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Riot after riot best describes Helstar's stormy second album, "Remnants of War", a record some might slight for having too much style at the expense of retaining any substance. But let's get something clear from the start, if heavy metal is allowed to be fun, then few albums, especially those made in the abysmal '90s, are this brazenly rapturous. Yes, the guys were still yet to burn their mark in us, but the dynamism they became famous for is here in abundance.
Indeed, the leading complaint most folks have with "Remnants of War" is that the songs jump around too much, making it hard for the listener to catch and keep any of them in mind after the experience is over. But when in the experience, boy, is it worthwhile! It is incredibly hard for me even after all these years not admire the flash and force with which Larry and company played on this record - the sheer ZEAL!
James Rivera (bless his heart!) is the fucking king of exuberance here. He sounds young and wild and with endless reserves of energy. His performance on songs such as "Suicidal Nightmare" slickly bridges the gap between Mr. Rob Halford (of a certain group called Judas Priest) and the thrash generation. Good old Rivera sounds so iconic since a lot of high energy USPM that followed later took his gritty and unaffected tone to grace their own works. His passion and power will wow you even if all else on the album fails to move you.
Rene Luna, the second to walk through Helstar's revolving door of drummers, truly owns this piece. His drumming is sharp and bombastic and cuts through wonderfully, bearing a resemblance to a certain Nick Menza, but more visceral and much less refined. Witness his reign of terror personify "Angel of Death" and stand agape at its sheer frenetic brilliance that consigns Lars Ulrich's clumsy snare ejaculations to distant oblivion. The unabashed dynamic moments on songs such as "Destroyer" and "Dark Queen" call comparisons to bands like Liege Lord, Death Angel, Agent Steel, and Intruder, but where Helstar bests them is with their riff construction. Rob Trevino joined the band on this record and he and Larry the Almighty crafted quite the wall. Barragan's melodic persona was complemented well by Rob's cutthroat thrashiness, rendering the songs both nasty and elegant. Each song was packed with a significant number of riffs that seamlessly bled into each other. Where the aforementioned bands would unwittingly alert you to their multiple riff changes by visibly shifting the tempo, Helstar on "Remnants of War" stuck to a more direct flow upon which a delicious array of riffola was then exhibited.
The album is stylish, yet not pompous and is a sort of historical monument. USPM was being defined and whereas Helstar have always viewed themselves as somewhere between thrash and power metal, but not entirely in one of the camps, "Remnants of War" firmly placed them as forerunners of a unique American method of delivering the goods. Here was kickass heavy metal that wasn't afraid to get technical, but didn't have to sacrifice the craft of songwriting while at it. The two albums that followed this one are much more significant and iconic, but "Remnants of War" remains Helstar's absolute wild child. Unpredictable. Unrestrained. Uninhibited...and so fucking excellent!
Helstar is one of the more popular US 80s metal bands, which mostly just means they actually had more than one album and are still going today, and this was their second album Remnants of War. They were a fun band, sometimes brilliant but always at least entertaining, with their combination of thrashy, chugging riffing and the off-kilter warbling of front-alien James Rivera, who I’m fairly sure isn’t from this planet. He just shrieks and bellows without really caring if what he’s doing fits with the melodic rhythms underneath, and to be fair, it sounds pretty damn awesome. If he weren’t so energetic, it would just be embarrassing, but Rivera is always teeming with energy, like an overflowing powerplant. You can just see him on stage performing these songs; jumping around like a jackrabbit and generally just owning the whole stage.
In fact, the whole album is pretty much like that. Everyone in the band plays with a ton of energy and just sounds like they’re about to trip over themselves, but they don’t – they’re all really pro players, especially guitarist Larry Barragan, who wings out riffs and leads like he’s the chosen son of the Guitar Gods – like he’s blessed with the finger-picking ability of the divine. Drummer Rene Luna just pounds away like he’s in a communal war march, and the huge drum sound is a big asset to how much fun this is. Everything about Remnants of War sounds big and monumental, just a huge, thunderous sound that modern bands wish they could recapture – including, sadly, Helstar themselves these days. But that’s another review.
Really, the best way to describe the experience of listening to this is that it’s sort of like a great schlocky B-horror movie. It’s cheesy, sloppily put together and zealous as hell, and it deals with pulpy subjects like demons, dark queens and ancient Egyptian mythology, attacking them like they’re the coolest things in the world…which, to be fair, they are, if you do it this way. As I’ve mentioned, the reason this works is because of the energy in it all. Helstar just go after their comic book-y sound with a zeal comparable to a pack of wolves chasing a bleeding amputee. The playing is electrified, but the songwriting is often sloppy and un-catchy, relying more on how cool everything sounds instead of how much of it you replay in your head afterwards. There isn’t a lot you’ll be humming on this, but the entire package is just so unabashedly, geekily awesome that it’s just a blast to listen to.
For standout tracks, well they’re all very good…the opening volley of the title track is an explosive good time, and “Evil Reign” is just a magnificent heavy metal classic. This song just grooves and seethes with cryptic Egyptian-style rhythms and some of Rivera’s best vocal lines ever…this kind of Egyptian stuff is overdone a bit these days, with every band from Nile to Iced Earth trying their hand at it, but Helstar are the real deal, and pull it off with gusto. “Destroyer” is a thrash monster, more aggressive or vehement than anything else they ever did in the 80s. “Suicidal Nightmare” is probably the most orthodox thrash tune on here with its vaguely Overkill-esque chorus and snarling riffing. “Face the Wicked One” is possibly the album standout with its dramatic performances and epic scope, and closer “Angel of Death” is maybe their catchiest song ever with its neoclassical intro and shout-along chorus…killer way to end the album.
