Originally written by Ian Chainey
Tale ov the Tape: NWOBHM luminaries drop their twelfth record. Expect the same kind of proto-thrash punch of their “athletic rock” period with a smattering of the commercial hooks they attempted to shoehorn in during the late-’80s. Raven begat thrash and, to a lesser extent, speed metal, so, prepare thyself for mucho falsetto and racin’ riffage. But, at their heart, they’re a rock band, still wanting to combine Slade with Budgie‘s “Breadfan,” or something.
Reasons Yea: One of the few “big” NWOBHM bands not named Iron Maiden or Angel Witch still releasing passable material after 1985.
Reasons Nay: There’s, at least, four other Raven albums that need to hit your CD shelves before this one.
“Really…Raven? Does anyone outside of Japan still care? I mean, someone must because this is finally seeing Stateside distro after being out in the East for a full year…”
My poor, feeble brain tried to make sense of it all. To make matters worse, even though I threw many-a-tantrum, no metal elder sat me on their knee to tell me about the glory days of yore, so I had to pen a review of this puppy without anyone forming my opinion for me. And, being a hipster, that meant I really didn’t have a damn thing to go on. Shit. Needless to say, I was lost. I needed time to think, so off I went to my Metal Review-funded fortress of solitude…my, uh, bathroom.
Ten minutes and a chapter of Twilight later, I sank into the bathtub. My head ached over this review, so, to cool my nerves, I turned up the aquarium air pump, making sure that my makeshift hot tub was cookin’. It was then, in a glorious moment of rare reviewer motivation, I decided to actually listen to the album. I carefully stood up amongst the various floating toys, reached towards the rickety shelf I installed just above the tub, and hit eject on the duct-taped boombox. I lovingly removed the well-worn copy of Best of Lilith Fair: In-Between Song Banter and threw in the Gallaghers’ newest.
As “Intro” crackled to life, I took a step back to find my original position. It was then that my foot found not the bottom of the tub, but the bottle of Dora the Explorer’s No More Tears Shampoo, shooting my leg, and, soon after, my entire lower half from under me. My foot rocketed towards the shelf, hit the side of the boombox, and displaced it from its high-above perch. As I crashed into the bubbling water, my eyes opened just in time to brace myself for another impact: the boombox was aimed right at my head. I didn’t have time to move and prepared for the inevitable spark that would shock my soul out of existence. As soon as it hit my face and the water, all I saw a bright light. Then, nothing…
When I awoke, I found myself in the back of a grungy pub. A cardboard guitar was strapped to my upper frame. Me and thirty other frizzy-haired youth rushed towards the smoky stage. Three dudes that looked like they were hit by a tornado while shopping in Big Five greeted us with a thunderous power chord. We screamed with delight. Raven! Mark Gallagher began deftly picking, his nimble fingers flying over the fretboard, and we all lost our shit.
“This one is called “Against the Grain” and it’s the new one off of Walk Through Fire!”
The song was familiar, but it was no Raven song I ever heard before. It wasn’t A+, like the old stuff which had more character, but it felt right. As one of my furious, out of control headbangs accidentally glanced off of John Gallagher’s cupped genitals, like how the face of a diminutive guidette inevitably meets a balled fist at a bar, the adrenaline washed over me and I giddly screamed, “IT MUST’VE BEEN SOME KIND OF HOT TUB TIME MACH-[Ed. And now we’re getting sued].”
Bullshit, failed-creative writer (And I mean failed. Did you read that?) flourishes aside, that’s pretty much what you’ll be getting here, my fellow ‘heads. Walk Through Fire is such a rush of nostalgia that’ll it make you pine for them NWOBHM days even if your youngest memories of music are more along the lines of, say, NKOTB. But, does that make it good? Eh… Necessary? Eh… Here’s why:
Walk Through Fire has the unique trait of making you want to listen to older Raven. Like, immediately. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this newer incarnation, but this set o’ songs is a little faceless. I mean, it’s obviously Raven, and Raven never really aimed for a whole lot of depth before, but the tracks here have such an air of familiarity that the band has hit, what I am going to dub, The Moody Blues Zone.
