It’s been a rocky road for Masterplan. Things started brightly with their sublime self titled debut in 2003 and the valiant follow up Aeronautics (2005), both of which were fronted by the exceptionally gifted Jorn Lande. His subsequent absence was glaring on the rather insipid MK II (with Mike DiMeo on vocals), but his return couldn’t save the uninspired Time to Be King in 2010. His second stint was short lived, with Rick Altzi the man behind the mic on 2013’s dull Novum Initium. The group has remained relatively silent since then, with plans to release an album of Helloween covers initially unveiled in 2015. Two years later, PumpKings is recorded and ready to go.
The concept behind this career choice should come as no surprise to those familiar with the inception of Masterplan, as primary songwriter/guitarist Roland Grapow and founding drummer Uli Kursch used to play with the German power metal legends. Grapow’s tenure with the group lasted 12 years and produced 14 album tracks, 11 of which are present on PumpKings, making the material an obvious source for an album. Whether pursuing this avenue is a wise choice is another matter, especially given it’s taken two years or so to actually release this covers collection, but you can’t blame someone for being proud of what they’ve achieved in the past, and if this is a way to bring some of these songs into Masterplan’s live set, then more power (heh) to them.
The album’s success will undoubtedly live or die by any one listener’s enjoyment (or lack thereof) of Altzi’s vocals. It’s quite a tough challenge he faces, as he has to do justice to two different vocal styles in a way that ties all the songs together as a coherent whole. This is made doubly difficult by the fact that one of those voices he is replacing is the legendary Michael Kiske, whose iconic tones are synonymous with just about any song he touches. And, predictably, it is the Kiske material in which Altzi fails to make much of an impact. I can’t really fault his vocal prowess on any of those cuts, it’s just that Kiske is a part of the fabric from which those songs were crafted, and as someone who is familiar with all five of the tracks he fronted here, it’s tough not to listen to them and think how much better he sounded on them. It could be argued that putting a different spin on an original is what makes a cover good, and that’s a sentiment I agree with, but there are certain elements to some songs that are so damned difficult to replace. Kiske’s distinctive pipes are one such element, and it’s a huge ask for anyone to stamp their own mark on material he’s sung. “Music”, from the much maligned Chameleon (quite an underrated effort if you ask me), fares the worst, though it’s largely due to the heavy handed instrumental approach, which lacks the subtle nuances of the original.
Altzi is much more suited to the post 1994 material, which is hardly surprising given his slightly rougher timbre being a lot closer to Deris’ vocal approach than Kiske’s. He doesn’t bring anything radically new to the table, and he misses a little of Deris’ charm, but it’s easy to see why he was the man brought in to replace Lande, with some of his vocal inflections reminiscent of the great Norwegian. He’s well backed by Grapow and co., who lay down the musical foundations with little fuss. Again it’s a case of being faithful to the source material, simply with a more modern production and a consistency in sound due to the songs being recorded for the same album. The neck snapping march of “The Time of the Oath”, the more upbeat shuffle of “Take Me Home” and the nine minute splendour of “The Dark Ride” rise above the rest with their undeniable quality, but the latter half of the record is generally solid (the aforementioned “Music” aside).
PumpKings finds Grapow looking back warmly at his past, and if there’s one thing you can take from this record, it’s that the man has the chops to write seriously good power metal. I feel it’s a little unwise to load the front of the album with Kiske era material, as it was always going to be a tall order for Altzi do those particular songs justice (an unenviable job, it must be reiterated). It doesn’t get things off to a great start, but once things settle into the Deris era groove, it starts to take flight. It’s an enjoyable, if unnecessary, album, but four years on from Novum Initium, you have to hope that they’ve also got some original material up their sleeve, and that this isn’t the product of creative stagnation.
Highlights: “The Time of the Oath”, “The Dark Ride”
PumpKings is released worldwide on July 28th, via AFM Records.