Gamma Ray – The history and making of Land of the Free
Written by Kevin Tanza on November 30, 2020
“Well actually, I never make these distinctions between heavy metal, power metal, whatever metal… I never liked that. For me it’s all heavy metal. I think when we started we didn’t really know what we were doing; we were just doing what we liked and never thought about creating something. We knew we sounded kind of special in a way but in the end we were maybe just taking all our fate (?), plus a little German ‘schlager’ culture and putting it all in one and playing it out. It may be more aggressive and faster and stuff like that. Nowadays I kind of have to admit that I see where it must’ve been something special we did there but I leave that up to others.”
Guitarist Kai Hansen had something to prove in 1995. He had left his own band, Helloween, when they were highly regarded as one of the hottest European Metal bands of the late 80s and nicknamed the Godfathers of the then-nascent Power Metal movement to form another group that was more suited to what he wanted to do in terms of songwriting and touring, Gamma Ray. And despite making three solid albums with future Primal Fear vocalist (and our very own interviewee) Ralf Scheepers, Gamma Ray seemed like a band close to reach greatness, but never quite catching it.
Then Land of the Free happened. The definitive Gamma Ray album for a lot of fans and one of the greatest Metal albums that Europe has ever produced.
An album that not only cemented Gamma Ray as one of the finest Metal bands of the always fruitful German scene, but also another high point in Kai Hansen’s phenomenal career as one of the brightest and most talented Metal songwriters of his generation (and many others).
Ralf Scheepers was gone, but Kai took the helm and the microphone to do what he always has done best: to lead and to create.
In order to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Gamma Ray’s Land of the Free, we’re not only going to talk about the history of this album, but we’re also going to count with the input of two musicians involved in making of said musical effort: bassist Jan Rubach and drummer Thomas Nack would be offering their insight about Land of the Free as they were both kind enough to answer a few questions about how this album was done and I hope you enjoy it!
“We made it exactly at a time point when this kind of metal was proclaimed to be dead as can be. Where it was almost like if a drummer came up with a double bass drum people would say ‘ya dooga daga yourself out of here man.’ Everything was ruled by Kurt Cobain and the alternative to the alternative and all that kind of stuff. So at that point we made an album like this and it went down very successful. That was cool, that was something special. I think it was the album that gave Gamma Ray the acceptance as being a band not only a Kai Hansen project.”
Gamma Ray’s third album, 1993’s Insanity and Genius, did fairly well for the band. The lineup consisting of drummer Thomas Nack, bassist Jan Rubach, guitarists Kai Hansen and Dirk Schlächter and vocalist Ralf Scheepers had done a very good album, showcasing the band’s more experimental side, but overall receiving a solid reception, especially in Japan.
“We had a very good and strong chemistry after touring for that album,” drummer Thomas Nack told me when I asked him about the band’s state after their third album. “We were, let‘s say, in good shape playing together. After supporting Manowar for six weeks in Hungary, Germany, Switzerland and Austria, we just had a quick stop in Hamburg for couple of days to get finalized the two and a half hour show for our headlining tour in Japan! For me, all that was an incredible and unforgettable experience!”
This was the first time that Gamma Ray was going to enter the studio with the same lineup that made the previous album… but then things took a turn. Vocalist Ralf Scheepers eventually left the band in 1994 due to several reasons, with the main one being that the former Tyran’ Pace singer was living too far away from the rest of the band to contribute in the writing process on a regular basis, which proved to be troublesome for Gamma Ray as a whole, but especially for their leader and main songwriter, Kai Hansen.
“Ralf lived 700 kilometers away from Hamburg, the city all the other members of the band lived,” Kai Hansen said in 1995, after the release of Land of the Free. “We wanted for the new album to be a big step forward for Gamma Ray, so we asked Ralf to move to Hamburg to strengthen the band and facilitate the process of composition. He didn’t bother to make the effort. I didn’t want to compose the vocal parts alone any longer, and see Ralf come in the last moment to record them. Because of his reluctance towards being more involved, we decided to go on without him.”
On the other hand, Scheepers had his own insight as to why he left the band, which echoes the statements done by his former band members and other reasons to take into account:
“The fact is that there were many reasons,” he said in 2007. “One thing was that I couldn’t move to Hamburg because of my job. I have to pay for my house and my car and everything and if I would move to Hamburg with no job and almost no money from the band, I couldn’t do it. But they didn’t understand it, for them I had to move up to concentrate on the new album. I said ‘Guys, I can’t!’ Even now you have so many bands where people come out from America and different parts of the world and it’s working, so I didn’t understand that point. And of course I tried with Judas Priest; I was just trying it out. I sent them my tape, they liked it and I was happy about it. So in the end I said this to Kai and they asked what I would do if I got the job and I said ‘I would do the job, I’m sorry’. I’m honest, sorry. And it was a time where they wanted to sing their own songs. Dirk not only sung on the demo, he sung his song on the album and I said, ‘Hey, you guys don’t really need a vocalist anymore’. There were so many reasons, not just one, but the biggest reason was that the vibe just wasn’t there anymore. For me, that’s the most important point. But now it’s all sorted out.”
