"Happy metal"? Yeah, you read that right. German power metal veterans Freedom Call, led by singer/guitarist Chris Bay since 1998, are determined to put smiles on headbangers' faces. They do it with a combination of fist-pumping riffs, ooh-aah background vocals (and the occasional gang shout), and soaring melodies led by guitar and keyboard. Freedom Call songs are typically mid-tempo or just slightly faster—they avoid the headlong fervor of other power metal bands, who often seem like they're racing each other to the end.
The ninth Freedom Call album, Master of Light, was written and recorded only a few months after the end of touring behind its predecessor, 2014's Beyond (Bay, a trained audio engineer, records and produces their albums). The album—which is out 11/18 via SPV/Steamhammer—starts out on the most optimistic possible note, especially considering the internecine wars that erupt on the metal internet—the album's first track is called "Metal is for Everyone." It also includes a song called "Rock the Nation" that's not a Montrose cover (songs that share titles with the work of better-known bands is another Freedom Call tradition), and others that occupy that typically power metal "vaguely awesome" zone, like "Hammer of the Gods," "Hail the Legend"…you get the idea. The lyrics are wall-to-wall inspiration, to the point that individual lines could be printed on kitten posters and hung in cubicles. But musically, it's a ripper, somewhere between HammerFall and Gamma Ray (with whom they shared drummer David Zimmerman for several years); every song is guaranteed to make fans raise their fists and sing along.
With that in mind, I decided it was high time Noisey gave some bonafide power metal some shine, and my editor agreed. My interview with Bay was delayed for a week, because he suddenly checked himself into the hospital the day before we'd originally been scheduled to speak.
Noisey: You just spent some time in the hospital – do you mind if I ask what happened? Are you OK now?
Chris Bay: Oh, yeah, yeah, everything is fine. There was just a little virus, but it was not as bad as it sounded. I just want to be safe and sure that for future activities there's nothing against my health. It's the season, so for my health—as a singer, you have to be careful always. It's a preventive thing. Next life, I become a bass player [laughs].
The first song on the new album is called "Metal Is For Everyone," but many metal fans have this weird prediliction towards wanting to freeze people out and treat the music like it's their own special clubhouse. Is that why you wrote that song?
Yeah. I think in every kind of song we are writing, or message we're giving the fans, there's a wink of the eye from our side. We're taking it very seriously, but we do not take ourselves too seriously, so if you read a little bit between the lines, there's a lot of humor and a lot of fun. But with this title especially, "Metal is for Everyone," there is a message, because while writing the lyrics I really was thinking, Man, if we could find one little thing, like heavy metal, that every human being on this earth is liking, then we have one thing for everybody—and maybe that could be one step forward to make the world a little bit better.
The "Master! Master!" chant on "Masters of Light" is a pretty obvious borrowing from Metallica. What made you decide to do that?
Of course. It's our dedication to the real masters of heavy metal. So of course it's Metallica, "Master of Puppets." When I wrote that part of the song, it was urgent that I do that. There was no way out. No chance to delete it, and we all thought it was a funny thing, so we really made it 100 percent clear, so everyone would notice it. We're not stealing it from Metallica.
This album also contains a ballad, "Cradle of Angels," which is uncommon for you. Have you been wanting to do that for a while?
You're right, usually I don't like ballads, because it's boring to perform and it's boring to listen to as an attendee of a concert. But this song, I started to write it and I noticed, this song, it's not as bad. I like it, and I think it's not a classic ballad like Scorpions would do. Scorpions, they are the masters of hard rock or heavy ballads, and this is a bit different, and it has a connection to the lyrics. In my opinion, listening to this song, it gives you a lot of hope. So if you have some problems down on Earth, or if you have maybe real serious problems, you always can find a place up in Heaven, in the cradle of angels, to relax and to let the storm pass over.
How do you feel the band has grown musically since the last album? What's new, on this album, from your point of view?
We all are working a long time as professional musicians, so we're not playing together in order to develop as individual musicians. But together, as a band, we really could find—we are growing together more and more, because we are touring a lot. I don't think that producing an album or writing an album is developing a band very much, because you have the producer, you have some arrangement guys, you have sound technicians, and I think the real working together, as a chance to develop as a team, is to play live onstage. It's not a record. But it's good to have new material to present live, because we played so many shows that we got bored by the old material. We need new stuff. So we're really looking forward to performing the new songs and having new challenges onstage.
It's interesting that you say that playing live helps you develop as musicians, because metal isn't jazz—the songs stay the same from night to night. So how does this development happen?
It depends on from what perspective you are performing a concert as a band, or what your intention is while performing a concert. For some musicians, it's to present yourself, show the people your ability on your instrument or whatever. As a rock band, in my case, I think it's teamwork in between the audience, the musicians, the technicians, maybe the crew of the venue. Everyone. So I think you're building up a dynamic, and this is the real concert—this atmosphere which you are building up while onstage. Because if you are just playing a concert, for me it's not interesting, because I can do that at home with my guitar. But this dynamic, which is growing with the people, and sometimes—not always, but sometimes—you are reaching a point that it's really starting to burn onstage. It's like, if you are windsurfing, there's a point if you're really gliding, there's no brakes, no nothing, you'll just be 100 percent in your run. And that's what I'm longing for onstage, and what I'm missing when it's not happening. After the concert, then I'm really satisfied—I can say, that was a really good concert. And it's not the quality of the performance, that's not what I'm talking about; it's just this one point when it's happened, that it's exploding.
