Helstar, Sanctus Bellum, etc. Warehouse Live December 1, 2012
Heavy metal has long since proven to be the most virulent and drug-resistant strain of rock and roll, always seething just underground and ready to erupt into a blister the minute the mainstream's immune system weakens. There's certainly been no cure found for Helstar, the Houston power-thrash institution that closed out its 30th year in Satan's service on Saturday.
If anything, the disease appears to be spreading.
The crowd that showed up at Warehouse Live's studio room was a reminder of how easily metal has perpetuated itself over the decades. A stacked bill of five Houston bands -- including Metavenge, Axis in Collapse and Apocalyptic -- brought in an enthusiastic crowd ranging in age from mid-fifties to mid-teens. The same can't be said for most local rock shows.
The last of the openers was Sactus Bellum, whose doomy, intricate riffs sent hair flying in the audience. Perhaps as a nod to the speed addictions of their fellow performers, the band highlighted some of its best galloping material, saving some of its more languid pieces for another occasion.
Most of the set was taken from The Shining Path, Sanctus' new album released earlier this year. Songs like "Epahniah" set heads banging with cruel grooves as bassist Ben Yaker's fingers flew across his strings. The twin axes of guitarists Jan Kimmel and Maurice Eggenschwiler sounded spine-tingling on the last song, "Vessel," leaving the crowd impatient for more.
Tightened and honed from its recent European tour, Helstar was fully prepared to deliver. There was a lot of happy grinning going on as the band took the stage, warmly welcomed by friends and family ready for another round of its metal assault.
The audience crowded up near the stage to pump their fists along with singer James Rivera, whose powerful, Dio-esque wailing effortlessly commanded all attention. After decades of working the circuit, Helstar still has obvious passion for what they do, particularly Rivera and bassist Jerry Abarca, who whipped his stringy hair back and forth across the stage with obvious glee.
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It appears that the secret to longevity may be simply having too much fun to quit. In between thrashers, Rivera delivered the band's succinct, explicit raison d'etre after so many years in the game:
"We were raised on metal," he said. "We live and breathe metal. Through all the decades!"
The howling metal horde in attendance certainly seemed to relate. The appeal of speed and volume appeared ageless on Saturday night, with graying metal lifers whooping it up right alongside the Guitar Hero set.
For a while at least, the audience banged heads as one, unified by the overpowering thunder of Rivera's voice and the ceaseless shredding of guitarists Larry Barragan and Rob Trevino. As the speed and intensity of the music increased, however, a rough and wild mosh pit exploded. Most of the floor was ceded without argument to the slammers.
As beer spilled everywhere, the pushing and shoving gradually got a little less friendly. A long-haired guy got decked near the merch table, and a couple of songs later, a big, older dude was set upon by some teens. Both times, it looked as if a full-scale brawl might break out in the middle of Helstar's set, but in each instance Warehouse Live staffers managed to hustle the problem out the door before things got truly ugly.
Helstar was clearly chagrined by the violence, which threatened to cast a pall over what was supposed to be a celebratory affair. Experienced hands that they are, the band managed to keep the night on track by plowing ahead, pumping out as many smiles, licks and positive vibrations as necessary.
By the time Helstar encored with the modern rager "King of Hell," the crowd was back under their spell. Long mops bounced in time as drummer Mikey Lewis pounded out furious machine-gun rhythms. Metal fans young and old opted to put their fists in the air instead of in one another's orbital sockets during the band's traditional finale, "Run With the Pack."
Arms slung over shoulders, the audience once more resembled the familial tribe that Rivera had earlier lauded for its support over the years. Drunk, rowdy and deafened though they may be, these are Helstar's people, and they're pretty tough to kill. Don't be surprised if they're still hanging out and smoking in another 30 years.
Personal Bias: In league with Satan.
The Crowd: Old, young and in-between. Mostly male, if you couldn't guess.
Overheard In the Crowd: "I thought they were gonna play more stoner shit!"
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Random Notebook Dump: Headbangers, that's two weeks in a row now that I've seen you beating on each other at concerts by local metal icons. Knock it off.