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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.