Malcolm Dome, one of hard rock and heavy metal journalism's elite, always knows how to get the root of things. In his liner notes for the new HELLOWEEN compilation, "Ride the Sky: The Very Best of 1985-1998", he coaxes this telling epithet from guitarist Michael Weikath: "You know what kept driving us on? We were convinced that unless we got better and better, then another German band would come through and take over from us. That's why nothing was ever good enough. We had to improve all the time."
Admit it, if you were there in the beginning, you laughed yourself silly at the moniker HELLOWEEN, much less the pumpkin-headed trumpeter of doom on "Walls of Jericho"'s rear cover art. That miscreation (whom we assumed to be an Old Testament-driven hand of God) was, however, wrecking annihilation on the front cover. Upon play, "Starlight" and "Murderer" then later, "Reptile", holy crap!: what velocity, what technicality, what bravado. Yes, more power metal than blunt thrash on the "Walls of Jericho" album, but crikey! Then "Ride the Sky", one of the most exhilarating speed metal songs ever concocted. Improvement was needed after that? Okay, there was "Gorgar", LOL. Sorry, we didn't use typed acronyms back then. We also traded cassettes coast-to-coast, country-to-county—by snail mail, no less.
Michael Weikath, Kai Hansen, Markus Grosskopf and Ingo Schwichtenberg, with Hansen fielding vocals, was already a revamped lineup when 1985's "Walls of Jericho" arrived. Two years later, HELLOWEEN was expanded to a quintet with Michael Kiske (stepping in at age 18) assuming lead vocals on what became one of the greatest metal concept albums of all-time: "Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part I". Improvement was called for, and improvement was had. By the time HELLOWEEN got the metal world's attention with "Halloween", they were ripe to become "Headbangers Ball" darlings with the "Seven Keys" sequel album a year later. Rock-oriented songs such as "Dr. Stein" and "I Want Out" became fan-favorite jams, stemmed by the brow-raising, proficient straightforwardness of "Future World" on the first "Seven Keys".
For a brisk-moving power metal band, the runaway popularity and inevitable stylistic changes within HELLOWEEN prompted the departure of Kai Hansen, who has enjoyed a prolific run with GAMMA RAY, widely thought of as HELLOWEEN's direct competitor. HELLOWEEN ran through a weird spell, as many metal acts did inside the early and mid-1990s ball of genre confusion, with the glam rock crockery of "Chameleon" and "Pink Bubbles Go Ape". That was before Michael Kiske rolled out and Andi Deris helped engineer a return to the real on 1994's "Master of the Rings".
"Ride the Sky: The Very Best of 1985-1998" covers this period of HELLOWEEN's run with Noise Records, stopping at 1998's "Better Than Raw". As with the other albums in this series, a double-disc version was released overseas and scarce few copies exist. Thus, we'll be examining the U.S. single-disc version. Promisingly, the American print compilation stacks HELLOWEEN's faster tracks alongside their steadfast power rock hits. This compilation skips over the "Chameleon" album entirely (though "Step Out of Hell" made it onto the double album), and includes only "Kids of the Century", the decent if radically unusual single from "Pink Bubbles Go Ape".
Really, aside from a lack of breadth, the only fault to this U.S. version is the obscene five-minute video edit of "Halloween", thoroughly unlistenable if you're a true fan. "Halloween" at 13:18 is too much for mainstream purposes, sure, but the entire encapsulation remains one of the all-time singular metal masterpieces, and here, especially, it deserves full presentation. It exhibits Michael Weikath and HELLOWEEN's claim for perfection and what majesty that obsession wrought. Said majesty should always be presented in its original conception. After all, no one would ever dare pare down "Rime of the Ancient Mariner".
That jeer aside, the single-disc edition of "Ride the Sky: The Very Best of 1985-1998" is actually a solid overview of HELLOWEEN's commercially successful period with Michael Kiske, and a handful of Andi Deris songs. The track list plants the pedals in the first half with "Murderer", "Ride the Sky", "I'm Alive", "Halloween" and "Eagle Ride Free". While the second half remains more rock-oriented "Dr. Stein", "I Want Out" and "Kids of the Century" along with the Deris-led "Why?", "Steel Tormentor", "Power" and "I Can". The latter song providing the same excellence and deserving of the same stature as "I Want Out" and "Future World".
The selections made by the BMG and Noise folks for the U.S. version appear on paper to be easy, given the quick slew of hits HELLOWEEN wrangled up in 1987 and 1988 alone. Yet, it couldn't have been so easy to skip over "A Little Time" from "Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part I", one every HELLOWEEN fan hums in their sleep, much less "A Tale that Wasn't Right". Oddly, they don't appear on either the single- or double-disc version. Nor could it have been easy to pass on "Hey Lord! " from "Better Than Raw" or "Mr. Ego (Take Me Down) " from "Master of the Rings" to further glorify Andi Deris's long-standing tenure. These do, however, appear on the double album, along with "Time", "Wake Up the Mountain" and "A Million to One". Cheers for squeezing on "Steel Tormentor" and "Power" from "The Time of the Oath" here, an album revered by many nearly as much as the first two "Keeper of the Seven Keys" albums.
Suffice it to say, there's a bounty of material to behold from HELLOWEEN and a sparse compilation can only attain so much gratification. After all, no "Metal Invaders" here (appearing on the double disc) which makes it feel nearly as naked as the gored "Halloween". Nonetheless, "Ride the Sky: The Very Best of 1985-1998", unlike the U.S. KREATOR installment of this Noise resurrection series, feels like its intentions have been met better.