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Read the Riot Act - 92%

Tanuki, November 17th, 2018

Riot's road to a half-decent record deal was long and hard-fought; I feel its tangled details are best described by the brave men and women of Wikipedia, and not me. The upshot is, Riot and their rabid fans got their way, and the precocious New Yorkers were finally granted their shot at the big time. And how did they choose to honor this grand opportunity? Make the album title sound like a venereal disease and put Johnny center stage, since that worked so well the first two times. I'm not saying an album cover of the band posing in mom jeans would've worked any better, and I'm definitely not saying to ignore Fire Down Under because of its cover. I wish splintered hangnails on any doofus who still does that in this day and age.

No, to skip this album for any reason would be doing a catastrophic disservice to yourself, provided you have the faintest ohm of passion for traditional metal or the new wave of British heavy metal. Fire Down Under is a non-stop artillery barrage of jalapeño-infused heavy metal, and a keystone of power and speed metal to boot. The title track and the mythical 'Swords and Tequila' evoke the invigorating spirit of hot-blooded NWOBHM like Tokyo Blade, Diamond Head, and especially the proto-power stylings of Cloven Hoof. Even slower, mid-tempo tracks can illustrate this point, particularly the anthemic spirit and bulging pecs of 'Feel the Same' and 'Altar of the King'.

The latter track is an incredible journey that manages to encompass a range of melancholy acoustics, vibrant Rainbow Rising riffing, and an astoungingly flexible performance from vocalist Guy Speranza. And what is this blues master howling about, you ask? Oh, you know, just vanquishing an ever-flowing stream of evil with an enchanted lightning sword. Typical power metal stuff that Manowar invented one and a half years after Fire Down Under. Make no mistake, not only is Fire Down Under a forefather of USPM, it's an expertly-crafted one that will be echoing in your head for all eternity. It's telling that the only exceptions to this rule are bonus tracks like 'Struck by Lightning' and 'Misty Morning Rain'. Besides these relatively tame, Scorpions-style rockers, most tracks possess a fiery impetus that very few metal bands apart from Saxon and Motörhead had at the time.

At this point in the write-up I'd usually point out some negative aspects, but Fire Down Under is being quite stubborn about this. If I was to be exceedingly picky, the production is a bit on the raucous, overdriven side; this is particularly noticeable in the frenzied shredfest 'Flashbacks' that closes the album. My only other complaint is on a metaphysical level. Fire Down Under can feel a bit bittersweet, as both Speranza and Reale are no more, and Rick Ventura, Kip Leming, and Sandy Slavin have all permanently left the band. As a result, Fire Down Under feels a bit spectral; it's sound is of a glorious zeitgeist, caked in dust and never to be unsettled again. Nothing will ever sound like it ever again. The same could be said of Rock City and Narita of course, but Fire Down Under's relentless optimism and fiery spirit makes its transience feel that much more poignant. I'm almost glad their next album is kind of shitty.

Deceptively Simple, Yet Stunning in its Quality - 95%

padsboltssaints15, June 14th, 2016

Fire Down Under is an absolute gem, a vastly overlooked rambunctious headbanger whose approach and execution are so deceptively simple that the final product is stunning in its quality. There are no long intricate compositions, no progressive epics, no head-spinning, fretboard-burning solos to be found here. There is no overpowering intensity, flashy technicality, or standout performance. No, what we have here is an incredibly generic, basic, straightforward heavy metal album that gets everything right. Riot never tries to do too much, keeping their approach gloriously simple, and the result is an album which combines everything good about the late 70’s and early 80’s heavy metal scene into a killer record. That this album isn't on the same level of popularity as albums like Screaming For Vengeance or Killers is an offense that borders on criminal.

The two strongest cuts on the album are right up front; Riot wastes no time in kicking down the door on the rousing opener, “Swords and Tequila,” whose mid-paced opening riff hooks the listener in immediately. You’ll be humming this one for days, as the chorus is what really drives the song home, with a catchy sing-along delivery and driving force that simultaneously evoke bar fights and swing dancing. Things are kicked up another notch on the title track, which blazes out with a much faster noodly riff similar to those on later Riot cuts such as “Thundersteel” and “Storming the Gates of Hell.” It’s a wild number, with punky energy similar to that of the early New Wave of British Heavy Metal; the best parts of the song are the two solo sections, both with several quick one-two-three-four snare hits that incite instant headbanging. One can imagine themselves speeding into the sunset with the roof down while this song blares from the speakers.

