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More of Ye Olde Pirate Metal Goodness - 88%

lonerider, December 31st, 2009

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