The breakup was as friendly as it could get and Scheepers and Hansen are on good terms, with the former having played a few shows with Gamma Ray throughout the years, proving how their friendship has withstood the test of time and no longer playing in the same band. Not surprising considering that Ralf even sang in Kai’s wedding!
Ralf Scheepers singing Gamma Ray’s The Silence in Kai Hansen’s wedding in 1994.
But now that Scheepers was out of the picture, there was an issue to figure out: Who was going to be Gamma Ray’s vocalist? Eventually it led to Kai Hansen taking the microphone once again, which he didn’t do since Helloween’s debut, 1985’s Walls of Jericho, almost a decade earlier. Having sung the vocals for Gamma Ray’s demos and a few Blind Guardian songs as a guest vocalist throughout the years (more on that later), it seemed like a natural decision and something that could fit a lot more with the band’s newfound writing process.
“I’m not quite sure,” bassist Jan Rubach told me when I asked him if they ever considered other vocalists for Gamma Ray at the time. “There was once a strange jam with Henning Basse (later on vocalist of Metallium) in the studio. I don’t know why, I think he forced us to do so, because we didn’t felt that we needed someone else again to sing Kai’s lyrics. Kai knows what he wants and was so passionate all the time during the rehearsal. He’s so unique. That was something I always missed when I heard Ralf sing and perform the stuff Kai wrote. Perfect pitch is one thing, but attitude and feel is more importing from my point of view.”
Of course, Kai also has his own side to the story.
“We were thinking about it definitely but not that heavily because we were used to me singing in rehearsals on the demos,” Kai said in 1999 when asked if he considered hiring another vocalist. “I also had more self-confidence in doing it. So we thought maybe take on a singer but who could it be? Is there anyone we could think of that we’d like and there was no names mentioned. None of us had any idea of who could be the one. So the others asked me, ‘would you dare to do it?’ and I said ‘yes I would.’”
With all of that set, Gamma Ray was ready to head into the studio to record what would be their fourth musical effort and a very important one, at that. Not only because of the quality of the album itself, but also because the mid-90s was an era in Europe where Power Metals bands such as Helloween, Grave Digger, Running Wild, Angra, Rage, Blind Guardian and a few more were starting to enjoy a bit of commercial success, with a lot of experts and fans of the genre considering this era a golden age in terms of creative output, especially when contrasted to the American scene, which was suffering a lot at the time with the rise of Grunge, Groove Metal and Alternative.
It seemed that Kai Hansen understood the importance of this album because he brought back the mascot that that he had on Helloween’s Walls of Jericho cover, Fangface, and put it on the one for Land of the Free.
“Yes, and I don’t hide it,” Kai in 1995 when asked if he used the same creature from the Helloween debut on the Land of the Free cover. “The character that was on ‘Walls Of Jericho’ is back, because I came to singing, as during that time. And there is this ferocious energy that comes out when we play as well. The only difference is that now I am a better musician!”
So, it was a key moment in Gamma Ray’s history: not only was their lead singer gone, which is always a difficult task to overcome, but they also needed to step up their game. Heading for Tomorrow, Sigh No More and Insanity and Genius are all solid albums, but no one would compare to the output that Kai Hansen delivered in his time with Helloween.
But that was about to change. Land of the Free was coming.
“Everybody can only dream about it. Each one creates his own land of freedom in his head, but after a while, imagination is not enough and we want to realize this promised land. It’s here that the rebellion begins (the reason for the title of the song Rebellion In Dreamland). The story of this album is the rebellion for the conquest of this part of freedom.”
One of the defining traits of Gamma Ray as a band throughout the years has been the fact they have a very clear musical identity, based on Kai Hansen’s influences of classic Heavy Metal bands such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Accept, among many others, which is clearly shown in the first three albums he made with this group. But when the band started to write and record Land of the Free in 1994, the songs that were being developed had a much more epic and grandiose feel to them compared to what came before, which would define Gamma Ray for the remainder of the decade.
