Sunday Old School: Gamma Ray
A short while ago, Sunday Old School took a look at German power metal heroes, Helloween, which was founded by guitarist Kai Hansen in 1984. Hansen left the group in 1989, only to return in some style a year later, with a new band that soon become one of the biggest and most influential in their field, Gamma Ray. The seeds of the group were sewn while Hansen was doing some studio work for countrymen, Blind Guardian, and decided to form his own project afterwards, teaming up with his friend, Ralf Scheepers, who would handle the vocal duties. The duo would soon become a quartet when they added bass player Uwe Wessel and drummer Mathias Burchardt. Despite the problems Hansen had previously had with the company, Gamma Ray signed a deal with Noise Records for their first album, "Heading For Tomorrow," which was released in February 1990 and was received very warmly by the music press and metal fans alike. Shortly after their debut was released, Gamma Ray made several changes by hiring a new drummer and guitarist in Uli Kusch and Dirk Schlächter respectively. This new incarnation of the band released an EP later that year entitled, "Heaven Can Wait," before releasing their first full length studio album together in September 1991, "Sigh No More." Despite it’s somewhat comic album cover, the record was significantly darker than, "Heading For Tomorrow," with lyrics covering topics such as the Persian Gulf War that was ongoing at the time.
Once the band returned from a Japanese tour, they made yet another lineup change, with founding bassist Uwe Wessel and Kusch leaving the group due to disagreements, with Kusch going on to join Helloween, making his debut on the fan favourite, "Master of Rings." The duo were replaced by bass player Jan Rubach and drummer Thomas Nack, who made their presence known to fans in 1993 with the third Gamma Ray album, "Insanity and Genius," which was recorded at the band’s own custom studio. "Insanity and Genius" was closer sonically to "Heading for Tomorrow," and likewise received some very positive reviews. It was notable for Hansen singing on the track, "Heal Me" and Schlächter performing vocal duties on the song, "Your Tørn Is Over."
Perhaps the most important chance in personnel came next, as Scheepers expressed his feelings to Hansen that, since he lived relatively far away from Hamburg, where the rest of the band was based, he felt too distanced from the group. He was also attempting to become the new vocalist of Judas Priest, who had recently decided to continue after the departure of Rob Halford. Scheepers and Hansen parted company in a friendly fashion, and Scheepers went on to form the band, Primal Fear, after his audition for Judas Priest didn’t work out. Hansen meanwhile, decided that he would become the new singer for Gamma Ray, as he had been at the beginning of Helloween. The first album to feature Hansen behind the microphone, "Land of the Free," was released in May 1995 to near universal acclaim. The resulting tour also produced their first live album, "Alive ’95," but once again, the band lost it’s rhythm section after the tour, and Schlächter switch to bass, where he remains to this day, while the band brought in Freedom Call founder Dan Zimmerman on drums and second guitarist, Henjo Richter, who had previously been a member of Rampage.
Positive reviews returned once more for their fifth album, "Somewhere Out in Space," which hit the shelves in 1997. Thematically, the album centered around space and the universe, and was notable for it’s reference to the classic movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," on the song, "Men, Martians and Machines." The album also contained the song, "Valley of the Kings," which became something of a hit in several European countries and helped the album find chart success. Gamma Ray continued exploring the cosmos (lyrically) on their next album, 1999’s, “Power Plant,” which climbed to higher positions on several album charts than, "Somewhere Out in Space" had and also received rave reviews. "Power Plant" is notable for featuring an unlikely cover of, "It’s a Sin," one of the biggest hits for the English synthpop duo, the Pet Shop Boys, though the band adapted it to the power metal sound quite ingeniously.
With six albums now under their belt, the time seemed right to release a compilation record, the tracklisting of which was chosen by the fans, as per Hansen’s request. It materialised in 2000 under the name, "Blast from the Past" and was followed the next year by a new studio album, "No World Order," which featured a slight change in musical direction, sounding more akin to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement that flourished in the early eighties to their usual power metal output. The album received the usual praise and a successful tour followed, with another tour taking place afterwards which was dubbed the "Skeletons in the Closet" tour, where the group performed songs that they had previously rarely or never performed live. This trek gave way to their second live album, also named, "Skeletons in the Closet."
Following the release of the album, "Majestic," the band recorded it’s first live DVD, the somewhat bizarrely named, "Hell Yeah – The Awesome Foursome (And the Finnish Keyboard Player Who Didn’t Want to Wear His Donald Duck Costume," which featured material from all of the group’s albums up to that point, as well as a cover of the Helloween classic, "I Want Out." Although the DVD was recorded in 2006, it wasn’t to be released until 2008, during which time the band recorded another album, "Land of the Free II," which didn’t quite live up to the reception of it’s predecessor, but was unanimously praised nonetheless. Since then, the band has focused more on live shows, although a new album, "To the Metal" was released in 2010, and a new EP, "Skeletons and Majesties" emerging the next year. The EP contained rarely played old songs, as well as acoustic interpretations of others. In 2012, the band made two announcements, firstly that Zimmerman had left the band after fifteen years of service, and secondly that they would release a new EP, "Master of Confusion" in early 2013, as a precursor to their next full length studio record, the title of which is not yet known. “Master of Confusion” was released only two days ago, (March 15th) and has been met with immediate positivity from fans, who eagerly await the next slab of pure, concentrated power metal, from one of the undisputed kings of the genre.
Gamma Ray - "Space Eater"
Gamma Ray - "One With the World"
Gamma Ray - "Land of the Free"
Gamma Ray - "It's A Sin"
Gamma Ray - "Eagle"
Gamma Ray - "Into the Storm"
Gamma Ray - "To The Metal!"
Ollie Hynes has been a writer for Metal Underground.com for four years and has been a metal fan for ten years, going so far as to travel abroad for metal shows.
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