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Helstar is among a handful of bands pretty widely regarded as one of 80s USPM's heavy hitters, alongside titans like Omen, Liege Lord, Fates Warning, and Crimson Glory. From 1984 to 1989, they released a string of four albums that most USPM fans consider to be top-notch. The fact that all four were so equally well-regarded was a head scratcher for me for some time, as I couldn't (and still can't) get into the first two albums overmuch. The fact is, whether or not you like all four, that the general approach and aesthetic of the first two albums is traded here for an entirely new beast. I'm not saying the first two albums completely suck, but where they're straightforward, plodding, shallow, and catchy, A Distant Thunder and Nosferatu are aggressive, dark, powerful, and complex. As for me, I'd rather take the latter approach; while there are a couple of songs I like from the first two albums, most of them felt bland and inane to me. So you can see where I'm coming from when I say that A Distant Thunder is where Helstar really started getting things cooking.
It's certainly no surprise to hear James Rivera is in top form here, as he's never really been lacking in power or charisma. His quirky tone, straightforward delivery, and absurd range are still second to none, and it's hard to say where he really draws influence, as he doesn't really sound much like anyone who came before him. There are touches of Dickinson here and there, but really the only people that sound like him emerged onto the scene much later; Danny White of Cauldron Born and Michael Grant of Crescent Shield (RIP) bear stronger resemblances to him - the former in tone and charisma, the latter in delivery style. If there are more obscure singers who bear greater similarities, I don't know them - and I know quite a bit, so it's pretty safe to say that he's not often imitated.
Of course, Rivera isn't the only thing here that's done right - the guitars are nothing short of excellent, particularly the soloing. Longtime band member Larry Barragan is joined by newcomer Andre Corbin, and the combination proves to be explosive and unstoppable, a duo seemingly perfect for each other with an amazing synergy seen in very few other places - Kenny Powell and Jody Henry on Omen's Battle Cry are one of the only other duos that come to mind. In a nutshell, this is one of the greatest power/thrash albums ever, although the album isn't quite as consistent as it could be. "Tyrannicide" and "Genius of Insanity" in particular aren't quite up to par, although both are decent enough. Both have riffs that are just a bit too lackluster; not bad for what they are, but not quite good enough to match the rest of the album.
The rest of the album is very solid, including the Scorpions cover of "He's a Woman, She's a Man". While I haven't heard the original, I can say that this one is pretty kickass, without really losing the main idea of the album. "The King is Dead" is catchy as fuck, with a manic energy that's never lost and a top-notch performance from Rivera. "Bitter End", "Abandon Ship", and "Scorcher" are all great as well, if not quite as good as the opener, with extremely headbangable, noodly solos that evoke Cauldron Born's debut at times. "Winds of War" is in a bit of a different vein, but no worse - possibly the best song here, with an epic, majestic acoustic intro and a grand, midpaced, bombastic middle section. This is the sort of epic along the lines of Manilla Road's 'Dreams of Eschaton" - slow, sprawling, and vast, with a great penchant for melody.
All in all, while it's not the most consistent album out there, A Distant Thunder does the job quite well, especially considering the low number of great power/thrash albums out there (the list is probably under 20 albums). Along with classics like The Deluge, Haunting Tales of a Warrior's Past, and Heresy, A Distant Thunder raises the underused banner of power/thrash high overhead, standing as a bastion of solid metal for all time.
First things first, Helstar are not for everyone. Frontman James Rivera's incredibly over the top style will drive some people nuts I'm sure. But for those who can appreciate the odd, operatic vocals, you'll find Helstar are truly formidable 80's metal monsters. You would have a hard time finding a more aggressive and energetic band. Combining the speed and melody of Iron Maiden, with the in your face attitude of thrash, "A Distant Thunder" wreaks havoc on your speakers from start to finish.
The album is not without its faults though. The production is pretty weak, I guess it's not bad for a relatively obscure metal band in 1988, but I can think of tons of similar albums that sound a lot better from around the same time. The guitars sound particularly bad, a lot of the "heaviness" is lost because of a terribly thin and weak guitar sound. Also, singer James Rivera doesn't know the meaning of the word restraint. I love the guy to death, but sometimes he just goes way too over the top. I guess that's what makes him what he is though.
Opener "The King is Dead" starts the album off with a bang. Fast and energetic, it sets a good pace for the rest of the album. Some good thrashy riffs, catchy chorus. I love the part James Rivera screams out, "Ohh-oh-oh-ho-oh oh ya yaaaaaaaa!!" "Bitter End" follows and is probably my second favorite song on the album. Really heavy, menacing verses that are instantly catchy, with a good Maiden sounding gallop. The vocals in this one are much more controlled, and Rivera sounds excellent. "Scorcher" starts off like a ballad, with some soft acoustic guitars and good layered vocals. But at about the 1 minute mark, the song lives up to it's name, with a glass shattering scream the riffs come in strong. Probably the catchiest chorus of the whole album. Great fist pumping metal.
