Friday, October 4, 2013

October 31st Comes Early This Year

In a much anticipated event for The Meister, October 31st comes early this year.  Sorry kids, I'm not talking about Halloween, but rather German power metal pioneers, Helloween with their performance at The Opera House in Toronto on September 28th, 2013.  I've long been a fan of the German metal veterans and I was ready for my first foray into their live performance, thanks to Inertia Entertainment for bringing them to Toronto.

Helloween began life in 1984 in Hamburg, Germany when I was a mere ten years old with guitarist Michael Weikath, bassist Markus Grosskopf, drummer Ingo Schwichtenberg and Kai Hansen handling vocals as well as guitar.  Soon after the release of an EP (1985) and then Walls of Jericho (1985) they acquired singer Michael Kiske, leaving Hansen wielding only the guitar and expelled their classic masterpieces, Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. 1 (1987) & Pt. 2 (1988).  With Hansen leaving the fold, Roland Grapow stepped in to fill his shoes for the next two releases of the absurdly named Pink Bubbles Go Ape (1991) and Chameleon (1993).  More line-up changes ensued and Uli Kusch replaced Schwichtenberg while Andi Deris took over the mic from Kiske creating the longest standing incarnation of Helloween and put forth the albums, Master of the Rings (1994), The Time of the Oath (1996), Better Than Raw (1998) and The Dark Ride (2000), but that would be the end for Grapow and Kusch.  Sascha Gerstner took up the guitar, but finding a drummer proved elusive and the next effort, Rabbit Don't Come Easy (2003) was released without an official band member.  Daniel Loble was recruited in 2005 and with a complete complement once again Helloween released Keeper of the Seven Keys: The Legacy (2005), Gambling With The Devil (2007), 7 Sinners (2010) and the latest, Straight Out of Hell in January of 2013.

Arriving at The Opera House on Queen St. East, Toronto I was greeted by a line of concert goers stretched around the building, waiting to get in.  I have never seen anyone wearing a Helloween concert shirt at any other event or out around town, so I, mistakenly it seems, assumed that they did not have  a lot of merch sales.  But tonight I would say that better than half of the crowd awaiting entrance were adorned in Helloween t-shirts of many styles.  As I shuffled along, past the obviously Helloween's tour bus that was parked on the side street, moving closer to the doors, glimpses of the band could be caught through the windows of the bus as we ambled past.  Once past the bus and near to rounding the corner, Sascha Gerstner appeared and worked his way up the line, offering beer to the waiting Helloween fans.  No sooner had he worked his way down the line when Markus Grosskopf passed by with same offer, a can of beer in his out stretched hands.  There did not seem to be too many takers on the beers and I can only assume that few of the folks waiting outside actually knew who these two were.

Once inside the doors, I checked out the merchandise table, wanting to join in the crowd and sport a colourful Helloween shirt of my very own, but the line was already horrendously long and I forewent the wait for the option of securing a front row seat (standing area) instead, planning to return to the booth later on.

Battlesoul from London, Ontario was the first band on the roster this evening taking the stage, shirtless and adorned in only kilts.  With some quick deadpan banter to the audience the singer quipped that "many a man would be jealous of physiques such as theirs", they were under way.  While they seem to have some fans here it was quickly apparent that their brand of Celtic thrash was not my style.  I'm sure that I would have preferred it if the vocals had been more clear and less screamy as the music itself was not unenjoyable.  At one point the vocalist (screamist) posed of the audience "Do we have any Battlesoul fans out here tonight?" to which  yells and shouts of acknowledgement were received.  "Then why don't you have your shirts off?" he responded in the deadpan delivery, causing
 me to chuckle.  As a lead in to the third song (I think, hard to tell, they all sound the same) it was dedicated to their guitarist as this would be his last show with Battlesoul.  Other than that there is not much to report on their set as their stage presence was absolutely non-existent, just standing there in the "legs spread" stance wailing on their guitars.

After the obligatory set changes, the lights dimmed slightly and a recorded intro announced the readiness of New York's Coldsteel, including a short snippet of "Oh Canada" towards the end, prompting the singer to enter the stage waving a large Canadian flag.  I was impressed with their first cut and my head began to bob along with their melody.  "You Lose" was the next selection and also sounded good as I noticed that there was much more stage movement from these New Yorkers than Battlesoul had provided, creating a stronger stage presence.  It was time for the vocalist to address the audience and he quipped "You have good food here, but your women are even better!" as they rolled into "Blood Secrets".  "We may be from New York, but we're not bad guys." he stated before their favourite track off of their new America Idle EP, "Ashes to Ashes" and I made a point to purchase the CD when I made my way back over
to acquire my coveted Helloween shirt.  Not wanting to abandon my excellent vantage point, I glanced back at the merch area to see how the line was doing......absolute horror at what I saw!  The shirts were all stripped down from the display board, signifying their sell out and it wasn't yet even 9pm!  What the hell?  Is this the last night of the tour or something?  Merchandisers need to stop underestimating the demand up here in Canada as we have a vibrant metal scene in Toronto and Montreal.  It was the same thing at Saxon two weeks ago, but they had been sold out before the show even started!!  The very first Coldsteel song ever written assaulted our ears next, based on Sam Raimi's Evil Dead movie and called "Dead By Dawn".  My hopes of hearing "Dead by Dawn" on the soon to be purchased CD were quickly dashed as he announced that their closing song would require some audience participation and had been written
about 22 years ago.  If they'd been around that long these last two songs would surely not appear on the latest CD.  "Crack Down" did indeed prove to be a great song with the audience chanting the gang vocal chorus of "Crack Down".  Coldsteel closed on this high note and did a great job of warming up the crowd and making new fans, myself included.

