Album Review By Rick Tilley
Regardless of your taste in Metal or Rock and probably dependent on your age, there can’t be many people who haven’t at least heard of Helstar from Houston, Texas. Granted, they aren’t major league but they have been treading the boards since guitarist Larry Barragan formed the band in 1981 and have a very healthy fan base. I am one of those long-time fans and remember buying their debut album ‘Burning Star’ (1984) and, at that time, being a fairly recent convert to Metal was utterly blown away by it. Musically they were superb but what really set them apart was the incredibly unique and diverse voice of James Rivera. This man did, and does, sound like the illegitimate lovechild of King Diamond and Rob Halford but that comparison still doesn’t quite do his voice justice. Because of that his vocals divide opinion with many thinking he is awful, but many, like me, thinking WOW every time he sings. Either way you certainly cannot mistake him!
After 1989’s ‘Nosferatu’, which many think is their finest moment, Helstar struggled to find a deal due to the emergence of the Grunge movement and after one more studio album in 1995 went on hiatus only occasionally appearing for select gigs. In 2008 that hiatus abruptly came to a halt when they released the fabulous ‘The King Of Hell’ album. Since then they have release a further two very good albums, although, if it weren’t for the aforementioned vocals of Rivera, these could have been released by any number of above average US Thrash/Power Metal bands. All the power and skill was there, but the individual songwriting magic that made Helstar…well Helstar was slightly missing! It is missing no more though because Helstar’s latest and ninth album ‘Vampiro’ (which was released in August 2016) is the album that fans have been waiting for!
Whilst not a direct sequel to ‘Nosferatu’ Helstar have revisited the lyrical themes from that album and presented the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula with aplomb! This could be Helstar’s finest moment and the more I listen to it the more I believe that statement. This is a tour de force of American Power/Thrash Metal that has got me dripping in places I’m not prepared to talk about in public. Beginning with the stunning ‘Awaken Unto Darkness’ you are in no doubt as to how good this album is going to be with the first half of the song building menacingly in an almost doom like fashion before hitting the speed/thrash pedal for the remainder and it leaves you breathless. Rivera’s top range might have reduced slightly over the years but he has looked after his voice extremely well and not many vocalists, even younger ones, could pull off the vocal gymnastics he presents here!
‘Blood Lust’ is up next and solidifies the feeling that this is going to be a very special album indeed. Produced by the band themselves and mixed by Larry Barragan and Bill Metoyer ‘Vampiro’ sounds absolutely huge. Every member puts their heart and soul into this with drummer ‘Mikey Lewis’, apart from sounding like a battering ram on steroids, using the drums perfectly as a proper instrument rather than just a time keeping device with bassist Garrick Smith thundering alongside perfectly. As for the guitar work, well Larry is still firing on all cylinders and along with new recruit Andrew Atwood they present a dual barrage so good it’s almost impossible to believe that this is the first album they’ve worked on together with riffs and solos written to perfection. Together with Rivera’s eerie and, at times, very unsettling delivery this all makes for a wonderful combination!
Song after song hits you relentlessly in the gut and I’m finding it really tough to pick out highlights because, quite frankly, the whole album is one big highlight. ‘From The Pulpit To The Pit’ is a Headbangers wet dream and to witness this played live must be an absolute joy, the classically inspired instrumental ‘Malediction’ is everything a song without vocals should be and pummels you into submission, ‘Repent In Fire’ should be another live favourite with a chorus that demands audience participation and where many albums start to run out of steam Helstar instead give you the menacing ‘Abolish The Sun’ and the simply stunning seven minutes plus of ‘Black Cathedral’ ‘Vampiro is completed by the short but beautiful and haunting ‘Dreamless Sleep’ where acoustic guitar, violin and a vocal that proves beyond a doubt, that James Rivera is one of a kind combine to amazing effect!
I don’t like to gush too much when I’m writing a review but some albums demand it and I’ve run out of superlatives to explain to you all how good this album is. I think only Dracula himself will know what Helstar will come up with next but it’s going to have to go some to get near matching ‘Vampiro’!
Awaken Unto Darkness
To Dust You Will Become
Off With His Head
From The Pulpit To The Pit
To Their Death Beds They Fell
Repent In Fire
Abolish The Sun
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