“No, there wasn’t a clear concept before,” Thomas told me when I asked him if the change in sound was intentional. “Everybody was working out their ideas on their own. Jan and I for example were arranging his parts for the tracks Salvation’s calling, Gods of Deliverance and All of the Damned in a holiday house in Denmark where we stayed for one week. For those songs Kai put the final stamp on it later with his riffs and lyrics. Speaking of Kai’s songs, he had most of his stuff together before we went into the recording studio. He has a very clear vision of how a song should be and how it works best. He gave me most of the material upfront for learning and practicing. Dirk, on the other hand, was still figuring out his song Farewell when we were already in the drum recording process (laughs). I think the epic touch of the album came just naturally. The inspiration happened due to the Manowar tour: we were all so fascinated and amazed by their professionalism as a live act, their songs echoing every night, we were celebrating it each and every night anew! It had a deep impact on us.”
Of course, now that Ralf Scheepers was no longer the vocalist, Kai had taken vocal duties and the band was much more solidified as a four-piece, there were some changes in the writing process for Land of the Free compared to the previous musical effort, 1993’s Insanity and Genius.
“Insanity and Genius was still with Ralf and he came just to Hamburg on weekends,” Jan told me. “That was kind of strange, because Kai sung all the songs during the rehearsals and it felt very natural. Ralf came just in to replace his vocals. Sometimes he just added small things here and there. Thomas and I had a nice week in Denmark writing. We wrote Insanity and Genius there, which then became title track for the record, which was really special for us, as we were still the newest band members. Thomas wrote the lyrics.”
“For Land of the Free, Kai and I wrote songs at home and we jammed them as a three piece without Dirk for most of the rehearsals, because he was busy recording other bands in the studio. One helpful thing was also the fact there was not practicing on the weekend to just show the singer how to sing the songs. So there was more time to check and write new stuff. Short before the recordings we rehearsed everything with Dirk and he brought up his songs as well.
It was a band that was already a well-oiled machine, which was something that Kai didn’t enjoy as a songwriter since his Helloween days because of the constant lineup changes. And it showed in the album because Land of the Free not only was a more ambitious side of Gamma Ray in terms of musical scope and approach, but also a lot more mature, songwriting-wise. And even though Kai Hansen and Dirk Schlächter produced this album, they also had the support and help from one of the highest-regarded produces in European Metal, Charlie Bauerfeind.
“Charlie is such a nice person,” Thomas told me. “Very down to earth and friendly. His calm and patient side brings you through every difficult recording situation. He wants you to perform very precise and consistent. He leaves the drums in its natural way with just a little sample here and there depending on the track. I think Salvation’s Calling got some drum samples on it. Nowadays he is definitely more into that working method using samples and pro tool tricks. But it steers away the character of a drummer’s performance, in my opinion.”
This sentiment is echoed by Jan, who felt that the band was in a very comfortable and positive mood during the writing and recording process of the entire album, especially when they went to the R.A.S.H. studio in Gelsenkirchen in 1994 to record the drum parts and later to Kai Hansen’s studio in Hamburg.
“It was exciting for me, because I wrote more songs for that album,” Jan told me. “We recorded some killer drum tracks at R.A.S.H. Studio and we had a great bass recording set up with a Vox AC 30. I recorded with Kai’s Rickenbacker 4001 and Sascha Paeth’s Fender Precision and some other basses. Since we also recorded Insanity and Genius with Charlie, it felt absolutely comfortable recording with him. After leaving Gamma Ray I worked for him a long time doing Digital Editing for a lot of records he produced. Working with the same team helps to get more confidence and it is easier to get things done, because you already found some good standards.”
The Gamma Ray lineup that wrote and recorded Land of the Free.
Another element that really helped this album to reach such great heights was the fact that these were four seasoned musicians that knew their way around a studio and knew how to deliver the goods, especially Kai. But the other guys also managed to add their own spin on things to make a difference in the writing process.
“In 1994 I was listening a lot to Queensryche! Metallica was still around, especially the older albums,” Thomas told me when I asked him about his musical influences at the time. “Slayer. Megadeth. My background comes more from the Trash Metal side, you know. But also, totally different genres inspired me in that period. Björk. Live, an alternative Band from the US. I was a big fan of Zakk Wyldes’ debut, Pride and Glory. The Police. Sting. Toto was important for me. And I was starting to take a close look to all that Jazz stuff. The former Jazz drummers: Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, for example.”
“The main difference in my playing with Gamma Ray was that my left hand was kind of less progressive, because there was basically not much space for notes like thirds and fifths and so one,” Jan told me about his bass-playing at the time. “I had to play much straighter. I had to focus more on my right hand performance to lay down a more solid rhythmically foundation for the more melodic metal style Gamma Ray were known for. Thomas and I rehearsed double-kick/16 note grooves for hours and hours. It was a real challenge for us.”
The four men got ready to shock the world with one of the best Metal albums of the decade. And just from the opening track we were presented with total and absolute greatness.