As the last whisps of AC/DC's classic "For Those About To Rock" faded away and Helloween's recorded intro "Walls Of Jericho" began to ebb through the speakers the house lights dimmed, enveloping us in darkness.  Blinding stage floodlights abruptly sliced through the din with a background soundtrack of "Helloween, Helloween" chants ringing out in unison from the audience.  The Germans stormed the stage erupting into the epic "Eagle Fly Free" from their 1988 genre defining masterpiece Keeper of the Seven Keys Pt. 2.  Helloween were already blowing me away, playing as if they were possessed, the music a mere extension of themselves as Andi Deris, adorned in a Gene Simmons KISS shirt sang note for note throughout.  The second choice was the seven minute long opus "Nabataea" from their latest output unleashed at the start of the year entitled Straight Out Of Hell.  Bassist Markus Grosskopf was
sporting a goofy smile as he bounced around the stage, looking deliriously happy (perhaps he had indulged in some of his wears from his line-up excursion earlier), while original guitarist and founder Michael Weikath looked much more serious, almost as if he was in pain as he screwed up his face in an expression, obviously feeling the music.  The title track off of the new record, "Straight Out of Hell" brought us to "Where the Sinners Go", a selection from the previous recording, 2010's 7 Sinners.  Back to the new album for "Waiting For the Thunder" before "Steel Tormentor" off 1996's The Time of the Oath, the album dedicated to original drummer, Ingo Schwichtenberg who had committed suicide the year prior to it's release.  Not being one for instrument solos as I don't have the ear to know if they are playing
well or not, I studied my surroundings during Daniel Loble's skin bashing session, seeing how captivated most of the audience was.  Helloween had (and continued) to do an excellent job of drawing the crowd into their world as they ripped through their material.  "I'm Alive" brought more showmanship on stage as Deris pretended to be slapping or punching Markus in a mock play fight as a backdrop to Weikath and Sascha's guitar duet in the forefront.  Andi told us now that he wanted to play a "stupid game called left vs. right", a concert standard that mostly wastes time in my opinion, but tonight something was different.  Perhaps it was the conviction and charisma of vocalist Andi Deris or the energy and exuberance that the rest of the band exuded, but even an old cynic like me was drawn into the chant as the left side belted out "Live Now" on cue, while we got the "whoooooaaaaaaahhhh" portions.  Then roles were switched giving us (the
right and best side) the "Live Now" portion, surprising me to find that I had been yelling at the top of my lungs right along with everyone else without even being particularly concious of it!  Was total fun all the way!  Sascha Gerstner brought out the acoustic guitar for Straight Out of Hell's ballad "Hold Me In Your Arms".  2000's Dark Ride album, the last to feature guitarist Roland Grapow supplied "If I Could Fly", while "Hell Was Made in Heaven" was selected to represent Rabbit Don't Come Easy from 2003.  "Power" closed out the regular set and saw more play acting from Markus and Andi as Deris shot the bassist with both "finger" barrels.  But Markus can't be killed and continued the playful fun stage persona as Sascha would toss a guitar pick at him.  He would catch the pick in his mouth and then blow it back to Sascha, who in turn caught it and continued playing or tossed it into the crowd.

The lights remained dull as Helloween exited the stage and the resounding "Helloween" chant rose in volume from the milling throng that filled The Opera House.  "Are You Metal?" greeted our chanting after several minutes as the band invaded the stage once again, Deris adorned in a black top hat.  "Dr. Stein" followed, bringing a ton more play acting and general fun that washed over the audience infecting us with the stellar stage presence.  Again the stage was deserted as the audience remained rooted to the spot, unsure if we would get another encore or not.  We were indeed treated to the rarity at concerts these days of a second encore which included "Future World" and "I Want Out", with the crowd singing "out" on Deris's cue to us.  Michael Weikath's animated hand motions that had been waving through the air
all show seemed to take on a persona of their own as the entire band clearly were enjoying themselves on stage.  With that they collected at centre stage for a couple of group bows and to toss a selection of picks into the crowd.  Loble also tossed out his sticks and "frisbeed" a drum head to the audience.  The lights went up, a sure signal that the show was completed and we began to file out towards the rear of the club and the exit doors.  As I turned, I was stopped by a gentleman who simply asked, "Are you The Meister?"  Taken aback slightly, I responded with "Yes, I am.  What did I do?".  Chuckling, he replied that he was a fellow reviewer and "enjoys my column", introducing himself.  Cool, I read his reviews as well, nice to meet, maybe we'll take in the next show together!
After just having seen Saxon, at which I partied relentlessly (Sacrifice & Sin-Eagles Over Toronto), and with Killer Dwarfs/Diemonds coming up it'll be hard to choose  the concert of the year out of these stellar events, but for certain Toronto is alive and well with great metal's about time!  For now I'll leave you with a fan made video for "Live Now!" from The Opera House in Toronto on September 28th, 2013.

The Meister

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