Riot, Riot V, it doesn’t matter: the legendary New York-based heavy/power metal Goliath has been around through thick and thin, storm and calm, and even death. I remember when founding member, guitarist and main songwriter Mark Reale passed away in 2012, shortly after the highly acclaimed ‘Immortal Soul’ (2011), which raised doubts about the continuity of the band. Gladly, Mike Flyntz (guitars) and Don Van Stavern (bass) thought of an elegant solution, adding the V to make sure that Reale’s legacy would remain untouched, and so they went on honoring their music and their brother by releasing the amazing ‘Unleash the Fire’ (2014), a comeback of sorts.
Four years later and a brand new deal with one of the biggest labels around, Stavern, Flyntz, Nick Lee (guitars, Moon Tooth) and two forces of nature called Todd Michael Hall (vocals, Harlet, Jack Starr’s Burning Starr, ex-Reverence) and Frank “The Kraken” Gilchriest (drums, Feanor, Liege Lord, ex-Virgin Steele, ex-Holy Mother) maintain the epic form achieved in 2014 and release ‘Armor of Light’ an album that further consolidates why keeping the band active was one of the greatest things these dudes have ever done.
Let me start by saying this: If the record was cut in half and songs 1-through-7 and 12 were the only ones left, we would have album-of-the-year material, simple as that. From the powerful, thunderous beginning of “Victory”, with stellar riffs and amazing drum-work by a drum machine Gilchriest, to the last chords of the epic title track, this is a perfect album, I shit you not. Hall’s high-pitched vocals are as amazing as ever, the leads, bridges and solos are surgically placed and – as I stated above – Gilchriest footwork makes me wonder if the guy is even human.
The mighty US power metal magic flows throughout the whole experience, from more aggressive bits to melodic – almost euro-power – passages, as can be seen in the catchy “End of the World” with its virtuous leads and chanted chorus, and “Angel’s Thunder, Devil’s Reign”, which will most definitely be two tracks featured live, as they are awesome to sing along to. A more traditional and 80’s rooted aura is also present, with songs like “Burn the Daylight”, which features some cool distorted heavy riffing, and “Heart of a Lion” making those ‘proud to be a metalhead’ characters feel at home. The duo Flyntz-Lee is at its best here, using twin guitars and dueling when necessary, greatly improving the experience.
There are three tracks, though, that really caught my ears: the aforementioned title track, “Messiah” and closer “Raining Fire”. While “Armor of Light” features a fist-pumping atmosphere and a killer pause between the chorus repeat, adding some density to the track, “Messiah” is definitely my favorite here, and I’ll name it “Thundersteel 2.0” from now on, because the entire aesthetic, attitude and songwriting reminisces Riot’s ultimate classic: the sense of urgency, raw power and inspiration in this track makes it one of the best compositions of Riot’s 40+ years of activity. Believe me, brother, this puts every new shitty band’s dreams of one day making into the big leagues with mediocre songwriting and bland musicality to shame.
The album loses some steam by track 8, with the semi-ballad “Set the World Alight”. While not a bad song, the forced emotional atmosphere and the sudden change of pace will lower your adrenaline without a doubt, which is not necessarily a good thing. Alongside the decent “San Antonio”, the sexy-but-generic “Caught in the Witches’ Eye” and a classic ‘liberation song’ in “Ready to Shine” make for the weaker part of the record, but never falling down to uninspired or soulless playing. “Raining Fire”, as I said above, closes the album by completely obliterating everything in its path with its tenacity and virtuosity, making it a perfect ending.
I could point out the over-polished production and the often-times “too perfect” drumming as two things that could menace the organic instrumental and overall performances, but these will only bother the extremely purist, analog-tape lover headbanger stuck in the 80’s (but nevertheless it’s pointed out, so there you go), so there is almost nothing that ruins the course of the album or something that could scare away a weary listener.
‘Armor of Light’ falls short of being album-of-the-year material, as I stated in the first paragraphs of this review, but only because the first half hour is SO good that by the time “Set the World Alight” comes in, you’re already expecting more and more orgasmic riffs and vocal lines that would make the 1980’s Rob Halford proud. This is a marvelous homage to Mark Reale and yet another statement that the old metal titans are still alive and kicking serious ass, being with this, Saxon’s ‘Thunderbolt’, Accept’s ‘Rise of Chaos’ or Judas Priest’s surprisingly good (courtesy of Andy Sneap) ‘Firepower’. You can definitely rest in peace, Mark, because Riot V is making sure your immortal soul is intact.