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Assuming that you like heavy metal, you're going to want to check out Running Wild. All of the really important elements of the music we love are included in the Germans' songs, sometimes to excess, but then what is heavy metal without a bit of excess? Subtlety is not the order of the day on Pile of Skulls, nor has the word ever been in Running WIld's vocabulary, though that's not to say that an album such as Death or Glory didn't have emotional resonance in addition to great riffs and roaring vocals. Here, we get a fairly simple helping of fast yet traditional heavy metal that's well-executed but offers little new.
First up, you will be sated for riffs before you even get to 'Treasure Island', which is an 11 minute epic conspicuously loaded chock-full with the things. That's a big positive for the album, since the guitars are placed up front: thick, loud, and twisting guitars that know how to thud and groove like the hard rock bands of old, as well as sprinting off like a wolf after a fleeing rabbit when things start to hot up. A song like 'Fistful of Dynamite' puts the speedy riffs in the open spaces to power the song along, then takes strong surges of power chords to prop up the muscular vocals of Rock 'n' Rolf Kasparek, dashing forward when the leads come into play. There are some all-out fast numbers, such as 'Whirlwind' and 'Pile of Skulls', which really get the adrenaline flowing, while there are steadier songs like 'Roaring Thunder' that are more stadium/hard rock than metal, with stomping drums and emphatic stabs of guitar. The faster and more varied songs tend to have the pick of the riffs, particularly 'Treasure Island', which takes its time to detour through a full set of mid-paced and twin guitar speed riffs.
As for the other elements of the band, the vocals are going to be an important feature in deciding whether you like the album. Kasparek has a rough and strong voice that will frighten away fans of power metal, although the gang vocals that crop up in most of the choruses might bring a few crawling back. For the most part, Kasparek sings in a low register (I don't want to imagine him straining for high notes) and has strong rhythmic patterns in his vocals, which counter the more high-pitched and dancing guitar melodies quite well. Like the rest of the music, he isn't that subtle, though can still produce some passion or emotion at times. 'Black Wings of Death' has some nostalgia and feeling to it, though the vocals are only a part of it, since Kasparek mostly settles for simpler patterns than would elevate the song, leaving most of the resonance to the guitars, which are always handled more skilfully than the voice. The drumming performance is similarly important for a mostly fast-paced album, and it's easy to acknowledge that Stefan Scharzmann does his duty, keeping the energy levels up and never settling for merely timekeeping, even if he does overuse his snare at times. The bass is there or thereabouts, but there aren't any standout moments for Thomas Smuszynski.
The songs on Pile of Skulls are mostly very catchy and infectious, whether that quality comes from the riffs, vocals, or melodies. 'Sinister Eyes' and 'Lead or Gold' are probably the best moments for singing along, while both also have a good selection of riffs; 'Pile of Skulls' and 'Treasure Island' are the places to go for guitar enthusiasts; 'Roaring Thunder' is the only real disappointment, taking too much time and providing too few highlights to fully merit its inclusion on a fairly long album. Given the style that speed metal tends to follow, 58 minutes seems quite lengthy, particularly considering that there isn't as much variety as in other musical genres, nor much in the way of surprises regarding song structure. All of the songs excepting 'Treasure Island' follow a repetitive formula of riff-verse-chorus-repeat-lead-chorus, which is a shame considering how Death or Glory had already proved that Running Wild could do a hell of a lot with a limited range of speed metal traits. As such, the songs tend to be fun but predictable, especially when we get to the mid-paced numbers, which can't provide the adrenaline to really excite. Added to this drawback, individual song lengths are slightly excessive, tending to hover around the 5 minute mark, which robs them of their impact. Take out a chorus, slap in a fast lead, pop in an instrumental in the place of 'Roaring Thunder' and you would be looking at a very solid album.
As it is, Pile of Skulls is still good and should satisfy any metalhead's need for red-blooded heaviness, though it doesn't have the extra something needed to make it a compulsary listen. There are songs here that stand tall among Running Wild's discography and 'Treasure Island' is a masterclass in songwriting and riff-making, but you would do similarly well with any other 80s or 90s release from these guys.
Was 1992 the year of metallic drum snares? Dream Theater has the exact same issue with Images And Words, which was released the same year. Hmm, aside from that glaring issue (which isn’t that big of a deal, anyway), this is just Rolf and the gang continuing their merciless onslaught of classy piracy and more. This would be Schwarzmann’s last release with the band; quite a shame losing a man who batters and beats the kit with the bones of dead sailors. The kit sound so loud and raw without having annoying hollow points or illogical patterns; drum wank does not exist in Running Wild at all – tons of double bass charges, but no drum wank.
