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Helstar's first album "Burning Star" is hardly the stroke of genius "A Distant Thunder" is and neither is it the intricate masterpiece that "Nosferatu" is. Instead, it is a portrait of a young and hungry band that would be capable of delivering much more after they found their feet.
The biggest complaint anyone can have with this record is how untogether it sounds. Musically, the band leap from brazen simplicity to overzealous complexity and it is only the moments in between where they truly shine. "Toward The Unknown" is a case in point-it opens with some Judas Priest type riffing and carefully juxtaposes that against harmonically rich but incredibly technical leads. The resulting song is one of the finest Helstar have ever recorded. On the title track, James Rivera (appearing here as Bill Lionel) sings, "I see a new star rising" and indeed most of the material on the Texan quintet's debut feels and sounds like a grand preamble; a potent but rather precocious presage of the admirable metallic devastation that was launched thereafter, "Remnants Of War" onwards. Consequentially, you have the band more concerned with showcasing their prowess than writing immediate and catchy songs.
Some like the mega thrasher "Possession" work wonderfully but others like the proto tech metal piece "Witch's Eye" might leave one impressed yet unmoved. Where the balance is struck as on "Toward The Unknown" and "The Shadows Of Iga" is where the band is revealed as perhaps one of the more important groups to ever emerge from the American power metal scene. Ultimately, though, it is one of those debuts whose force can only be assessed in retrospect. I'd recommend it to anyone getting into Helstar only after they've heard "A Distant Thunder" where there's better method to the mayhem.
"Burning Star' does however remain one of the most astonishing first albums by a metal group because it oozes of ambition and a certain maturity and passion for excellence. And in the same manner as other monumental debuts such as "Ample Destruction", "Alice In Hell", "The Warning" and "Iced Earth", it isn't without a truly classic moment. "Burning Star"'s can be found in the form of "Run With The Pack" a nervy nearly seven minute long speedy anthem that draws you in with its magnetic thrash inspired riffs and catchy hook and one that remains to this day, one of Helstar's more quintessential moments.
Was the band overreaching? Sure they were! Larry Barragan formed the band at the time when metalheads in America were just opening up to the NWOBHM. They were feeding off on that incredibly ambitious yet high energy music as well covering Rush tunes. When "Burning Star"" was recorded, it was to serve as a testament to their skill, a place to place their translation of a scripture already written in far off lands. It mostly went unnoticed because it was so layered yet inelegant but all that daring did pay off eventually. Summarily speaking, this was only the beginning...
Even before I checked out their relative scores I knew that Helstar’s second album ‘Remnants of War’ would be outscoring the debut. I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong, but it does make me feel that ‘Burning Star’ is maybe being sold a little short. True, it’s only because of one so-so review undermining two great ones, but all the same, I think I need to redress the balance just a little.
Funnily enough, I bought this on vinyl back in 1984 and while I liked it a lot, it wasn’t my favourite album of the time. I was a hardened thrasher back then and this album didn’t quite do it for me. So I traded it with someone else and then changed my mind and then traded it again, and so it went back and forth until eventually I gave up and let him keep it. And that was it for about 13 years, until in 1999 Century Media took the very wise decision to re-release it. Of course, by now I was a complete 80’s metal whore and I snapped it up immediately, only to fall head over heels in love with it all over again.
It was like meeting up with a hot college girlfriend all over again, and realising she was still hot and better in the sack than you remembered.
Party - bonus!
However, listeners coming to this album having already heard ‘Remnants…’ and the other Helstar albums might be slightly surprised by the style on display here, but you have to remember this was 1984 and the whole thrash/speed thing was yet to fully break. Back then your straight-ahead metal was still a viable option. Not that Helstar ever really gave in to the whole thrash thing, but the second album definitely had a more aggressive sound and seemed to court fans of the genre, albeit without compromising too much on the melody. This one however, has a definite early 80’s flavour, particularly in the guitars which have that lovely under-distorted sound which died out by the middle of the decade. Not only that but there’s a few hints of prog rock in the intro to the mini-epic ‘Run with the Pack’, while ‘Burning Star‘ has a great intro of the type you just don‘t hear anymore.
