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I’ve always had this belief that things can never be as they were, but only what they will be, which is a somewhat bitter pill to swallow considering how many good moments metal has had in the past. Sure, there’s a small preference on my part for most albums that keep an element of past greatness, and I think that this latest offering by 80s speed metal masters Helstar does keep an element of the past well in place, particularly the solid power/thrash greatness of “Nosferatu”. But ultimately what is heard here is a dark atmosphere of sound that is more comparable to Destiny‘s End. Nonetheless, the riffs hit hard and avoid becoming repetitious, and James Rivera hasn’t lost a single iota of his range after close to 3 decades of abuse with over a dozen different Metal projects.
“King Of Hell” is basically a faithful continuation of the band’s signature brand of fast moving, hard edged, sonic slaying Metal with high end Halford shrieks and gravely thrash vocalizations with a few small modifications. The biggest of these is the production, which has received a pretty sizable upgrade since the late 1980s and compares pretty heavily with Destruction’s recent studio offerings in this respect. The drum sound is where this is the most noticeable and, despite still containing a reverb tinge, is much less distant sounding than your typical vintage 80s production. The song structures are also a bit more advanced, changing in a more rapid succession that borderlines on the Bay Area sound, though the tonality of the guitar harmonies definitely has characteristics of German speed metal.
With the exception of one song, this thing cooks pretty relentlessly and offers up an interesting blend of speed and thrash. Some of it is really catchy like the title track “The King Of Hell” and the river of flowing heaviness “Tormentor”, while others such as “Pain” and “Wicked Disposition” just load up on the riffs and seem to want to draw upon the spirit of bands like Vio-Lence and Dark Angel. At times the album gets a little hard to follow, not all that dissimilar from what happens with “Beneath The Remains”, though this isn’t quite as over-the-top as that album was. Most of the rest of the songs tend to mix up riff-happy sections with catchy verses and choruses, with the exception of “In My Darkness”, which is the album’s token half-ballad. Once it gets going, it settles into a slower groove and stagnates in mid-tempo.
When compared against this band’s pretty impressive work in the 80s, this comes up a tad bit short, but by more recent metal standards, this is solid work. Most of these songs have a fair amount of staying power, particularly “Tormentor”, and work in a lot of really interesting riff interchanges that are sure to please the thrash crowd. It’s a good bit darker than most of their early material, particularly due to the slightly lower and less crunchy guitar tone that it has when compared with “Nosferatu” and “A Distant Thunder”, but also due to the hooks being a little bit closer to what was heard on the heavier and less catchy Destiny’s End albums. If you liked “Breathe Deep The Dark”, this will definitely appeal to you.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on April 22, 2009.
So the other day I was thinking to myself, "People are really getting worked up over that new Helstar album, when in reality it's just pretty good. Not great." Well, luckily, I hadn't already reviewed it, giving me the opportunity to talk about it now.
Helstar are one of my favorite bands, and I actually started off this year really enthused after hearing that they were recording a new album. Their Sins of the Past compilation was fun, if not quite as good as the songs' original counterpart, and I was listening to Remnants of War and A Distant Thunder and the debut Burning Star almost constantly. Total fucking worship. When the new album finally surfaced in late August, I eagerly checked it out, expecting an old school Metal buffet like no other. I mean, of course, Helstar couldn't ever produce anything less than stellar, right? They couldn't ever write an album that didn't completely floor the listener with a barrage of galloping 80s Metal riffs and high-flying falsetto madness, right?
Well, not quite. Helstar are still obviously waving the Metal flag as high as they can; that much is obvious from anyone who ever read the band's Myspace page. This is no sell-out album, being even more feral, dark and oppressive than anything the band has done previously, with more emphasis on heavy, chugging, modern Thrash riffage and the demonic intonals that vocal extraordinaire James Rivera has taken to using as his primary mode of discourse than the galloping Iron Maiden-esque narrative songwriting style of old. No, this isn't a sell-out, it's just a sort of update of the band's sound from what it was back in the early 90s when the band disbanded. It's a similar change in sound to the one that Agent Steel went through recently, except this isn't quite as masterful and captivating as Alienigma was. The band is kind of like an old car. King of Hell is still the same type of car; the band hasn't dismantled or destroyed it - rather, the band has given it a new coat of paint and a bigger set of wheels. It's a bit slower and clunkier than before, but it still manages to run.