Drums still can’t compete with the riff speed, which is insane; Morgan and Rolf tear shit up on every track without a lick of remorse. The only licks they’ll be handing out are the lead licks painting the horizon with the blood of fallen foes. However, that’s where this album dips down compared to last time. For some reason, Running Wild have maintained everything from their image to their edge and rebellious attitude, but they’ve lost a bit of energy. They haven’t forgotten where they came from or how to make women undress at the sight of an unsheathed sword, but there’s a gap where the irreplaceable glory and royalty used to be. I guess it makes sense that the guys were pretty classy dudes for the past couple of albums already, so it’d only make sense for them to abandon that and go straight for the ruthlessness. The band basically replaced the stylish harmonies with cunning riffs and melodies – a just decision for now, but I still prefer the preceding approach found on the previous two albums.
The vocals also have an issue – every album since Port Royal has featured Rolf literally wailing and singing with soul. He ditched the grunty, hoarse dirty talking / yelling found on the first three albums (most apparent on Under Jolly Roger). This, combined with matured sound of power metal ethics, made for wonderful, ostentatious epics that captured our hearts vocally and instrumentally. “Chamber Of Lies” really gets you pumped and in the mood with it’s authentic tune, but “Whirlwind” is the real starter that hits you like a typhoon. The riffs and stampede at the beginning all begin nicely, but the very second I heard Rolf’s vocals my gut just dropped. They’re nowhere near as loud and proud as before, and in fact are only a fraction of their full capabilities. This just pisses me off, as they wasted his vocal potential. His voice gets clearer as the album progresses, so I’m pretty sure it’s just a production fuck-up with the first few tracks (still annoying).
Aside from those issues, there’s also a lack of atmosphere compared to the other albums. Port Royal really made you feel like you were in Port Royal, Death Or Glory just screamed history books, and Blazon Stone has me at royal parties with pretentious princes. This one… well, I don’t really feel too much except like I’m stuck in a dungeon or on a ship. Nothing too interesting; the dashing riffs and triumphant solos more than make up for this, but it’s a big deal for Running Wild. The only track that isn’t bound by this flaw is “Treasure Island” – you see 11 minutes and you know that song is going to be packed with a story, victorious riff after riff, and solo after solo. Well, if the insightful spoken intro and the following magnificent melody feel like a cannonball to the chest, then maybe you’ll survive to hear the rest of the tale. It’s easily the highlight of Pile Of Skulls and closes this nasty beast as well as “Calico Jack” did with Port Royal.
Production values aren’t very much different from the previous two albums. We still have the primarily polished equipment with that same dirty guitar tone and a bass tougher than my own rifle. It’s not even Jens Becker and it’s still a brutish bass – Smuszynski would remain with the band for quite a while, so he ought to leave his mark as early as possible. We don’t really get any standout bass lines like Becker did with the last few albums, but his contributions are noteworthy.
While still essentially Running Wild, this one needed to grow on me, and even then it didn’t match up with the hot streak of the last three albums. Losing that one component and having other technical issues brought this one down a level for me, but at the core it’s still Rolf’s lovechild. “Treasure Island” damn well redeemed the whole thing for me – it’s the only track where you feel like a part of the story. For me, I always think of Muppet Treasure Island, the Black Spot, "Cabin Fever," Tim Curry, and all the other goodies entailed in that movie. So yeah, go watch that movie and go listen to that song at the same time.
Pile of Skulls is one of Running Wild’s mid-period albums, the ones that arguably saw the band – or should I say band leader Rock ‘n’ Rolf, as Running Wild was always more of a solo project with various sidekicks – reach its creative peak, but it has rarely gotten the recognition it deserves due to being sandwiched (a fate it shares with its immediate predecessor, the equally underappreciated Blazon Stone) in between two of the band’s most critically acclaimed records, namely Death or Glory and Black Hand Inn. While it comes very close in quality to the former, Pile of Skulls cannot quite compete with the latter due to a couple of slightly underwhelming tracks that fall just short of the rest.
