By Tate Bengtson
Gamma Ray is one of metal’s workhorses. Friends tout the band’s reliability while foes level charges of predictability. Friend and foe alike hone in on the same quality: Gamma Ray’s narrow creative horizon. Consider this the band’s blessing and its curse.
Given the near absence of significant creative development, evaluating the strength of any particular Gamma Ray album comes down to its success, or lack thereof, in perfecting its chosen formula. In that regard, To The Metal positions itself near the middle of Gamma Ray’s discography. While there are few egregious songs (with the notable exception of the unfortunate ballad “No Need to Cry”), the album also lacks even a handful of truly excellent songs.
The album stumbles out of the starting gate, with the mid-tempo “Empathy” faltering under the strain of an uncomfortable vocal delivery by Kai Hansen, who languishes in a middling register awash in awkward note choices. Second track “All You Need to Know” is a highlight not only for the fact that it features Michael Kiske, but also because it epitomizes the energy and uplifting melodies that are Gamma Ray trademarks.
Outside of the three abovementioned songs, To The Metal plays it safe. Uptempo barnburners typically perform the best, with “Chasing Shadows” among the more impressive with its brisk pace, enthusiastic leads, and tasteful use of symphonics. However, several of the high-energy songs display verses inferior to the choruses (such as “Time to Live” and “Rise”). Gamma Ray’s relatively infrequent dalliance with the midtempo tends to the limp and lackluster, with “Mother Angel” exemplary in its mediocrity. The title track is Gamma Ray’s latest attempt at writing a B.D.A. (Big Dumb Anthem), but it falls short despite a rather nice use of choral backing vocals during the chorus. While “To The Metal” likely sounds more convincing in a live environment, the studio version lacks punch.
The one distinguished track on To The Metal is “Shine Forever,” which, with its bass-led intro, immediately signals a vibrancy not heard elsewhere on the album. Penned by bassist Dirk Schlächter, this track not only features a dynamite chorus but also the effervescent musicianship that marks Gamma Ray’s most potent songs. A note-dense riff and curious (albeit subtle) quirks enable “Shine Forever” to stand apart from its unremarkable peers.
As this is essentially a workmanlike album from a workhorse band, it is hard to conjure much excitement for To The Metal. It commits few misdeeds. It offers even fewer triumphs.