Again, those two songs are the best on the album, but besides the next one, “Feel the Same,” which is the only real dragger here (and sounds a bit too much like Spinal Tap for its own good), and “Flashbacks” (which isn’t really a song at all), the rest are all fantastic. Riot brings their speed metal side out in full force on “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Run For Your Life,” while “Outlaw” rests on an intro/verse riff so strong that it carries nearly the whole song; and on “Don’t Hold Back,” they combine elements from Iron Maiden (chorus and leads) and space-rock (verse and atmosphere) into probably the most unique track--which is still undeniably good old-fashioned heavy metal.

As I said at the beginning, Riot’s songwriting is deceptively simple. By that I mean that all of the songs, while far from complex, still have plenty of variety from one to the next. Even though many songs operate around a “verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo-chorus” base, Riot don’t ever paint themselves into a corner. They find room to shake things up; different riffing patterns appear, or another solo section is thrown in, or they lead in with a soft intro, or end the song with a solid minute of riffing and soloing. These variations break up what could otherwise be a monotonous album; but again, each individual song is simple and accessible. There’s no fantastic innovative genius or arrangements that makes each song memorable. It’s very simple: the riffs, choruses, leads, and energy are just that good all on their own. This is an album that stands solely on the strength of its musicality--and that’s all it needs.

Some describe Riot as America’s answer to the classic/NWOBHM scene happening in Great Britain in metal’s early years. I think that description is particularly apt, since Riot, while obviously playing much the same style as many of the innovators over there, has a certain hard edge to their music that gives it a Yankee tint. Riot ensured that we would not be forgotten; we could play that stuff too, and add our own bite to it. A few albums down the road, Riot would begin to bring some power metal into their sound, and the American edge lessened slightly; but on Fire Down Under, they prove that Great Britain didn’t have all the good music at the turn of the 80’s. So if you want a straightforward old-school sound with some extra grit, throw this album on without hesitation. You’ll be rioting before you know it.

Better than Thundersteel, classic American metal - 96%

failsafeman, May 27th, 2011

What is it exactly that makes this album so damn fun? That very question has had me scratching my head for years, because honestly I just don't know. I can point out certain aspects that surely contribute; there's Guy Speranza's top-shelf vocals, the unbelievably catchy songwriting, and performances energetic enough to power a fleet of flux capacitors. At some point however the whole somehow becomes far more than the sum of its parts, and what we get is that special kind of magic that I can only call "greatness". And boy did Riot have both the stomach and the appetite for greatness.

As with many great albums, Fire Down Under has quite a story behind it. After Narita and a tour, Capitol Records were done using Riot as a tool to make Sammy Hagar seem hip with the younger generation, and they dropped Riot like a used condom; followup Fire Down Under was apparently commercially unacceptable, but the label didn't want to let Riot out of their contract either, stranding the album in legal limbo. Yet even that wasn't enough to stop Riot. The band told their fans, and the fans got righteously pissed. In the UK they went so far as to engage in noisy, violent public protests (or something) in front of the offices of Capitol's parent EMI, until finally the label buckled and let the band out of the contract, if only to get those annoying British kids off of their lawn. Fire Down Under was promptly released on Elektra Records, even going so far as to break into the Billboard Top 100, quite a feat considering Riot no longer had major label muscle behind their promotion.

Listening to these songs, is it really any wonder the Brits were going apeshit over them in 1981? People characterize this album as "American NWOBHM", and really that hits the nail on the head, if the "American" is understood to refer to character as well as location. Rather than sounding much like Judas Priest or Black Sabbath or punk rock, the name of the game here is bluesy hard rock from bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy, and Rainbow (bands from the UK, true, but with roots lying squarely in American blues rock); but unlike Riot's first two albums, for the third the band started playing a whole lot louder and a whole lot faster, making full use of the twin-guitar attack (possible evidence they had noticed Tipton & Downing after all). Even so, Saxon at their most energetic and Raven at their most polished are Fire Down Under's closest cousins, I think. I do not exaggerate when I put Guy Speranza at his best on the same level as true greats like Halford or Dio; the man has the full frontman package, evincing incredible skill and talent while simultaneously dripping with charisma. Speranza reminds me of Glenn Hughes in a lot of ways, with a similar sort of high clear tenor, but with a soulful edge that comes and goes at will. Unlike Hughes however, Speranza's got more youthful energy than ten boys in a bottle, like an Ian Gillan with the rough edges sanded down, and that makes listening to the guy a whole hell of a lot of fun. If you listen to one of the live albums from the time or watch any videos of Speranza's old shows with Riot on Youtube, you can see that he did a fantastic job in a live environment as well.