"Winds of War" is easily the best song on the album. It's an epic tune, starting off as a soft ballad and slowly building speed, only to slow back down and end the way it started. Really well crafted song, everything flows wonderfully. Some great Maiden sounding leads and solos lead into a surprisingly fast and heavy mid-section. James Rivera sounds amazing in this part, and the lyrics are actually pretty cool. "There was dead all around so I pledged I would die, an eye for an eye was burned in my head, vengeance is mine...You'll all be dead!" The best song these guys would ever make. And forget what everyone else said about their cover of "He's a Woman, She's a Man" it's actually really cool, these guys really stamped their trademark on it. And In my opinion it sounds just like all the other songs on the album, except for the horribly cheesy lyrics.
Just an all around great album from start to finish, no filler, no BS. Vintage 80's power/thrash at it's finest, an album that oozes attitude and has it's middle finger right in your face. They don't make them like this anymore.
Helstar is an underground band, but unrightfuly so. James Rivera is an excellent singer, and Andre Corbin and Larry Barrigan can shred with the very best of them. Along with Helstar's next album, "Nosferatu", "A Distant Thunder" is an underground metal classic.
As I stated earlier, the vocals are top notch. James Rivera has a great voice that never lets up. His operatic vocals fit perfectly with the pummeling speed/thrash of "The King is Dead" and "Tyrannicide" to the awesomely epic "Winds of War". He kind of reminds me of a "Geoff Tate" meets "Rob Halford" hybrid, but at the same time he has a totally unique voice that stands out from the crowd. Though at times it seems like he loses control of his voice (especially around the screams), he always manages to delivers. The Vocals are one of the many high points of the album, and does not disappoint .
The guitar playing is simply outstanding. Andre Corbin and Larry Barrigan manage to blend melodic speed metal with beautiful classical influences perfectly. Actually, this album is FULL of classical influences, from the opening to "Tyrannicide" to the many, many, awe inspiring solos that fill this album. Without the classical influences, I doubt this album would have been as heavy. Riffs are plentiful here, and by plentiful I mean OVERFLOWING with memorable riffs! Usually with thrash metal the riffs are recycled over and over again, leaving the music boring and completely unmemorable, but that is simply not the case here. There isn't a single complaint that can be said about the guitar playing.
The rhythm section is quite good too. The bass is clearly audible and is just as heavy as the guitars, following with the riffs seamlessly. The drums are also excellent, better than alot of the repetitive drummers that are plentiful in the speed metal genre.
Most, if not all the songs on this album are good, but some are worse then others. The instrumental "Whore of Babylon", while being well played, is sort of boring, and The Scorpions cover doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album all that well. Besides those two songs the rest are excellent.
If you are a fan of good, memorable, speed/neo-classical/thrash metal, then this album is definetly for you. The album is full of blazing guitar, pounding rhythms, soaring vocals, and excellent, complex songwriting. Highly, highly recommended.
Guess I'll be the first to differ from the general consensus here and go against the previous reviews (next to Boris). While I still certainly love this album and I'd still probably hail it as an old classic, out of Helstar's first four albums this would more than likely be my least favorite. 'Burning Star' was a fine piece of great traditional metal with some insane soloing and choruses, 'Remnants of War' took things into a heavier and tougher direction, and the next release (after this one) 'Nosferatu' would seemingly become their thrashiest effort. With this release however the focus seems a bit odd from time to time, its almost like this is a fusion of each of the former albums mentioned. You've got traditional influences, a lot of power metal influences, and occasionally some odd thrashy sections. To sum it up, this is a bit more inconsistent than their other works but still top notch.
Vocalist James Rivera gives off his bounciest performance on this release. Instead of bringing over his aggressive vocals from 'Remnants of War', he reverts back to singing that's more comparable to 'Burning Star'. This album probably contain's the most shrieks he's ever done next to their debut, but at times he even seems to slip up. Listen carefully to The King is Dead, at times his voice seems to just randomly crack and this continues throughout some various songs. Its not extremely noticeable, but for the avid Helstar fan it may stand out. His performance is still grade A, but seems a bit uncontrollable at times.
The style displayed here feels a lot more like progressive power, rather than power thrash. While songs still contain a lot of odd segments throughout, they don't always feel 'complex' and 'technical' like Helstar usually does. The odd parts just seem a bit random sometimes. A lot of the majestic riffage isn't as memorable here either and definitely feels a lot softer and easier going. Compared to some of their other albums, their direction here seems more straight forward than usual.
Regardless this is still an incredible album and for the most part pretty consistent musically. Both the opener The King is Dead and Bitter End (which has some insane harmonies) welcome you to these simpler power metal grounds, while Abandon Ship for some reason has always bored me unless its at the beginning or the end of the track. Tyrannicide definitely could have passed as a track for their previous album and after that its their infamous Scorcher. In the vein of the first two tracks, Scorcher seems to just keep building up to its explosive solo while Rivera's vocals are as odd as ever and the chorus becomes instantly memorable. After this we have Genius of Insanity which almost sounds like a premature 'Nosferatu' track. Not bad at all though, but not exactly the best song on here. After that we have the instrumental Whore of Babylon which I believe probably could have worked better if it were implemented in the previous song or some other song on here, rather than being its own stand alone track. It does get pretty cool towards the end, but its not something that matches up to their Perseverence and Desperation number off 'Nosferatu'. And for those who think it'd be nothing but a shred fest, think again. Its actually just a bunch of odd riffs and rhythm's that are pretty cool, but again it probably would have sounded better within one of the tracks here. After this we come to one of their greatest songs of all time, their insanely epic and unforgettable Winds of War. Easily a power metal classic with hands down the best solo on here. The final track is a goofy Scorpions cover of He's a Woman, She's a Man and its actually pretty damn awesome! Despite the hilarious lyrics. It definitely fits in with the rest of the album as well, though its always a bit odd hearing right after Winds of War.
