Riot – Thundersteel
1988, CBS Associated Records
If the Queensryche EP was the big bang of USPM, then certainly, Riot’s 1988 masterpiece, Thundersteel, is the textbook example of how to get it right. Released after a brief hiatus, this album marks not only a considerable change in line-up, but also a departure from some seriously horrifying album artwork. I think it’s fair to say that it worked.
It always irritates me when people assume that I only got into metal because of the men in my life. However, in the case of Riot, I admit – it’s completely true. It was an Indian summer, and I was in love. I was also due to be flying back to the UK to finish school, private school, I might add – a place I felt less and less understood with every passing day. My scruffy band t-shirts were looked upon with scorn, and I was considered odd at best. And then, one day, a package arrived – a stack of hand-labelled burned CDs, lovingly wrapped in a t-shirt that still smelled like him, and they shaped the next decade of my musical education.
Of course with a name like ‘Thundersteel’, it was one of the first albums on those CDs that I listened to. Like a pair of greedy hands, the opening lick to the title track pulls you right in. Even the anthemic, mid-tempo Sign of The Crimson Storm retains all of the momentum garnered by the first two tracks. The sheer machine that is Bobby Jarzombek turns the drum-kit into an instrument with pitch and heart, most palpable in the spine-jangling intro to Johnny’s Back. And talk about an immense finisher – the spectacularly creepy Buried Alive (Tell Tale Heart).
In many ways, nothing that Riot put out before Thundersteel, nor after, quite achieves this perfect blend of aggression and harmony so typical of USPM. Indeed, the closest progenitor of this sound is probably 1981’s Fire Down Under, which holds its own place in the list of greats.
Let’s take a moment to remember the creative powerhouse that was Mark Reale – he really was Riot. His growth as a musician, as a writer, can clearly be observed through his decades of work with this band – being the sole constant in an ever-changing line-up. With his passing in 2012, the ‘Riot’ mantle was laid to rest, although his music lives on through Riot V, formed by surviving members and associates of Riot, who continue his legacy.
A couple of years ago, I was at a party in a dingy little Glaswegian hole, with sticky floors and sweaty walls (you know the sort of place I mean). We’d just been to see a band (Atlantean Kodex, if you must know – and they were incredible, too) and weren’t ready to end the night, but aside for a few hardcore partiers, the joint was pretty dead. A few of us were stood at the bar, making polite conversation (okay, we were yelling over plastic pints of beer), not quite hammered enough for air-guitaring with strangers. And then – we heard the unmistakable thunder of drums running into ‘Flight of the Warrior’. As if unified by some greater force, we were all pulled to each other. Every damn person in the place grinned in recognition and migrated to the middle of the room – singing, headbanging, and nailing those air-solos. I looked around and felt completely overwhelmed by the power of great music: it transcends age, sex, colour and religion, to make a community.
I never met him, but I reckon Mark Reale would have loved that.