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Metal's evolution is logical and consistent and only seems warped and convoluted on the surface. After the dirgy foundation of Black Sabbath, it was only logical that things would take a faster turn and Judas Priest and Scorpions among others did not disappoint. Coming to the fore in the '80's to push this further along was Iron Maiden (first album, 1980) and Mercyful Fate (first album, 1983) and from there on you have a multitude of bands continuing the evolution into what became known as Thrash metal and Power metal. As the '80's neared their close, all seemed to have been explored and exhausted. The scene was rife with beastly bands such as Slayer and Kreator who were becoming more and more a far cry from what the forefathers of metal had birthed. On the other hand however, you had Manowar, Jag Panzer, Queensryche and Agent Steel whose passion for tradition was cannily driven by a desire to be MORE. More epic, more grand, more heavy than the fathers yet still somehow remain ensconced within the parameters of pure to heart heavy metal.
In 1989, Helstar struck the perfect balance of such an endeavor whilst pushing the envelope at the same time. Their album "Nosferatu" retained the soul of heavy metal yet was darkly exuberant in a way more akin to the thrashers. As if that wasn't enough, the music was fervently ambitious and brazenly technical, the mood and atmosphere was theatrically cold and spooky in a manner that most power metallers had decided would not suit their epic hero tales and the lyrics were based around a tale many would agree easily endears itself well to metal yet one that no band had adapted in such exultant fashion. Nearly twenty five years, "Nosferatu" remains a potent musical statement whose dark grace and pomp still leave us in awe. It is also Helstar's piece de resistance. They had proved themselves to a large degree with "A Distant Thunder" but this gradually became the record for which they'd best be known and although Metal Blade Records would initially do it the great disservice of inadequate promotion, the years would renovate its status until it resonated every nook and cranny of the underground.
The album isn't a full blown take on Bram Stoker's tale-only the first six tracks concern themselves with the woes of Mr. Harker. The rest of the album is just as dark though, with lyrics screaming about an evil cult, addiction and the continually ugly scene that is the real world. James Rivera handles them with expert rage. His incredible range although strongly reminiscent of the Halfords and Dickinsons of the world is the uniquest it's ever been. There's a controlled chaos to his delivery-most of the words are spat out in such a rapid fashion that suits the overtly odd timed rhythms yet makes it hard to join in for a sing along. His method is consistent as it is maddening and some of his enunciations sound downright bizarre. But he is never shrill or uncertain, it all fits together. Larry Barragan and Andre Corbin impress from the get go with their guitar work. The riffing is intelligent and unusual and very conscious and well measured. "Baptized In Blood" and "Harker's Tale (Mass of Death)" are timeless pieces in the Helstar cannon and both benefit greatly from Barragan and Corbin's measured intensity. The former has a frenzied rhythmic structure whose tightly governed notes give up a harmonic gasp every now and then in a style most thrashers would envy while the latter starts out with a rapid burst of shredded riff before settling into a speedy groove that is both Priestesque and anti-old school. You can hear a lot of tat intro's technique in modern things like Symphony X's "Inferno (Unleash The Fire)". Mood is key to the guitar tones and distantly warm in a manner that makes them somber yet cutting. Frank Ferreira's drumming is nicely defined and strong throughout and Jerry Abarca's bass is cemented within and if that makes him hard to hear a times it also means he is consistently on point.
Larry Barragan has stated in interviews that he strongly dislikes the instrumental masterpiece "Perseverance And Desperation" whose classical accoutrements rendered it not only vastly showy but also distinctly over the top on a record whose technical parlance was rather subtle. Andre Corbin whose falling out with Helstar was bitter was responsible for the track but there's really nothing to fault. "Perseverance and Desperation" is geniusly sketched and doesn't overstay its welcome. It also opens with a sample from the 1979 "Dracula" starring Laurence Olivier and Frank Langella as the Count and with the quote; "You fools! Do you think with your crosses and your wafers you can destroy me?" it sets the perfect tone for the musical drama that ensues. Granted the whole affair is rather overt but that's intrinsic to its charm considering how showmanship of that kind was all but abrogated from Helstar's persona after this album. It is also what led Helstar to be spoken of in the same breath as Watchtower, Razor, Heathen and Annihilator when the subject of flashy lead guitar in speed/thrash metal was broached. So severe was the song's charm that it is quite impossible to imagine "Nosferatu" without it.
In a nutshell, that is why "Nosferatu" is a classic. Everything is efficacious, all serves a purpose. The album is extremely well developed to the point of perfection. It is neat and timely and paced just right and instrumentally, it is still a force to be reckoned with. Besides all that, it has character and is a deeply felt work. It is dark but also moving, it is ferocious but also involving. And when thought of in the general scheme of things, it is a landmark album. "Nosferatu" was a bold leap that meant that power metal could take on a darker hue and that the traditional form of metal could be expanded to accommodate a more technical side of expression.
In the aftermath of this artistic greatness, the band were kicked to the curb by Metal Blade and lost direction. The next record might not have been as groundbreaking but would have been quite something nonetheless if the 1991 Vigilante demo is any indication. instead came the years of nothing also known as the '90's and it would be sometime before Helstar would reapproach the world of metal. But the mark had already been made and as it was then, it is still so; INCREDIBLE!
Helstar's "classic four", as they're often endearingly referred to, ended with 1989's Nosferatu; it would be six years before they released their next album, Multiples in Black, which is a steaming pile of dog shit. They would eventually release another album in 2008, but since then they've basically been a generic modern thrash outfit that doesn't really do much for me. "Classic four" is a bit of a misnomer when talking about Helstar for me though, as I don't really consider the first two albums classic. Burning Star is a decent heavy metal album with a couple of excellent songs ("Shadows of Iga", "Toward the Unknown"), and a lot of filler. Remnants of War is not a decent album at all. It still confuses me why it's so revered, as the riffs there always felt bland as hell to me and Rivera gives one of his worst performances ever. So I would say "classic two", or maybe "classic two and a half" if we include Burning Star.
