German metal veterans Helloween place positive bets
Heavy metal is typically considered dark music for alienated kids. Michael Weikath, the 46-year-old guitarist for the German metal group Helloween, flies in the face of that stereotype.
Helloween's latest album, their 13th, is called "Gambling With the Devil," but these are not kids reveling in comic book evil. Although the group was built on heavy metal hallmarks such as bracing guitar harmonies, thunderous drums and sky-high singing, their music is as concerned with peace and virtue as it is with getting heads banging. The audience for their first area concert in five years (at Mokena's Pearl Room on Saturday, Sept. 27) will more likely be grinning than scowling.
A lyrical emphasis on bettering oneself goes deep into Helloween's catalog, the best-known entries of which remain their two-part "Keeper of the Seven Keys" albums from 1987 and 1988. Here, Helloween raised their Iron Maiden-on-amphetamines approach to new levels of grandeur while retaining a jubilant singalong quality and even flashes of humor. These discs formed a template, a hypercharged yet traditional style that came to be known as "power metal" once it was revived across Europe by bands such as HammerFall and DragonForce.
After the second "Keeper" album, co-founding guitarist Kai Hansen departed and began a new band called Gamma Ray. Hansen steadfastly continued in the old Helloween style, while his old band took ill-fated trips into pop territory before returning to metal, albeit in a far more diverse form, with 1994's "Master of the Rings." Although competition was assumed between Helloween and Gamma Ray ever since, in 2007 the bands publicly confirmed the healing of old wounds with a co-headlining tour so successful that it continues to this day.
Weikath called to discuss the tour and the legacy of a metal institution that puts as much emphasis on the "Hello" portion of its name as the "Hell."
Q. Longtime Helloween ideals like keeping one's spirits high, having a social conscience and opposing evil are all present within the "Gambling With the Devil" theme.
A. The album title was pretty clear way beforehand, it was conceived during the tour before. Then when we started songwriting, we could work on the correlation of things. Andi (Deris, vocals) has a different view about what this "gambling with the devil" stuff is all about, what it means for your daily life, and basically everyone in the band has a different opinion of what the phrase could mean. I just thought about what happens on the good side and what can happen on the bad side if you lose the game with the devil. This can happen if everything runs fine, if you win, or this is what can happen if things go wrong.
Q. "Paint a New World" and "Can Do It" both center on keeping a positive attitude while not ignoring the bad things in the world.
A. If you're being faced with particularly bad situations you could be dealt, it's a bit stupid if you don't know how to deal with situations like that just because you're such a good guy. If you're just interested in positive things, then you will probably fail. I think it's great if you also have the ability to think "bad," so you can assume things that could happen next. Otherwise, if you're too "good" a person and you don't know how to handle something that's going to come upon you, you're not going to prevail. I think if you want to survive villains who want you bad, then you've got to be a little bit bad yourself.
Q. That said, ultimately positive aims are crucial to Helloween's appeal, and I think that would be surprising to people who don't follow heavy metal.
A. It would seem so, but we're not a kiddie band. We don't have sexy women in our videos, we don't do all this two-dimensional stuff that bands usually do. Sometimes I'm afraid that maybe we're too honest in our presentation, but on the other hand, I couldn't stand it if we had that on our DVDs. We don't want to go with the pack. It's pretty stupid to just do what everyone does, particularly with so many young bands around who actually copy what we do, the old way, and they play faster or whatever. We've got to do something different, and that's what people get with a Helloween record.
Q. How do you feel about younger bands playing in your old style?
A. I think it's great, because they continue doing something so we don't have to. What they play, I think they're going to be sick of it in at least four years. They're going to tell you stories about how they thought it would be cool to play some slower grooves. It's the same thing Metallica and other bands have said. They come up with these excuses like, "Yeah, my friends told me I sound good if I sing lower." If you're out on tour and you play stuff like DragonForce does for two, three, four years ... actually, I'm surprised that they're still doing it, so they must be kind of crazy (laughs). We got sick of it a lot earlier.
On the other hand, the fans expect you to do that stuff because you invented it. You came up with it, and then later on you complain about your own concepts? That's a no-go. You have to do what you came up with and you have to do it good, that's just being professional. We just took the luxury to widen the horizons that we have in order to survive, because you can't possibly do anything like DragonForce does when you're 55 years old. I'm pretty happy that we are in a good situation. We can play this, we can play that and people don't mind.
Q. One reason Helloween's tour with Gamma Ray is so great to the fans is that at one time, there appeared to be lots of animosity between you and Kai.
A. Which was mainly created by media who had fun with us by saying, "Did you hear Kai Hansen said this and that about you?" and "Have you heard Weikath said this and that?" By now, there are no more animosities.
Q. How do you feel when Kai plays a few songs with Helloween at the end of every night?
A. Right then, time stops and something else takes over. On one hand, it's not so special after all, because we had that a million times before, back when we were together in one band. On the other hand, it's happening now, and some kind of magic emerges in that moment for the fans. We sense it on stage, too, but we're kind of cynical guys, we don't pay much attention to that. We're just hanging out. We're having a good time.
With: Gamma Ray and Ion Vein
7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 27, at The Pearl Room, 19081 Old LaGrange Road, Mokena, (708) 479-5356 or pearlroomconcerts.com
Tickets: $30, $75 (VIP)