So, while one half of this release is classic speed/power metal the other half seems a bit confused at times. There is definitely a transition from their previous material to 'Nosferatu' here, though it feels a bit unpolished and doesn't always work out. Regardless of that extremely tiny flaw, this is still a must own album from the band. It just always seems a bit harder to get into than their other releases, but then again that doesn't seem to be the case for everyone. If you want to get into the band I'd recommend checking out 'Burning Star' or 'Remnant of War' first, but really any Helstar fan can tell you that their first four full length releases are incredible. That includes this one! You "really" can't go wrong with this one.
It's a fact, James Rivera is one of the best, if not the greatest vocalist of all-time. And, Helstar is the most memorable and talented of his bands, longest running too. There's nothing to dislike about A Distant Thunder, except maybe that Scorpions cover. Helstar once again puts forth an ingenious combination of power, speed, and thrash metal. I'm not sure if a better album has been released since 88. Helstar is definitely the best band to derive from Texas (Rigor Mortis a close second).
Anyway, as stated above, Rivera's vocals are superb. He hits more high notes than ever before. The rest of the band is talented with Larry and André playing fast melodic riffs and brilliant solos. Jerry and Frank are just as powerful on bass and drums. This album is faster and heavier than the following release, Nosferatu. The riffs are more deadly, yet melodic. Nosferatu is a great release, but A Distant Thunder is the elite. If you enjoyed Helstars work from the earlier/mid eighties you're bound to like this. Favorites include Abandon Ship, Tyrannicide, and last but not least, Scorcher. There's not a bad piece on the album. Though, He is A Woman She Is A Man, is a headscratcher. The cover sounds good, but the lyrics??? Otherwise, I can't ask a band for more. Thus, if you're a fan of melodic power, speed, and thrash metal pick this album up. Helstar, the most talented band on Earth?
A bit of thrash and speed is offered onto this Helstar album. Definitely this is not the best Helstar album, but it is by no means an album that is not worth listening to. Helstar manages to bring the sure swift speed and somewhat thrashy guitar riffs to the plate. A Distant Thunder has a lot of killer riffs. Some worth mentioning are: the intro to Bitter End, the fast and technical guitar riffs on Abandon Ship, and the main riffs in the Whore of Babylon. The drumming and bass parts also come in very unique on this album. They are essential in locking the pieces together, something metal bands tend not to rely on a lot. This is easily seen on Whore of Babylon, which is an instrumental.
There are two types of songs you will find on this album. The first supporting the majority of the album, which are fast, thrash like songs sure to make you headbang. Then there are softer songs with soft intros that build the song. Winds of War, probably the best song on this album, starts off slow and gains speed over the course of the song. With the soft intro, it builds into the song and makes the song more powerful and enjoyable. This soft intro style is also seen on Scorcher; it takes a part and makes the overall part more complete.
With awesome guitar riffs and all the instruments coming togther almost as one, what else is there for this album to make it rule so much as it does? Answer: James Rivera. James deals a most excellent vocal performance on this album, and it should be noted. His style, especially on this album is his moderate tone, not as low like as he will develop later in his career. And don't forget the occasional high pitched yelps he unleashes that are definitely up there with singers like Halford.
This album is a pretty good Helstar album, though not the best. I would recommend it to anyone, but not a must have. Or is it? I think this album might be more important then we think. It is named A Distant Thunder, and recently James Rivera started a solo project, named of course Distant Thunder. Could this be Rivera's favorite Helstar album....? Interesting nonetheless. Cool songs to check out are: The King is Dead, Abandon Ship, Scorcher, Genius and Insanity and Winds of War.
This album sort of sounds like a cross between the first two Helstar albums. Not as overtly thrashy as Remnants of War, and not quite as heavily balanced towards the soloing as Burning Star. The songs are also a bit longer, and have more varying arrangements, though some of them are not quite as memorable as others.
The highlight of this album is "Winds of War", which is a power-metal song in the vein of "Child in Time" (Deep Purple) and "Rebellion in Dreamland" (Gamma Ray). It has some of Larry Barragan's best soloing ever, as well as some very good riffs. "Tyrannicide" is also pretty nice, as is the speed-metal "Scorcher". The rest is merely average, with one silly cover of an exception. "He is a Woman, She is a Man" is not bad in its own right, it just sounds misplaced on this album, as it sounds nothing like the other 8 songs.
Overall, a pretty decent album - sometimes the riffs aren't quite as sharp as on other Helstar albums, but still, it's not bad.