Friday, June 1, 2012

Starlight


As I reflect on it all, I realize more and more that I initially came to Heavy Metal for light, not darkness. My best friend Nick would describe to me his early metal experiences and they were not like my own. Whereas he would listen to 'Fight Fire With Fire' and feel like setting his dad's pickup truck on fire for sweet revenge, I never felt like that exactly. Heavy Metal felt mystical, instead. Like a portal to somewhere not exactly inwards... more like turning oneself outside out. More like retreating, back turned, towards the exit. Does it become an entrance, then?

Sure, the primal forces of this bludgeoning sort of music had some effect on me (it takes a certain kind of masochist to put their ear to so many decibels, but that's a different piece I always mean to write) and yes, I have headbanged alone in my room as a youth as much as anyone – or more? I remember denting my head against a heating body by mistake. Metal took its place, right? Anyway, it always felt like it was leading to something, even as early as twelve years old, I was looking for something more than a sore neck in all of this. This explains why I moved quickly from what turned out to be thrash to power metal at that age. I didn't know of course what these things were yet, but after picking up on Helloween and that whole Teutonic sound, I didn't look back into the darkness for at least three or four years.

Well... the Starlight's dim, frankly. A strange song for twelve year old Helm. Now I understand where it comes from much more. There's an intro before the song proper, it's a sound collage and we must spend a moment with each sound that comes in because, let me tell you, some of these signifiers here really left child Helm baffled.

The intro starts with someone snoring. They they wake up and – of course have their morning beer. Then a song comes on, on the tv, on the radio? Not clear. The song clearly says 'Happy happy Halloween', even at twelve I caught as much. Then... silver sheppard? That doesn't make sense. Silver shamrock, it turns out. Years later, with the benefit of our most-powerful Gnostic demiurge in play (that is Google) I found out that this song comes from a peculiar source:


Halloween 3? Pulpy slasher films? In my Power Metal of Light? Oh shit. The blood-curdling scream by Mr. Kai Hansen is not very power metal at all, is it? The implication is that the freshly woken up person in the intro has become a victim to molten steel, of course. Listen to Death growl like the primordial entity of terror that he is while his skeleton crew revs up the mixed metaphore. Mean and sloppy, muddy with reverb and filth Death is. And what's this riff now? Well, it's thrash, of course. Or 'speed metal', hilariously. Do you remember that Helloween debuted in the Noise compilation named “Death metal” just few months earlier than when the Helloween E.P. came out?

I wouldn't know it at twelve but what I was introduced to by friends and metal press as 'Germanic power metal' didn't come directly from Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. It wasn't a self-conscious invention by Helloween to start a new genre. Not yet. It's very clear here they were listening to Bay Area bands as much as the more classy European bands that usually get connected directly as power metal inspirations. But at twelve these weren't concerns, I could hardly tell how this enormous racket was produced, much less have an opinion on discerning thrash and speed and power metal.

The equal measures of pomp and filth here can be sampled clearly in the intro switch-up from glam rock chords while Mr Death here goes 'whoo hoo! Alright!' after the scream and the absurd polka tempo change that introduces the shape of the verses. It's so clear to me now that just like I, in the late '90s, were listening to two very different Heavy Metal bands at once and mixing their aesthetics up and thinking 'this is all Heavy Metal', Helloween were a product of a similar aesthetic mix of what was for a pre-fall of the Soviet Union, a largely foreign music. This is important. You cannot understand how Heavy Metal was shaped in countries under Soviet influence if you're judging from an American or British standard. Most of us, even people older than me, they didn't get the full story. They didn't follow Heavy Metal from its birth in the seventies through its resurgence in the eighties, the progression wasn't clear. They listened to whatever they got their hands on and if it was distorted, then it was good. If it was from 'the Western world', it was good. If it had anything to do with Robocop and Conan, it was good. I can imagine, now, Kai Hansen and co. at age sixteen, madly hunting for records from the USA and being just as happy with returning home with a Dokken record if a Metallica vinyl could not be found. Or, more to the point, with a Van Der Graaf Generator record. It's got distortion and it's not disco, it must be worthwhile, right?

It's a testament to the strength of this record (as we will see further on) that the band is more than an aesthetically muddy mix of “Heavy Metal as we see it in Hamburg, 1984”. It seems Helloween very, very quickly became more than the sum of their parts. But not on “Starlight”.


I know this song by heart, of course. I learned English with this record, more or less. The lyrics are obviously written by a non-native speaker and that suit me just fine as I was Рand now remain - as non-native as it gets. I had a talent for learning English and I picked up a lot at that crucial age from music, computer games and television/cinema from the US. I would say I picked up too much, actually. Enamored with your decadent entertainment, at some point I handled English (at least written English, my accent was always clearly Рand once embarrassingly - Greek) as if I was a cast-member for F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Later on, as I began to reevaluate those cultural influences, I began to purge my English from slang and more importantly, from the lingual cliché that comes with them. What is left is hopefully and obviously, Foreigner English. It is because I find this fitting and correct that I can read these lyrics by Helloween now and look at them kindly and embrace where they're coming from.