Indeed, all is not gold that glitters here, as both “Sinister Eyes” and “Roaring Thunder” have potential but fail to live up to it. “Sinister Eyes,” which moves along at a somewhat slower pace than the majority of the songs, certainly has its moments but is held back by a lackluster chorus that goes by without leaving much of an impression on the listener. It’s also a bit underdeveloped in the riff department, altogether making this a rather mediocre affair, as is “Roaring Thunder,” which combines two of Rock ‘n’ Rolf’s pet peeves – Indians (the North American variety) and environmentalism. The environmentalism comes into play in Rolf’s lyrics while it’s the music that’s obviously meant to emulate some Native American war song or tribal invocation. Well, the “Indian” atmosphere is certainly palpable here, especially in the rhythm section, but it’s still not a great song as it slowly drags on way too long for its own good. The generic “Indian” chants in the chorus don’t help either, and as much as what Rolf has to say is undoubtedly true, the lyrics can get a bit too preachy for my liking.
Fortunately, these two tracks turn out to be an aberration since the quality of the remaining songs ranges from very good to outstanding. The album begins with “Chamber of Lies,” a neat little intro that perfectly sets the tone for all the looting and pillaging about to follow. More often than not, intros make you reach hard for the skip button, but that’s certainly not the case here as it generates more genuine pirate atmosphere than latter-day pirate wannabes like Alestorm manage to pack into an entire album’s worth of songs. Without having to resort to violins, accordions and other folksy accessories, Running Wild succeed in conjuring up images of dingy smoke-filled taverns where bearded dudes with weather-beaten faces and tri-corner hats have fair maidens seated on their laps and engage in all sorts of alcohol-induced debauchery, spending their hard-won pieces of eight on rum by the bucket-full. “Whirlwind” comes next, and it’s a perfect opener, kicking things off similar to the way “Riding the Storm” kicked off Death or Glory – a no-nonsense speed metal tune with sizzling riffs, great lead guitars and very memorable vocal lines, especially in the chorus: “[gang shouts] Like a whirlwind, rushing over the sea” – an immensely entertaining track and great stuff to shout along to! The title track is another fast one, and it’s basically unadulterated Judas Priest worship – after all, Painkiller had been released only two short years earlier, and the impact it had on the metal scene can easily be gleaned from these four-and-a-half minutes of scorching speed metal with some slight thrash undertones. This is easily the fastest track on the album, and the blistering solos and brilliantly executed twin guitar harmonies help make it one of the best as well. The fourth track, “Fistful of Dynamite,” and track number eight, “Lead or Gold,” give us some more quick-paced, hook-laden speed/power metal with, in case of the latter, more pirate-inspired lyrics and catchy sing-along passages. Particularly that upbeat opening riff to “Fistful of Dynamite” gets me every time, and the guitar leads in “Lead or Gold” are not too shabby either. With “Jennings’ Revenge” it’s back to pirate-themed power metal, and the song is another undisputed winner – those “wohohohoho” Buccaneer gang shouts in the chorus are a fairly simple device, but quite effective nonetheless.
“Black Wings of Death” and “White Buffalo” are songs that are not quite up to par with the ones just mentioned but still prove very enjoyable. “Black Wings of Death,” another more mid-paced track with some neat double-bass drumming courtesy of Mr. Stefan Schwarzmann driving it forward, is kind of similar to “Sinister Eyes” albeit noticeably better executed. It also has a somber atmosphere as well as some catchy guitar leads going for it. “White Buffalo,” on the other hand, takes us back to Rolf’s beloved environmental issues lyrically while musically, it’s another extremely solid power metal tune with a chorus that will stick in your head for a little while – nothing extraordinary, but very gratifying.
Finally, “Treasure Island” deserves a paragraph for itself as one of the band’s signature songs and possibly (let me repeat, possibly) the greatest track Running Wild have ever penned down. This, by all accounts, is complete pirate heaven, the most epic and most ass-kicking song imaginable. Granted, the rather amateurish spoken-word intro is kind of lame – I mean, they could have at least hired some “professional” guys to do the narration, because Rolf and whoever the other guy is don’t exactly rock thy world –, but once you get past that it’s every metalhead’s dream: the epic main riff is of the mind-blowing variety, and the many distinct parts and brilliant leads and solos are so cleverly interwoven that it never ever gets boring, which is quite an accomplishment for a song that exceeds eleven minutes in length!
Running Wild were on a remarkable roll from the late eighties to mid nineties, and Pile of Skulls has all the traits that made the band great back in the day – the musicianship is top notch (by then Rolf’s vocals had fully matured, giving him a distinct and easily recognizable voice), the production is virtually impeccable and the songs themselves are, save for a few minor exceptions, among the very best that pirate-themed speed/power metal has to offer. If it weren’t for the two mediocre tracks, namely “Sinister Eyes” and “Roaring Thunder,” this would have been rated even higher, but as it is a score in the high eighties will have to suffice.
