Riot is a legendary name in the New York metal scene with a career spanning almost 40 years. They’ve released genre classics like Narita, Fire Down Under and their crowning moment, 1988s Thundersteel. I’ve banged on about how great that album is since joining AMG and to this day it remains one of my all time favorites. The Thundersteel lineup reunited in 2011 for the brilliant Immortal Soul, which earned a very rare 5.0/5.0 from yours truly and it seemed the world was about to witness a major Riot renaissance. Then tragedy struck and founder and guitarist supreme Mark Reale passed away, leaving Riot in limbo. Long time guitarist Mike Flyntz wanted to continue the band in Mark’s honor, and after discussions with his family, agreed to change the name to Riot V in recognition that it couldn’t truly be Riot without Mark. From there the band set out to record an album that preserved the band’s classic sound and legacy. That meant replacing Tony Moore on vocals and finding someone to step into Reale’s enormous shoes. With a revamped lineup and song writing handled by bassist Don Van Starvern (who wrote much of Thundersteel), they finally deliver Unleash the Fire.
Though I was highly skeptical this would work out, it only takes a minute or two to hear that Mark Reale’s heart and soul live on in this new incarnation. The same black leather and glittering steel that infused Thundersteel, Privilege of Power and Immortal Soul are here in spades, and on many of the songs you can almost close your eyes and hear the classic lineup live again. The band has done Mark proud with a collection of wickedly infectious, kick ass, old school metal tunes that will warm the cockles of Riot fan’s hearts and I couldn’t be happier about that.
Unleash the Fire opens with four first-rate songs, from the classically guitar driven American power metal of “Ride Hard, Live Free,” to the cheesy but insanely metal rumble of “Metal Warriors” which feels like the companion tune to classics like “Johnny’s Back” and exudes an irresistible cool factor. “Fall From the Sky” is a major standout – a brilliant callback to “On Wings of Eagles” off Thundersteel and it’s the perfect metal song in every way. Speedy, aggressive, fist pumping and epic, with vocals that compel a sing along regardless of venue or social mores. This baby could sit proudly alongside the gems on Thundersteel and it’s an instant candidate for Song of the Year.
The goods keep getting delivered with “Bring the Hammer Down,” which sounds like Hammerfall with four times the ball quotient, and the almost too catchy “Land of the Rising Sun,” which I’ve been singing endlessly for weeks, much to the chagrin of family, friends and coworkers. Also a winner is “Take Me Back” with it’s mid-tempo, vintage Scorpions groove and a chorus that sinks deeply into the grey matter. It covers the lyrical terrain of missing the good old days of one’s youth, which has long been a staple of Riot‘s writing, and with Reale’s passing, it feels even more poignant than usual.
There are a few lesser tracks that soften the collective punch a bit, like the title track, which is a bit too generic, and the overly schmaltzy ode to Reale heard on “Immortal,” which is a little too heavy handed and overdone. Since the band does a much better job of saying goodbye to their fallen brother on album closer “Until We Meet Again,” part of me wishes they dropped “Immortal” off the album, but it isn’t bad and doesn’t derail the album’s wild momentum.
The biggest surprise here is new vocalist Todd Michael Hall (Jack Star’s Burning Star). Not only is he a dead ringer for Tony Moore, but he seems to be going out of his way to mimic his phrasing and vocal patterns. He’s so much like Moore in delivery and ability that many wouldn’t know the difference. That can be seen as cheesy or pragmatic, but I’m fine with it, as it keeps the classic Riot sound as close to intact as possible. His soaring, powerhouse vocals bring these songs to life and inject a welcome layer of metal excess to the already over the top style. Though Hall brings his A game, this is really all about the guitar pyrotechnics of Mike Flyntz and young gun Nick Lee. They do their best to approximate Reale’s style of riffing and soloing, and they get close enough at times to make things feel a bit ghostly. They light up every song with polished, but unrestrained soloing and ripping harmonies and ultimately turn the album into an air guitar addict’s worst nightmare.
I admit doubting them, but Riot V kept their classic sound and made a proper sequel to Immortal Soul. In a time when so few albums live up to expectations, this feels like a particularly generous gift from a band I’ve grown up with and worshipped. We’ll miss you Mark, but your baby is in good hands and they’re still rocking like the good old days. Rest in peace, brother.