A Distant Thunder took the band away from plodding, quirky heavy/power and into catchy, powerful (but still fairly quirky) power/speed, which in this case was definitely an improvement; Rivera's voice just seems to go better with numbers like "The King is Dead" or "Abandon Ship". They certainly stepped up their game with that style change, and here is yet another style change and yet another step up; this is their crowning achievement for sure. Power/speed is altered into power/thrash, with an emphasis on the thrash and touches of speed as well. It's also much darker than previous releases, with a focus on horror and the macabre, especially vampires (if you couldn't tell from the title). The atmosphere works really well, and Rivera even modifies his vocal style to fit it - rather than the wild, rougher approach of earlier releases, he goes for a more restrained, refined approach that sounds haunting and works really well with the material. This is probably my favorite performance from Rivera to this day, as it just shows a side of him that you don't get to hear anywhere else and really superb control over his voice.
Of course, with such an emphasis on thrashy riffing, the guitars are really the centerpiece of the album, and thankfully they're fantastic. I'd easily rate this in my top 5 power/thrash releases of all time, topped only by a couple of greats like Manilla Road and Matthias Steele. The riffs are a constant barrage on the senses, and they change often enough to keep things interesting. The solos are even better - if you thought the Barragan/Corbin combo was deadly on A Distant Thunder, you'll drool over this one for sure, as it cranks the awesomeness level a couple more notches. It's also a really catchy album; the thrash isn't super out-there tech thrash, so it retains the catchiness of the previous albums - possibly even increases it. Pretty much all the choruses are killer, especially "To Sleep, Per Chance To Scream" and "Harker's Tale". There are even some cool acoustic leads on "The Curse Has Passed Away"! The only weak spots are the instrumentals, which I very rarely enjoy in metal, and the track "Harsh Reality", which employs pretty lame generic thrash riffs that don't support Rivera very well.
Thankfully, this isn't Rivera's last good album, as he's appeared in Destiny's End's two full-lengths as well as Distant Thunder's album, but unfortunately it is the last stand of quality Helstar, at least at the time I'm writing this. Even the 1990 demo "Demolition", which came out just a short time after this album, was pretty underwhelming thrash, and they've never really recovered. While their last two albums are certainly an improvement over Multiples in Black (although, frankly, changing to a fucking ska/reggae band would have been an improvement over that album), the band has failed to elicit any real emotional response from me since 1989. Still, this is the high point of their career, and if you're into any combination of power/speed/thrash you'd be amiss not to hear it.
For astute Metal-Archives review junkies, taste swaps have become a bit of a hip activity for a fair few of the big names here like Bastardhead, MutantClannfear, mod extraordinaire Metantoine and several others of late, and as with all hip activities, there are going to be some clingers on. As such I have decided to be among the first of these hangers on, and my partner in crime is fellow sporadic reviewer and general forum time killer, MetalDetector, together bringing an overall review total only slightly below what any of the previous participants output in a year. But public spotlight or no, there is enough reason for us to do this; purely to expose one another to some material outside of our comfort zones. In this particular case MetalDetector has decided to bring me into the USPM and speed metal genres, a general subset of the metal world I haven't explored a whole lot, thankfully lining me up for a bunch of hatemail for shitting up an apparently classic album's legacy. So lets shit this up shall we.
For starters, I can definitely see why he chose this one for me. He was obviously hoping to appeal to my love of hyperactive, psychotic thrash by picking me some USPM which is really fucking fast rather than rockier, mid paced stuff like Fates Warning or Manilla Road. So fast in fact that it could fairly be said to actually have a small amount of tech-thrash influence. Likewise he's been nice enough to pick a band who uses a solidly low ranged vocalist who uses falsettos and other higher register vocals in moderation, reflecting my hatred of excessive, all over-the-place performances of singers like John Arch. Hell even the lyrics are mostly about vampires and death, rather than the glory of metal or magical battles in make believe fantasy worlds, non-existence of vampires notwithstanding. So for all intensive purposes, this pretty well geared towards me, all that's really needed is the lead skills of a band like Crimson Glory and I'm se-... oh shit, they're neoclassical shredding masters from the sound of it! This seems like a pretty well chosen album for me... So why am I so bored?
Not to pin it all one member, but I think the drummer is a massive issue here. The guitarists are genuinely quick players, and their riffs are intricate, technical and sometimes thrashy, all big pluses for me in my power and speed metal, but goddamn, Frank Ferreira fucking kills it. He obviously didn't go to the meeting where the band decided it was going to start rocking out like madmen, so he plays nothing but seemingly half-time swaggering grooves while totally murders the energy. He's definitely not a slow, talentless drummer; he can play, and there are technical parts on here, but he's just not energetic at all. What should be a frantic, edge of your seat exercise in power metal excess becomes a bogged down quagmire of mid paced grooving power metal which tries to cram too many notes into riffs which make no sense at the tempo.
This is doing the Barney Rubble run, its riffs/feet are moving at the speed of sound, but it isn't getting anywhere. Take the song "Benediction" for instance, during the intro he plays it right; fast, pounding snare hits which drive a rapid, chunky headbangable riff; it's heavy, it's exciting, and it's a ripping set up if I've ever heard one. Sadly, soon as the actual song rolls around he drops back to half the tempo and plays an ill-fitting sauntering toe tapping groove while the riff keeps the same venom and liveliness in tact. It just doesn't work, the rhythm and the riffs are on completely differing tracks. The entire album is like this, not a single song, hell, barely even a single section is given the energetic backbone it deserves.
I'm not totally sure if the singer here is hurt by the lazy drumming or is backing up with support boredom. His general lower ranged vocal style and ability to burst into high ranged wails in an instant is pretty much ideal for the high tempo, aggressive power/speed that make up the riffs on the album, but sadly he seems to be trying to keep in time with the shitty drums. His vocal patterns are typically flat without too much vigor or scope, he has a good tone and it sounds alright admittedly, but there are no brilliant hooks here. Once the Dracula portion of the album ends he gets a few supporting gang shouts and seems to get off the chain a little more often, but for the main part he sounds positively restrained. At the risk of demonstrating my total lack of knowledge of the scene by namedropping Crimson Glory twice in the same review, there are no "hearnoevilspeaknoevilspeakNOEVUHHL!" moments here; He's just competent and that's it really. He has the tools to hit harder and be more exciting, he just doesn't do it often enough.
