To start off with, the biggest strength of this record, Helstar’s fourth, is that it manages to be innately balanced without really sacrificing anything. Namely, between cutting, thrashing force and its sickly, gothic atmosphere; the juxtaposition of its cutting rhythm guitar work and its flowing, studiously composed neo-classical styled lead work. Nosferatu feels like the album that their other 80’s albums were basically building toward – Remnants of War and A Distant Thunder are two records that are, certainly, quite brilliant a lot of the time in their own right. Brilliantly brash records that marry the melodicism and epic scope of US power metal with the aggression of thrash metal. They’re both albums that deserve spots in your record collection. But Nosferatu, even with the ballyhooed difference between sides A and B, is the record in which they put everything together so crisply and efficiently. Not everything about it is 100% perfect, of course. However, i’s the record of theirs where everything about it serves a purpose and falls into the right place within the context of the record. There’s none of the occasional awkwardness that marks, say, the second half of A Distant Thunder or even the Priest-leaning debut record. Nosferatu is the sound of a band who knows exactly what they’re doing and just goes out and does it. There’s nothing wasted about it.
This is definitely the band’s thrashiest and most forceful record on the whole, mind you – while still very much a traditional metal record, the riffcraft of guitarists Larry Barragan and Andre Corbin has a distinctly Megadeth-esque feel; the riffs themselves carry with a distinctly cutting quality throughout its running time. It brings to mind less the motion of a hammer swing and more of a finely trained swordsman: still heavy as hell, to be sure, but in a manner that brings to mind finesse and athleticism than the bludgeoning force of a hammer. Early Slayer – as in, Show No Mercy kind of early – isn’t really a far-off comparison either I think.
Still though, part of the band’s masterful sense of composition is knowing how to juxtapose the slicing & dicing thrash parts with a great sense of melodic acumen than most. The opening one-two of “Rhapsody in Black” and “Baptized in Blood” make it apparent fast – the opening, medieval melodic sensibility of the opening acoustic melody gives way into a barrage of thrash riffing that works wonders as a preamble for the rest of the record, surging into the aforementioned “Baptized in Blood”. Every riff in that song is essential and absolutely forceful; the band works a deft touch balancing hooks with aggression and atmosphere throughout (particular the way they balance that lick between the verse riff, akin to flipping a knife between your fingers). The way the guitars work off the rhythm section is pure charging thrash ecstasy, and the middle section where they work over a set of dicey riffs that builds back into both of the solos is fucking masterful. Rivera’s voice is, naturally, in fine form – for this record he opts less for a conventional “80’s metal” vocal style and has more a keening, floating style that evokes something stagier than most of the decade’s performances. It’s one where he opts more for pure mood than ball-busting screams (though he has more of a few of them throughout), and it’s a style that works masterfully in concert with what the rest of the band does.
What makes this such a nicely varied record, in its approach, is that the band doesn’t have to sacrifice aggression to make its theme and atmosphere work. Nosferatu evokes the decayed, gothic feel of Dracula by its distinct sense of minor key melodicism and working it in next to the more aggressive material. The irritating stupidity of shoehorning in some grotesque, sickly major key melody as an “uplifting” pop hook against the rest of a song is mercifully absent from this record. Rather, the band has enough discipline in their craft to balance the thrashy riffage with the more ornate melodic passages – or perhaps more accurately, work in both of them together – without letting things become overly samey or slapped together. Pretty much every song on this record has a pretty distinct identity – “To Sleep, Per Chance to Scream” is certainly quite striking when juxtaposed against the opening one-two, especially with the way the verses suddenly drop into a swaying, keening chorus riff & vocal line. Or even how “The Curse Has Passed Away” is fundamentally built around the idea of its ornamented acoustic melody – itself the most overtly gothic, dusty-feeling moment of the record – and the force of its surging riffing that first comes in 38 secs in (the “Here I Stand Before His Evil Lair…” part) and fundamentally work off each other for the rest of the song. And then there’s “Perseverance and Desperation”.
This song is pretty different from the rest of the record in that it was mostly Andre Corbin’s creation (he recorded both of the guitars on the song, or at least that is what he mentioned based off an interview from about 10 years ago) and is more of a straight up shred piece than anything else on the record. Despite the obvious stylistic difference from it and the rest of the record, it proves to be a brilliant, thrilling track in its own way – built entirely from a set of melodic themes that give way into a flowing, expressionistically melodic performance that treads the fine line between masterful song construction and pure wank. In that respect it brings to mind something off Yngwie Malmsteen’s debut – where the wankiness and flash is part of the appeal, but more disciplined listens reveal an incredibly precise sense of melodicism, note choice and the ability to refer back to disparate melodic themes/riffs without entirely losing the thread. “Perseverance and Desperation” is a brilliant song that, despite the formal flashiness of its style, never wastes a moment or note and uses it flesh out the atmosphere and vibe of the record. Sometimes you don’t need words when your hands say everything that demands to be voiced. That it doesn’t succumb to the pampered feeling of later PM or feel like a distinct bid to court the then-shrinking hair metal audience is a feat in and of itself.
The concept of the album, notoriously, only covers the first half of it, tracks one through six – the rest of Nosferatu is a set of stand-alone tracks. Sort of akin to the difference between the first half of King Diamond’s Fatal Portrait and the rest of it, sans the final track. It is true that the second half of this record isn’t quite as strong as the first, if nothing else but because that first half is some of the best metal ever laid down. That isn’t to say the second is really a slouch, though – “Benediction” is perhaps the most aggressive cut the band ever came up with before some of their more modern work; a purified displaying of vicious thrash riffage that lurches from part to part without losing its thread. “Swirling Madness” has one of the most memorable choruses of the record; Rivera has this echo/delay effect over his voice that somehow just kind of works when it’s straining against the guitars, especially as how he goes lockstep with them during the verses. The finale track recalls the ornate melodicism of the first half of the record, an off-kilter wind-swept semi-ballad that isn’t soppy or forced. The final solo in particular and the way the last part of the song builds into it makes for a rather haunting finale to the record as a whole.
It’s honestly rather shocking and unfortunate this album didn’t have much of an audience in its own era. It does an excellent of weaving together several disparate strains of metal into something genuinely cohesive and memorable (despite the thematic differences between sides A and B); the performances are stunningly good throughout – I’ve neglected to mention it but the rhythm section on this record is killer, especially the bass playing – and it has an incredible production sound that suits the songs without being overly polished or sterile at all. It was largely ignored despite all that – guitarist Larry Barragan theorized that it was perhaps because it wasn’t thrash enough for most thrash fans, and it wasn’t melodic enough for most other trad fans of the era’s tastes, in an interview from a few years ago – which is a shame.
Metal’s history is, however, replete with albums shunned by the mainstream, only to be eventually adopted by the underground as a rightful all time classic. You can certainly hear the influence Helstar had on later bands – for my part, I can’t help but hear it in bands from Cauldron Born to Demon Bitch, personally. Even still, there aren’t a lot of records that really match this one, for all of the reasons I’ve enumerated throughout the review. You can’t really go wrong with 80’s Helstar, honestly – all four of those records, despite the constant of personnel turnover (especially across the first two), are brilliant. Some of their later work is very good as well, but this one is the best record of their career, hands down. Perfect music for when the Autumn sets in, the leaves change color and you begin steeling yourself for the impending chill of winter. Masterful record.
Favorite Track: “Baptized in Blood”