Helstar & Venomous Maximus at Fitzgerald's, 4/12/2014

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Helstar, Venomous Maximus, Sanctus Bellum, Termination Force Fitzgerald's April 12, 2014

The list of local bands that can still fill up Fitzgerald's more than 30 years after jamming out on their first power chord is a short one. On Saturday night, the metallic warriors in Helstar proved they can still pull that trick off with a little help from a few Johnny-come-lately friends.

The old club's crowded upstairs room was in fine spirit all evening, with supporting acts Termination Force, Sanctus Bellum and Venomous Maximus drawing plenty of claps and cheers. But the audience's most unconditional love was reserved for Helstar, the Houston metal institution celebrating the release next week of their tenth studio album, This Wicked Nest.

Before James Rivera and Co. would summon the horns both literal and figurative, though, the eclectic collection of other bands on the bill raised some hell of their own. With drummer Aldo Guerra Guajardo leading the way, Termination Force began the show with a tremendous racket, clearly pleased at the opportunity to batter a swelling and enthusiastic crowd of early birds. Their grinding thrash assault was followed up by the altogether more polished Sanctus Bellum, which saw titanic bassist Ben Yaker and guitarist Jan Kimmel rock out passionately to new-ish doom cuts like "Non-Serviam" and older ones such as "God's Own Warrior."

Up next should have been DFW's mighty Warbeast, the whipping, old-school thrash band featuring Rigor Mortis' Bruce Corbitt on the mike. To the surprise and horror of that band's Houston fans, however, Warbeast never appeared, apparently having canceled the day of the show. Mighty disappointing.

Still, Warbeast's absence was quickly forgotten by most when the local lads in Venomous Maximus appeared in dramatic fashion to unveil an evil batch of new tunes. Taking the stage in a cloud of smoke and an eerie blue glow, the band came galloping out of the gate with "White Rose," one of the tracks from the new album they've been working on, Firewalker.

Venomous eschewed most of their familiar songs on Saturday in order to try out their latest stuff, but the new songs sounded plenty familiar anyway, featuring the same harmonized riffage, pounding drums and howling vocals that have won the band a growing cult of fans inside the Loop and beyond.

"All of our new material was written under the influence of atomic gold," said front man Gregg Higgins, apparently referring to an element of magical mind expansion. "If you don't know what that it, find out!"

While at least one writer in the crowd scurried off to Google to discover what the hell Higgins was talking about, the band marched through a long and slamming rendition of "Angel Heart." Many heads did bang -- a small sample of the occult madness the group is certain to brew up in a few weeks at Free Press Summer Festival.

Review continues on the next page.

Not a lot of Houston metal bands can outdraw Venomous Maximus these days, but Helstar proved up to the challenge. As the metallic lifers' demonic stage banners were unveiled, the audience bulged, with the luckiest fans scoring plum seats along the railing of Fitz's legendary balcony.

After a bombastic recording of the 1812 Overture's climax played over the PA, H-Town's ultimate heavy-metal veterans appeared at last to the unreserved glee of longtime fans. Singer James Rivera, possibly the most metal man ever to take up residence in the Bayou City, arrived last onstage, wearing a dramatic, horned skull mask over his head that did little to muffle his soul-piercing vocals on "Fall of Dominion," the leadoff track from This Wicked Nest. Practically every camera phone in the place shot up immediately to snap a picture of such a ghastly visage.

Propelled onward by the pulverizing kick drums of Mikey Lewis, Helstar rolled over their people like a well-oiled, armored assault vehicle, mixing in new songs like "Eternal Black" and "It Has Risen" with older chestnuts, such as the chant-along favorite "Good Day to Die" from 1995's Multiples of Black.

As usual, Rivera's unstoppable voice was the undeniable focal point of the band's attack. The front man's preternatural shrieking stacks up very nicely with those of metallic legends Rob Halford and Ronnie James Dio, and if he missed a not all night, it was quickly obliterated by the slick soloing of lead guitarist Rob Trevino.

Older metalheads with big smiles on their faces pumped their fists in time, while younger fans who must have been diapers or yet unborn when Helstar first crawled out of the darkness moshed happily to 1989's "To Sleep, Perchance to Scream." There were a lot of hugs and high-fives in the audience as old friends and ex-bandmates reconnected over some classic heavy metal.

By the time the headbanging reached its zenith with the traditional set-closer "Run With the Pack," Helstar had once again affirmed their place at the top of H-Town's undying metal hierarchy, seemingly ready for another 30 years of devilry. With the band on the cusp of a new international touring cycle, the chromed shredders sounded well-rehearsed and ready to leave the Nest and stretch their pitch-black wings once more.

Personal Bias: Metal maniac.

The Crowd: Celebrating the return of warm weather at last.

Overheard in the Crowd: "Is he going to play the whole show with that thing on his head?"

Random Notebook Dump: What the fuck, Warbeast?


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