Choicest cuts: Whirlwind, Fistful of Dynamite, Pile of Skulls, Lead or Gold, Treasure Island
Pile of Skulls is nowhere near as good as people think it is. All it is boring heavy metal with pretty much nothing that hasn't been done before, and the comparison to Painkiller or other speed metal classics is pretty unwarranted. The guitarwork is generally slower and less interesting, and the vocals sound nothing like Halford.
The album starts off with a decent intro called "Chamber of Lies," but it suffers from the same problem as all the other songs: There is not much on the whole CD that's more than mildly interesting, and the only thing that sticks in my mind are the catchy but ultimately mediocre choruses. Pretty much all the songs follow the same predictable pattern of verse-chorus tripe. I wouldn't care too much about the structure, except that none of the riffs are more than average, and they all get overused halfway through the song. Add to that the fact that they often follow Kasparek's boring raspy no-range vocals a bit too much, and you've got yourself a pretty half-assed album.
There are a few songs that are actually OK. "Whirlwind" and the title track are worth the occasional listen, but the only thing that brings them up are that they aren't as plodding as the rest. "Jenning's Revenge" is easily the best track, with an upbeat tempo and a chorus that's actually allright and not just catchy.The epic "Treasure Island" rivals "Jenning's Revenge" for best song. It's got what the others lack -- interesting songwriting, good riffs and decent solos. Even at eleven plus minutes it's more interesting than the rest.
If Running Wild had done this for the rest of the songs, the album could have been pretty good, but instead they ended up with something that's half allright and half filler. The CD is pretty catchy, but without the music to back it up, you'll wish the choruses weren't stuck in your head.
Speed Metal is a very obscure subgenre. Those who think it is just fast power (because of the old Walls Of Jericho), is wrong, because DragonForce isn't speed metal. It has a different sound. Speed Metal is, mainly, seen at the late 80s in Germany. Running Wild is one of these bands, and this album the best of them.
Pile Of Skulls is Speed Metal. So don't expect any ballads or some complex songs. Here you'll find simple, fast, and catchy songs (just like with most power metal). With an introduction, 10 songs, 1 of them being an epic, this album clocks at almost 1 hour, so this isn' a short album.
A thing I'd like to comment about Speed Metal is that most people just know Painkiller and Walls Of Jericho. Well, this album is so good it can even compete with those two. And, the best of all, this isn't simple Speed Metal. You can call me a fool, but this is Pirate Speed Metal. Yes, another stupid subgenre but this album really sounds like pirates to me. And how many bands do you know that play pirate music; it is metal, and it is good music? Just Running Wild. So they score a 10 in originality (even almost all their albums are about the same).
But this album has some minor flaws. Even the album could sound monotone at the first listen, you'll discover then that each song is different. The main problem with the album, is that not every song is awesome. "White Buffalo" and "Jennings Revenge" are not-so-good, and maybe "Fistful Of Dynamite" as well. Not that those are bad songs, but not so memorable like the others. I just can't find other flaw than this.
On the other hand, songs like the opener (plus cool intro), the epic "Black Wings Of Death" (it sounds epic to me) and "Treasure Island," and the blasters "Pile Of Skulls" and "Lead Or Gold" will be on your mind for months. As a minor note to myself, see how every previous pirate metal opener is better than this. Not that "Whirlwind" is bad, but it was just almost impossible to make a better opener than "Blazon Stone" or "Riding The Storm."
So, if you like Pirates, Speed, rum and plundering, get this album!
Originally written for www.last.fm
One year after the solid but unspectacular Blazon Stone, Running Wild releases one of their best works to date. 1992's Pile of Skulls at times harks back to older material like Under Jolly Roger, with the intensity and attitude of classics like War In The Gutter, but in a better produced way with a lot more melody vowed into the process, with songs like Fistful of Dynamite. But this also carries on the pattern of getting ever more epic. Each song has a fairly epic atmosphere. The pirate-based speed metal anthem Whirlwind, the Indian-inspired midpaced anthem Roaring Thunder and of course the 11 minute closer Treasure Island all has different but quite majestic and powerful atmospheres.
The production job on here is also the best they had to date, even though the bass kinda gets drowned out most of the time by the intense drums and razor sharp yet melodic guitars- The guitar tone is better than ever as well.
