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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.