Rebellion in Dreamland has went on to become Gamma Ray’s most famous song and for a good reason: it is an epic that shows from the very opening seconds that we’re in presence of a more mature and ambitious version of the band, with Kai also delivering vocal lines that are a stark improvement to his singing in Helloween’s Walls of Jericho.
But the song as a whole is a journey of grandiose proportions. A Metal anthem that shows four musicians delivering second after second of absolute genius, changing from one part to another with incredible ease. There are certain Progressive elements in the way Rebellion in Dreamland is structured, but all done in service of the song and complemented with hooks, memorable guitar parts and a rhythm base that was incredibly connected in this particular time of the band’s trajectory.
“This song is an example for how we used to jam on songs in our rehearsal room,” Thomas told me about Rebellion in Dreamland. “Kai delivered us the template by playing the parts to us. He also had an order or sequence of the various parts in mind. We learned these structures and finally played them.”
Lyrically speaking (and also musically), this opener is the quintessential Kai Hansen, with his call for freedom, individuality and rising up against tyranny. Since the eighties when he wrote Ride the Sky or I Want Out with Helloween, the desire for freedom and individual greatness has been one of Kai’s favorite topics to address in his lyrics and he continued to do so with this band and in this song, perhaps with a more philosophical view of things that you gain as you get older.
“You know, you find some phrases, some words, some parts of the story again, which again, if you take for instance the song Rebellion in Dreamland it starts with a certain specific scene,” Kai said about the song’s lyrics in 2008. “Like, somebody sitting somewhere on a seashore, you know and hearing those voices in a way, or being compelled to walk on and do something and stuff like that.”
Kai had the song structured by the thing they went into the studio and it was improved by the four-piece’s contributions. Thomas Nack and Jan Rubach kill it with an active and powerful rhythm base, Dirk and Kai deliver great guitar part after great guitar part and the latter shows that you don’t need to be Rob Halford or Bruce Dickinson to sing like the best in the game–Kai’s vocal performance here is commanding, powerful and full of energy.
It’s hard for me to be objective about Rebellion in Dreamland because it is one of the definitive songs in my life as a lover of music. A piece of musicianship that has been in my life since I was 16 years old and that still surprises me every time I listen to it. I view it as the ultimate representation of what these four musicians could achieve and the absolute height of their musical potential, to the point that this is one of the few songs that I consider perfect in every single aspect–I wouldn’t change a single thing about it.
It was only the first song and Gamma Ray had already written a timeless classic of the Power Metal genre. How do you keep up after you set such a high standard? Well, you do the following…
The fast-paced Man on a Mission is not only a very good decision by the band to continue the album after Rebellion in Dreamland (epic that is followed by a straight shooter of a track) and yet another classic of their catalogue, but also Thomas Nack’s favorite moment of the entire process of making Land of the Free.
“When Man on a mission was tracked and done I was happy as a little kid! This song is a killer!” Thomas told me. “All that double-bass action during almost the whole song. But all in all I had a very comfortable and inspirational time tracking the drums.”
The song is one of the fastest of the entire album, but there is this middle section when they lower the tempo and we get some Queen-like vocal harmonies that work as a bit of a rest before the guitar fest that proceeds afterwards. But my favorite part of the whole song is how it highlights the great partnership that Jan Rubach and Thomas Nack had developed as a rhythm base at that point of Gamma Ray’s trajectory.
“Oh man, we were working very intense to keep the game going,” Thomas told me about his time working with Jan. “We had so-called bass and drums rehearsals, where we went through a whole set of songs for concert preparations. Just us! And after that the whole run through with the other guys! We were ready and willing and had a good stamina!”
All of this practice paid off in tracks such as Man on a Mission, where the band sounds as tight as it could ever be.
Fairytale is a rarity in the album because it’s less than one minute long, but the band goes all out with it, perhaps making it the fastest song in the entirety of Land of the Free. But it’s actually quite enjoyable, with Kai delivering one of his best vocal performances and being perfectly complemented by the band as a whole.
This was another example of the band’s mindset at the time, where pretty much everything they were writing for this album worked in a different way. But there was also an element of discipline involved as well.
“In general we did some kind of pre-production with almost every song we wanna have on an album,” Thomas told me about the band’s writing process. “Then until that we went to the final recording process. In the case of Land of the Free, we left that out. Maybe the time table didn‘t let us do so. Except for the finished demo songs from Kai, which were carved in stone, so to speak, the other tunes were created during rehearsals sessions in our studio, and then the tiny rest of arrangements at R.A.S.H. Studio.”
All of the Damned is perhaps were the band slows down the tempo for the first time in the album… but only just a bit. It’s still a killer track where Kai and Dirk’s riffs take charge, shining throughout the whole song.
