In January of 2012, the metal world lost a giant when Riot guitarist and mainstay Mark Reale passed away after a long struggle with Crohn’s disease. Reale had been Riot’s sole consistent member through the band’s four iterations, through fourteen albums spanning thirty-five years. In the year or so just before Reale’s death, he had reformed the line-up that recorded the 1988 classic Thundersteel, and in October of 2011, that reunited Riot III released the stellar Immortal Soul, the title of which is tragically prophetic now.
Immortal Soul would’ve been a hell of a Riot record to end on, a fiery masterstroke of power metal awesomeness that eclipsed everything the band had done in the previous fifteen years, maybe more. The guitars blazed; the vocals soared; the songs hooked in deep. But with Reale gone not too long after, it appeared then that Immortal Soul was their last.
Thankfully, it’s not.
With the blessing of the Reale family, Riot carries on, although now with a V appended to separate what has gone from what’s to come. (The new moniker is not universal — in some territories, this album was released under the Riot name, in others as Riot V.) This one is the fifth distinct Riot, hence the Roman numeral, with bassist Don Van Stavern and guitarist Mike Flyntz remaining from the Thundersteel / Immortal Soul line-up. Burning Starr vocalist Todd Michael Hall replaces Tony Moore; drummer Frank Gilchriest returns from the tail-end of Riot IV to replace the godly Bobby Jarzombek; lastly, new guitarist Nick Lee was recruited from the ranks of Flyntz’ guitar students.
From the onset, it’s clear that this latest Riot hasn’t lost a step – their leader may be gone, but the mission remains the same. Opening number “Ride Hard Live Free” shreds through some furious riffing, more technical than anything on Immortal Soul and, as such, reminiscent of parts of 1990’s The Privilege Of Power; follow-up track “Metal Warrior” declares “Raise your fist up to our brother man / Johnny lead us to your promised land / … Shine on, metal warrior,” bringing the band’s mascot and its catch-phrase into the new day. Both songs are great examples of power metal done perfectly – the riffs drive the tune, while Hall’s operatic tenor lifts the choruses into the stratosphere. Flyntz and Lee are on fire through the album’s strongest tracks – the dogfight of “Fall From The Sky,” the stomping “Fight Fight Fight,” and even the slightly goofy Old West-themed “Return Of The Outlaw,” with its tales of an unsavory character named Six-Gun Sal.
Like most power metal, Unleash The Fire is best when its firing fast and, well, powerful, so it’s no surprise that it’s weakest when it slows down the pace. I’m torn a bit in being critical, because both of the ballads here are dedicated to Reale, but both are the album’s least engaging tracks. The earlier of the two, “Immortal,” written by Van Stavern, is the stronger offering – it’s a pretty standard power metal ballad in arrangement, but it’s made more poignant by the subject matter. The second, Flyntz’ “Until We Meet Again,” is the more personal one, but it’s also a bit more heavy-handed – his guitar work there is among the best on the record, but the melody feels a bit forced.
Still, even if the direct tributes to Reale aren’t the highlights, the album itself honors the man’s legacy in the best possible way: It’s a great record with some absolutely first-rate power metal tunes. It bears the Riot name, or close enough, and it upholds it in fine fashion. Despite a thirty-year run and some undeniable classics, Riot never achieved the level of commercial success that they deserved, for whatever reason. With Mark Reale gone now, Unleash The Fire proves beyond a doubt that the band can handle his legacy with class and skill. Through the continuation of Riot, V or otherwise, he still shines on.
Most importantly: this new Riot rocks, for Reale.