But oh well, these are all just little asides to the big draw card here; The guitars! As I've mentioned, the riffs here are quite nimble, but are also varied enough both melodically and rhythmically. They interact nicely with the various acoustics over the course of the album, and could even be quite heavy at times if it wasn't for the super thin production. André Corbin and Larry Barragan are more than capable of creating good one note rapid fire chugging riffs which can exist comfortably along side more complicated fretboard wanderings and slower, more imposing moments, and the duo's ability inject melody into the hard rocking speed riffing is quite impressive. To put it simply the riffs are generally worthy of a big thumbs up when digested alone, away from all the mediocrity trying to drag them down to the depths, even if separating those elements proves to be a challenge. However, I can't get behind the much lauded solos with as much gusto.
The solos here are very fast, very noodley, and entirely uninteresting. They play neoclassical sounding scales and some less neoclassical scales and sometimes mix it up with a faster or slower neoclassical scale. There are so many scales on here you'd need a record breaking giant oar fish to hold them all. They don't do anything melodically interesting, they don't have any surprising twists or turns, it's just meedle after meedle 90% of the time, with a rather inconsequential held note which delivers no emotion or magnitude for the other 10%. They're fast and technical as all hell no doubt and from time to time, most obviously the instrumental "Perseverance and Desperation", there can be overt neoclassical tinges to the phrasing and note choice which are sure to impress guitar aficionados, they just don't go anywhere off the path. While I'm not the biggest fan of that style of playing and melodicism, they do provide at least a little bit of character to the otherwise faceless shredfests, and they help give the album a very dignified, romantic edge. Sadly, despite the general quality of the soloing on that song and the undeniable finger speed overall, most of the solos don't really do enough of anything to really impress overall and largely fly by without any impact.
Being dignified might actually be my biggest issue here. I'm not familiar with any of Helstar's other works, but it almost seems like they've tried to reflect the regal-and-charming-with-a-hidden-savage-streak quality of Bram Stoker's character in their compositions. As such the neoclassical touches to the shreds, the contained riffing momentum, and the restrained, smooth vocal delivery do make this feel more "noble", but it more importantly it just feels tame. Maybe if the whole product had this noble sort of vibe I'd get into it more, and appreciate it for its "class", but the riffs promise something better. They sit there in their cage of tasteful refinement, taunting me with their promise of unbridled excitement and vigor, while the plodding percussion, the toothless solos, and the lazy vocals hold the key tightly, making sure the unruly fun never escapes and ruins their nice dinner party. It's tasteful, it's effortlessly controlled, it's kinda boring.
Once the vampire side of the album ends the band turns up the goddamned power/thrash somewhat and they get a bit more up my alley with a lively bag of gang shouts, messier, crazier solos and more exaggerated emphasis on Riviera's vocals. Sadly, it's just four songs at the end which come far too late, and the drums still suck throughout, but it at least snaps me out of my coma somewhat. The album is too tightly reigned in, too gracefully presented and too dignified for its own good. Nosferatu is afraid to get its hands dirty when it has all the tools for the best mud fight ever, and it's the apparent withholding which makes me feel so much more frustrated with it. Well, thanks for trying MD.
'Neo-classical' might not be the right word to describe Helstar's later 80s material, but records like Nosferatu, or its mutually superb forebear A Distant Thunder were certainly culled from the same classical 'shred' inspiration that spawned the popularity of personalities like Yngwie Malmsteen or half the artists on the Shrapnel Records roster. But what separates this Texan USPM icon from so many of its smarmy, overly showy and self-indulgent peers is just how well they've incorporated the scales and techniques into a strong metal style. Despite the obvious technicality employed by Larry Branagan and André Corbin in the structure of this record, it doesn't feel like an exhibition so much as an extremely classy and unexpected take on a horror legend...
In fact, in covering the 'horror metal' theme lately, I've often complained about how particular records failed to approach their subject matter with anything bordering on an appropriate atmosphere or aesthetic, that they never in fact feel chilling or frightening like their original inspiration. Nosferatu is an unusual exception, in that succeeds despite this lack of scares. The only thing 'terrifying' about this music is the players' acrobatic ability to fly up and down scales to the point that it can impose a sense of vertigo or acrophobia on the listener, but what I truly enjoy is how it lends a credible degree of majesty to the Bram Stoker masterpiece. It's a little confusing that the cover art seems to imply that the theme is centered around F.W. Murnau's follically impaired Nosferatu film, when lyrically its based more on Dracula itself, and possibly various other movie adaptations (like the 1979 flick, which is wonderfully sampled); and I also don't always subscribe to this notion of 'half-concept albums', which I'll get more into later, but for at least 20-25 minutes of this album, provided the listener isn't too intimidated by the constantly complex, noodling riff progressions, Stoker's archetypal antagonist is transformed into this culturally sophisticated entity through Helstar's musical vision, and it's truly a unique treat.
That this record is ambitious is an understatement...gone are the majority of the paraphrased post-Priest or Maiden riff cycles you'd expect, replaced by twisting and winding scale patterns whose veils of proficiency are occasionally parted for some kick-ass, storming power/speed metal surge like the verse riff in "Baptized in Blood". It's as if the Texans arrived from some parallel evolution of the form dated straight back to Mozart or Beethoven with only a cursory influence from the Downing/Tipton or Murray/Smith combos, and only faintly cognizant of Iommi. Best are the points at which the delicate, dextrous picked scales are integrated directly into the verses, such as in "Sleep, Perchance to Scream" where they contrast wonderfully with James Rivera's emotional delivery. Shred-nerds are thrown several bones here, especially the brilliant instrumental "Perseverance and Desperation" with its lush classical acoustic passages and arching solos, and I can fondly remember this being one of the few harder metal records that I and some friends introduced to our Musical Theory class, junior year in High School, which managed to impress all the Vai/Satriani/Rhoads fanatics who represented about half the class. I managed to turn a handful onto Deception Ignored, too, but the colder clinical atmosphere there wasn't as huge a draw as the more accessible, familiar classical overtones of this.
