“Beware the stranger, he wants your throne. Riding aimlessly onward, toward the unknown.”
In a sense, I was heading towards the unknown when I first stumbled across this debut album from a relatively obscure 80’s power/thrash metal band. I don’t quite remember why, but the name Burning Star came into my head one night and I looked it up on YouTube. I think I was expecting to find a band with said name, but little did I know that what I found would end up becoming possibly my favorite album of all time. At the time Rush was my all time favorite band and, while they still are among my favorites, Helstar would eventually take that spot. I believe I can safely say they have that secured.
Despite this being their debut, Helstar was immediately able to come out with their own unique sound. Influences from the likes of Judas Priest, Mercyful Fate, and Rush can be detected, but those influences can really only be noticed when listening intently. The most noticeable I would say is the intro to “Run With the Pack”, which sounds pretty similar to something you’d hear on Rush’s A Farewell to Kings or Hemispheres. Apart from that, this is what you can only hear and think “That sounds like Helstar!” The music that Helstar creates here is a blend of power, traditional, and a bit of thrash metal. It’s all crafted beautifully, using both the soaring melody of traditional metal as well as the extra bite of early thrash.
The title track is one of the best openings to any album, with a catchy as hell descending riff that really makes it sound like you’re in a spaceship- like the one depicted on the album cover- and going down in fire. You want to hear one of the best guitar solos ever made? The one on this track, and the end of it in particular, sounds like a downward spiral straight into the empty void of space. “Witch’s Eye” is probably the song I’ve listened to most, and I know exactly why: the punchy main riff just hits the listener in the gut as soon as the song starts. Vocalist James Rivera switches perfectly between a searing sneer to high pitched screams and already had a unique vocal style this early on in his career. He can deliver some real chilling melodies, especially on “Toward the Unknown”. I’ve always loved how this song has a great contrast between catchy main hooks with some very beautiful vocal lines.
Both sides of the album end with fantastic finales that really close out each part of the album well. Side one closes out with the aforementioned mini-epic of “Run With the Pack”, which has since become a staple as the encore for the band’s live shows. Side two, and therefore the album, finishes with “Dracula’s Castle”. Already on the debut, Helstar displays their interest in vampires that would lead to their 1989 semi-concept album Nosferatu.
Helstar has had many lineup changes throughout their career, with vocalist James Rivera and guitarist Larry Barragan being the only constant members. Along with Rob Halford and Chris Cornell, James Rivera completes my holy trifecta of favorite vocalists. Larry Barragan delivers every riff, hook, and solo with utmost conviction. Whether it’s the careening riffs on “Shadows of Iga”, the punch of “Witch’s Eye”, the swirling hooks and solos of the title track, or the monstrous and infectiously catchy riff that graces the bridge of “Possession”, Barragan always brings you the best. The remaining three band members only played on this album, but second guitarist Tom Rogers, bassist Paul Medina, and drummer Hector Pavon are no slouches either. Part of the appeal of the album is due to the pounding rhythms from Pavon, and how well his drums are produced makes it even better.
Not only is the album my all time favorite, but so is the cover art. The chaotic space-battle shown on the cover art is drawn in such a classic sci-fi way, and it’s impossible to ignore the spectacular explosion that takes the near center.
Burning Star holds a special place in my heart, as not only an amazing album, but the album that opened up the world of lesser known bands to my musical knowledge. So often bands don’t get attention they deserve, or don’t get it until much later. Helstar has not made a single bad or weak album, and I doubt they ever will. Burning Star kicked off their career with a bang, and while everything they’ve done is exceptional, there’s something about this album that edges it just a bit above the rest. Maybe it has to do with it being the first album I heard from them, maybe it’s because of some extra charm, or maybe something else. Whatever the reason, this is an underrated masterpiece and one that I will always treasure.