And I just named most of the tracklist…that’s the kind of album this is; just a great time with non-stop riffing and huge, entertaining performances from every band member. There isn’t really much to fault it for, as this album along with others like early Vicious Rumors were just hallmarks of the entire US metal scene to come in the next 20+ years. Remnants of War is a classic, it is awesome and you should hear it immediately if you haven’t yet. Because it kills everything in its path.
'Remnants Of War' is Helstar's sophomore effort and another unforgettable release from the classic power metal band. While their debut was certainly their most traditional offering, 'Remnants Of War' is essentially the bands first entry into their own unique and complex style that truly sounds like nothing else out there. Heavier than both their debut and the album to follow, 'A Distant Thunder', and not quite as thrashy as 'Nosferatu', this is power/thrash at its finest. It may not have as many distinguishable select tracks as their other releases but overall this is quite possibly their most consistent, catchiest, and strongest album they've ever released. From the beginning and to the end its something you could easily jump into and have a blast with starting with any random track.
James Rivera should be a no brainer, however its no surprise when he changes up his singing style from album to album. I'd go to argue that his vocals here are some of the best he's ever recorded and that's been my belief since I first heard this album. His vocals aren't as shreiky as they were on the debut, not as over the top and all over the place as they were on 'A Distant Thunder', and not nearly as monotonous as they were on 'Nosferatu'. Here he displays full ultimate control over his voice and executes his vocals flawlessly (and don't worry there's still some incredible shrieks here and there!). Tracks like Destroyer also showcase some of his most aggressive vocals as well. To many out there Rivera is often regarded as a classic vocalist, rightfully so, and well the vocals here are practically nearing perfection. Definitely some of his finest work.
As for the former reviews note, its a bit hard to describe Helstar's sound here. You could say they're a slightly more technical Omen, or they are very comparable to Liege Lord yet still a little thrashier and a bit more complex. The majority of this is thanks to the incredible guitarwork from duo Robert Trevino and Larry Barragan, as the guitars have always been a major focus for the band. Every single riff you hear on here will be like nothing you've ever heard, sparking with complete utter originality. The rhythm's sometimes take the blame for causing them to sound so odd and making them possibly hard to get into for some listeners out there. If you aren't used to thrash of any sorts, this just may open you up to new horizons. Obviously with such technical skill you can surely expect to hear some mindblowing shredding and solo's all over this. Drummer Rene Luna does an outstanding job in going with the flow and following all these weird time signatures extremely well. Even the drums seem to take the spotlight from time to time. Jerry Abarca on bass it the final piece to this near perfect lineup and does an excellent job on bass. While not as over the top and focused upon as the guitars, the bass just sounds so right on every track.
The praise continues when you take a look at the production. This is hands down their heaviest sounding record, while not sounding too similar to a lot of thrash releases like 'Nosferatu' kind of did. Everything is razor sharp, crystal clear, perfectly balanced, and hardly overproduced. 100% consistent as well, never is there a track that sounds a bit out of place in this department.
With so much praise here it'd probably be a little unnecessary to go over each and every track. You may just want to go ahead and skip over the instrumental intro track, its just holding you back! From there on its brilliant work that sounds so natural its downright scary. Both Conquest and Destroyer are among the most aggressive songs the band has ever written and as I noted earlier topped off with some of Rivera's finest vocals. Destroyer even contains two big solo sections. Dark Queen takes the award as being the catchiest and probably the most memorable track on here. Maybe not that best, but certainly one that'll leave its mark after hearing it. The next track after that one Force The Wicked One is nothing but a technical monster that has hands down their most devastating solo on here, engaged with some incredible harmony work. Angels of Death is very similar and ends this album off on an unforgiving note, you'll just want to listen to the whole thing over and over again! These are just the tracks that stick out at this very moment, in a little bit of time I'm sure I could come up with some great things to say about the rest. But again, that is probably unnecessary. Simply put its all killer and no filler.
So in the end, it seems almost too good to be true that they have recently re-united under this very lineup. For those who have followed Rivera's work know that he's been keeping it true all these years (great to see him in Vicious Rumors now as well). All I hope is that the rest of the guys remember this is Helstar, complex power/thrash, and don't bring over any kind of elements from their ill-fading Eternity Black. Basically, I absolutelly cannot wait for Helstar's next full length release! That's probably all besides the point, but hey if you somehow have missed out on this band after all these years, this release would probably be their best album to start off with! An undeniable classic that really has no flaws.
This album is far heavier than the previous Helstar album, with most of the riffs here being thrash metal. There is far more of an Iron Maiden styled gallop to all of the songs, while the lead guitar continues to remain impressive, and James Rivera emits some more of the best shrieks ever recorded.
The highlights include the title track, which starts off pretty slowly, and never really gets past slightly faster than midpaced, but nonetheless sets the tone for this album. "Suicidal Nightmare" has a New York style thrash break (i.e. Nuclear Assault) in the middle, and "Angel of Death" has a really cool solo at the end.
Everything on here is solid - there are no throwaway tracks, and all of the songs are memorable in their own way, though the similarity is much stronger than on the first album. Highly recommended.