To pull this level of intricacy off, the guitars are mixed with a very thin, but warm and clean tone which reveals each harmony with a crisp and effective clarity. Lots of delicious, mute picked sequences with scale fills that flow seamlessly into each loop. The drums are also somewhat emaciated with a lot of snap and pop to them, the kicks dialed back a little but loads of great fills that fill in whatever blank spaces remain from the dazzling onslaught of the dual melodies. Jerry Abarca's bass lines do take a backseat to the rhythm guitars through much of the content, though he's equally capable and complex, and if you listen closely you're hear that. It's just that the music is already choked with such busyness that to have him performing disparate layers of fills might have resulted in too mindbending a structure. As it stands, this is just accessible enough for the more traditional speed/heavy metal fan while earning its thrills for the musician crowd that was so heavily drawn to it. However, the more the band rages along into pure power metal momentum, as in "Harsh Reality", his lines seem to materialize more forcefully. Plus, Jerry's also pulling double duty here, responsible for some of the pianos and synthesizers that are occasionally incorporated in good taste.
As good as the musicianship is on this disc, what really ties it all together is Rivera's performance which brings a heightened sense of urgency and tension to the 'action' of the plot, vampiric or otherwise. If you asked me to short-list 10 of the greatest melodic singers in US metal history, James would be a goddamn guarantee, and I'd be happy to punch anyone who claimed otherwise in the nose. He's not some technical marvel, perhaps, like Halford, Tate or Dane in their primes. He's not always 'perfect' in execution, but it's actually the wavering pitch of his delivery, the minor flaws that make his voice so memorable. He never fails to sound excited here, and the result is that the narrative force becomes equivocally exuberant...like actors portraying Harker, Dracula and Van Helsing shouting their lines across the theater so all can hear. Don't get me wrong, the man is capable of pulling out some smooth, melodic and 'safe' lines, but it's that frenzied fragility of his pipes that really push this past the limits. Not unlike David Wayne, Bobby Ellsworth or John Oliva, there's a real pain there, it's simply expressed differently. All I can say is that, in an age where so many power metal voices have become vapid and uninspired in their pursuit of pitch perfection, Rivera was and remains a treasure. I might not be able to pick out a Fabio Leone or ZP Theart from a lineup (not that they're bad), but James fucking Rivera? I'll know that voice anywhere. The man is fantastic.
A Distant Thunder has almost always been the pinnacle of Helstar's full-lengths in my estimation, since it was just so forceful and the marriage of potent, complex classical riffing with the subject matter in "The King is Dead", "Tyrannicide", or "Abandon Ship" is a spectacle, and it took the hints of brilliance from the first two records to an entirely new level. That said, there are some evenings in which you might catch me swaying towards Nosferatu's favor. Certainly the subject matter is perfect for this sound, but I will also point out that this also leads to the album's greatest flaw: Helstar half-asses the vampire theme, which encompasses only the former half of the record and then seems to skirt off into some real-world issues, all the rage in the thrash and power metal of the later 80s. I'd have had no problem with that on the earlier outings, but Nosferatu deserved 43 minutes of Transilvanian unity, coherence to its subject matter. You could probably squeeze a trilogy of albums out of Stoker's tale, so 10-11 tunes (including interludes and instrumentals) would have been a breeze. It's simply too distracting to have the lyrics to "Harsh Reality" hammering at me after being taken to this shadowy, enchanted fictional realm. 'Why is the world so fucked up?' feels quite out of place after the tragic magnificence of Count Dracula, and ultimately the Stoker tribute ends up seeming rushed.
"Benediction" and "Harsh Reality", which kick off the non-Dracula arc, stand out a little too much, the former for all the gang shout arrangements, which are, to be fair, also present on some of the theme tracks to a lesser degree. Both are good songs with some killer moments, but they do feel like rougher outtakes from A Distant Thunder and lack some of that fragile eloquence dominating Nosferatu. "Swirling Madness" and "Aieliaria and Everonn" do fit the aesthetic better, the first being one of my favorite songs on the album, but I wish they were lyrically streamlined to the concept. In the end, the record just doesn't feel complete, and whilst this might seem a nitpick in the age of .mp3s and most of mainstream media/culture not giving a shit about the actual format of a 'full album', it definitely holds Nosferatu back from its full potential. Beyond that, though, this remains a timeless and kick-ass exhibition of metal at its finest hour: when it strove for something greater than what had been presented before. Hey, I got no problem with blue collar, down to earth 'eavy fuckin' metal...I've got my shrine to Lemmy like anyone else. But don't forget, when those guys started doing that, it WAS, in its own way, forward-thinking and innovative. Helstar, through the 80s, were a band who honored that rich history by forcing at the limits, and records like A Distant Thunder and Nosferatu a just reward, deserving their legacy. Which is, of course, the reason that unproductive six-year gap to Multiples of Black was such torture, and the end product such a shocking icon of dismay and suckiness...but that, friends, is a horror story I'm not yet ready to deal with, so I'll stick with the bloodsucker.
Helstar were evolving gradually, but surely, adding new ingredients with each subsequent album (power metal (“Burning Star”); speed/power metal (“Remnants of War”); speed/thrash (“Distant Thunder”); technical speed/thrash (“Nosferatu”)) to their arsenal, logicaly reaching their creative peak near the genre’s zenith period. Unlike other bands, who reached their pinnacle at a very early stage (Mercyful Fate, Agent Steel, Metal Church, Paradox, etc.), which led to the bands splitting up, or experiencing major line-up changes, James Rivera and Co. were moving towards the culmination of their career step by step in a well measured, sure-handed, pace. And what a culmination it was… “Distant Thunder” was already a pretty strong album, but even its most inspired moments were not even remotely hinting at the overwhelming listening experience which “Nosferatu” would be.
This album is the perfect metal analogue to a classical symphony, a triumphant technical speed/thrash opera, never achieved before or after. From the complex multi-faced song-structures, to the classically-inspired guitar duels, to the lyrical concept behind the music, to the direct nod to their inspiration (the 2-min instrumental “Von Am Lebem Desto Strum”): everything at display was intended as a tribute to the classical musical heritage, an ambitious undertaking which arguably produced the finest fruit of the whole 80’s American power/speed/thrash metal scene.