You're hangin' around and got nothin' to do

You wanna get out some pills in front of you
You fly on invisible wings
Be careful my friend for too many can kill
You say that the meaning of life's in those pills
You forget all earthly things

You swallow your pill you wanna feel free
A trip to a world made of games
You do it again yet it's never the same
But a junkie's not something to be

Starlight fallin' in deep through your eyes
Starlight shinnin' down for your soul to rise

Now there's a needle lying in front of you
I'm frightened of those things
But I know what you'll do
You need it to escape from the night

You ride on through heaven you don't feel no pain
You ride on and ride on again and again
On the needle that brings you the light
You feel the mind-blowin' stuff
Flow through your veins
You take off and fly to the sun
But when you get too near your wings will be burnt
You'll die in the flames and you'll fall


Thematically this is a “Winners Don't Use Drugs” screed. Or is it? We'll talk about the overarching theme later on, but I have to say that child Helm was totally on board because I was – and remain for the most part – phobic about drug use in general and and recreational drug taking in particular. Preach it, Helloween. I don't need those pills to find the meaning of life. I just need the metal. Right? Right?

Anyway, the nascent beauty of Helloween can be noticed in the bridge (“You swallow your pill and you wanna feel free...”). That's the European influence coming in, as Metallica wouldn't do that, and if the did in order to emulate their NWOBHM gods, they would chop it up into smaller, more staccato phrases and repeat it endlessly to show us how smart their little off-kilter melody is. Like a retarded Mercyful Fate, perhaps. Well, like a retarded Mercyful Fate with a Cliff Burton desperately trying to re-orchestrate the mess, let's say. Instead, Helloween's sense of melody overflows. They've got so much they tack it on to ends of prases everywhere. They try to play thrash here and can't keep it straight, their inner Scorpion longs to get out and play us a rock symphony. Wherever one guitarist plays palm muted single string backup, the harmony guitarist (usually Mr. Weikath) would elaborate (and NOT improvise) these long flowing melodies on top. Sometimes connecting with the vocal melody, sometimes countering it. Often, these melodies would be, ghasp! Shock! Quelel Horreur! Major in key. Hetfield is frowning and giving you the finger.

Truly, there's something magnetic for me, still, at the juxtaposition between the rough vocal delivery and the confident vocal melody here. I still sing along to this record whenever I play it and it's not because I've got this fucking range but because the rough delivery is inviting for us lessers to join in. This is key. Likewise, the rough, punkish basic riffing here and the overlaid melodies, well, I don't try to play along to them but I still have this erroneous feeling that if I tried, I could. Power metal wasn't always this cold thing that Stratovarious-and-onwards bands make it sound like. This is rough and diy-ish in the best NWOBHM tradition, still. Sure, the solos soar with a potency that cannot easily be matched even by the most willing air-guitarist, but it's not the technique that's on display, it's anearnest desire to use these machines to elevate the listener. We NEED all these notes. We NEED to play this fast. Why? Because we're reaching for somewhere where you can only go when you think, bereft of any irony or knowingness, that “more is more” instead of whatever that crutch of a clich√© would have most believe.

This is not the best song in this record, by far (it's not the worst either) but what can still be gleaned is that there's a new statement about Heavy Metal here. Perhaps not fully formed, but something's going on. The extensive solo section that doesn't just lick and lick lazily over one established past riff but instead builds “new parts as needed” to extend towards a direction is testament. Sure, even in the '70s some great bands would build these elaborate solo sections (Wishbone Ash comes to mind) but it wasn't all the time, and it certainly was a point into itself. Here Helloween can barely contain themselves, there's not a single song in this record that doesn't, when given an opportunity to solo, become an elaborate mock-orchestra suit for a moment. Even the punky opener. The light is getting brighter. Mr. Hansen and Mr. Weikath arrogantly trade solos, they want me to know whom is playing which, as my soul is washed by their inspiration's light. Seriously, in the booklet it clearly spells what personnel is performing what lead section. And after all these years, I can tell just by listening to their particular tones and inflections which is which.

Starlight ends quickly because Helloween didn't yet know how to write an epic, or know that they could if they tried. But put it next to openers by other metal bands of the time (especially thrash metal bands, don't forget this is 1985, most of what was vital in thrash metal had already occurred) and see how there's a different focus to that stuff. We'll talk about this more, as there truly is only one thematic point to the whole album, repeated again and again. And that point is integral to this record's enduring potency.