Fire Down Under is a perfect example of classic pacing done right; right out of the gate we're hit by "Swords and Tequila", a fast number about drinking and playing with weapons that gets you up out of your seat and keeps you there. Next we have the title track, which turns things up another notch. It's even faster than the first, practically speed metal, and it has what might be the catchiest chorus on an album full of catchy choruses. The former clocks in at just over three minutes while the latter lasts just longer than two and a half; Riot know how to keep it short but sweet. Just as you'd expect from the pacing, "Feel the Same" slows things down with a brooding, bluesy feel and Speranza's expert crooning. While the first two songs were about kicking ass and having fun, "Feel the Same" is much more heartfelt, the yearning of a man who desperately wants to establish a meaningful connection with his woman, but seems chronically unable to understand her.

Midpaced rocker "Outlaw" spins a melancholy yarn of a gambler on the run from the law, until finally he is betrayed by a woman and runs out of luck. "Don't Bring Me Down" ooches the pace up another little bit and lightens the mood substantially, as Guy Speranza berates the girl who left him, featuring classy lines like "You call me a wimp, you say I'm a chump/Well your face is bent, and you smell like gorilla dump." Good one, Guy. Luckily, the track is intentionally fun and silly enough that the lyrics don't come off as too out of place. "Don't Hold Back" has us up to full speed again, but ironically it sees Riot holding back, with understated verses and most of the burden of heaviness carried by the rhythm section. Even so, it works quite well and the gang shouts really drive the chorus's point home.

However, none of that has prepared you for "Altar of the King". This is Riot's take on Rainbow's epic style, approaching the transcendence of something like "Stargazer" in only about half the time but with a much more positive color. The song opens with a quiet, vaguely medieval-sounding acoustic guitar piece before slapping you with that main riff that bounces along like a runaway jackhammer. The rest are good as well, with the two guitars splitting into separate but supporting parts on the verses, one repeating a single fast chord while the other lets the same chord ring out, a technique that creates considerable tension which builds toward the chorus. To the altar of the king! Over the top of this Guy Speranza sings his heart out, with lyrics encapsulating the song's theme of striving toward greatness and accomplishment through ambiguous epic pronouncements that would make Dio proud. "Evening's burning skies/Reflect upon my eyes/Out in the distance/Utopia, resistance." Then a fantastic melodic solo that takes its time and bends notes like Thor bends iron bars with his teeth. "Altar of the King" is clearly the strongest track on the album, and one of my favorite hard rock/heavy metal tracks of all time. I liken it to the righteous conviction of the young men who lied about their ages to enlist early during WWII, so eager were they to fight Nazis. If "Altar of the King" were used in a recruitment campaign, I'd join up no matter the cause. War with the Lilliputians, you say? I'm on a boat right now with a pair of stompin' boots.

Unfortunately, the album doesn't ever get back to the greatness of the previous song, but then that's too much to ask. "No Lies" is another song in the vein of "Don't Hold Back", perhaps even a little stronger. "Run for Your Life" on the other hand is a lot like "Swords and Tequila", fast and energetic and a load of fun. "Flashbacks" is a bit of a weird outro, longer than many of the actual songs on the album. It's put together out of snippets from concerts and interviews with a guitar solo screaming over the top, and eventually it starts to turn into a cool song before prematurely fading out. While I have to admit it was probably put in there to pad out the length of an otherwise very short album (33 minutes without the outro), I think it does a good job of cementing the mood and easing us out. The way "Flashbacks" fades just at the apparent beginning of another song implies that Riot never quit, it's only the listener who gets too exhausted to continue. Maybe there's some alternate universe in which Riot play forever?

