Despite previous records rooted in dark subject matter, Helloween's latest release, Straight Out of Hell, pumps charismatic attitude back into the mix for both cover art and songwriting. The band undoubtedly desires to return to their roots after the opaque 7 Sinners, but the change is astonishingly drastic and recalls the old days when these Germans were developing as an institution--and emerged as one of power metal's great pioneers.
In spite of that, Straight Out of Hell can be a mixed bag. With filler-like numbers taking backseat to stronger ones, the track listing of an inconsistent record places weaker songs near its conclusion and assumes fans might forgive and forget strategically-placed material. Straight Out of Hell sidesteps the practice entirely, however, and creates a black hole in the middle of the roster, making the music feel far more inconsistent than it really is. Sadly enough, the center of an otherwise great product is marred by three poorly written tracks--one of which is hardly a song--and the other two are cheesy in comparison to stronger cuts like "World of War," "Far from the Stars," and "Church Breaks Down."
Unsurprisingly, Straight Out of Hell's bonus tracks tack on mindless filler not worth the premium price. "Another Shot of Life" strikes as a churning, uninspired mess of guitar and synth, while the Hammond organ-laced rendition of "Burning Sun" impersonates progressive rock with mindless soloing and instrumentation. The regular edition of the album rejects the two, thankfully, saving an already perilous tread on ice from becoming even more dangerous.
Not all is lost, though, because the front and back parts of the album are fantastic. The opener, "Nabataea," winds through ancient Arabia--both lyrically and melodically--and points to earlier days when the band was immersed in spiritual folklore. "World of War" quietly opens the back door, letting modernity in, and chugs aggressively toward an uplifting chorus characteristic of vintage Helloween. Had the six-piece stuck with the menacing romp of a syncopated guitar riff and rhythmic double bass, Helloween might have an entirely different record on their hands. Later, the closer to the first section, "Far from the Stars," utilizes the same idea, and "Live Now!" and "Burning Sun" slow down to mid-pace and orchestrate with clever synthesizer passages.
Skipping the next three songs--"Waiting for the Thunder," "Hold Me in Your Arms," "Wanna be God"--the album picks up again, albeit with the title track's average melodies and basic song structuring. Lacking enough power to have a record named after it, "Straight Out of Hell" falls short of expectations and narrowly avoids being lumped in with the lifeless midsection. Experimentation with "Asshole's" guitar riffs and humorous lyrics transitions into an overly poppy chorus, but, despite its good intentions, continues to throw off the album's balance. As expected, songs like this are instead fit for 7 Sinner's track listing. "Asshole" appears out of place here, no matter how fun its shenanigans are.
The last three songs are different enough from one another that Straight Out of Hell's closing feels like quality. "Years" fashions another take on the time-perfected Helloween sound and tastefully sprinkles orchestral tidbits around the sonic landscape. "Make Fire Catch the Fly" contrasts down-tuned chugging with spitfire alternate picking, and "Church Breaks Down" opens eerily with a choir before letting all hell run loose.
Barring Straight Out of Hell's aggravating issues, the core material is actually very good and worth repeated listens. The first and third sections of the album fall in line with anything else the band has released recently, but poorly-placed songs make the record worthy of only a mediocre rating. What Straight Out of Hell lacks is a fluid flow and careful arrangement of songs, which is too bad because Helloween could have a seriously wonderful album on their hands, not a half-assed collection of music.