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Wow. I've had this review sitting and stewing for about 4 months now, and I guess the time has finally come to finish it.
In 1990, Judas Priest released their metal megalith titled Painkiller upon an unsuspecting world, and it blew everybody away. That is indeed a very good album and easily a classic. Yet this album, which is along the same lines, had been there two years before that well known album was put out, and it absolutely slays. Riot are one of, if not the, oldest American metal bands, formed in 1976. This was their 1988 output, and it's the first album I've heard from the band. With the classy, stylish soloing and speed metal riffage courtesy of Mark Reale, the mystical, nostalgic rhythm team of Don Van Stavem and Bobby Jarzombek, and the otherworldly shrieks of the absolutely godly Tony Moore, Riot end up with an aurally pleasing combination of 1 part 70s classic rock, 1 part mid-80s Savatage, 2 parts traditional Judas Priest sound, and a few bushels of complete fucking speed metal insanity! Thundersteel is one of a kind.
The songs here are all insanely creative, catchy, and really damn cool. The vocals are extremely addictive, and will stick in your head even after one or two listens. Tony Moore may be a Halford clone, and he may pale in comparison to Midnight of Crimson Glory, but he's no less than amazing, just a small step below Halford. That's saying something, too. I wonder why we never saw Moore in any other bands. He was a very promising talent. The guitar lines are absolutely spectacular; searing and crystal clear, and they really remind me of the equally cool ones put out by Criss Oliva around the same time period in Savatage's best albums. See "Fight or Fall" and "Run For Your Life" for the best Savatage comparisons, and tell me those couldnt've been on Hall of the Mountain King.
In "Sign of the Crimson Storm", they have some extremely strong semblances to Deep Purple and 70s Judas Priest with the riffs and vocal melodies. When they combine those influences with some breakneck heavy metal (the solo), it makes for an extremely enjoyable sound that I can't get enough of. Fucking great song. The title track rivals anything on Painkiller and it's a high-speed burst of metallic fun and fury that I can't get enough of. And the lyrics of "Johnny's Back" combined with the rebellious 80s metal style of the song make for one of my favorites, too. "I am your maaaaaaan!" "Bloodstreets" is a semi-ballad of sorts, but it still ends up rocking, and "Flight of the Warrior" and "On Wings of Eagles" make for a great duo of power metal virtuosity, with their most redeeming features being the high flying and glorious choruses they boost.
And no heavy/power metal release is truly complete without the obligatory epic, and Riot realized this, thus the existance of "Buried Alive (Tell Tale Heart)." It's a musical adaption of the classic Poe tale The Tell Tale Heart, and I'm just going to cut to the chase and say that Riot did a very acceptable job with the transition. It starts off with a spoken word intro that reminds me of an 80s horror film, and then eases it's way into a midpaced, darker number that was unlike anything else on this album. It takes a while to kick off, with some clear, searing guitar melodies and another spoken intro over some church bells before the pulsating, grooving riffage kicks in, but it's a damn good song once it gets going. The chorus is darker and more somber, not like the happy power metal jaunts of the rest of the album, and "Buried Alive" is generally the most involved and inaccessible song on the disc. Give it some time to grow on you. An epic and dark closing to a fine album.
The production here is obviously not as good as it could be today, but for 1988, this is a damn good recording job. Every instrument is audible and polished, not muddy or muted or raw in the least, and nothing takes precedence over the rest of the mix. There are really no complaints here at all, except that this should definetly be remastered with modern production. Holy fuck, that would kill.
This was my first taste of Riot, and I'll definetly be checking out the rest of their work in due time. Every fan of 80s power/speed metal should hear this album at least once in their life, because it's absolutely essential. If you're a fan of this kind of stuff, then Riot is your best bet. This might bear resemblances to Painkiller, but it's got a unique sound all it's own, and anyone dismissing Riot as a Priest clone might as well just keep their head up their ass, because they're missing some wonderful metal. Highly recommended.