Like an undead ghoul that refuses to stay buried, Houston heavy-metal stalwarts Helstar always seem to rise again for another bite. The undying power-thrash act has weathered a multitude of lineup and label changes in the three-plus decades since its Combat Records debut, Burning Star. One thing, though, has never changed since the band’s inception: the unholy hunger of guitarist Larry Barragan and singer James Rivera to keep reaching, keep recording and keep performing until somebody finally sticks a stake through their hearts.
By all indications, that won’t be anytime soon. This Friday, the band will take the stage at Concert Pub North to celebrate Rivera’s birthday on a bill with New Wave of British Heavy Metal survivors Grim Reaper. Though he jokes that he isn’t thrilled about another birthday rolling around, the histrionic singer has much to celebrate this year, including a new album, a new management company and a plum new record deal that comes courtesy of an old friend: Megadeth bassist David Ellefson.
“Me and Dave Ellefson go back so far,” Rivera says. “Touring with them back in the day, him producing a Helstar record, and then me and him playing in a project together called Killing Machine — it’s been a non-stop friendship forever. And he just made us the sweetest deal in the world that anybody could ask for.”
Helstar hasn’t always had the greatest luck with record labels. Early on, they shared a label with Megadeth, Combat Records, before moving on to Metal Blade Records, with whom they issued their seminal album, the vampire concept record Nosferatu. Ultimately, though, lineup changes hindered any momentum Helstar might have had as the ‘90s rolled around. Interest in their brand of Judas Priest-inflected metal waned, but the band found new life in the 21st century. Since 2007, the group has been signed to the German label AFM Records.
None of those record deals proved particularly lucrative, Rivera says. When the AFM deal expired, he was ready to wash his hands of labels entirely.
“We were gonna just do our own label, because we just feel like the way that the record companies are made these days, you can’t reinvent the wheel,” the singer says. “It’s all about them making everything. Sure, they give you advances and all that to record, but that’s all you ever see from them. The rest of the time, royalty statements come in with more and more debt on them every time. You start to think, ‘Wow, I’ll never know what a real royalty check looks like.’”
Plans changed when Ellefson came calling. The longtime Megadeth sideman launched a new label imprint called EMP Records through eOne Entertainment (U.S.) and SPV (Europe) last year. So far, the imprint has signed younger, upcoming artists still building a name for themselves. When tipped off by a mutual friend that Helstar were free agents, Rivera says that Ellefson saw an opportunity to scoop up an act that didn’t need much artist development work — and one that happened to include an old pal or two.
“We met back when Helstar got to tour with Megadeth back in 1986,” Rivera says. “We did a nice string of dates with them in the Midwest and down to the East Coast, and that’s where our relationship started. We hit it off like peas and carrots, as Forrest Gump says.
“We were partyin’ compadres,” the singer says, chuckling at the memory. “Ever since then, I stayed in touch with the Megadeth guys.”
Evenutally, Ellefson would produce part of Helstar’s 1995 album Multiples of Black and collaborate with Rivera in the group Killing Machine during a brief split from Megadeth. Now, he’s helping to put out Helstar’s latest effort, the new album Vampiro.
If that title sounds like the band is taking thematic cues from its 1989 landmark Nosferatu, it’s because they are. Vampiro will be an all-new, vampire-themed concept album. A dedicated fan of Christopher Lee’s Hammer Films Dracula pictures, Rivera says that the actor’s death last year created a wave of nostalgia that helped fuel the creation of the new album. It didn’t hurt that Helstar had scored previously with tales of capes and fangs, either.
“We were the first band, really, in the metal world to do a full-on Dracula concept,” Rivera says. “Look how big that vampire stuff has gotten these days.”
Fans got a sneak preview of Vampiro last Friday, when the first single from the record, “Black Cathedral,” arrived on iTunes. The tune is inspired by the Christopher Lee B-movie classic “Taste the Blood of Dracula,” which, fittingly enough, finds the ancient and undying Dracula resurrecting once more inside of a desecrated church.
“It’s one of the most Satanic Dracula movies ever,” Rivera gushes.
Vampiro is still being mixed currently by Bill Metoyer, the man who produced Nosferatu and now has Helstar signed to the Alpha Omega management company, where he’s an A&R rep. Rivera says the new disc is planned for release sometime around August, and that the band expects to hit the road in Europe and the U.S. to promote it.
Helstar will offer local fans the first bite at the new live material on Friday, and Rivera says he plans to work the vampire theme harder on stage this time around than he did back in the ‘80s.
“Ever since I let people talk me out of doing things onstage besides coming out in the black jeans and the white high-tops, I’ve been trying to do a little bit more exciting things with the stage shows,” he says. “So, what people can expect this time out is an even more theatrical stage show on my part.”
Helstar takes the stage at Concert Pub North, 2470 Cypress Creek Pkwy., this Friday, April 15 with Grim Reaper, Serpent Attack, Hel-Razor and Apocalyptic. $20.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE...
Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.