What also made this album even more compelling at the time was the fact that it provided a more digestible form of technical metal, as opposed to the ultra-complex, hectic style of Watchtower and the very characteristic, abstract/spacey delivery of Voivod. The technical side of the genre had already reached its summit in Europe (Deathrow, Mekong Delta, Target, Sieges Even, Living Death, etc.) a year earlier, and the other side of the Atlantic was sadly falling behind (Savage Steel’s “Do or Die” being the “lonely warrior” on the battlefield). “Nosferatu” did a lot to bring America back in the competition, along with same year’s Watchtower’s ‘Control & Resistance”, Nasty Savage's "Penetration Point", and Annihilator’s “Alice in Hell”.
Andre Corbin had joined the band one year earlier for “Distant Thunder”, lifting the musical proficiency quite a few notches up, testimony for which was the excellent instrumental “(The) Whore of Babylon”, among other niceties scattered throughout. But he was yet to perfect his interaction with Larry Branagan, which found its full realisation less than a year later. A warning sign for some may have been the closing of the regular 2-year gap left between albums, but very soon it became evident that the guys’ creative genius couldn’t possibly wait for so long to be unleashed upon the scene, to the fans’ utter delight.
The dramatic thundering riffage on the opening “Rhapsody in Black” already suggests at great things to come, and the standout performance of everyone involved more than fulfills all the promises. The Branagan-Corbin duo cooperation is extraordinary, and these guys should be mentioned right beside Downing/Tipton, the Schenker brothers, Murray/Smith, and Denner/Laroque. They literally cross out the entire Shrapnel catalogue with just a few songs down the line, with the puzzling execution of some of the most intricate guitar "duels" to ever grace the scene. There is hardly a single moment which would not make you gape in wonder at the genuine brilliance and the effortless swing of creativity at large here. Rivera’s performance is traditionally standout, the man emitting passion, dramatism, and authority in various degrees throughout the album, following the music's mood swings unerringly. “Perseverance and Desperation" should not be left unmentioned as well: one of the five best instrumentals in metal history, a gorgeous classical piece, which Yngwie Malmsteen is yet to come up with. To add other song-titles here, however, would be mind-stretching and unnecessary: every composition is a gem in a perfectly constructed piece of art, which would hopefully never be stained with a belated follow-up (remember "Abigail 2", "Keeper of the Seven Keys- The Legacy", etc.); so praise the band for having become a full-blooded aggressive thrash metal act in the new millennium!
This colossal effort, for obvious reasons, remained underappreciated by the fans in the late-80's, due to its complex, conceptual manner of execution (at the time the fanbase was still adjusting to Queensryche's "Operation Mindcrime") which was not a very common phenomenon on the scene back in those days. But, judging by the raving reviews which this album has started receiving more recently, now one can only be glad that the metal brotherhood has eventually acknowledged its immortal status, like it always happens with the true genuis. But I would suggest we stop rambling, and simply quote Mr. Bram Stoker in the end; the man had said it so well in the distant past: "One man (album) undead... Nosferatu". Unrest in peace...
Helstar had been honing their craft for awhile before entering the studio to record Nosferatu. The band started with Burning Star in 1984, establishing themselves as a capable 5-piece unit with an interesting blend of thrash and melody. Certainly back in those days more was going to be expected; one doesn't release solid powerful thrash metal with outstanding vocals and slick production without the buying public thinking to themselves "the next one is going kick some serious ass." And so the boys set about honing their craft, improving their musicianship and songrwriting. The result were two successive improvements in Remnants of War and A Distant Thunder -- each receiving its portion of acclaim among the faithful, and each promising more.
There is often an indelible moment in a band's existence -- that time & place where the musical improvements couple perfectly with the songwriting ideas leading to a pressing of songs that blow minds and wash away any remaining doubts. I believe Nosferatu is one of those moments. This CD is nearly without peer, combining the best songwriting of the group's career with an obsessive dedication to perfect guitarmanship and solid production.
Nosferatu is broken into two distinct parts. The first half contains a condensed concept piece on the story of our most prolific of anti-heroes, Dracula himself. 6 songs are dedicated to the subject, all freakishly incredible. The latter half of Nosferatu are individual titles, more in keeping with the material on A Distant Thunder.
Really, those first 6 songs are some of the best thrash metal ever created. Each song plays a perfect part in the whole of the story, each possesses a different melodic and rhythmic take on the theme of dread, each contributes perfectly to the whole. I could give a particular song of note, but that would be pointless. All stand as treasures that must be witnessed and cherished. I have heard Andre Corbin say that there was tension about the recording of Perserverance and Desperation, being that it is an instrumental and contains much guitar self-indulgence. But really, that's part of the magic of Nosferatu -- it's wankery DONE RIGHT. It's guitar noodling that somehow works this time. It's what all these Shrapnel arpeggio freaks always wanted to achieve, but never, ever made it. Not on this level.
While I certainly prefer Rhapsody in Black through The Curse has Passed Away, there's much to like on the latter portion of the album. Benediction is a head-banging monster fest, possessed of technical mega riffing and some very nice sync'd rhythmic vocal lines and altered time signatures. Swirling madness should bring a smile to the faces of all those who enjoy chaos, with its lyrics about a Hellraiser-style opening of rifts between our world and a dire, nasty altered reality.
Aieliaria and Everonn deserves special mention. My grandma -- of all people -- once remarked to me "I listened to this entire CD and thought it was noise, but that last song is beautiful." And it is. Beginning with the electronic piano introduction Von Am Lebem Destro Strum and proceeding into the main song, Aieliaria and Everonn is a neo-classical delight, possessed of masterful guitar wizardry, fascinating mythological lyrics, and expert songwriting craftsmanship. I only wish it didn't end so abruptly; but then again, all good things must come to an end...
Nosferatu is a guitar player's wet dream. There's really no other way to put it. Andre Corbin and Larry Barragan log some of the most worthwhile man hours ever on this album. I once read an interview with Corbin where he talked about the work the duo put into perfecting the performances and techniques used on Nosferatu. It definitely shows. Every pick stroke is executed to pefection. The riffing is astonishingly haunting -- if you wanted to create a soundtrack to the story of Dracula, you'd be hard pressed to top the first half of Nosferatu. It draws the listener in, and what gets me is that there is plenty of noodling and wankery here. Normally that would hurt the songwriting for me. But somehow, on Nosferatu, its exactly what the doctor ordered. I also love how the distortion is drawn back -- neither guitarist is competing for the highest gain channel on their amp. Instead, the tone is set to draw out the intricacy of the workmanship. Heavy guitarists take note -- killer distortion is not the end-all, be-all of existence. People have to hear what is being played. Listen to Nosferatu and learn.
