The new Riot V record is coming. But is it really a Riot record? First and foremost, that’s the elephant in the room that must be addressed.
The history of Riot is a hard luck story born out of Brooklyn, New York, where the band released its debut, Rock City, back in 1977. It’s a tale that’s full of mistakes, mismanagement and missed opportunities. And yet despite the constant state of chaos among personnel, the unit has managed to release some criminally underrated rock gems. Though the sound and style of the records has changed frequently and abruptly at times—if there is any one thing that is perhaps consistent about Riot, it’s the fact that they frequently put out songs that deserved more recognition than received.
Their third record, Fire Down Under, features the band’s third lineup and is widely recognized as the creative high point of their early years. Originally recorded for Capitol records, it was deemed “too heavy” and resulted in the band being dropped by its label, only to emerge on Elektra Records as an underground classic. With the single “Swords and Tequila” gaining radio airplay and the band apparently poised to break out, lead singer Guy Esperanza left the band. One would typically think that changing lead singers would be risky business. Riot has done it six times, with five different vocalists appearing on studio records over the years. The rhythm sections have not fared much better, in terms of consistency. What made the recordings “Riot” from record to record was the writing and playing of founding member Mark Reale, who managed to deliver fireworks from his black Gibson Les Paul on every recording, regardless of the change in musical direction and line up from one release to the next.
Tragically, he passed away from complications resulting from Crohn’s Disease in 2012, so despite the ongoing appearance of the band’s puzzling mascot, a warring baby seal, there isn’t much left in the current version of Riot to authenticate the legacy of the band. Since Reale’s passing, the letter V has been added to the band name, and the torch is being carried by some players who were in one iteration or another while Reale was still alive, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the primary creative force behind the many Riot records is no longer contributing. That being the case, it’s difficult to answer whether Armor of Light is a good Riot record.
What’s easier to evaluate, however, is whether it’s a good record at all. And on that note, all things point to the positive. It is an intentional return to the power metal blueprint initially developed on 1988’s Thundersteel, which is approaching its 30th anniversary. When it came out, Thundersteel was another abrupt change in sound for Riot, embracing faster paced songs with power metal sheen, higher pitched vocals, a new lead voice, and relentless double bass drum pounding. Bass player Don Van Stavern is the sole player to perform on both the new record and Thundersteel. Thirty years ago, it was a cutting edge sound. Today, it’s old school. But that doesn’t take away from the quality of the songs or performances. In fact, with so much mainstream music being dominated by pop, rap and hip hop, it’s refreshing to hear a band deftly execute a new record with power and precision within the confines of a proven, satisfying style.
Power metal is often at risk of violating good taste with a excessive cheese factor—glossy choruses that lack the edge and chunk that give more credibility to the bright metal tunes. Thankfully, most of Armor of Light steers clear of the wimpy, over the top sheen that permeates much European power metal. The opener, “Victory,” is reminiscent of Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper,” with loud, relentless pounding double bass drumming that will no doubt be a bit much for some, and just plain awesome for others.
The production of this record is strong. The drums are very forward and loud in the mix. The separation between instruments is clear and the guitar tone is rather Reale-like. Singer Todd Michael Hall delivers a very credible performance, even if it’s really not necessarily similar to any of the six previous vocalists in Riot. Taken solely as a stand-alone record, rather than in light of previous Riot records, it holds up well as a confident, old school power metal record that gains something with its classic vibe. Most of the songs, including “Messiah,” “Heart of a Lion” and “Raining Fire” push the tempo envelope as they race forward at an energetic pace.
“Burn the Daylight” begins by recalling the ghost of Rainbow’s “Man on the Silver Mountain” but the fist-pumping chorus becomes a catchy and urgent charge to seize the day. In the musical spirit of Rainbow’s “Spotlight Kid” and “Death Alley Driver,” “San Antonio” memorializes the long-standing affinity that Reale had for the Texas Town, which is legendary in its support of heavy metal. “Caught in the Witches Eye” sounds at times like a lost Dio track, whereas the closing track, “Raining Fire,” sounds a bit more like Painkiller era Judas Priest. That’s not to say the music is stale and predictable. Armor of Light follows a previously worn path and stays the course of harmonic double guitar solos, crunchy riffs and relentless pounding to deliver a surprisingly strong release for Americanized power metal fans. Regardless of Mark Reale’s absence, Riot rolls on and does the brand name proud.
Released By: Nuclear Blast Records
Release Date: April 27th, 2018
- Don Van Stavern / Bass
- Mike Flyntz / Guitar
- Todd Michael Hall / Vocals
- Frank Gilchriest / Drums
- Nick Lee / Guitar
“Armour Of Light” Track-Listing:
- End Of The World
- Angel’s Thunder, Devil’s Reign
- Burn The Daylight
- Heart Of A Lion
- Armor Of Light
- Set The World Alight
- San Antonio
- Caught In the Witches Eye
- Ready to Shine
- Raining Fire
Riot harkens back to a classic release in their back catalog to replicate the sound and spirit of power metal. Strong songs and powerful performances make this a credible return to form despite the absence of the band’s primary visionary.