the crowd.

For the final encore, the reader with more than a passing familiarity with these chaps can guess –
'Future World' followed by 'I Want Out'. An inevitably triumphant end for this night. This author’s expectations are exceeded.  An earlier placement for the ballads would have been helpful, and maybe losing the cartoon interludes every couple of songs, however other than that there was little to fault here.

This show exceeded my expectations and, as noted earlier, I’m no major Helloween fan. The band as a whole sounded great (30+ year pros shocking no-one). Kiske sounds frighteningly good on the classic material (anyone who’s seen him with Unisonic or Avantasia these past few years can attest to his consistently impressive ability) and a broad spread of material was made use of. My one real criticism would be in the placement of certain songs, particularly given the length of the set. Following the Walls of Jericho “section” Deris and Kiske take on dual vocal duties for two ballads: 'Forever and One' from The Time of The Oath, and 'A Tale That Wasn’t Right' from Keeper Pt1. I see what they’re trying to do here, effectively showcasing their complementary styles on two vocal-heavy tracks from each singer’s respective era but the placement in the setlist doesn’t really work – I was ready for, at a push, slightly less fast material after the preceding four songs and at this point it felt like some of the energy was taken out of the set. 

Generally speaking, it's safe to say that any fan of heavy metal with catchy melodies and big choruses should take the chance to see a Pumpkins United set if they haven’t already.

Score: 8/10




Writer: Craig Stewart

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