One of the songs that Jan and Thomas worked on during their time in Denmark, it has a fascinating structure because the band ups the tempo when reaching the chorus while also upping the epic atmosphere. I also think that shows the band’s progression from the Scheepers days–a bit more elaborate, a bit more complex and a bit more solidified as a creative force. This was a band that found its musical identity.
The song is complemented by a solemn keyboard interlude known as Rising of the Damned, which is the first slow piece of the album and where we can gain a bit of rest before the storm that is about to come.
One of the strongest tracks of the whole album, and one where Thomas Nack shines the most with his drum parts, is the fast-paced and powerful Gods of Deliverance. A song structured by Jan Rubach, it has a lot of rhythm changes complemented by Dirk and Kai’s fantastic riffs. It has a very atmospheric feel to it like the vast majority of the album, but Nack steals the show with his drumming in this song and that is not only due to his wonderful technique–it also has a lot to do with the fact they recorded the drum parts in R.A.S.H. Studio, as I have stated before.
“Awesome! The studio is in an old War Shelter, a so-called Bunker, all build with thick stone walls,” Thomas told me about the experience of recording his drum parts in that studio. “And so was the recording room: just the stone walls. It sounded incredible in there! Furthermore there was a door leading to a long staircase. We left the door open while recording, put a microphone in there, and captured a huge ambience sound!”
One of the most technical songs of the entire album, but without losing the melodies and hooks, it’s a testament of the level of performances these four musicians were delivering at the time, constantly adding more riffs, rhythm changes, vocal harmonies and so on. It’s a phenomenal tune that simply takes you away from the first second to the last–a great representation of the entire album.
“I was totally into the harmonic minor scale during that time,” Jan told me about how he came up with the music for Gods of Deliverance. “Insanity and Genius was also in that style. I wrote the main riffs for Gods of Deliverance in early 1994. Thomas and I also played that riff in the middle of a kind of drum/bass solo on the 1994 Japan Tour. Kai later wrote the chorus and lyrics.”
Perhaps the oddest song in the entire album, taking a lot of influences from the likes of Queen, is Farewell, where a piano takes the center stage and the band goes full power ballad. Here is where we can hear how much Kai has progressed as a vocalist since the days of Walls of Jericho with Helloween in the mid-80s and also showing how much he can cover as a songwriter.
In fact, one of the most interesting facts about Kai Hansen as a songwriter is how even his most Metal tracks always have a tendency to go for hooks and catchy melodies, which shows his somewhat Pop influences, especially in songs like Farewell, and this is something that Thomas Nack has confirmed in my discussion with him.
“He has a certain sense of writing songs,” Thomas said to me. “A balanced mixture of heaviness and pop music attitude. Well, he has a lot of pop culture inside, I guess (laughs). Take for example I Want Out, Future World, Twilight of the Gods or March of Time from the Keeper of the Seven Keys albums. Heavy guitar riffs followed by open pop-like chorus. Great songs and classics in the end!”
Indeed. And Farewell shows the most emotional and melodic side of the legendary German singer and guitarist. Plus, this song is also famous for featuring another important figure of German Metal, vocalist Hansi Kürsch of Blind Guardian fame, who had a long friendship with Kai that goes all the way back to the latter’s exit from Helloween.
“Well, it happened some years ago,” Hansi said in the late 90s around the time Blind Guardian released Nightfall in Middle-Earth. “It was in ‘89, when he left Helloween after the second Keeper of the Seven Keys album, and he did not really know how to continue and we were still supporters of Helloween, and of course especially of Kai, and there was a relationship between our old producer Kalle Trapp and Kai, and so when we did Follow the Blind he came up with the idea to invite Kai and let him play some solos and probably do some vocal lines on the album. (…). And so from time to time, we always have the idea to invite him to do some parts on the album, and later on he invited me to join them on the Land of the Free album…”
A great combination for the ages and a friendship that has endured throughout the years shown in a song that is perhaps of a sleeper track in Land of the Free, but still definitely worth your time and it deserves more attention in this anniversary.
Another song penned by Jan Rubach, Salvation’s Calling seems almost like a callback to the Ralf Scheepers era–you can almost hear the future Primal Fear vocalist singing this track. A very fast-paced song, it shows the more traditionally Power Metal elements of the band, especially with Hansen’s vocal and harmonies, complemented by Thomas Nack’s double-bass drumming.
Of course, Rubach being the bass player had a lot of support from his partner in the rhythm base, Nack, and this was one of the songs they had been demoing in Denmark before getting together with Kai and Dirk to record the album. Although it’s interesting to hear that Rubach needed a bit of help from the main man to make the song what it is today.