James Rivera is laid back on Nosferatu compared to some of his other work. For my money, it works really well. The effect is very haunting. Many other times we hear James exercising his considerable range, but on Nosferatu he keeps to his lower register, contributing to the storyline and working within the composition. I've heard some criticism of this and really, I wouldn't have it any other way. These songs are supposed to impress foreboding and dread upon the listener -- not make him jump out of his chair. And it works perfectly. The second half of Nosferatu is disconnected with the main Nosferatu story arc, and predictably, Rivera's vocals are more animated, more in keeping with his work on Helstar's previous effort, A Distant Thunder.
Bill Metoyer, he of many a credit on metal CDs, was smart enough to step out of the way and let the natural musicianship of Nosferatu show. He did add some reverb and echo to Rivera to increase the effect, but always those fast-picking guitars are shoved in the listener's face, along with the raw drumming of Frank Ferreira. Only the bass work of Abarca seems a little lost in the mix; but really, it's a small sacrifice considering the supreme performances of the rest of the band.
I know almost everyone will know this CD, but if by some chance you haven't, you really do need to pick this one up. After listening to so much heavy guitar work over the years, I'm conviced that Nosferatu is a singular expression of emotion, creativity, and technciality that every fan of heavy music should witness.
One final note: the voice on the interludes between songs is none other than the great Frank Langella, from the movie Dracula, released in 1979. This particular rendition of the story was met with a mixed reception, but in terms of quotability, there's no one better to draw from than Langella. Perfect choice.
I’ve been on a bit of a traditional heavy metal kick lately, and that includes the U.S. power metal movement, which is much more aligned with ballsy heavy metal than flowery European power metal. Helstar created one of the best albums in this category, Nosferatu, in 1989.
From the first track, ‘Baptized In Blood,’ you can immediately hear how riff-oriented Helstar is. The transitioning from catchy riff to the mandatory 16th note strumming that power metal is notorious for works seamlessly, creating a sound that really is a blend of heavy and power metal (not that the two ever strayed too far from each other). The break at 1:56, though, is just masterful! Subtly complex, it provides as an excellent method of transitioning into the next riff.
At the same time, whenever the power metal element of Helstar’s sound sticks out, one can’t help but be reminded of Yngwie Malmsteen a bit, and that certainly is the case – the “neoclassical” crap he’s known for is present here, but in a much more restrained and tasteful form. This can be heard at the end of a few riffs and in most of the solos on the album. Just listen to the solo on ‘Harker’s Tale (Mass Of Death)’ – I feel like Michael Romeo of Symphony X very well might have listened to this a lot before starting his career, because it sounds very much like something he’d write. Still, this sound is most prevalent on the instrumental track, ‘Perseverance And Desperation,’ one of the finest metal instrumentals ever recorded. This song is a masterful display of musicianship. Mainly focused on the harmony between the two guitarists, this is intricate and tasteful at the same time. This also brings to mind the dual guitarwork of Iron Maiden and how that made them such a revolutionary band in metal. This is easily one of the high points on Nosferatu.
With the vibrancy of a young traditional metal band, Helstar have a very nice rhythm section, providing both the backing support needed, while also doing some very nice subtle things that really add to the sound, whether it may be a small drum fill or complex rhythm (‘To Sleep, Per Chance To Scream’ come to mind), or an odd bassline that deviates from the guitar melodies that really adds another dimension to the song. In fact, I really like the bass sound on Nosferatu, and the bass is mixed high enough in the mix where it’s really audible.
But one of the most important parts of Nosferatu is the vocal performance. Frankly, it’s chilling. This is not your average Dickinson or Halford here, but instead a soaring voice that somehow sounds depressing and lulling at the same time. It really is odd, but it fits well with the album. It really makes slower songs, such as ‘The Curse Has Passed Away,’ that much creepier, and in that regard, I love it. Also, the chorus of ‘To Sleep, Per Chance To Scream’ is fucking awesome. With the guitars getting most of the attention here, it would be easy to ignore the vocals upon first listen, but after that, they really stick with you.
This is a classic album, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of traditional heavy metal or power metal should get Nosferatu as soon as possible.
Written for http://thenumberoftheblog.com/
I've had this album in my collection for years and I still consider it one of the most creative and original neo-classical thrash metal albums I've ever heard. Every song on this album is perfect! There are so many mind blowing rhythms and melodies on this album and they intertwine so fluidly that there are points where I'm not sure a distinction can be made between the two guitars, and it sounds SOOOO cool!
The lead work is excellent as well with the two guitarists of the band switching off leads. Great creative drumming too. There are parts in some of the songs that hit the coolest thrash grooves!!! The riffs are fast, complex, ever changing, and nearly impossible to figure out. Much of the album is tuned down or in drop-d, but nothing like a Mal-core sound, you really can't tell the guitars are dropped.
I would think that fans of Yngwie Malmsteen can't go wrong with this, but do realize this is not Malmsteen album, it far transcends anything he's done, and it it's own animal. This is a concept album for most of the tracks spanning the story of Dracula. It does have a haunting atmosphere. Maybe a bit of that haunting King Diamond vibe if I really was pressed to make comparisons. The vocals while in the realm of power metal to me are very fitting to this album, and not as whiney and operatic as typical power metal (I'm not a power metal fan) and certainly nothing as over the top as King Diamond's style.
If you like intricate, intelligent, and unpredictable metal I think you'd appreciate this masterpiece. Get this and spread the word so this album can get some of the recognition it deserves.
I give this album a 100% because it so perfectly defines the genre, it has little to no flaws, and is simply quality musicianship and song craft throughout. At the same time it's never boring and it doesn't wear thin. Highly unusual for the genre.
A superstitious journey into strange, foreign lands… a horrifying discovery of gigantic proportions… the ensuing race against the Sun to rid the world of an immortal, diabolic evil… such is the story of Jonathan Harker in the world-renowned Irish masterpiece of the macabre. This phenomenal novel has imbued fear into the hearts of millions; it has left a permanent mark on countless forms of art, not the least of which is the realm of music. Many bands have attempted to do justice to Stoker’s tale of terror, and few have truly succeeded. Helstar stands as one of those few: with Nosferatu, they have crafted a dark beast of an album that remains true to the original vision while adding their own unique touch to the formula.