Though their successes seemed forever tempered by setbacks, between Narita and Fire Down Under Riot was genuinely on the cusp of breaking through and joining the likes of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. Unfortunately, Fire Down Under also ended up being the swansong for this incarnation of Riot. Disillusioned after label shenanigans and general mismanagement, the recently married Guy Speranza decided it was time to leave the biz forever. The band picked up new throat Rhett Forrester and soldiered on; while talented, Forrester was apparently a difficult and unreliable guy, and without Speranza the band's chemistry was definitely off. A mediocre followup to Fire Down Under got them dropped from Elektra, and after another mediocre Forrester album on an even smaller label, band leader Mark Reale simply didn't have the energy to continue touring in support of big names while Riot's chances of being a big name themselves, once nearly within reach, now receded ever farther into the distance. I could lament the end of the Speranza-era Riot, but honestly I find it difficult to imagine the band topping Fire Down Under, and if you listen to the handful of tracks that were recorded after this album but before Speranza's departure, they show the band making clear concessions to commercial demands at the expense of quality. These ten tracks right here were unquestionably the culmination of their hard rock efforts up to that point; one of the first emergences of heavy metal proper on this side of the Atlantic, one of the few American answers to NWOBHM that really carried weight. Under the right circumstances Riot might've been able to pull off another good album or two in this style, sure, and it's a shame they didn't; but after listening to Fire Down Under four or five times in a row while writing this review, it's really hard to feel bad about anything.

Bet your life on the silver ball - 85%

autothrall, November 13th, 2009

Fewer bands have gone on as long for as little credit as New York's Riot. Formed in 1976, the band is now 33 years deep into its career and still producing classic heavy metal music. To put it simply: the UK had the NWOBHM (a myriad of legendary bands and a few thousand lesser knowns). We had Riot.

And you know something? It's a pretty fair trade off. While I generally think of 1988's power metal platter Thundersteel as the best of this band's albums, they have a pretty standout discography, especially their early offerings. Fire Down Under is Riot's third full-length, and a damn good one. I'd describe the band as Rush-like with an injection of classic British metal ala Judas Priest. Hard rocking rhythms and a great singer. Guy Speranza was the original vocalist and he's got a smooth, high tone without ever going off into the Halfordsphere.

"Don't Look Back" is an energetic array of triplets, big bluesy solos, and a great echo to the chorus, excellent night driving music for the highway. "Altar of the King" offers an acoustic intro before another swinging bar metal fest of groovy, Zeppelin-inspired rhythms. "Outlaw" is immensely kickass, one of the most memorable tracks of Riot's entire back log. Who could forget that guitar lick? Listen, you will know the one. "Swords & Tequila" also smites some tail. "No Lies" is a decent rocker feeling very much like Rush. "Run for Your Life" is another high speed (well, for 1981) racer to burn asphalt to.

Fire Down Under boasts another of those timeless mixes which will sound just as good in the year 2081 as 1981. Pure 70s vibrant energy, direct tone, shuffling drum, and vocals doused in just enough reverb to capitalize on Speranza's power, while easily reproducible live. The solo work on this record is bluesy and burning, and no song runs too long. It's a great heavy metal disc, a classic that any collector will proudly claim. Yeah, so we had only Riot and a few other bands here worth a damn during that early metal explosion. They delivered, and this is one of their best.


The Americans are coming! - 91%

Acrobat, February 20th, 2009

Hey, it’s American metal! The yanks really took a long time to get their feet off the ground when it came to heavy metal, perplexing really what with the great American talents in the hard rock scene and, indeed, artists such as Hendrix and Blue Cheer laying down some of the groundwork for what would be the metal sound. But other than the terminally unsigned and always cursed, Pentagram and Sir Lord Baltimore (who I’ve yet to check out) there wasn’t much of note – especially in commercial terms – about American metal in the seventies. Britain certainly did rule the waves for a time and even Canada was ahead with those owl-obsessed progressive weirdos, Rush.