The main thing wrong with this album is that the hooks aren't good. There is nothing here that you will remember after one listen. The songs are very dark, heavy and visceral, but they aren't connected together well at all, thrown together in a haphazard manner with little regard for catchy songwriting or any sort of headbanging groove. There are a lot of bad-ass parts on their own, mostly involving James Rivera and his wickedly demonic bellowing, but they never flow cohesively into great songs. It sounds like the band just wanted to write the most diabolical, evil, metal sounding songs they could possibly put down to paper, except they forgot to make the songs enjoyable and durable and able to be played more than once. Every song packs a few really cool vocal tricks, a nice solo or two, but they're never all tied together. Then you get a song like "Pain" thrown in randomly and it sounds nothing at all like the rest of the album, being this ballsy, cut-throat Thrashing machine that careens on for three minutes before the album returns to its previous mode. Was there any thought put into the construction of this at all? I appreciate the sentiment here, but it just doesn't work.
I love a good dark Metal epic too, but that's the thing. I love a good dark Metal epic. You can't just throw together a bunch of cool ideas without proofreading them and fixing up the errors first. You can't just expect a cobble of good ideas without any sense or flow to be good. The King of Hell, despite its good intentions, is a misguided and confused little album, and it gets worse every time I hear it. Helstar are still a great band, though, and I have confidence that they can come back and deliver a real monster of an album in a few years, but this...this isn't it. You can skip this one unless you're a Helstar die-hard.
Originally written for http://www.metalcrypt.com
When I spoke to James Rivera a few years ago, he promised me a new Helstar record which was even darker than 'Nosferatu'. Some stuff had already been written and he said it was promising. Yet, something happened in the meantime. Helstar reunited in the 'Remnants Of War' lineup, with the only exception being drummer René Luna, whose place is being taken by the far more capable Helstar-alumnus Russell DeLeon. Figuring that all the songs have been written by returning guitarists Larry Barragan and Rob Trevino, none of the material James was talking about is used. However, his promise is kept. 'The King Of Hell' is a darker continuation of what was heard on 'Nosferatu'. Although Helstar anno 2008 is more Thrash than Speed Metal, 'The King Of Hell' is unmistakably Helstar and after hearing the album hundreds of times, I still can't conclude any different than that 'The King Of Hell' is Helstar's best album yet.
It's always tricky to have too much anticipation for reunions like these. Things change over the years, as do people. Still, I think many people agree with me that the only rightful Helstar has Larry Barragan - as well as James Rivera - at the helm. We already got a sneak preview in the form of 'Sins Of The Past', an album filled with re-recordings and two killer new tracks. Both of those tracks, 'Tormentor' and 'Caress Of The Dead', are present here, ironically in a re-recorded version. Those two tracks couldn't properly prepare you for what was on 'The King Of Hell' though.
The album is a proof of the evolution all people involved went through. Though 'The King Of Hell' is instantly recognizable as Helstar, the band hasn't stood still through the years. The direction they're taking now still is highly technical and equally melodic, but also heavy and rhythmically interesting. I think Barragan and Trevino have been listening to more modern Metal bands in the Machine Head vein, as they have traded pure speed for a little more heaviness on many songs. And it suits the songs just fine. The opening title track is a good example of that. The song threw me off at first, because it's surprisingly midtempo for Helstar; especially when compared to 'The King Is Dead' or 'Baptized In Blood'. It's maybe more in the 'Remnants Of War'-vein, but much more atmospheric. The song sets the dark tone for the rest of the album perfectly. And the song has this "headbang or die"-quality to it, as do many songs on the album.
