If you are at least knee-deep in the heavy metal genre, chances are that you’ve heard his name. His influence is everywhere: from mainstream acts such as HammerFall and Blind Guardian, to underground jewels such as Stormwarrior and Iron Savior. With his four bandmates he started a revolution in the genre back in the 80’s and ushered in a brand new genre, giving him the nickname “father of power metal”. This year marks his three decades in the heavy metal business and judging by his recent output he’s not planning on slowing down. His name is Kai Hansen.
Kai Michael Hansen was born on January 17th, 1963 in the German city of Hamburg. As early as 10 years old, Kai developed an interest in music and started playing wash-drums. As his parents weren’t too excited about the noise, they bought him an acoustic guitar and Kai took a six-month classical guitar course. With some of his schoolmates Hansenformed his first band after he had bought his first electric guitar, a white Ibanez Les Paul, his first amp and later on a distortion panel. Hansen met a man who similarly developed an interest in music at an early age, and who would be almost as instrumental in the rise of the power metal genre. His name is Piet Sielck and together with Hansen, he formed Gentry. This is the band that first got Kai to experience the joy of performing live, as the band played small clubs and local schools. Gentry started out as a tribute band, their set comprised of classics recorded by the likes of The Sex Pistols, Slade and Uriah Heep. Soon enough Hansen and Sielck began composing their own songs.
In order to save money to purchase more equipment, Hansen started working as a newspaper delivery boy and bought his first Marshall amp. He traded his white Ibanez for a Stratocaster. After several line-up changes and borrowed members, Hansen and Sielckenlisted the help of Markus Grosskopf and Ingo Schwichtenberg who formed the band’s rhythm section. Together they form Second Hell and change their name to Iron Fist but not before going by several other names. They get to perform in small clubs and try out new and original songs. However, due to the lack of rehearsal space, the band split up. During his time serving the army between 1982 and 1984, Hansen met a young guitarist named Michael Weikath who invited Hansen to join his band Powerfool. However, due to various disagreements with the other band members, Hansen and Weikathabandoned Powerfool and together with Grosskopf and Schwichtenberg re-formed Iron Fist. Piet Sielck gave up on playing, and in order to pursue a career in music production left for the US. The band changes their name once again, adopting the name Helloween at Schwichtenberg’s suggestion.
“Mini LP” and “Walls of Jericho”
Through manager Limb Scnoor the band got in touch with Noise Records and saw their material published for the first time. Helloween was featured on a sampler titled “Death Metal”, also featuring Running Wild, Hellhammer and Dark Avenger. Helloween presented themselves with two tracks, “Oernst of Life” penned by Weikath and “Metal Invaders” composed by Hansen. The reception was so great that Noise offered the band a contract. Helloween published their first, eponymous EP often called “The Mini LP” in April the next year. The EP is comprised of material mostly written by Hansen with some input by Weikath. It was recorded at Musiclab studios in Berlin between January and February 1985. The band handled the production, with Harris Johnscredited as an engineer. The “happy, happy Halloween” introduction to the bombastic opener “Starlight” was taken from the movie “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” and remains the band’s maxim to this day.
On November 18th of the same year, Helloween published their first full-length album titled “Walls of Jericho”. The recognizable album cover was created by Edda and Uwe Karczewski, who created the EP cover as well. This time Harris Johns was credited as the producer, and the material was once again recorded at Musiclab Studios between September and October 1985. Similarly to the EP, this album features tracks that were composed earlier, with reworked “Metal Invaders” and “Gorgar” created during the Iron Fist rehearsals together with Sielck, while the prototype for the closing track “How Many Tears” was developed by Weikath while he was still a member of Powerfool, when the track was called “Sea of Fears”. The band had full control of the production thanks to Noise records CEO Karl Walterbach, and they urged Johns to replicate the production of an album released the same year, “In the Beginning” by Malice. The album and the EP cover both feature Fangface as the band mascot, which was later ditched due to various similarities to Iron Maiden’s Eddie.
Both the EP and the debut brought the band wide acclaim and an army of fans, due to the fact that their sound was fresh and unique. The debut has sold over 110,000 copies, rivaling the sales of their more popular country mates like Accept and even Scorpions. The mixture of speedy riffs brought by Hansen and Weikath’s sense of melody was considered unusual and new at the time and as a result, they were often compared to Metallica or Iron Maiden on speed. The craze opened many doors for the band and led to extensive touring. They toured Europe along with Grave Digger and North America with the Bay Area thrash metal act Exodus. However, this is when Hansen realized that he had trouble performing the double duty of being the vocalist and the guitarist of the band, as he sung without a technique which often led to throat inflammations. As a result, the band decided to look for a new singer, so Kai could focus on the guitar and a more intricate style of playing. The band published a new EP titled “Judas”, the title track of which marks the last time Kai was credited as a lead vocalist for Helloween
“Keeper of the Seven Keys” and the Rise of the Great Pumpkin
Looking for a new vocalist proved to be a tough challenge for the band. Ralf Scheepers of Tyran’ Pace had declined several invitations from the band, leading them to a dead end. At the time the members of Helloweengot their hands on Queensryche’s debut EP titled “Queen of the Reich”, and impressed by Geoff Tate’s powerful performance decided that they want this style of operatic vocals for their next record. They found everything they were looking for in young Michael Kiske, singer of Hamburg-based act Ill-Prophecy. Sadly, Kiske wasn’t too fond of their style and declined several invitations to join Helloween. After Michael Weikath managed to convince Kiske that they wanted to stray away from the raw sound of the debut, he finally decided to take the position. On November 25th, 1986 the band started working on the new album with a new member in the lineup and under the supervision of a production team starring Tommy Newton and Tommy Hansen.