And the song intensity gets kicked up yet another notch, and the entire album is completely relentless nearly all the way through, even on midpaced numbers like Black Wings of Death and previously mentioned Roaring Thunder.
But there are a two weak moments that keep this album from being the best Running Wild album ever. Tracks 9 and 10, White Buffalo and Jenning's Revenge are pretty much boring filler and serve no purpose whatsoever. The former even rips off the main riff from Priest's Leather Rebel, and succeeds with the amazing achievement of making it sound boring.
But aside from these two, this is all kickass material all through. The intro, Chamber of Lies, is also one of the best in metal, ever. The way the completely overwhelming atmosphere is gradually built up and the song turns heavier and heavier... you gotta hear it to believe it. Classic, classic stuff- and that's just the intro!
After that, we get Whirlwind, one of the highlights on here. Classic Running Wild material; intense and memorable speed metal riffwork, catchy and powerful vocal lines, singalong chorus and also a blazing lead section.
Moving on to the next real highlight, we get Black Wings of Death, a melodic midpaced song with a steady rhythm kept by quite epic riffwork and solid drumming, and with another very memorable chorus standing out. Great song.
Eventually we reach track number 7, the title track, Pile of Skulls. Holy fucking shit, does this OWN! Some of their fastest and catchiest riffs ever (which says alot), a completely mindblowing solo section, and that overwhelmingly fast-sung but anthemic chorus. Definitely top 10 Running Wild material.
The song that follows it is yet another classic, beginning with Rock N' Rolf shouting out the title: "LEAD OR GOLD!" After which it kicks into one of the best parts of the album, which reappears numerous times during the album. Powerful galloping riffs that kick Dave Murray in the nuts over and over, and brilliant melodic leads placed over it. Simple, but oh so bloody effective!
The song is yet another pirate anthem, which is what these guys do best.
The next two songs are the previously mentioned mindless fillers, but after that we reach the ultimate highlight of the entire album, and the second best RW song ever... Treasure Island!
A wicked spoken intro with very cool sampled effects in the background lead into a short, quiet melody, that kicks right into what might be the best moment in the bands entire career. After another short but very memorable melody comes that completely fucking unbelievable main riff, which just now is giving me goosebumps. And the rest of the song keeps the same high quality, from the anthemic, powerful chorus to the countless speed metal riffs, leads and solos throughout the song, to the atmospheric middle section ("We see the land, shining sand, but it can be our grave..."), everything on here is nothing short of perfection. In fact, this is probably the best song by the band ever. Yes, it is.
In short, two weaker moments on this album can easily be forgiven, forgotten and ignored in favour of the absolutely mindblowing speed and heavy metal that abound on the rest of the album. The third best Running Wild album, but the distance between the three is marginal. If you like metal, you get this album, end of story.
This is definitely their best album. While not their creative peak, all their ideas here are Really Fucking Good!!! This is for the most part speed metal, with some really heavy epic power metal thrown in for good measure also. Pretty much everything you'd expect from Running Wild: fast-as-Hell riffs, singalong choruses, and no stupid flower-metal moments.
We start with "Chamber of Lies" - really cool introduction, reminiscent of "Ides of March". This leads into "Whirlwind" (like a whirlwind, touched for the very first time...), which is pure speed metal. Man, if only Madonna kicked this much fucking ass!! "Sinister Eyes" is a bit slower, but still well within the confines of speed metal. "Black Wings of Death" is more melodic, and has maybe most epic-sounding chorus on here, short of the final track of course.
"Fistful of Dynamite" - again, more fun speed metal. Pretty much this album is Painkiller-like in going forward at maximum velocity, never stopping for rest. "Roaring Thunder" is a bit over midpaced but is no less intense than the previous few, and then we get to... PILE OF SKULLS!!!!! Definitely the fastest song they have ever done. Great fun, total "Ram it Down" worship here. "Lead or Gold" is a bit more melodic, as is "White Buffalo", and finally "Jenning's Revenge" is more of a power-metal song, but still maintaining the insaneness of speed metal, just combining it with more sing-along verses than some of the songs in the beginning.
Then, we have the last track. One of the best epic songs of all time - eleven minutes long, or something, and this thing has it all. Power metal, speed metal, even some thrash riffs here and there sounding like "Beyond the Black". Absolutely killer way to close the album here.
Best thing I can compare this to... PAINKILLER!!!! Yes indeed, Primal Fear may try, but Running Wild has come up with an album that's almost as intense, and has many of the same musical qualities, with only the vocals being the real difference.