“That’s so long ago,” Jan told me when I asked him about how he came up with the lyrics for Salvation’s Calling. “I don’t remember much why I wrote that lyrics, but there is one thing I know, which was that my song title was Opinion Differs in the beginning. I had to work with Kai a little bit on the lyrics and the vocal melody to bring the song more into the Gamma Ray style. I’m not a good singer and it was originally more shouting than singing in my demo version.”
Shouting or singing, the song is a guitar fest in the second part, with Kai and Dirk just shredding all the way to the end, constantly raising the tempo and the energy, making it one of the most intense conclusions in the history of the band’s catalogue.
Talking about the title track is not only discussing one of the definitive Gamma Ray songs (and of European Metal as a whole), but also a very powerful representation of the group’s ethos and philosophy in terms of lyrical content and musical approach. The song is energetic, with a lot of rhythm changes and overflows with power and almost anthem-like bravado, but it also shows all of Kai Hansen’s idiosyncrasies as a musician.
“I believe that both albums share this ‘positive power’ attitude that we have as a band – this ‘go for it’ factor that you can find in our music,” Kai Hansen said in 2008 when promoting this album’s 2007 sequel, Land of the Free II. “We want people to feel cheerful while listening to our album, not depressed or something, and to be able to sing along to the various melodies that we enhance in our music. There is a certain amount of naivety that we include in our music while composing our albums and all these are responsible for the connection that you can find between our last effort and ‘Land Of The Free’. Lyrically speaking, the songs are based on the concept of freedom as seen by various different perspectives.”
Much like the opening song, Rebellion in Dreamland, talking about one standout musician or aspect of the title track is almost a fruitless endeavor–everybody involved performs here to their absolute best, forever captured for people to enjoy throughout the years. It’s a song that reaches the four musicians’ maximum potential and does so with elegance, cleverness, technique and a great sense of melody, showing that this version of Gamma Ray could be very technical and skillful while also maintaining that knack for hooks and keeping your attention.
But also like Rebellion in Dreamland, and like I have stated before, I consider this the quintessential Kai Hansen song, showcasing all the elements that made him a generational songwriter in the Metal genre.
“It was always exciting,” Jan told me about the experience of working with Kai. “He is such a talented player and writer. He writes a lot, so you had to be prepared, if you want to have your own good stuff on the record. He plays with a lot of passion and he has this unique tone when he plays and sings. That was always fascinating. He had so much more experience, because he already had a career and success with Helloween. I learned a lot from him as a songwriter and business-wise. I became a much better and more solid musician. Without Gamma Ray I wouldn’t be where I am now. And he also had a good sense of humor and can party hard (laughs).”
The Saviour is a solid interlude with bombastic undertones that paves the way for one of Kai Hansen’s best songs of his career (I have said that a lot in this article, but this album is simply a high point for the man himself), Abyss of the Void. And it is interesting that Nack mentions the band’s tour with Manowar because the most epic moments of this song show certain reminiscences to the American band’s sound, especially during the memorable chorus.
It is also a very fascinating song in terms of rhythm changes as Gamma Ray switches from quiet and atmospheric to epic and energetic to atmospheric again and to epic once more. But all of this is done with the fluidity of a band at the top of their game, proving once again that this was a key album in Gamma Ray’s vast and rich history.
It is also Thomas Nack’s favorite song of the entire album.
“Oh yes, it is Abyss of the Void,” Thomas told me. “I consider it Kai‘s masterpiece! Such great harmonies! Through my eyes the solo section is one of the best he ever created. I will never get tired listening to that tune.”
It’s hard to just highlight one part of the song, although I personally love Rubach’s galloping bass, which has some strong Iron Maiden influences. It carries the weight of the song in some passages and it helps building up the way to the ultimate pay off, which is the chorus, where it shows Gamma Ray at their absolute best. Kudos to Kai’s vocal performance as well, which is a long way from the days he used to struggle with the microphone in his youth with Helloween.
And speaking of his past band…
Talking about Time to Break Free is to talk about a key moment in Power Metal history: legendary Helloween vocalist Michael Kiske’s (temporary) return to the Metal genre. And of course, it had to be collaborating with his longtime friend, Kai Hansen.
“Michael and I had resumed talking before he was fired from Helloween,” Kai said in 1995. “He called me and he wanted to stop being on bad terms, because he realized that I was not necessarily wrong in the past. He was about to leave the band for the same reasons that I did, but he didn’t have the time and was fired. We understand each other a lot better now and we agreed that we should do some music together again. So he did some backing vocals and sang lead on Time To Break Free.”
This statement would be solidified by Kai’s participation and songwriting efforts in Michael’s 1996 solo album, Instant Clarity, but it also represented both of them working together again since the memorable Keeper of the Seven Keys albums with Helloween. And it is a solid song at that, with a much simple and more straightforward approach than the rest of the album, with Kiske delivering another great vocal performance in his career. Kai and Dirk’s riffs are spot on, heavy and straight to the point, showcasing the former’s Helloween roots with the lighthearted feel of the song and its sheer uplifting feel.
