In the past five or so years, the U.S. underground power metal scene has become explosively vibrant. Where a decade ago the only act that could hold a candle to its European contemporaries was Cellador, the past few years have seen American bands claiming my personal prize of Power Metal Album ov the Year. Arizona’s Ice Sword seems primed to secure the slot this year, and in previous years the honor was claimed by Cellador, Judicator, and, of course, Helion Prime. Their self-titled debut is one that stands apart thanks to shai-hulud sized earworm choruses, quirky keyboard and lead guitar melodies, and an unabashed love for science fiction and fact. Helion Prime is an excellent record; its follow-up, Terror of the Cybernetic Space Monster, is not. Stripping away much of the charm and personality that once defined Helion Prime, Terror, while a decent modern power metal album, is inferior to its predecessor in just about every way.
Though a relative disappointment, Terror is still a well executed record not without its bright spots. Helion Prime circa 2018 is little more than a lesser Unleash the Archers clone, but as I love UtA, this in and of itself is not necessarily a detriment. Melodeath-lite riffs anchor the proceedings with a solid sense of weight as new singer Sozos Michael capably navigates the demanding range required from the vocal melodies, and there’s a respectable level of variety to be found within this persistent framework. “Urth,” for instance, delivers a refreshing blast of traditional Euro-power cheese that the band has never attempted prior, while “Atlas Obscura” is a rhythmically dynamic offering of prog-power that oddly enough resembles modern Sonata Arctica in its melodic qualities. Most of the record is dominated by driving, barely-above-mid-tempo tracks, but Terror‘s most unique compositions bolster the pacing with regular shots of sonic diversity.
Outside of sporadic creative forays, Terror is, for all its glossy production and likeable, dorky lyrics, underwhelmingly executed in nearly every respect. Universally plodding guitar riffs are treated more as obligatory connecting tissue between verses than opportunities for instrumental initiative, and the vocal passages of many of said verses are lacking in energy and melodic identity, largely devoid of the uplifting urgency that defined original singer Heather Smith’s performances. There are decent hooks to be found in the verses, but they typically average around one memorable hook per song, and none of the refrains are particularly catchy, either (“Urth” notwithstanding, though its likeability stems mostly from standard Euro-power optimism). Even Unleash the Archers’ Brittney Slayes, who offers guest vocals on the lengthy title track, seems to only perform with half of her usual vigor, as if mediocrity is endemic to the record itself.
Though largely mediocre from a musical standpoint, Terror’s production is above average for the genre. Aside from vocals that occasionally sound a bit loud and disconnected from the instruments, the mix is reasonably well balanced, with notable bass presence adding a gritty counterbalance against the overly glossy guitar tones. Though I’m sold on the record’s sound, I’m still uncertain about Sozos Michael as a vocalist; he has a distinct, nasally timbre not entirely unlike that of Ben Sotto (Heavenly), and while his voice isn’t lacking in power, his upper register sounds just a bit too pinched to convincingly deliver Terror‘s most demanding material. Even so, I’d be curious to hear his take on a few tracks from Helion Prime’s debut, as he’s a good singer in need of better material to work with.
Whenever I look at the cover art for Terror of the Cybernetic Space Monster side by side with that of Helion Prime, I can’t help but marvel at the unintended allegorical connection between the two. Terror’s cover art may be glossier in its execution, but it lacks the effortless charm of its predecessor despite ostensibly being the same image presented from different perspectives. Similarly, Terror, while still recognizably Helion Prime, is missing so much of the soul that made me fall in love with them in the first place. If there’s any solace to be found in this record, it’s that these are still early days for the band, and they still have ample time to figure out what went wrong and correct their course. Until then, Terror is reasonably recommendable for genre junkies, or for fanboys who will love it anyway just because of the name on the cover.