Retrospective: Riot’s Thundersteel Twenty Five Years Strong

By Avinash Mittur

American power metal often has a vastly different connotation than its European counterpart. The folks on the other side of the Atlantic were happy to show off huge, anthemic choruses with fantasy based imagery to along with it, while the guys in the states featured a tougher, rougher image and wrote songs with more of a bite to them. Both styles of power metal have their merits, but in the late ’80s one band just couldn’t seem to reconcile that dichotomy. That band was Riot from New York City, and their album Thundersteel is a power metal record in the European mold, but with an American sense of swagger and aggression. Twenty five years ago on March 24th 1988, this gem of an album was released, and a whole new brand of American heavy metal was born.

Many know Riot only for their hard rock and early classic metal records in the late ’70s and early ’80s. These are great albums to be sure, Fire Down Under especially is an underrated classic, but none of them could have possibly predicted the direction the band would take on Thundersteel. In 1984, guitarist Mark Reale, the heart and soul of Riot, put the band on ice after he failed to find success with the early records. Frequent lineup changes and the evolving state of heavy metal didn’t help things one bit. Reale spent the next few years jamming with various musicians in Texas and Los Angeles, including the likes of Dave McClain, who later went on to drum for Sacred Reich and Machine Head, and Harry Conklin, the man who would become the voice of fellow American power metal warriors Jag Panzer. The one mainstay was bassist Don Van Stavern, who wrote much of what would become Thundersteel along with Reale. Power piped vocalist Tony Moore and drummer Mark Edwards soon joined the pair, and Riot was reborn. Halfway through the recording of Thundersteel, Edwards was replaced by a young Bobby Jarzombek, who is now one of metal’s busiest freelance drummers. Reale would later find a tag-team partner in Mike Flyntz, but for this record the guy tackled guitar duties on his own.

When Riot fans put on Thundersteel for the first time, they were more than likely dumbfounded from the first notes of the title track onwards. This wasn’t classic old-school heavy metal, this was balls to the wall, melodic, thrashy metal. Of course, this later became known as power metal, but such a term didn’t even exist back in 1988. Jarzombek announces his arrival to the metal world with a massive double bass attack, and even shows off his signature hi-hat flourishes during the verses (the guy still used the same style on Halford’s ‘Betrayal’ fifteen years later- pretty cool, eh?). As for the departed Edwards, he offered some quick footwork of his own on the songs he played on (those would be tracks 2, 3, 5 and 7). Reale was the real star on Thundersteel however. On the title track, the man dazzles with an epic neo-classical guitar solo reminiscent of Accept’s ‘Fast as a Shark’. Reale was always one of the quicker guitarists when it came to the early metal bands, but dude went into full shred mode for Thundersteel, and the results were appropriately badass. Moore on the other hand was a polarizing force for Riot; one either loved or hated his high-pitched, occasionally shrill, wailing. These days, fans of European power metal would gush over his range and astonishing screams. Moore’s lyrics often touched upon standard topics of metal (superhuman warriors, the apocalypse, imminent death etc) but his more down to earth musings on ‘Bloodstreets’ and ‘Johnny’s Back’ were far more interesting. Moore would end up perfecting that craft of lyric writing on Riot’s swansong, Immortal Soul.

Left to Right: Tony Moore, Don Van Stavern, Mark Reale, Mike Flyntz and Bobby Jarzombek

Riot opted to split Thundersteel into two very distinct halves. Side A contains catchy and quick headbanging tunes like the title track, and the ripping pair of ‘Flight of the Warrior’ and ‘On Wings of Eagles’ while Side B is delegated to mid-tempo stompers like ‘Run for Your Life’ and the sprawling ‘Buried Alive (Tell Tale Heart)’. Of course, there is also the ballad ‘Bloodstreets’. When one pictures the band playing the music on this record, they’ll likely think of long haired rockers sporting denim and leather. Anyone who’s ever seen the music video for ‘Bloodstreets’ sadly knows better, as the band themselves showed off a glammed up hair metal look that didn’t suit the music in any way whatsoever. It ultimately didn’t matter what the band dressed like though; America really has never been a welcome place of refuge for power metal acts. Regardless of the band’s image though, the music still managed to be great- while some songs stand taller than others, there isn’t a sub-par track on Thundersteel and it’s always an invigorating start-to-finish listen.

Riot’s history is something truly remarkable, and yet truly heartbreaking at the same time. Mark Reale managed to pioneer not one, but two completely different styles of heavy metal over the span of ten years, and was hardly recognized for his innovation and outstanding songwriting. Now that he has passed on and the world knows of the pain he suffered due to Crohn’s Disease, it’s even more gut-wrenching to reflect on the adversity and lack of success Reale had to face throughout his life. It’s tough to gauge the exact influence of Riot- few bands have namedropped them over the years, leaving fans to find them through their own research and luck. For me anyway, this CD practically lived in my car during senior year of high school, and the day Reale passed away was definitely a very depressing one. The early Riot albums helped lay the foundation for what heavy metal would sound like during the 1980s- Thundersteel took that sound to whole new level of speed and power. It’s a shame the rest of the metal world had to take a few years to catch up.

Track Listing:
1. “Thundersteel”
2. “Fight or Fall” 3:48
3. “Sign of the Crimson Storm” 8:13
4. “Flight of the Warrior” 12:53
5. “On Wings of Eagles” 17:10
6. “Johnny’s Back” 22:51
7. “Bloodstreets” 28:24
8. “Run for Your Life” 33:01
9. “Buried Alive (Tell Tale Heart)” 37:09