Unlike the other bands featured in these Retro-spective reviews, New York’s own Riot is a seminal, long running and well known act. Slogging away since 1977, they released classic albums like Rock City and Fire Down Under. So why are they included here you ask? Well, one of their albums seems to have been lost in time and forgotten even though I regard it as their best by far. That album is, or course 1988’s Thundersteel. This release marked a stark departure in sound for Riot. Forgoing their more traditional, slower 70’s roots, Thundersteel was all about intense Painkiller-like aggression, soaring vocals and speed speed and more speed. Maybe it was the arrival of vocalist extraordinaire Tony Moore or just something in the NYC water that year but this album is one non-stop explosion of blistering guitar, air raid vocals, superb writing and unreal energy. It was a sound and urgency they never recaptured despite very strong moments on their 1990 follow up The Privilege of Power. Since this album is a true buried treasure of speed/power, I felt it was job, nay, my DUTY to bring it back out of the shadows in 2011. Commence the learning!
From go its clear this isn’t the average Riot album. The title track opener is a face melting speed metal monster that could have sat alongside anything on Painkiller with confidence. Lightning fast riffing, screaming guitar licks and Tony Moore sounding like Rob Halford on speed, this song blasts all in its path. The lead riff is excellent and the solo at 2:03 is insanely good. This is a pure metal song if ever there was one. The beauty of Thundersteel is that the whole album is of equal quality. As tough as it is to follow an opener as good as this, all the successive tracks shine. “Fight or Fall” channels Manowar material but ups the tempo to thrash levels as Moore lets loose with some excellently soaring vocals about fighting to the death. Again, its a guitar driven song with solos that peel paint and songwriting that squeezes the maximum impact from the talents involved. Things slow down somewhat for the grinding but powerful epic “Sign of the Crimson Storm” (great chorus, great vocals) then amp right back up for back to back assaults from “Flight of the Warrior” and my favorite, “On the Wings of Eagles.” Even when Riot dials down for power ballads like “Johnny’s Back” and “Bloodstreets” they keep the octane level high and the over-the-top dramatics equally high. Both are actually killer songs that you can’t shake from your brain. Album closer “Buried Alive” is a heavy, plodding and super memorable song where Moore brings an extra edge to his delivery. Another standout among standouts. Basically there isn’t a weak song here, just one big metal moment on top of another. Yep, its a huge metal sandwich with extra steel on the side.
Thundersteel is the overwhelming winner it is because of the insane guitar pyrotechnics from Mark Reale and the dizzying vocals of Moore. Reale is a riff and solo powerhouse and every song is loaded with killer fret gymnastics and Moore has a great tone and wild range. He can practically live in the high ranges that many vocalists can’t ever reach. He really lets it all hang out and holds nothing back. I always wondered if Thundersteel was the blueprint Judas Priest looked to before recording Painkiller two years later on. The similarities are there for sure.
Because this was such a huge, powerful album with so much going for it, it always seemed odd that Riot didn’t continue in the same direction. While The Privilege of Power was good in its own way and had three songs that kept the Thundersteel ethos intact, they went off in a far more commercial, hard rock direction that disappointed me. Afterwards Tony Moore left the band and things were never as interesting after that. Thundersteel was the juggernaut in their catalog and I’ve always been perplexed why it never got more attention. Well, its not too late and this bastard deserves some attention! Overlook the grade school cover art and track it down or resign yourself to missing out on the album that was Painkiller before Painkiller. A must hear!