When earMUSIC started reissuing old Gamma Ray albums a couple of years ago, under the "25 years of Heavy Metal from Hamburg" banner, the quarter of a century milestone made sense. However, two years on, and the reissues continue under said banner... but Gamma Ray are no longer in their 25th anniversary year. And it's not even as if the original release date of this latest reissue, 'Land of the Free', heralds a 25 year landmark itself, as it was first unleashed upon the metal world back in 1995, via Noise Records.
Erroneous branding aside, what's of more importance here is the significance 'Land of the Free' holds within Gamma Ray's extensive back catalogue. It was, indubitably, a pivotal release in the evolution of the band as, following the amicable departure of vocalist Ralf Scheepers, Hansen took on frontman duties; his first time of doing so since the early days of Helloween. So, the German power metal juggernaut suddenly became a quartet, with bassist Jan Rubach, sticksman Thomas Nack and guitarist (now current bassist) Dirk Schlächter, all remaining in the band's ranks.
Personally, I've always preferred Hansen's vocals to the more histrionic and occasionally shrill tones of Scheepers. And he delivers the goods here, on an album that's widely lauded as a perennial favourite amongst both fans and critics. Listening to this in 2017, it's easy to see why, as it still holds up and stands strong... not only within Gamma Ray's own discography, but also within the myriad of substandard, imitative bands... the power metal bandwagon jumpers... most of which have jumped on and back off the bandwagon through their ephemeral lifespan. Blind Guardian frontman Hansi Kürsch and ex-Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske crop up on a small number of songs, to add their unmistakable tones, inflections and other unique vocal characteristics. This album has it all! Dare I say, it epitomises the essence what constitutes a perfect Gamma Ray album, and achieves power metal perfection. The latter is particularly pertinent in that it's not all about idioms associated with the subgenre (of which Hansen can be credited as co-creating); rather, there's enough variance throughout 'Land of the Free' that elevates it above monolithic power metal paradigms.
As with all of these anniversary reissues, a bonus disc of so-called "rarities" is also included in the package, featuring pre-production versions and live instrumental studio recordings (Gamma Ray karaoke, anyone?!), as well as a nifty Holocaust cover ('Heavy Metal Mania'). Predominantly of curiosity value for the casual listener (albeit of more value to the serious Gamma Ray aficionados out there), the tracks are, nonetheless, a nice addition. The main attraction for the uninitiated, though, is 'Land of the Free' itself. If ever a power metal work was ripe for rediscovery, or ready to be digested for the very first time by fresh ears, then this is the one. It's retro, for sure, but strangely current, twenty two years on.
LAND OF THE FREE (ANNIVERSARY EDITION)
Review by Mark Holmes
57:03 & 38:16
29th Sept 2017
DISC ONE: 1) Rebellion in Dreamland; 2) Man On a Mission; 3) Fairytale; 4) All of the Damned; 5) Rising of the Damned; 6) Gods of Deliverance; 7) Farewell; 8) Salvation's Calling; 9) Land of the Free; 10) The Saviour; 11) Abyss of the Void; 12) Time to Break Free; 13) Afterlife
DISC TWO: 1) Heavy Metal Mania; 2) As Time Goes By (Pre-production Version); 3) The Silence '95; 4) Dream Healer (Instrumental); 5) Tribute to the Past (Instrumental); 6) Heaven Can Wait (Instrumental); 7) Valley of the King (Instrumental)
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
"If ever a power metal work was ripe for rediscovery, or ready to be digested for the very first time by fresh ears, then this is the one. It's retro, for sure, but strangely current, twenty two years on."