HELSTAR, Rising From the Grave (2010, Metal Blade)
This bad boy is pretty stock: a horned skull apparently taken from a 9th grader’s notebook cover, its horns wrapped around a five-pointed star. There isn’t much to say about it. Best thing about the cover is it invokes a bit of Texas metal history (“Texas Metal, Est. 1982”) and exalts the fact that Helstar have been at this forever. Which is why they deserve a better album cover than this. It’s not even a real Helstar album, it’s a boxed set, but considering it holds two of their all-time classics…can we get a better cover design for this one please? Dang it. Even as a patch or tshirt or tattoo, I wouldn’t stich it, wear it or have its ink shot into my flesh with a needle. I’m glad I own the two studio albums in question, that way I don’t have to have this low-rent box set artwork littering my racks. Enough of that already.
This is a box set collecting two Helstar studio albums and a live one: 1988’s A Distant Thunder, 1989’s Nosferatu, and later live album, the clumsily-titled ‘Twas the Night of a Helish X-mas, originally released in 2000 but recorded in the earlier Nosferatu era. Let’s work backwards. With ‘Twas the Night blah blah blah, you can clearly hear that Helstar was an amazing live band back then (as they are now), but you wouldn’t believe it if this was your only evidence. Great performance but a shitty recording and equally disadvantageous mix. It’s far less worthy of being in this box set than Multiples of Black would have been (talk about “rising from the grave”) or of being released as a stand-alone album, as it was in 2000. Ahh, wait…I think I just discovered how Metal Blade solved the problem of getting rid of the last couple thousand they had in their warehouse…clever, guys, very clever.
Nosferatu is an album people have mistaken as a speed/thrash album, and even as a tech/prog album. It doesn’t exactly sit perfectly in those classifications, but they did ramp up the intensity and technicality for Nosferatu, so it certainly touches on those areas. It’s really just a more hi-octane Helstar than what came before, but so fussily questing for perfection that it feels a bit stiff ‘n’ cold in certain moments. That said, some of the band’s most engaging material is here (“Baptized in Blood,” “Harker’s Tale”), and any fan of, you know, metal, should really check it out.
Finally, if you purchase this box set because you love that cover art so much, you better be prepared to spin A Distant Thunder at least 100 times. The first 10 will help you acclimate to it. And least, that’s what I needed, as I found it to have much less instant appeal than their easy-to-get-into first couple albums. It’s not overly complex, certainly not on the Nosferatu level, it’s just not overly direct. It might grab you right away, but it took me years to realize its greatness. Once it took hold, though, it had to share space with Burning Star when considering which Helstar album is best. Stuff like “The King is Dead,” “Abandon Ship” and “Winds of War” are stellar examples of primo Texas epic/power/heavy metal, with the distinctive James Rivera ripping it up on vocals. Unfortunately they chose the wrong song to cover from Scorpions’ Taken By Force. “He’s a Woman (She’s a Man)” is totally out of place on A Distant Thunder; the clear winner would have been “The Sails of Charon,” but they did ask me, did they?
— Friar Wagner