Why do you think power metal is big in Germany? People have the idea that Germans are very dark and serious people, so why does this super-positive, hopeful, even goofy music succeed there?
All right [laughs]. I'm trying to imagine people saying, "Oh, the Germans are dark, and serious, with this hard language, like Rammstein"—that's a great picture. I don't think Germans are dark and serious. But maybe, because I've gotten this question many times, why the Germans are the leaders of this power metal scene and a lot of German bands are performing this kind of music…maybe it is a kind of mentality. Because the Germans are very punctual. I think they are really straight and punctual and they like to go into details from the technical side, and in power metal, you have to be punctual, because it's fast and you have to play very exactly, because you have a lot of parts and it's not the kind of music to have these bluesy grooves. You just have to play like a machine. And the Germans, they are famous for acting like a machine like this. I think maybe that's the reason. Because the mentality of the Germans is this punctual and exact thinking.
On the other hand, is there something in Americans' national character that just won't go for power metal?
Maybe. It could be. I see the Americans more as an [entertainment-oriented] nation. They're really cool, and nice, and "How are you doing?" and "That's great, that's awesome" and they don't really ask for something [more]. If you're coming, they're happy, but that's enough. And I think that the Americans are really ones to enjoy things, but they're not ones to force themselves with music, because music is fun, music is just relaxing. Music is for dancing, maybe, or for singing—a lot of entertainment things, but not to just be silent and listen to it, to analyze it. And power metal is a kind of music that you have to analyze to understand it. You have to be awake, always, while listening. It's like a very complicated movie. If you don't listen to the music carefully, it could be that you won't understand the sense of it.
Some fans say the power metal genre kind of entered a slump in the mid-2000s, and your albums from that era, The Circle of Life , and Dimensions , are not that well regarded. Do you feel like the band was falling into a creative rut at that time?
For myself, it's hard to rank these albums, because I work a lot on all albums; it's not like I had a break, or said, oh, these two albums, it's not worth it to work hard on them, or something like that. In all the albums, there's a lot of passion and work and effort. But I am agreeing that we had discussions in the band about the future then, because Daniel Zimmerman, formerly of Freedom Call and my friend, he was also playing for Gamma Ray, and he was not as happy with the situation that Freedom Call was morphing into a happy metal band.
I think he couldn't really agree to go this happy way, this positive thinking and optimistic way, but that's my life—I am a very positive-thinking man, and I'm writing positive-sounding music, and I wanted to decide to go this way. So yeah, we had some discussions, and maybe we were not really sure in which direction we would go. And that was The Circle of Life and the Dimensions album, and after this I was leading the band and I went in this direction where I said, yes, we are a happy metal band and we are making happy music. So maybe that was the time when we needed to decide [our future].
Two albums ago, on Land of the Crimson Dawn , you were the only original member of the group left. How did you feel about that album at the time?
Yeah, of course. That was the time when Daniel quit the band, and decided just to play for Gamma Ray, and the first time [I was] in the studio for songwriting, I felt a bit lonesome, because I was used to somebody sitting beside me and supporting me while writing the songs. But it went very quick that I learned to handle the situation. And I also had Lars [Rettkowitz], our guitar player, he was supporting me a lot, and on the other side, I felt free. So I could do what I wanted; there were no discussions anymore. I think on the one hand, it was not easy, because I was alone, and on the other hand, I was free to do what I wanted.
You've done covers of Ultravox's "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes" and A-Ha's "Hunting High And Low"—are you a big fan of 80s synth pop?
Oh, yeah, of course, I'm a big, big fan of this music. I grew up with this music, I had my first girlfriend with this music, I had my first experiences as an adult with this music, so yeah, that's my life, this kind of music. We covered these songs, yes—and the influences, I think they will stay for the rest of my life, this 80s music. But that makes yourself as you are. So maybe that's the reason some people are listening to Freedom Call, because maybe they can't tell it, or they can't describe it, but maybe they can feel that it comes deep from the 80s.
You're a trained engineer, but you only work with Freedom Call. Would you like to get behind the boards and work with other bands?
I'm feeling very comfortable just to write my own music or to make my own music, because this way, it's not a job. It's my passion, and it's fun for me. I can earn money with fun, and that was the aim all of my life. My father didn't believe that I would get it. I would do that for other bands, but that's not my aim, to work for other bands, because I want to act like an artist, not a technician. As a technician, I can do that for myself, so I do not cost any money for myself [laughs], so it's the cheaper way, but I do not work for other bands. That's not the plan. But we will see. I think there are sound technicians that are much better than me.
My last question is about the band's image. How did you manage to take the promo photos for this album, where you're all shirtless and holding balls of colored flame, with a straight face?
Yeah, so the idea was born of course because of the title of the new album, Master of Light. So we were brainstorming around the word "light," what can we realize with the word "light" with photos, with the cover art, and we just wanted to show the people that there is the master of light, he's the leader of our beyond, and we are his helpers or supporters or whatever, and we will bring the light to the people.
Phil Freeman is answering the call on Twitter.