Melodic music is not something typically associated with something as haunting as the Impaler-inspired novel, but Helstar have proven it a very effective combination. The album abounds with chilling (but enormously consonant and harmonious) riffs delivered at an incredible tempo – yes, faster than quite a lot of thrash metal; a prime example shows itself in the main riff of “Baptized in Blood.” A fair amount of slower melodies also present themselves throughout, including in “The Curse Has Passed Away.” Riffs often become quite complex, such as during the refrain of “Harker’s Tale (Mass of Death),” and even then display a striking level of consistency and quality. Most songs harbor several guitar solos, exercises in minor-key melody that are made even more stellar by numerous trade-offs between the two incredibly proficient guitarists – a whole song, “Perseverance and Desperation,” is devoted to this purpose. The solos evoke a variety of moods, from loss and despair to fury and mayhem. Corbin and Barragan also support each other throughout via switching between melody and harmony roles; the bass, at times, even functions as a third guitar for this purpose. The rhythm section as a whole proves incredibly proficient: the aforementioned “Perseverance and Desperation” contains both a frenzied drum excursion as well as an unbelievable bass solo that puts Dave Ellefson to shame. The vocals, however, form the centerpiece of the album. James Rivera is a truly remarkable vocalist, able to enhance the atmosphere of basically anything put in front of him – and in an album as atmospheric as Nosferatu, he uses his talents in such a way that overshadows the prowess of many other superb vocalists. Rivera’s powerful tenor alternately broods, shrieks, spits venom, and moans to great effect; his versatile voice leaves its best impression in “Benediction,” where he not only invokes almost every style of singing in his power, but also belts out some of the most twisting and complicated vocal lines ever thought up, his presence phenomenally backed up by the rest of the band - take, for example, the bridge of the song:
“Deceitful deceiver, you liar of man
Hear this, our God: make this man pray
Run from him all, he’s not what you say
You will bow down or you’re going to pay!”
All together, the instrumentalists and vocalist form a dark, demonic whole – a presence that makes itself felt long after the album ends. Even with all the complex, proficient riffing and vocalizing at work, everything is insanely memorable – so much so that after a while, entire songs can be memorized. This is one of the most spectacular speed metal album of all time; in fact, this is one of the most spectacular of all albums. This I can safely and assuredly say: an album like this doesn’t come along very often, and another like it will, in all likelihood, never come along again. Revel in the horrific glory that is Helstar’s Nosferatu – and when you’re done, come back for more.
The first thing we notice about “Nosferatu” is while being enormously different from the previous ones, it is still maintaining links with the band’s past. The firs tracks make it immediately clear that we are about to experience something different from what they did before, exploring whole new levels which resulted in absolute musical supremacy. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that there unfolds a musical treasure predating European power metal by almost a decade, though they were never meant to undertake such a mission. Helstar can easily assume the title of one of the rare few innovative thrashers of its time.
Something that can be ironically seen as a problem is that Helstar seems to have put all the eggs in one basket with this particular album, which is why it is so awe-inspiring but, on the other hand, leaving nothing for a suitable follow up. This is Metallica’s “Mater Of Puppets”, Overkill’s “The Years Of Decay”, Running Wild’s “Death Or Glory” and many other bands’ best achievements could be cited as evidence about the overwhelming importance of this record.
This album could take a few listens to get used to but the more you listen to it the more it grows on you. Surely you don’t find new things in it each time but you do in yourself. It’s an album to change your perception of metal music. With no hesitation almost every single song could be pointed out as a particular favourite. They keep coming one after another like marvels of the universe of music. This is Helstar at its best. Choruses are more settled in the right direction compared to the before material. And those solos, they pop up now and then like an instant lightening and recede like a distant thunder. The first four tracks, the initial one “Rhapsody in Black” being an intro but it is hard to separate it from the following “Baptized in Blood” as they sound like one song , “To Sleep, Per Chance to Scream”, Harker's Tale (Mass of Death) are all in complete harmony with each other and are full of great musicianship. But the best is yet to come. The greatness of the 5th track “Perseverence and Desperation” is just beyond my description ability. For me, this one is the second best instrumental track in the whole heavy metal history next to Metallica’s “Orion”, if not the best. I can’t remember any other song so full of haunting melodies and so rich in musical diversity. Just listen to it as the time shows 02:22 when the climax of both the song and the album is being approached. A metallic phenomenon strikes the listener like no other. One can’t help but wonder how on earth could a humble human being make such an artistic creation that can make its listener feel nearer to its maker?...Of the rest of the remaining tracks only “Benediction” could be deemed average but nevertheless packed with loads of killing riffs that could alone make up an album.
This may not be the most extraordinary album of all but very damn close to being one. It’s an album still looking for its true heir, containing knowledge of musical mastery to be passed from father to son. It is a good testimony to the good old days when once thrash metal was so truly beautiful and fabulously rich. “Nosferatu” is surely many times better than the highly praised speed-thrash classics in that this one has solos a lot more brilliant, riffs a lot more terrific and an original composition of the two which together explain why Nosferatu is a class or two above them.
Here we have the fourth and last legendary album that Helstar would release in their early days. Four A+ albums in a row, not a lot of bands have been able to pull that off as well as Helstar did. All of these could be considered classics. They always kept a good sense of their own style as well from album to album. Their debut "Burning Star" went to show they were very much like say Iron Maiden and crew, but slightly more aggressive, and you could probably easily argue more technically adept (as they've always been). Their next two releases "Remnants Of War" and "Distant Thunder" sometimes showed their thrashier side, as well as their speed metal side. With this album, the band definitely took a dive into something else. Its very, very different from their previous releases, maybe something you wouldn't expect if you heard their first three albums before this. But guess what? Its still pretty damn awesome.
This album is hands down a lot thrashier than anything they've ever done beforehand, enough that I often compare this release to Heathen's sound. Often this album also seems to come off as a darker release, at least compared to their previous works. This point is also forged by James Rivera's vocals on here. His singing is quite different on here than anything else he's ever done, and pretty much any other band he's worked with as well. He tends to stick to a mid-to-low range throughout the majority of the album, unlike his higher soaring singing that he was known for on their other releases. By no means are his vocals bad here, but if you're expecting a lot of shrieks and lots of high notes that he's known for, you may be disappointed. I'd go to say his singing on here compliments the music perfectly though, and flows well. His lower singing, along with the pace and thrashier sound, gives this album its aggression.
