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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.