Raise the sails and fly the black mark, the original metal pirates are back to plunder your booty (in a strictly platonic way, of course). That’s right, Running Wild returns to the brigand business with Shadowmaker, their first new material since 2005’s God-awful Rogues in Vogue. The Germanic metallers led by O.B. (original buccaneer) Rock n’ Rolf have had a long history, and this marks their fourteenth album full of traditional metal with a swashbuckler fetish. While at times, the whole “pirate thing” may have gotten tiresome, and some of their later albums flat-out sucked, I grew up with these scalawags and always had a soft spot for them. Branded and Exiled, Under Jolly Roger and Pile of Skulls remain among my favorite albums to this day, and despite the weakness of their later material (The Rivalry was the one great late-period release), I was sad when they called it a day in 2009. After some time and distance from the scene, it seems Mr. Rock n’ Rolf felt energized and ready to return to the seven seas. In interviews, he remarked on the absence of pressure while writing the material for Shadowmaker and how he just had fun with it. That comes across in the resulting songs. This is a loose, relaxed, stripped-down metal album loaded with fun riffs and catchy choruses. It’s the best Running Wild album since The Rivalry and has all the elements that made them so enjoyable in the past. It also has a huge Saxon influence, which is never a bad thing!
As with all Running Wild albums, Shadowmaker is very guitar-driven and loaded with straight-forward, energetic riffage by Rolf and Peter Jordan. While some older albums were up-tempo and almost thrashy, the bulk of Shadowmaker is mid-tempo, laid-back and akin to Saxon, Accept and mid-period Judas Priest. Opener “Piece of the Action” is a an instantly memorable metal anthem with simple riffing and a catchy-as-hell chorus. It’s like a cross between AC/DC and Krokus (yes, Krokus, you bastards!!) with Biff Byford from Saxon on vocals (seems as Rolf ages, he sounds more and more like old Biff and I’m fine with that). The piratey material shows up on “Riding on the Tide” and you can imagine Jolly Roger smiling as the infectious, sing-along chorus arrives. This is the exactly the kind of stuff I missed! Elsewhere, we get the aggressive, Popeye-esque “I Am Who I Am,” which is another Running Wild classic, and the slow burn and vocal hooks of “Black Shadow.”
It isn’t until “Me & the Boys” that Shadowmaker hits the proverbial reef. This one is, how do I put it, awful and cheesier than Wisconsin (sorry AMG). While it goes for a happy, radio rock sound similar to Thin Lizzy, it’s cringe-worthy, annoying as hell and sounds totally out-of-place. Thankfully, the boys right the ship and the rest of the songs are solid and rockin (especially the riffs at 2:43 on the title track and the church bells incorporated into “Dracula”).
All Running Wild albums sink or swim depending on the riffs, and Shadowmaker has plenty of good ones. Rolf and Peter Jordan nail the dual axe harmonies and each song has its share of driving, anthemic leads with a slight Thin Lizzy fixation (the solo at 2:49 on “Piece of the Action” in particular). Rolf’s vocals sound great as well. He was never a particularly gifted vocalist, but his gruff delivery has improved a lot over the years. No one is credited with bass or drums and I have a sneaking suspicion they used a drum machine. They were infamous for doing so in the past, while crediting the fictitious Angelo Sasso for the performance. Based on the sound, it seems Angelo was impressed into naval service once again (he’s probably to blame for the shitty, faux-Voivod cover art as well, the mangy cur!). Still, it doesn’t hurt the album and this is a successful comeback.
It’s nice to have these guys back prowling the coasts again. Better still, they sound happy to be back. While more hard rock oriented than ever before, it’s still vintage Running Wild and better than I expected. They’ve gotten back to basics and keel-hauled the scurvy songwriting that hurt albums like Victory and Rogues in Vogue. This is a good album for rowdy beer drinking, and with summer right around the corner, you best get out yer eye patches and join the crew! Yarrrrrrr!