H-Town Metal Institution Helstar Feathers Its Wicked Nest
James Rivera, center right, with Helstar
Over the past three decades, countless bands, clubs and backpatches have come and gone in the Houston heavy metal scene. But there has always been Helstar. Thirty years after the release of their Combat Records debut, Burning Star, the city's quintessential power-thrash quintet shreds on, anchored as always by the ageless, histrionic vocals of singer James Rivera.
Though they never quite broke through into the ranks of the immortals, Helstar has nonetheless managed to built a loyal, international fanbase over the years, and they've eschewed any notion of slowing down. Later this month, the band will release their tenth studio album, This Wicked Nest, on AFM Records.
Earlier this week, the group posted audio samples from the new record to YouTube, and it sounds like a ripper. If you want to be among the first to hear it in full, though, you'll have to buy a ticket to Fitzgerald's tomorrow, where Helstar tops a stacked bill also featuring Venomous Maximus, Warbeast, Sanctus Bellum and Termination Force.
Rivera says that Nest will please Helstar fans young and old, fusing the the heavier, more brutal edge that the band has acquired in recent years with the epic melodicism of their classic material. Though it may contain a few throwback elements, however, the record was decidedly a product of the modern era of recording.
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"The majority of this record was recording at home -- the guitars, drums, everything," the singer says. "The only thing that was actually still done at the studio and will always be done at the studio was the vocals and mixing. I guess we could eventually get the programs that we need and the software with the right compressors to do vocals at home, but at the end of the day, if I did that, I'd have all my neighbors hating me! You can't hold back on that.
"The big room just captures that whole vibe from the vocals, I think," he adds.
The recording techniques aren't the only thing that's changed for Helstar in recent years. The band recently bid a fond farewell to longtime bassist Jerry Abarca, whose health issues prevent him from participating in the band's touring plans. Abarca's sheer glee and enthusiasm onstage will be missed, and not easily replaced. That's why Helstar has enlisted not one, but two bassists to try to fill his shoes.
"At some point, we're all going to have to walk away from it, and it was definitely his time to walk away," Rivera says. "Because of him being such a vital member throughout the whole history of Helstar, we just felt like bringing in a real member again and replacing him was the dishonorable thing to do.
"So we're just going on without Jerry, and we're getting these awesome bass players that are session players," he continues. "We've got a guy for the U.S. right here at home now, and we've got our guy in Europe, and those are pretty much the two places we play a lot. When it comes time to go to South America, well, we'll flip a coin!"
Slovenian bassist Matej Susnik handled the low end on the new album and will join Helstar when they cross the pond. Tomorrow night and on subsequent U.S. dates, local boy Garrick Smith of the Scourge will slappa da bass for the group.
Having separate bassists for separate continents might be an uncommon situation in heavy metal, but Rivera says it made too much sense not to try.
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"It really wouldn't have been but one guy -- the guy from Europe, Matej, who actually played on the album," the singer says. "But the reality is that he's in Europe! When we play America, we can't exactly keep flying him down all the time, because that would be so costly. So we needed somebody here.
"It makes things easier, actually, from a financial aspect," he adds.
If that sounds like Helstar plans to do some serious touring, it's because they are. Practically as soon as the new album hits iTunes, they'll be flying across the Atlantic.
"We're only going to do a short little run this time so that some of the guys can save their time, because everyone in Helstar is very professionally outfitted with real jobs, unlike me!" Rivera says, laughing. "They use their vacation time wisely. We're just going to go over there and do ten shows and knock that out in a week and two days, and save some time for an East Coast run later in the summer."
The travels won't end there, with West Coast dates and a headlining gig at the Warriors of Metal Festival in Ohio to follow in the summer. In fact, after three decades in the game, Helstar may simply never end.
"I'll die with a microphone in my hand," Rivera chuckles. "That's my curse. Lyrically, we'll never run out of ideas. I'm up at 9 a.m. and I'm doing my coffee and my exercise, and my entertainment on the sideline is HLN: Headline News!
"Just kick that shit on, and you can write a novel every day," the singer laughs. "It's the sickness and the madness and the corruption. The whole everything about this world is enough to just make comedy movies or heavy-metal albums forever."
Helstar performs with Venomous Maximus, Warbeast, Sanctus Bellum and Termination Force Saturday night at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Doors open at 7 p.m.
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