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Greatness, Part Two: A Darker Shade of Power - 100%

VirginSteele_Helstar, November 4th, 2013

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!