It’s always a dangerous proposition for a band to revisit one of their most beloved albums and attempt a sequel. Nine times out of ten they can’t come close to recapturing whatever magic made their earlier work so enduring and they end up besmirching their legacy in the process (Operation Mindcrime II, anyone?). And so it was with great discomfiture I received news Helstar would be revisiting the same vampiric themes first examined on their classic Nosferatu album on new opus, Vampiro. Nosferatu was a special album for a number of reasons and saw the band find the musical sweet spot between traditional metal, thrash and neo-classical noodling. It’s stood the test of time about as well as its titular character and I still spin it regularly. Vampiro is a semi-return to the style that made that album so enjoyable and it comes after a series of releases steeped in thrash and all-out speed. Surprisingly, it manages to conjure some of the same dark magic and atmosphere as the original did way back in 1989. Is it as good? Of course not, but it’s better than many (including myself) probably expected and shows the band has a lot left in the metalli-tank.
Vampiro is a heavier, thrashier album than Nosferatu, but the basic style and feel is much the same. Opener “Awaken the Darkness” almost feels like a lost track from the source material. It has that same neo-classical flair along with a dark, ominous vibe and the classic Helstar riffing style is there with James Rivera’s trademarked high-pitched shrieks and menacing baritone. It sets expectations high for the rest of the album, which is both a blessing and a curse. Aggressive, speedy cuts like “Blood Lust, “To Dust You Will Become” and “Repent in Fire” get the heart racing and blood pumping, and “From the Pulpit to the Pit” is slower and catchier, like a jacked up version of the similarly named Ghost tune.
For my money, the best track is either the opener or “Malediction,” an instrumental callback to “Benediction” from Nosferatu. Though I usually don’t gravitate to instrumentals, this one is so sharp and engaging, it’s tough to stop spinning it. The razor-like corkscrewing riffs are things of beauty, the solos are face melting and the whole thing is a musical smoke show. Lead “single” “Black Cathedral” is also quite tasty, evoking much of the old Helstar style to good ends, though at over 7 minutes, it feels too long.
The peformances are first-rate and uber-technical, but the song writing sometimes falls below the level of the musicianship. Songs like “Off With His Head” and “Abolish the Sun” aren’t bad, but they aren’t super memorable either and I end up appreciating the guitar-work more than the songs themselves. Vampiro is also way overlong at 58 minutes. I know the theme here is long teeth, but that’s no reason for the album to follow suit, and two or three tracks could be dropped without being missed. Mixed by legendary producer Bill Metoyer, things sound quite good with appropriately crunchy guitars. Rivera’s vocals sit well atop the music and it’s dynamic enough to suit the techy neo-classic wanks as well as the traditional, over-the-top metallized shredding.
This is definitely a guitar lover’s kind of album, with original axe Larry Barragan and new ace Andrew Atwood ripping things up and tearing them down in a string-snapping frenzy of aggressive riffing, neo-classic wanking and excessive whammy yanking. They’re both extremely talented and let absolutely everything hang out, yet somehow all their techy noodling avoids getting in the way of the songs themselves. Barragan’s unique style gave Helstar a distinctive sound through the 80s and a lot of that is present again here along with a healthy dose of Agent Steel-esque exuberance and energy. James Rivera’s voice is a wonder of modern science and is little changed by the decades. He can still hit those crazy air raid shrieks and adapt his vocals to various moods and styles. He’s as commanding a presence here as he was on Nosferatu though his voice now has a slightly darker, more sinister tone. He also throws in some harsh screams and rasps and these are mostly well done but occasionally veer too close to typical scream-core for my tastes (“Abolish the Sun”). Still, it’s cool to hear him incorporating a few modern elements nonetheless.
While Vampiro could have ended up a ghoulish dumpster fire, it earns its own place in the Helstar pantheon, and for that I’m thankful. The band is hitting a pretty respectable late career upswing and it’s good to hear these old timers can still bring the high heat. If you aren’t familiar with the band’s back catalog, go hear those first 4 classics and then come back here. They’ll leave the coffin open for ya.