Besides collaborating in the album, Kiske had the opportunity to mingle a bit with the guys of Gamma Ray in the studio at the time.
“Yes, we meet several times and it was always interesting talking with him (Kiske), also because he was a total book freak at the time,” Jan told me. “He was into all the philosophers and stuff. Sometimes it got a little too theoretical, but it was still inspiring.”
A wonderful track that may not be the biggest highlight of the album, but still enjoyable enough to complement what has been a marvelous experience so far, with the added value of listening to one of European Metal’s greatest ever partnerships. And a few years later, when asked about this collaboration, Kiske had some prophetical words to say about Kai Hansen and his former band, Helloween.
“Well, he should have stayed in the band and if you ask me, he was very well placed in Helloween, during that time,” Kiske said in 2010. “If he wouldn’t have left the band the balance would have maybe been there and everything would have been different. He was actually the one who ended it if you ask me. Kai Hansen should never have left the band. He should have stayed in the band because he didn’t do anything different musically. He was very well placed in the band. I think it was the wrong decision and he shouldn’t have made that.”
Ending the album with Afterlife is not only a very fitting grand finale for such a majestic album, but also one of Gamma Ray’s most poignant moments due to the song’s history and special meaning.
Helloween’s original drummer and Kai Hansen’s former bandmate and friend, Ingo Schwichtenberg, sadly took his own life on March 8 of 1995 due to falling deeper and deeper into schizophrenic episodes, until he jumped in front of an S-train in Hamburg, Germany.
Despite the music being written by Jan Rubach, Kai wrote the lyrics and you can understand the emotional impact that this song has by reading them, especially considering how the man sings these lines, delivering one of his best vocal performances of his entire career.
“That was the last song to record. Kai brought some bits and pieces for that into the recording studio,” Thomas told me. “We jammed together on that tune and put the pieces together, then said, ‘Well, let’s record’. In contrast to the other songs we ended up recording Afterlife without a click track to let it just flow while playing. Without any intention, I am speeding up the tempo a little during the song. It was the second take. We left it like it was.”
You can feel the raw feeling that Thomas is describing in the song. It’s powerful, impactful and done with class and energy at the same time. Thomas himself is certainly one of the star performers here with his energetic drumming, but Kai lives up to the expectations of a moment like this song, making a tribute worthy of Ingo’s legacy.
Ingo “Mr. Smile” Schwichtenberg (18 May 1965 – 8 March 1995)
Reception, touring and legacy.
Gamma Ray in the Land of Free tour in 1995, live in Ludwisburg, RockFabrik, Germany.
“Do just the hell what you really believe in. Don’t just follow trends and don’t get disturbed. Search for what you really like, and you can like many things, but try to make your own thing out of it. Don’t just go and say ‘oh great we just want to sound just like Poison today’ and the other day say ‘oh great we want to sound like Nirvana today’…Fuck that! No, that’s not the way.”
Land of the Free was released in May 29th of 1995, receiving almost universal praise from fans and the music press. It quickly became the band’s most iconic album, one of the definitive musical efforts of the Power Metal genre and a landmark of what bands could achieve playing music of this ilk.
In a lot of senses, Land of the Free became the benchmark album in the 90s for European Metal bands to strive for and I would be even go as far as saying that is the best Power Metal record of the decade.
“As far as I remember, pretty good,” Thomas told me when I asked him about the album’s reception at the time. “The fans liked it and we also received pretty much thumbs up by various colleagues from other bands. The look with Fangface coming back as a symbol, Kai’s vocals and how the songs sounded gave you a certain flashback link to the Helloween era. That was what surprised people and, in the end, what they liked. Many fans consider Land of the Free as THE album that Gamma Ray ever released.”
In terms of sales, despise the fact that Gamma Ray were never a commercial juggernaut, at least not compared to what Kai Hansen achieved in the 80s with Helloween, the album did very well, especially at a time where Power Metal was a fairly popular movement in Eurpe and, according to Thomas Nack himself, “when Gamma started, their market had more a focus to Japan, I think, and later with the Land of the Free album we gained more and more fans on the European market”.
Gamma Ray on the cover of Metal Hammer in July of 1995.
The Japan part is interesting to highlight because it became a bit of a stronghold in the band’s career with their first three albums and, according to Jan Rubach, it had a lot to do with Ralf Scheepers’ vocals in those records. This was really reflected in the sales number, with Land of the Free doing better in Europe than in Japan. On the other hand, Insanity and Genius, with Scheepers on vocals, is, to this day, the best-selling Gamma Ray on the Asian nation.