Stick with me on this one. The Moody Blues Zone is both a bad pun and a sad reality. The zone’s namesake had, in my mind, a particularly unfortunate habit of using the same exact album arc over and over again with diminishing results. You were going to get the ballad, the really artsy third-stream part, the song that glistened with bullshit childlike whimsy, etc. Soon, the tracks just became pale echoes and brought out only what you felt when you first spun the O.G. stuff. It became less about writing identifiable songs and more about just mining a particular mood. So, to summarize, if we think of a song as a fully decorated room, each time a band uses the same idea, you start ignoring shit. It’s still the same room, nothing drastic has changed, but there’s a little less there to catch your attention. It gets a little less interesting, a little less dynamic, a little less surprising, until, eventually, you only subconsciously pick up on the various feelings that room evokes based on past experiences. Now, let’s hammer this home with Walk Through Fire:
“Against the Grain” is a pretty typical Raven barn burner, as super speedy and catchy riffs–courtesy of the continually underrated Mark, give John a familiar template to be, uh, John…John Gallagher over. The hooks are there, the riffs are there, the goofiness is there; it’s just that you’ve heard it. A lot. And, at this point in the game, it puts you in a certain mood instead of being surprising or getting you interested in the underlying structure of the song. Granted, the mood it drops me into is something akin to, “Fuck yes, this is real metal. I’m going to roll the windows of my Civic down, pretend I’m in a muscle car, and pump my fist,” which is great and there’s not a darn thing wrong with that. But I can barely remember a thing about this sucker when the laser stops firing. I might as well be listening to the same ol’ story from the same ol’ friend, going through the motions and hitting the now-internalized interjections with the lackadaisical attitude of a bored brodude wingman reciting ultra-stale Dane Cook bits to worthless bar poontang. It’s like Raven and I are both on autopilot.
Again, though, I don’t want this to come off as an experience-destroyer. There are a few twists that raise an eyebrow or two, like “Bulldozer” which, humorously, sounds like Pantera‘s “Walk” if they remained infatuated with glam metal. (Aside: The album’s modern production sheen has got this coke-dusted Streets of ’80s L.A. vibe that I never really picked up on before in Raven‘s sound. Some of this stuff almost sounds like Crüe covering Raven. Weird how a slight variation in tone can do that). Then, there’s the mid-paced and slower numbers. Again, we’re talking mood pieces, but the songs coax out a feeling I hardly get from metal these days; sleaze. Case in point, “Long Day’s Journey” could lyrically be about hurriedly unearthing orphans in Haiti, but, because of those riffs, it would still sound sleazier than Tiger Woods taking on Rohypnol as a sponsor.
But, if there’s one song that’s an honest-to-gawd GREAT song that reaches past being just a mood piece, it’s “Trainwreck.” Guys, we’ve got serious ringtone material here, as the opening riff just has that perfect NWOBHM chime to it. It’s the kind of joyous energy that could lift the lips of even the most Eeyore’d-out Burzumic clone. It’s like snorting a line of the audio-equivalent of the devil’s dandruff, as it paints a goddamn grin on your numb noggin for three-and-a-half solid minutes. Of course, you flat out hate everyone/everything until you can get some more (and it makes you shit because it’s cut with laxatives), but, geeze, during that inedible hook when the band just locks in and John sounds like he’s strangling a goose to launch back into the verse, life is pretty freakin’ great.
So, yeah, one outta fifteen ain’t the best batting average. But, the real revelation here is this: After you’re done spending an hour of your life with Walk Through Fire and you reward yourself for having to endure a Montrose cover by slinking back to their first three, you really learn to appreciate the early stages of this band more. Admittedly, of all the groups that a young Lars Ulrich spent his tennis academy lunch money on, Raven never really clicked with me until now. To max out my cliché card, there’s just something wonderful about listening to a band before habits were cemented, before they found their “sound,” and fettered every riff with their watermark. Rock Until You Drop, Wiped Out,and, to a lesser extent, All for One captured a band that was ripening, road-testing their shit in the pubs and exploring the confines of athletic rock.. (Jesus, did we ever dodge a bullet here. According to some rough estimation of string theory I’ve pieced together by sleeping through Science Channel docs, there’s a parallel world where another version of you is hitting the back button on AthleticRockReview so you can read about the sweet, new blackened-post-athletic rock band instead of this garbage review.) Walk Through Fire, though, is the sound of a band comfortable with their legacy, churning out a set of tunes that will get a thumbs up from the old guard because it brings out the right moods. This won’t, however, snag the younger metallers that ain’t looking to spend time in that kind of room. But at the very least, this allowed me to jump the barrier and “get” the old stuff. For folks like me, that’s not a bad way to spend the running time, but if you’re just coming into the fold, you might want to drop a boombox on your face, see a bright light, and then…nothing…
As the confused medics lifted me out of the tub, stared at my crotch, and called down that a young female was coming to the ER, I was still air-shredding in my mind. The epiphany was still in full force. Raven! But, this time, the joys of younger Raven.
I whispered through blackened lips to anyone that would listen:
“I don`t want no rich fat daddy trying to change my life when I just wanna relax.”
As the medics continued to give CPR to my charred ass, I knew that I had just made an old friend, all thanks to that HOT TUB TIME MACH-[Ed. Ian Chainey has been fired for accepting advertising bribes from MGM and spending two-thousand words on absolutely nothing].