Album of the Week 51-2013: Riot – Thundersteel

Some records just scream “Metal” proudly in your face. Judas Priest’s ‘Painkiller’ obviously is something of a model record in that matter. However, two years prior to that classic, New York’s Riot released an album Priest wouldn’t even dare to dream of. In Priest’s defense, it would take them a little longer until they found a drummer of the same class as Riot’s Bobby Jarzombek, but that’s not the only reason why ‘Thundersteel’ is an album that is worthy of the same praise as ‘Painkiller’. Its impeccable songwriting and top-notch musicianship have proven through the years to be almost impossible to equal.

At the time, ‘Thundersteel’ was something of a rebirth for Riot. The band had been around since the mid-seventies and had recorded some essential early Heavy Metal records – ‘Fire Down Under’ above all – but it wasn’t until this album that all the pieces fell into place. Mark Reale had proven himself a fantastic songwriter and even better guitarist through the last decade and a half, but even he outdid himself here. Then there was the unexperienced, but fantastic singer Tony Moore who debuted here, the aforementioned Jarzombek and bassist Don Van Stavern, who contributed to a lot of this album’s stellar songwriting.

With that as a strong base, the album kicks off into a flying start. ‘Thundersteel’ itself is probably the most impressive, adrenalin pumping opening track Heavy Metal had heard up until then – as mentioned, this is two years before ‘Painkiller’, which it pretty much is on par with – with Jarzombek’s rolling bass drums, Reale’s blazing riffs and solos and Moore soaring on top of that. If this doesn’t get your blood cooking, you’re not into Heavy Metal, it’s that simple. Quite a lot of American bands did this kind of classy, melodic Heavy Metal at the time rather successfully – Leatherwolf, Omen and Savage Grace come to mind – but none had summed up Heavy Metal as well as ‘Thundersteel’ did.

However, there’s more after that amazing title track. In fact, the album is a continuous source of highlights, my favorite of which being ‘Johnny’s Back’. Lyrically in the same vein as Thin Lizzy’s ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, the song is a combination of fantastic climaxes, a brilliant chorus, amazing riffs supported by Jarzombek’s pulsating drumming and a masterclass in lead guitar work. The nostalgia displayed in the lyrics somehow is reflected really well in the song’s melodies. Other highlights include the eighties USPM riff fest that is ‘Run For Your Life’ and the near-Thrash riffing of ‘Flight Of The Warrior’. But even when the band slows down, as heard on mid-tempo stomper ‘Sign Of The Crimson Storm’ and closing Doomster ‘Buried Alive (Tell Tale Heart)’, they impress.

Contemporary Metal fans have the tendency to ridicule this kind of Metal somehow, but I have yet to see one of the newer “heroes” of the scene come up with this combination of energy, melody, instrumental mastery, class and compositional brilliance. Sadly, chief songwriter and master guitarist Mark Reale passed away about two years ago, leaving a void in the genre that only true experts seem to acknowledge. ‘Thundersteel’ is his magnum opus, an album that should be heard by anyone who loves Heavy Metal the way it’s supposed to be played.

Recommended tracks: ‘Johnny’s Back’, ‘Thundersteel’, ‘Run For Your Life’

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