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Great fun, but formulaic - 82%

gasmask_colostomy, July 27th, 2016

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.