As I've said before, the pure speed of early Helstar has been traded for a heavier sound on this album. In that matter, it seems like Helstar is not only honoring Iron Maiden, but also Black Sabbath on this album. The unusually doomy 'In My Darkness' seems like a very powerful Black Sabbath-tribute and also the breathtaking closer 'The Garden Of Temptation' pounds on midtempo for most of the time. The latter is an unbelievable piece of epic Metal like only Helstar can do. In the longest track the band has ever done, all registers are used. The song starts out with an eerie, Eastern sounding acoustic guitar part and builds up to probably the most powerful thing the Texans have done so far. The song has a very powerful build-up, incredible guitar solos (as does the rest of the album) and leaves you with the desire to play the album again. And that is exactly what a closing track should do.
More familiar sounding is 'The Plague Called Man'. A more traditional Thrash Metal song with all the familiar elements of Helstar: the technical (sometimes twin guitar) riffs, the blazing guitar solos, the interesting rhythms and of course James Rivera's instantly recognizable voice. However, the eighties are over and the band adds a more modern bite to the song.
But probably my favorite song on the album - along 'The Garden Of Temptation' - is 'Wicked Disposition'. The fast opening riff is sure to bring delight to any Thrasher's face and while the rest of the song has more of a moderately fast pounding vibe to it, it's Metal as it should be. There's some surprises as well, mainly the inconventionally timed pre-chorus, and it's just a nice one to shout along and headbang to. The middle part has a very nice build up in tension to it. I don't think Helstar would have been able to write such a song twenty years ago, but I'm glad they did now. Check out Russell's drumming on this one as well, it's mind blowing.
All together, I'd say that anyone who likes his Metal good, needs to own this album. It's easily the best comeback since Death Angel's and it might even be better than 'The Art Of Dying'. I must admit that I liked the more bassy production on 'Sins Of The Past' better, but on the other hand, James Rivera's vocals are much better on 'The King Of Hell'. And the return of Larry Barragan and Rob Trevino to the mold of traditional Metal is one I can't help but applaud. These guys are talents in songwriting and guitar playing and need to be heard. Let's hope they're back for good!
First of all, Helstar was one of the most talented bands in the mid-late 80s; they successfully mixed the darkness and intensity of thrash metal with the technicality of speed/power metal adding that unique Classical touch especially in their outstanding 89 release “Nosferatu” which is in my opinion one of the best releases in history of Rock/Metal.
I couldn’t believe it when I read that Helstar re-united and they intend to release an album close to “Nosferatu”. I kept waiting for that to happen until I got the album “The King of Hell”. Just looking at the title and the cover, as first impression, I was blown away.
The title track “The King of Hell” is a song that I’ve been waiting for maybe since the early 90s, I really couldn’t believe my ears how powerful, dark, technical, melodic and tight this song is. “The Plague Called Man” the second track of the album is the closest song to “Nosferatu” style with noticeable speed metal and classic influence. “Wicked Disposition” is an excellent song, Rivera being at his best here delivers some killing lines along the different parts of the song, this one is indeed a bit progressive mixing many styles including crazy “headbangeable” riffs. “Caress of the Dead” is another “Nosferatu” style song, with great lyrics and amazing guitar works. My favorite track from this album is “Pain Will Be Thy Name”; a thrash/speed song that includes high-pitch vocals, aggressive guitar riffs, and amazing drum beats. “In My Darkness” reminds me a lot of “The Curse Has Passed Away” mainly because of the acoustic intro and the downbeat mood, but the chorus has a super catchy thrash riff that I can’t out of my head. The final track “The Garden of Temptation” has another killer riff in the intro and just can’t be described in few words, it’s a must-listen for every metal listener, a true metal epic, hence the lyrics!
I really can’t get enough of this album; I wish I can shake hands with everyone who worked hard to accomplish this masterpiece. The band members are truly amazing musicians, I like especially “Jerry Abarca” which has a unique touch, I’ve heard nothing like it in metal yet.
All of us have been waiting for our favorite bands from the 80s to come back, and many did, but many were very disappointing and some are still trying and failing. But no, not Helstar, these guys did it, they’re here and they’re stronger than ever. Once again “The King of Hell” is a must-have for every single metal listener.