As always with Helstar, the riffs, leads, solo's, and all of the guitar work is completely out of this world. The technical skill displayed by Larry Barragan and Andre Corbin is completely top notch and beyond a lot of other bands at the time. "Perserverence and Desperation" is a guitar instrumental track, very much like stuff you'd hear from Racer X, Cacophony, etc, and its really awesome. The skill is so explosive it truly sounds like something you could hear under Shrapnel Records. Regardless that the guitars definitely stand out on here, as they always have with Helstar, the bass and drums are definitely top notch as well. It all comes together making this a high quality metal venture.
Helstar's always put out a lot of stuff with great production, and that is still the case here. Its extremely well polished, everything from James Rivera's vocals to each instrument is very crisp and clear. There's nothing too over the top here as well, no keyboards or out of place sound effects or anything.
Would I recommend this for someone who hasn't heard anything from Helstar before? Its hard to say. Honestly, this was my first entry into the band and it took me awhile to really like it. It did kind of have to grow on me, and when I finally got to hear Helstar's other albums I saw how more easily accessible they were compared to this. This is definitely more complex than their other stuff, so it may actually not be the best choice for your first album from them. Either way, this album continues to grow on me each and every time I listen to it, and its perfect blend of speed / thrash is just great.
My personal favorite pick probably goes out to "Benediction". Extremely catchy and dynamic song, with some of Rivera's most aggressive vocals out there. And the middle part really gets you going with its galloping rhythm and riffs. All in all, this is probably on my Top 10 Favorite Thrash Albums list, easily. Again, not sure if it'd be the best entry for the band, but if you've heard their other stuff don't shrug this off at all, or if you're a cold blooded pure thrash maniac, this album is definitely a must have gem.
Holy shit! If you work for a company that makes neckbraces, then give this album to your clients. I ACTUALLY HEARD ABOUT SOMEONE WHO DID HEADBANG THEMSELVES INTO A NECKBRACE BECAUSE OF THIS ALBUM! This album has three huge factors going its way. First, amazing speed. Second, masterful classically influenced melody. Third, great variety.
THE SPEED: Would you believe me if I told you that there existed a melodic album whose fast parts (which comprise maybe half of the album) were faster than just about ANYTHING on Reign In Blood? It's the truth my friends. When this band is on with the speed, they're dead fucking on, with the riffs full of ultra-fast sixteenth and probably 32nd notes all over the place. It sounds like both guitarists picking arms are powered by the motor of a jackhammer, as the rhythm section here is faster than the lead section in a lot of bands! You'll be headbanging like a wild animal through a good part of the album. Be thankful for the slower parts, because they will save your neck and brain from severe trauma.
THE MELODY: Yngwie Malmsteen is known for being excellent with mixing classical sound into his solos, but Helstar do one better by mixing it into their rhythm, while leaving the solos more metal-styled. All of the riffs on the album, whether speedy or slower, all have great melody. The classical influence is done just right, it's not overdone in the least, and you still feel a huge metal vibe throughout. Most of the songs are structured to be built around a backbone riff, with maybe 2 other riffs as the sub-main riffs and a lot of bridges and interludes all over the place. Baptized In Blood has 16 riffs in 4:24. That's not a monumental amount, but once you hear the backbone riff ripping at your flesh like Dracula's claws on the cover, you'll be screaming for more!
THE VARIETY: The introduction, Rhapsody In Black, sports 6 riffs in 30 seconds preceeded by a beautiful acoustic section. That's a perfect example of what variety you find through the album. Some slower parts, all of which are beautiful and well done, not sounding forced at all as they do with some bands. And then interlaced with them the awesome speed sections ripping riff after riff right at your fucking throat! Also from song to song there's a contrast between the sound it conveys. Not one of the songs, despite the usage of similar riffs in some of them, sounds like any other.
James Rivera's vocals are awesome. They may be a little bit "whiny" for some people, but they are very unique and they complement the music just right. The drumming is not in the league of Lombardo or Hoglan, but it is among some of the most precise I've heard.
Buy this album NOW. And it would be a prudent decision to have a neckbrace on hand before you listen. It seriously could happen!
P.S. Avoid playing this in the car, you'll speed out of control!
This is definitely the best Helstar album. It's got both variety and strength in all of its songs - far more interesting than Remnants of War, and more effective than A Distant Thunder.
We start with "Baptised in Blood" which is a wicked thrasher, that goes through several nice breaks, and also throws in a killer solo or three for good measure. Next is "To Sleep Perchance to Scream" and "The Harker's Tale" which are not quite as fast, but still quite excellent, focusing more on the riff work and the solos.
Next, "Perseverence and Desperation" - an instrumental, done by Andre Corbin. One of the greatest guitarists in thrash metal - he and Barragan are the most unheralded guitar duo, ever. This solo completely owns you, period, end of conversation. Then, "The Curse has Passed Away" - a bit slower, and it kind of drags on at times. It's not bad, but it is the worst song on the album. Still, it throws in some kick-ass solos.
The first six songs are the theme part of the album: about Nosferatu, the Vampire, who is eventually destroyed. The rest of the album has nothing to do with that.
"Benediction" and "Harsh Reality" are pretty damn good thrashers, both very fun to sing along to... "mass has now begun! ALL HAIL!!!" Then, we have "Swirling Madness" - the best song on here, with quite possibly the best two-note riff before the chorus ever devised - more effective than Slayer's "Dissident Aggressor" cover, with similar effect. But damn does that song fucking own. Completely lethal thrash.
Then, the album closes with a more melodic number, "Alieria and Everonn" (I think I totally butchered the spelling and am too lazy to look!), which is a very nicely done ballad, and of course they throw in one more Larry Barragan solo, just for the Hell of it.
Yes, this album rules. The production is crystal clear, the songwriting impressive, and every member of the band is technically perfect. If you want some very engaging, complex thrash metal that doesn't ever resort to wankery, this is the album for you.