Don’t look now, but Johnny’s back again…
With Immortal Soul, Riot’s Thundersteel line-up reunites, some twenty-three years later. And with those words, probably about ten percent of you got really excited, and rightfully so, because – and I fear that not a lot of people seem to remember this – Riot circa Thundersteel kicked some serious ass and released one of the best power metal records of the day. And thus, more of you should be excited, so pay attention…
Riot began in the late 1970s as a trad-metal band back when “trad-metal” was just called “metal.” Despite being American, they found minor success alongside the NWOBHM acts and, in the process, crafted one of the finest pure metal records ever in 1981’s Fire Down Under. But Fire Down Under didn’t make them famous either, and the band made the first of many vocalist changes, replacing the late Guy Speranza with the late Rhett Forrester, but stardom continued to elude them and the band continued to evolve. By the time of 1988’s Thundersteel, released under a new worldwide deal with CBS, Riot had moved away from straight-ahead trad-metal into a speedier, power metal realm. Thundersteel was still akin to Judas Priest, but pushing towards Painkiller speed and fury (and doing so three years before that record, I might add), with Tony Moore’s soaring operatic vocals and bandleader Mark Reale’s fast-and-fiery guitar work. Thundersteel is an American power metal classic that rightfully made some waves, but like the previous records, it didn’t make Riot a household name, and after one more release (1990’s The Privilege Of Power), this line-up disbanded and the band fell into a lengthy stretch of solid-but-lesser albums that trod the line between power metal and what we’d now probably call classic rock. (Think Rainbow, but heavier.)
So it’s been twenty-three years since Thundersteel… But in Riot’s world, it doesn’t feel that way: Immortal Soul picks up right where that album left off. The riffage is aggressive and fiery, energetic even in the many instances of mid-tempo groove; the performances are tight, passionate, indicative of the band’s professionalism and experience, with particularly impressive turns by Reale and Moore and drummer Bobby Jarzombek (who’s also drummed for Halford and Fates Warning, as well as this on year’s brilliant Arch / Matheos record). Moore’s vocals are a bit warmer, a less shrill than on Thundersteel (and only a bit) – they’re still soaring, still powerful, still absolutely perfect for this band.
Immortal Soul doesn’t skirt comparison to its older brother – it hits the inevitable juxtaposition head on with an early track that directly references Thundersteel. “Still Your Man” is a paean to Johnny, another name for the Mighty Tior, the band’s (admittedly ridiculous) seal-headed mascot. On Thundersteel, “Johnny’s Back” was a declaration of the band’s dedication to metal (were such ever in doubt), a tale of the return of the seal and, by extension, the band. “Still Your Man” is a sequel to that statement, as much a response as the album itself – it’s further affirmation that, once again, Johnny is back and Riot is with him. In similar fashion, “Riot” is another straight-ahead statement of intent – you can’t name a song after your band and not have it be a mission statement – especially when that track is blistering and sports a refrain of “What’s it gonna take to make you riot?” Between the two, it’s both evident and expressly declared that the band means business, and thankfully, Immortal Soul delivers upon that bravado in spades.
Beyond the self-referential songs, Immortal Soul rips and soars through nine more solid tunes – some speedy and super-melodic (“Wings Are For Angels,” “Whiskey Man“) and some mid-paced and super-melodic (the stellar title track, “Fall Before Me“). Mostly performed by Flyntz due to a decline in Reale’s health, the guitar leads are especially first-rate, often as melodic and memorable as Moore’s vocals – a flurry of warm-toned, fleet-fingered licks.
Immortal Soul proves there’s still a lot of fire left in these old dogs. Once again, Riot has crafted a power metal record of serious quality, readily evoking their own often-overlooked glory days. Yeah, this is power metal, so there’s more than a bit of melodic and metallic goofiness here – uber-serious metaller-than-metal types and those who avoid melody and majesty need not apply, but I defy anyone with even the slightest fondness for straight-up heavy metal to listen to this and not put their fist in the air, not crack a smile and not bang their head. I’ve spun this one probably thirty times in the last few weeks, and there’s no signs of me stopping anytime soon. It’s simply impossible to listen to this and not crank it up, to not just give in and rock out.
Welcome back, Johnny.