I notice that Metal Archives have posted the original European album cover on the site and that’s a good thing. Why an album this brilliant should have had to suffer the terrible original U.S. album cover is a mystery to me and it surely can’t have helped snare potential fans who would have seen it in the racks next to things like the debut from Armored Saint and wrongly surmised that they were not of (at least) equal quality. Really there isn’t a duff track on this record, and it bristles with quality in every department, and that’s why I have no reservations in awarding at the score that I have.
Helstar, words cannot describe how amazing this band would become with this powerful debut, and the next three albums to follow. Somehow, like others have said, they seem to get slightly overlooked and people tend to gravitate more towards Iron Maiden, Queensryche, Fates Warning, and other bands of that time. Which is a shame because Helstar could very well be beyond many of those bands in every way. Fans of more rare metal from the early 80's, such as Jag Panzer's "Ample Destruction" or Omen's "Battle Cry", take heed with Helstar and this debut "Burning Star".
One thing that sets Helstar apart from many other bands during the 80's, is that they were always more technically agressive. There's no argueing that Helstar's come up with some of the most original, and coolest riffs ever. And when you get to the complex shredding solo's, it just tears your face up. They are blazing fast, technical, aggressive, melodic, and oustanding. Along with top notch production quality for its time, there's no faults to be found here at all.
Then we have the legendary James Rivera on here, with probably some of his best singing ever. His range stretches above mountains. Usually he sticks to a more aggressive mid-range, but his wails and shrieking are like swords piercing your heart. He could probably be considered the ultimate vocalist in the realm of general Speed Metal albums like this one. His voice is beyond perfection for this kind of material.
This album has some of Helstar's greatest songs. The opening "Burning Star" along with the ever so popular "Run with the Pack" are just a few to mention. From the beginning, to the end this is a solid album. There's really no fillers to be found here. Some songs are overall better than others, but every song is unique and keeps a strong sense of Speed Metal consistency.
The single downfall with this album, is that its short. It only clocks in a little over half an hour. However I can't drag the rating down at all for this, because this seemed pretty common for a lot of bands back during these times. Then, Helstar makes up for it by putting out three more A+ albums after this one!
Overall, this is truly a legendary classic, with very few flaws. The beginning of quite easily one of the greatest Metal bands around. James Rivera will completely blow your mind on here with his paralyzing vocals, and the technical skill the band displays will surely put you in awe. This should be an essential listening for any kind of Metal fan.
This is Helstar's debut album - there are quite a few very good songs on here, as well as several completely dispensable ones. It's best categorised as power metal, with the occasional speed metal bits here and there.
The first song, "Burning Star" is pretty fast (though not quite as fast as when you accidentally put the vinyl on 45!), and has some VERY nice riffs, and also the first of several completely killer solos by Larry Barragan. This guy is totally underrated, and rules most everyone in the guitar department - he pulls off a nice Judas Priest-styled solo in the middle of this, including a cool melodic break.
Next, "Toward the Unknown". Awesome!! This is straight up power metal. Probably the best vocal performance here from James Rivera, who sounds a lot like Rob Halford. But what really truly sets this song apart is the main solo, which is THE best guitar solo that has ever been recorded. Ever. It's pretty much perfect - not too long, no masturbation, and memorable note for note after three or four listens. You just gotta hear it for yourself.
"Witch's Eye" is kind of a letdown compared to the first two songs - it's not bad, but very average sounding and midpaced. Next is "Run With the Pack" which is also quite good - midpaced for the most part, except for at the end where it speeds up and becomes almost thrash for a few moments.
"Leather and Lust" is really fucking silly, and sounds completely out of place on this album. "Possession" is also decent, though not quite as good as the real highlights. Same with "Shadows of Iga" - these two are solid in pretty much every way, but the distinguishing characteristics aren't as strong.
We close with "Dracula's Castle", which is the third-best song on here. Another great bit of soloing from Larry Barragan, and also a really nice intro here.
Overall, some of this album demonstrates complete ownage - so much so, that the lacking parts may be forgiven. This is highly, highly recommended, just for one solo.