Looking to attract a larger fan base and appeal to a different audience, Helloween took a different approach to their sound, focusing on the melodies and the enticing voice of their new singer. This time the writing duties for the follow-up to the successful debut were divided equally between Hansen and Weikath, with Kiske contributing with a few songs penned while he was still in his former band. With the help of the Newton–Hansen production team, the band polished their sound, and the result was a mixture of speed metal tracks and clean vocals you could sing along to. This was a milestone for the heavy metal genre and the 13-minute, Hansen-penned epic “Halloween” embodies what this sound is all about. The band had tons of material and planned on publishing a double-album, a practice not common with heavy metal bands at the time.
However, Noise Records declined assuming that two albums would earn more than a double one. As a result, the first of two “Keeper of the Seven Keys” records was released on February 16th, 1987. It was comprised of songs mostly written by Hansen including the aforementioned epic track as well as some of their signature hits such as “I’m Alive” and “Future World”. The production team was inspired by the production of the widely acclaimed “Hysteria” by Def Leppard, and using it as a template gave the songs the much needed refined sound and a brand new style. This sound would become the staple of every power metal album production for years to follow. Due to guitarist Michael Weikath’s illness, the rhythm guitars on the album were played by Hansen. Weikath only recorded guitar parts for the ballad he wrote titled “A Tale That Wasn’t Right”.
The album received great reviews from the press and a great response from the fans. The positive reception took Helloween across the ocean, as they toured the US together with Grim Reaper and Armored Saint. Their American distributor at the time, RCA, got them to record a video for the epic “Halloween”, but cut it to four minutes so that the video can be played on MTV. However, after the European tour together with Overkill, the first struggles within the band started taking shape. Exhausted from touring, Hansen asked the band to take a short break from live performances. However, as the band was just starting to gain momentum the time to take a break was just not right. The band split into factions, with founding members Hansen, Grosskopf and Schwichtenberg taking one side, and newcomers Weikath and Kiske the other. The disputes ranged from arguing about their musical direction on the future releases to extensive touring and other, mostly insignificant topics. Unhappy with everything going on behind the scenes, the fact that they were promoted in magazines with the likes of Michael Jackson and David Hasslehoff, and the band arguing for a stylistic change, Hansen started contemplating leaving the band.
“I Want Out” – The Outcry of a Generation
This slogan used to promote the sequel to the “Keeper of the Seven Keys” record in the US was eerily clairvoyant, which shouldn’t come as a surprise as Hansen wrote this song as a goodbye letter inspired by emotions boiling inside him for over a year. Be that as it may, Hansen stayed with the band and saw the release of the second “Keeper of the Seven Keys” record in June of 1988. This time the record featured more Weikath-penned tracks. The idea behind this was that the first album should feature tracks written by Hansen due to their similarity to the style of their debut, while the second album would feature tracks composed by Weikath which were a lot more mainstream by comparison. Timeless classics like Hansen’s “I Want Out” and “March of Time” as well as Weikath’s “Eagle Fly Free”, “Dr. Stein” and a second 13-minute epic “Keeper of the Seven Keys” are considered some of their finest works to date. The second part of the record was the first one to be branded “Power Metal” and “German Metal”.
Despite the vast commercial success of the Keeper’s part two, the rift between the band members kept growing. They spent more time arguing about the music rather than composing it, and Hansen’s discontent with the musical direction the band was hell bent on taking had reached a boiling point. The guitar player called for a meeting and once again asked that the band take at least a year-long break from touring. Again, the time was not right for this. The band got the chance to perform as a part of the largest and most memorable lineup in the history of the “Monsters of Rock” festival along with the likes of Iron Maiden, David Lee Roth, Kiss, Megadeth and Guns N’ Roses at Donington Park on August 20th, 1988. Around the same time, the tension between the band and their record label Noise led to an argument which would later lead to a lawsuit. The band was discontent with how much they were being paid taking into account great record and merchandise sales, as well as frequent touring.
In the fall of 1988, the band went on yet another European tour named “Pumpkins Fly Free” which spawned their first ever live album titled “Live in the UK” recorded during their show in Scotland. The same record was released as “Keepers Live” in Japan and “I Want Out Live” in the US. At the same time, the band published a music video for the single “I Want Out” directed by the legendary Storm Thorgerson, famous for his work with Pink Floyd. The band signed for Iron Maiden’s management team, which led to another US tour titled “Headbanger’s Ball” in support of the acclaimed MTV show of the same name, alongside Anthrax and Exodus. However, just before the start of the tour, in December of 1988 Kai Hansen broke the news to the other members that he was leaving Helloween. Hansen’s last show with the band was in Birmingham, UK on November 8th, 1988. Hansen was replaced by Rampage axeman Roland Grapow. Almost a month after his departure, on January 21st, 1989. “Keeper of the Seven Keys, Part 2” was certified Gold. Helloween left Noise Records for EMI, ushering the beginning of their downfall. But that’s a story for another time.
Time Marches On
Disappointed with the premature ending of his career with Helloween, but determined to keep creating the music he loves, Kai Hansen took up various studio projects. He started working with a young German band heavily influenced by early Helloween, called Blind Guardian. Hansen first appears on their sophomore album “Follow the Blind”, providing vocals and guitars on the track “Valhalla” and contributing a solo to “Hall of the King”. Hansen helped them break through, leading to a long and fruitful cooperation between the two. But with a lot of ideas dating back to his Iron Fist days, Hansen contacted Ralf Scheepers of now disbanded Tyran’ Pace who he kept in touch with ever since offering him the position of the lead singer in Helloween. The two began working on a project that was supposed to stay in the studio and were soon joined by bass player Uwe Wessel and drummer Mathias Burchard. It became apparent that this project was meant to evolve into something more. It evolved into GAMMA RAY.
To Be Continued…