Helstar is a band I’ve always held close to my metal heart. I grew up with them and their early albums were always big favorites. Their Burning Star debut was a classic slice of early American metal and featured the godly “Run With the Pack,” which I slotted in at #8 of my best metal songs of all time. Follow-ups Remnants of War and Distant Thunder were pure, balls to the walls, classic metal with attitude, and 1989s Nosferatu introduced a more thrashy, yet neo-classical style that hit hard and left a lasting impression. After a long period of inactivity, the band reformed and released a few thrashy albums that while respectable, lacked the charm of their early material and sounded almost nothing like the band I knew. The Wicked Nest is next in this series of thrashed up Helstar albums, and it’s easily the best thing they’ve done since Nosferatu, though it still can’t hold a candle to their classics.
Like recent albums King of Hell and Glory of Chaos, this is speedy, aggressive quasi-thrash with tons of screams, wails and caterwauls from original front man James Rivera, and it falls somewhere in between Painkiller and the recent output of Testament. On opener “Fall of Dominion” and “Eternal Black” this works quite well and the energy they deliver is sincere and suitably pissed off. It’s miles from the melodic material of old, but it’s a bit less frenzied that their last few outings.
“Souls Cry” sounds more like the band’s golden era with an ominous, but memorable chorus and heavy riffing that reminds me of long forgotten Aussie thrashers Mortal Sin. “Isla de las Munecas” is a cool, song-length instrumental throwback to the days when these were almost mandatory on metal albums and it’s highly entertaining and quite listenable. “Defy the Swarm” and closer “Magormissabib” border on Slayer levels of heavy and James throws quite a snit fit on both tracks, snaring and screaming his head off like a twenty-something in his first band.
Sadly, all is not good in the nest and songs like the title track and “It Has Risen” are generic thrashers without much identity or anything particularly memorable. The power ballad “Cursed” is dark, moody and interesting, but way overlong and wears out its welcome despite some cool guitar work throughout.
James Rivera has long been one of metal’s most talented and underrated vocalists and with the stellar body of work the man has assembled, he really deserves much more acclaim than he receives. It’s also flat out unbelievable just how powerful his voice remains after 30 odd years in the metal world. He can still sing, snarl and hit his trademark air raid screams much like he did way back in 1984. If anything, he uses them more now than he ever did and though I may wish he sang more and shrieked less, I can’t take anything away from the guy’s ageless pipes of Valyrian steel. Original guitarist Larry Barragan and almost original guitarist Robert Trevino do their best Hanneman/King impression on much of the material and while none of their thrash riffs feel new or innovative, they’re more than adequate. When they get to show more of their abilities on “Isla de las Munecas,” their chops suitably impress.
I’ll always wish for Nosferatu II, but I’ll settle for this and hope they continue in the same direction. A very spry sounding album to be sure, The Wicked Nest is well worth hearing, but start from the beginning of the Helstar catalog and savor their classics first (and while you’re at it, check out his awesome Distant Thunder and Destiny’s End projects). Much love, fellow olde guys!