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The First Years of Piracy is a re-recording of many classic songs from the first three Running Wild albums. Many innately flinch when people speak about re-recording, as if it must automatically be a cash-grab. This is overreacting, especially in this case, as the songs are performed in a vastly different way. Like the members of Saxon in their Heavy Metal Thunder, the band here re-recorded a few classic songs from several albums, an approach which is superior to re-recording one full album. It's one of the few re-recordings which actually works, even 100 percent, because it offers a very viable alternative.
I was never very enamored of Under Jolly Roger, blasphemy though it may be; I don't care for the song in its original form and don't care for it here. All the others, however are true classics. Some songs were even updated from mediocrity into classics, such as Raw Ride, the band's only biker anthem. This version was played on tour for years; I heard it first on their Death or Glory tour. It is a first-rate anthem: a classic for bikers, along with Hell Bent for Leather and the likes.
Rolf's singing is better, in that it is clearer and more powerful than in the past. He overhauled his vocal approach starting with Blazon Stone, and for the better. There is none of the black/thrash metal sound that characterized his early, sinister tone. It is straightforward, masculine singing of the best kind, and Rolf has been singing like this for years, always delivering. In the older versions, he often sang in a more grim, growling manner, befitting the more satanic atmosphere of the earlier albums. Here that atmosphere has been replaced entirely by an adventurous, early German power metal one. But I am not speaking of modern, wimpy German power metal (the adherents of the cult of Helloween), but a classic version, inspired by Accept and the great Wolf Hoffman. These guys rock their bright riffs without including wimpy choruses. Unlike Alestorm and other tiresome pirate metal bands, Running Wild's focus is both the adventure and desolation of the pirate life – not silly nonsense about gin and women.
That is the essential reason Running Wild such an easy band to appreciate. The band's two defining virtues are honesty and elevation. They play fun, traditional metal/power metal, sure; but there is a form of sincerity, aided by an elevation of tone, that makes it far superior to mere gimmick bands doing superficially similar things. You feel as if the band has truly heard the enslaving call of the sea, and had their pirate-soul, dwelling within their inmost heart, awakened. The same goes for the political themes. When, On Death or Glory, Rolf says to the world leaders, "I can see through your eyes / You're bad to the bone", it feels like a sincere cry against injustice and corruption. When Rolf shouts "Bastards, throwing life away!" he means it. There is nothing of the tongue-in-cheek or the insincere. It's no put-on.
Raise Your Fist, for example, is energetic; it's not merely a mild, mediocre song – it sounds actually rebellious. It's about school tedium, and accurately reflects how my friends and I sometimes felt in our youth. It's as if it isn't a shameless attempt to tap into the teenage music market, but a sincere reflection of the band members' life. They are speaking to and about their young selves too.
The album sounds great: the mixing is incredible. The vocals, guitar, and drums all come out wonderfully clean in a very balanced mix. It's unfortunate that the first-rate bass playing is drowned out a little; but that doesn't need to be on the forefront anyhow. In some later records, the vocals would be a little underwhelming; but here they proudly stand amidst the instruments. Ex-roadie AC is a solid drummer, who clearly is tuned in with the other band members. The drums have a very odd, tin sound; but I've heard worse.
The riffs are all brief, but they are of such high quality that their simplicity isn't detrimental. Raw Ride, in particular, has a rocking riff that never gets old. Who cares that the structure is as simple as it can be? It is straightforward because it works. When they play Fight the Oppression, you feel as if they are speaking of a true revolution, and not just for the sake of writing a catchy song. Something of true depth lurks beneath the superficial surface.
Furthermore, the songs are played at greater speed, and the sinister tone of the early albums has been entirely abandoned in favor of a revolutionary tone. Running Wild was on a winning-streak, conquering the metal world, and you can hear it. This is the music of a band with faith in their own abilities, standing tall and proud. These interpretations therefore sport a little more vitality. They sing for victory, not for survival.
If you need to introduce someone to Running Wild, this is a great way. It has all the hits from their first three album, with an updated style, better playing, and a tone that befits such giants of metal.
Running Wild were on a hot streak starting with Port Royal, and with two albums after that it seemed like they were unstoppable. Blazon Stone was the newest bid by the guys, and Rolf has always been one to promote the band’s material to the fullest. Therefore, the move to make a compilation of re-recordings seemed like a genuine idea, but what I want to know is how the rest of band reacted. Was it a group idea, or could it have been something the whole band was on board for, I don’t know. Now for the fans that got to see the band live, this wasn’t a big / new thing, obviously, but for everyone else I can definitely say that this shouldn’t be passed up.
All of the songs featured on this album are from the first three Running Wild albums, which had a sound not alike to the band’s golden age. The earlier sound was a black / thrash / heavy metal hybrid that was characterized by the epic and raw quality. What they played back then was meant to be sinister music that was still proud heavy metal, but the translation sort of works when they are reconditions to become blazing power metal interpretations. It took a little getting used to at first, and in the beginning I didn’t like these new renditions because I knew these original tracks as unrefined, spoiled classics. However, once you do get over the change, you’ll enjoy these songs and appreciate the band for not giving up on this style with just full-lengths.
One major change already is Rolf with the vocals, because his style now is way different than before. On the albums where these songs original came from (the early days in general), Rolf basically talked his way through the songs. This isn’t an insult because this style worked, but he had such a cracked, hoarse voice with rare high wails that sounded like they came from a demon. With the band’s style developing at the time, Rolf turned to more focused clean singing that showed his true potential, charisma, and made Running Wild a more epic band. For most of the songs here, this style works, although some of the very high cleans that were hit with precision on the original recordings are patchy on this one.
Rolf’s wailing, low-end singing on this is something I’ll always love, but the guitars have also drawn their own path that’ll also take some getting used to. If you haven’t heard the earlier Running Wild albums, then this compilation won’t be an issue, but for me taking the first albums so seriously, even these guitars were a little to get over. This is the same production quality – clear, loud, and filtered – as Blazon Stone, so you get the same crispy guitar distortion bent and twisted by Kasparek and Morgan. This is different from the uncooked, boiled tone of the earlier albums – particularly the first one – but that doesn’t stop these guys from blazing with the energy that made those songs so lovable. The bass guitar from Becker oddly doesn’t have much breathing room on most of these songs; I mean it’s there, but if you know Running Wild, you know Jens Becker - this is the guy that made pirates and bass guitars battle buddies in the field of heavy metal. His lines should be deafening and slick, but instead he just backs up the rhythm and is sort of audible.
The optimistic tone goes against the happy yet threatening tone of the early albums, and that’s mainly because of the guitars and their clarity. The melodies were vicious and vintage, but now they’re very harmonious and eclectic, which isn’t bad either; think of it as a different take, which is basically what it is. The mixing is fantastic, with everything but the bass given exceptional volume. The only thing that doesn’t work for me is the tempo slightly sped up for all the songs (making them sound rushed) and the drum sound. I tolerated it on Blazon Stone, but I definitely don’t like it on here. The drums sound so damn metallic and the blot-blot-blot sound of it really gets on my nerves. It detracts from the energy and tension of the songs while also tiring the whole thing.
Overall, I think most Running Wild fans (if not all) will dig this one. It’s a worthy release that shouldn’t go unnoticed, and it contains a variety of early classics. One track I wish they put on here was “Mordor,” which, although a masterpiece in itself originally, would sound awesome with this refined power metal style. Nonetheless, check this one out and delve into all it has to offer. The full-lengths are the known treasures, but even the unknown ones like this are worth plundering.