America really did take its time. Thankfully, it was very much worth the wait. Riot doesn’t mess around and they certainly kick sufficient amounts of arse. If you needed a quick reference I’d say their sound is a mix of Saxon’s classic output, some Rainbow, and Diamond Head’s only classic would be somewhere in the same vein; but Riot are undeniably different – and undeniably American. What a lot of American metal bands did was take British sounds and ideas and simply make them bigger with more explosions (British bands aren’t afraid of Americanising either, see Priest’s hilariously titled British Steel for an example). They do this with anything, and it’s not such a bad thing with a heavy metal band. But with, say, a tea and crumpets based period drama, explosions and car chases aren’t really ideal, but that doesn’t really matter as only waif-like women like those things. You know, Riot had fucking ‘Swords and Tequila’ whereas in England you’d be lucky if you got a penknife and a pint of bitter.

Anyway, about that, ‘Swords and Tequila’ what a fucking heavy metal song! You can’t go around naming things like this without having some serious metal behind it. What a blazing, exciting piece of music! And don’t forget that this is what heavy metal is all about. It’s Guy Speranza’s powerful and joyous vocals that really drive this one along; you can imagine him encouraging such tequila-swilling activities without much of a stretch of your imagination. His successor, Tony Moore may possess a greater range but he doesn’t have the same charisma; Speranza’s voice is possibly more fun than should legally be allowed – think running wild with Venom through the city streets after twelve bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale back in 1982 when you still had a full head of hair and you’re almost there. Further strengthening the fun vibe here is that loose yet completely ripping guitar solo, that dive-bomb with all that glorious reverb is just priceless. It’s not too far removed from Ross the Boss’s earlier style, which certainly is something I’m into. But it’s not just flashy soloing – the rhythm guitars and certainly of note, too; they have a shimmering and sparkly class to them which usually one wouldn’t associate with this sort of metal riff. I read somewhere that Guy Speranza was dead and it upset me a bit, sure it was a loss to metal community and all that, but sadly he didn’t bow out in some bizarre incident involving his favourite pairing of pointy medieval implements and Mexican high-proof liquors.

‘Swords and Tequila’ is pretty fast for 1981 but ‘Fire Down Under’ is even faster! It’s Strong Arm of the Law syndrome! This song is where I’m getting most of the Diamond Head vibe from, you know, Lightning to the Nations is exuberant and youthful music filled with teenage lusts and desires – the sound of men who just want it all – ‘Fire Down Under’ has a very similar vibe. ‘If you feel like causin’ some destruction…’ that’s exactly what every young male should want! Fuck social graces – let’s smash things up and listen to heavy metal. To relate this to something in my life, last night a friend of mine punched a metal locker door until his hand bled, and thus left blood all over the door, due to the then current mental state I exclaimed “Man, you made metal bleed!” and for a brief second we believed each other… before bursting out laughing. That’s what this sort of music is all about; ridiculous self-belief, confidence, and just smashing things up because it’s what you want to do. But really, I want to point out just how energetic those verses are regardless of any lyrical sentiment – impossibly brief and there are only two of them but they achieve so much… but they’re gone in a flash.

Unfortunately, things do eventually slow down, but Fire Down Under isn’t a one trick pony and the class is certainly retained. ‘Feel the Same’ acts as a moody and hazy come down, but it’s a worthwhile if lesser song – but to be fair most things are going to seem plainer after that opening one-two kick in the teeth. ‘Outlaw’ is a classic Lizzy-esque bit of hard rock, with its muscular and punchy guitars. Again, the whole confident, strident drive of the song is very much American, it’s that sunny perseverance and can-do-it feeling about it all. For 1981 you generally didn’t get hard rock that sounded like this, things were just going in different ways or at least the productions usually got all shiny and 80’s – but regardless, true seventies styled hard rock is something worthy of my respect. This feeling is probably stressed quite a bit by the organic and neat production of this album.

However. ‘Altar of the King’ is a bit more European in style, that intro is clearly very much Rainbow inspired – in fact it might as well be lifted straight from ‘Rainbow Eyes’ or ‘Catch the Rainbow’, but whatever, Ritchie Blackmore had pretty much lost all interest in writing music that wasn’t essentially dated pop music with some disco-frequenting wop prancing about while he sung. But then things just get into some typically good eighties metal grooving – a bit of sword wielding metal that still manages to be streetwise just because of Speranza’s touch.

