This reviewing gig exposes me to a lot of new metal, for free, and that’s great. But you know what I like more than discovering new metal? I like discovering old metal. For whatever reason, I’ve always enjoyed digging into the past and finding great bands and albums that I overlooked or whose time in the sun predates my metal fandom. It’s a double edged-sword, of course, because while it’s gratifying to discover a record that I really like, it’s depressing when I think that I could have already been enjoying said record for years or even decades.
One such example of a record that passed me by is Riot’s Fire Down Under. Truthfully, the album didn’t pass me by, I ignored it, because I thought an album with a cover that stupid couldn’t be worth my time. Fire Down Under’s cover artwork prominently features the band’s Mascot, Tior, or as I like to refer to him, “that fucking seal-head guy”, against a background of flames. Whatever possessed Riot to adopt a seal-headed man as a mascot, I cannot fathom. Certain man-beast amalgamations make sense: A minotaur combines the brute strength of a bull and the cunning and dexterity of a man. Similarly, a centaur combines the powerful intellect and opposable thumbs of a man with the speed and endurance of a horse. What great prowess can we expect from seal-head guy? I imagine he’s pretty good at bobbing for apples, and he probably doesn’t have to wear a hat in the winter. Aside from that, though, what’s the point? The band could have been going for irony, but I don’t think irony had been invented yet in 1981. In any case, despite assurances from people I respect that Fire Down Under was a pretty kick-ass record, Tior’s ugly mug put me off Riot for years.
Then on one fateful evening, around the time of Riot founder Mark Reale’s death in 2012, I was on Youtube and stumbled across a live video for “Swords and Tequila”. It was a thirty-odd year-old clip of the band playing in a bar that was shot on video tape, and it had dodgy sound, but it hooked me. Such is the power of this song –– the barnstorming, drinking and fighting anthem that opens Fire Down Under. “Swords and Tequila” makes me want to jump up on the bar and kick some son-of-a-bitch in the face every time I hear it. If it doesn’t do the same to you, you’re probably no fun at parties. Never before has the combination of alcohol and cutlery seemed liked such a great idea. I’m not the only one who digs the song either, because both Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate use variations of the track’s main riff on “Two Minutes to Midnight” and “Curse of the Pharaohs” respectively. Sure, it’s more than likely just a coincidence, but I’d like to think Maiden and Fate are Riot fans.
“Swords and Tequila” is definitely the highlight, but it is by no means the only gem on the remarkably solid Fire Down Under. The title track has a similarly infectious energy, with its catchy-as-hell blues rock boogie riffs cranked up to speed metal tempo. By contrast, “Outlaw” is a swaggering, grooving number written by Riot’s singer Guy Speranza that tells the tale of the titular protragonist’s adventures and misadventures in bank robbery and gambling, and it features one of the strongest choruses on a record that has virtually zero weak ones. The classical guitar intro of “Altar of the King” has an early Rainbow feel, and there’s more than a little Dio in the fantasy-flavored lyrics as well, but it’s the rhythm section that really makes the track. Bassist Kip Lemming and drummer Sandy Slavin set up galloping groove that manages to be both propulsive and laid back at the same time, creating a foundation that’s solid yet so smooth, the vocals and guitars just glide across it all.
One of the things I most appreciate about Riot’s performance on Fire Down Under is how it so easily straddles the line between hard rock and metal, which is something that most bands in the segregated and sub-divided metal scene of the present day could not get away with. The songwriting on here is diverse, unpretentious and, at times, unabashedly poppy. Consequently, each track has its own strong identity.
Another aspect obviously worth appreciating is the guitar playing of Mark Reale and Rick Ventura. Part of the appeal starts with the tone: The guitars are dirty, but they’re bright and lean more toward overdrive, as opposed to the supersaturated distortion that would soon become a hallmark of metal. This less aggressive tone allows for more subtlety and variation in Reale and Ventura’s playing. More full chords instead of power chords. More melodic embellishments, and a generally more richly textured sound.
Additionally crucial to Fire Down Under’s success is aforementioned vocalist, Guy Speranza. He wasn’t any sort of a vocal acrobat –– he didn’t scream, shriek or growl, he just sang with a voice that is high, clear and strong. Speranza’s enthusiasm for the material is palpable and infectious, and every song on this record is elevated by his performance. Sadly, Fire Down Under would be Speranza’s swan song. Frustrated by Riot’s relative lack of commercial success, Guy retired from the music business altogether shortly after recording the album. Even sadder, Speranza passed away in 2003 at the age of 47. Fucking cancer.
What I love most about Fire Down Under, however, is the fact that it’s just god-damn fun. These tunes never fail to put a smile on my face. They somehow manage to be joyous and life-affirming without being corny or sappy, and they’re still heavy enough that I can bang my head to them. Riot would go on to harder, heavier, faster, and, arguably greater things with albums like Thundersteel and Immortal Soul, but this version of the band –– with this album in particular –– hit a sweet spot in metal that few others have managed to hit. I’m glad I finally pulled my head out of my ass and gave this one a chance. Learn from my mistake: If you haven’t already, give Fire Down Under a spin.