“Japan loved Ralf’s singing, so they didn’t get along so well with Kai singing again,” Jan told me. “He is more edgy and rough than Ralf. The Japanese maybe missed Ralf on that record, but the rest of the world loved the way Kai sang with all this attitude. It also had maybe this kind of momentum.”
The subsequent tour was called Men on a Tour and it opened the doors for Gamma Ray in Europe in terms of being even better received, which was celebrated with the release of a live album, Alive ’95, in 1996, showcasing some of the band’s performances in the Old Continent, in places such as Milano, Paris, Madrid, Pamplona and Erlangen.
“The tour was great and successful, especially in Spain and Italy where the crowds were amazing,” Thomas told me about Alive ’95. “You can hear the recorded audiences on that album. This speaks for itself! I always feel pressured when it comes to a certain performance that will be recorded and later released as a live album. So regarding the shows we recorded, there was lots of tension from my side shortly before entering the stage. But usually after the first two songs I can let go of it and enjoy the rest of the show. Alive ‘95 is a time document on how our live performances were very raw, energetic and unleashed those days.”
Rebellion in Dreamland in the Alive ’95 live album.
Any interesting anecdote of this tour? I’ll let our two guests to answer that question.
“That tour was for sure a lot of fun,” Jan said. “I had my best show ever in the Rodon Club at Athens. Amazing audience. Also the shows in Spain and Italy were great. In Japan we played eights shows instead of only four, like on the Insanity and Genius Tour. We also had a show in Hiroshima, which was small, but very special because of the city’s history. I also had the chance to travel together with Kai to Japan to promote Land of the Free as well, because I wrote more songs on the album than Dirk. That was an awesome and intense two week promotion trip.”
Jan also had less pleasant memories of that tour.
“I will always remember that I nearly had a fight with the local Black Market Bootleggers in Milano. The guys sold their tour shirts in front of the venue and no one cared. It was kind of normal in Italy, I guess. I talked to them, but they didn’t care that I was in the band. I was really mad about it, so I wanted at least a copy of the stuff, but they didn’t gave me anything and in the end I was lucky that didn’t end up in a fistfight and maybe no show at all. Who knows?”
Thomas, on the other hand, was a lot more Rock ‘N’ Roll about that question.
“I remember having a horrible hangover before a show and I was begging my drum tech for a garbage can to put it beside my drum kit before the concert started,” Thomas told me. “Just in case, you know. I felt I couldn’t get through the show safely without it (laughs).”
Gamma Ray playing Land of the Free in a playback show in Spain in the Men on a Mission tour.
Jan Rubach would leave the band before the end of the tour and Thomas Nack would follow suit after the end of said tour, with both citing musical differences and wanting to resurrect the band they had together before joining Gamma Ray, Anesthesia. But that doesn’t take away from their masterful performances on this album; it’s impossible to understand the brilliance of these songs without Jan’s powerful bass playing and Thomas’ technical and precise drumming, delivering one of the strongest rhythm bases in Power Metal. And they should be proud because their work lives on for many generations to enjoy.
Henjo Richter joined the band as the guitar player and Dirk moved to bass while Dan Zimmermann, drum virtuoso that was also the founding member of Power Metal band Freedom Call, took Thomas’ place. And this new lineup of Gamma Ray would be the most consistent in the band’s history, releasing many albums… but that’s a story for other articles.
An absolute beast of an album, Land of the Free has become an essential part of Power Metal’s rich history and one of those musical efforts that you simply need to listen to if you want to understand this genre as a whole. It shows a band at the absolute height of their powers, firing on all cylinders and proving that they had what it takes to make a legendary album.
And if we focus on the main man, it was a key album in Kai Hansen’s career. He already proved that he could make good albums away from Helloween, and Land of the Free not only cemented Gamma Ray as one of the best bands at the time, but also showed that he could deliver a Metal album on the same level to the two Keeper of the Seventh Keys of his old band. And very few musicians can brag about creating three highly influential albums that have withstood the test of time and will continue to do so.
But I think Thomas Nack defines the legacy of this Metal masterpiece better than I ever could:
“It is a timeless classic!” he told me. “But the most exciting experience was when my son discovered the CD a few years ago. He was about 5. Seeing him next to me listening carefully to Rebellion in Dreamland over and over again was watering my eyes to the maximum. A wonderful moment! As you can see, Land of the Free can still thrill people 25 years later! The CD is still running in rotation in my son’s ghetto blaster!”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Disclaimer by Jan Rubach: “Overall I have to say, all my comments are just what I remember after all this years as good as I could. So if anybody has a different story, it could be also true and possible. It’s only just my point of view. Don’t take it all for granted. It’s been too long!”