This is definitely a metal album but there’s a lot of rock to be had here. ‘Run For Life’ for instance may well be fast but it’s got those bluesy twists that lend themselves more to ‘Beating Around the Bush’ than ‘Exciter’, but you know most of my favourite metal bands still know how to rock and Riot certainly does, too. I know I’ve stated this failing of the NWOBHM movement a lot, but often a bands inability to pull off rock songs led to inconsistent albums and general embarrassment as it was inevitable that a generation who had their musical grounding in the 70s would attempt rock songs. Let’s face it; their record collections would be rather puny if they’d only listened to the comparatively small number of metal bands around and as such they were always going to want to attempt the stuff they were raised on. Riot evades the failings of so many of their British counterparts. Perhaps due to that confidence they have managed to pull off these hard rock moments with aplomb in a way Kevin Heybourne could never manage (hi Kevin, I know you’re reading!).

Great album, it really is. So good in fact I forgot to poke fun at Riot’s seal-dude mascot and make a pun around the title and Australia’s bush fires.

The album that cemented my passion for metal - 90%

BotD, July 12th, 2006

What is it about early 80s metal that allows it to kick so much ass? I am sure UltraBoris with his seemingly unlimited knowledge of metal history could enlighten me. I am not one to concern myself with anything more than the music. Riot may be the first U.S. metal band. I don't care. I can say they put out one absolutely scintillating album with Fire Down Under.

Despite my general ignorance of the historical background, I do know enough to understand the trends toward faster metal. As Boris said, this stuff is pretty nuts for 1981. The title track is two-and-a-half minutes of blazing quick metal. Not everything is as alacritous as that, but Riot is not one of those bands who falter with the slower stuff. Falling into this category is my favorite track: Altar of the Kings. I should warn you that these songs do not take the tack of owning you with innumerable riffs every song. Instead, you receive extremely well crafted and well-executed riffs and leads, along with songs that earn every second of their relatively short durations.

Fire Down Under represents that rare glimpse into the exciting period when hard rock mutated into that much uglier beast we call metal. The production borrows liberally from the 70s, yet undeniably relishes in a metallic glint. I don't want to dilute Riot's musical legacy because this falls firmly into the metal camp, it just needs recognition that Riot still trembled with trepidation about leaping into the still murky waters of metal.

This appears Riot's most famous release (other than, perhaps, Thundersteel) and I need to pick up their post-Thundersteel catalogue to see if their is legitimacy to this view. With just Fire Down Under and Thundersteel, Riot earns a place as truly underrated. I don't think I am crazy in perceiving shades of this album in such giants as Mercyful Fate. If you like metal, get this album. The guitar is fabulous and it is a damn shame Guy Speranza quit vocals after this album.


Classic, bloody classic - 87%

UltraBoris, August 13th, 2002

Recorded in 1980. Put this one in, hear the first riff, hear where Two Minutes to Midnight was born... classic power metal - this is the first time it manifested itself in the US. Possibly the first American metal band?? (Twisted Sister were around earlier, but they weren't metal until 1976 or so, which is the year Riot was formed.)

This is really the album that put Riot on the map. There is a far stronger NWOBHM feel to this album than the previous two studio albums, not to mention that the songs are faster and more intense. It's Guy Speranza's last album, and probably his finest vocal effort aside from the live album from 1980.

We start off with two insanely fast speed metal songs, stuff that remind one of Hell Bent For Leather. Bands in the US simply weren't playing this sort of stuff - Priest and Sabbath influence abounds here, and even a bit of Diamond Head and Maiden. "Swords and Tequila" and "Fire Down Under" are early speed metal classics. Holy crap, that title track is absurdly fast. FIIIRE!!! DOWN UNDER!!!! "Feel the Same" is a bit slower, while "Outlaw" returns to blazing speed, and has a bit of a Saxon feel to it.

The rest of the album isn't quite as fast as those three songs, but is still very damn energetic, sounding at times like some of the earlier, heavier Tygers of Pan Tang works. "No Lies" and "Altar of the King" are both very good power metal, and "Run For Your Life" is excellent as well despite being completely different from the song of the same name on the Thundersteel album. (What the fuck?? Has any band ever recycled a song title like that?)

Several re-releases have assorted bonus tracks, and I'm not going to bother to keep track of them all. Most any version of this album is worth picking up.