Although Riot were never part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, they certainly sounded as if they were. Their independent label debut album, Rock City, had so much in common with the style that it caught fire as an import in England long before American audiences began paying attention. Eventually Capitol Records came sniffing around, and released their second album, Narita, in 1979. Things were looking up for the band, and they recorded what would become their best-selling LP, Fire Down Under, in 1981.
In a textbook example of record label stupidity, Capitol deemed Fire Down Under “commercially unacceptable,” and refused to release it. Elektra Records picked it up, and the album went on to become a sizable hit. It also became a major influence on many of the emerging metal bands of the early eighties.
It is hard to figure out what Capitol found so objectionable about this record, because there is not a bad track on it. At the time, the company’s line was that it was too heavy. But that is a ridiculous claim. Fire Down Under is a near perfect mix of tight songwriting with just the right amount of metal elements such as stinging guitar solos and soaring vocals. It is a bit heavier than what Def Leppard were doing at the time, but not quite as powerful as Iron Maiden – who by the way, were signed to Capitol themselves.
In short, Fire Down Under had commercial appeal written all over it. It is also a brilliant metal album. From the opening “Swords And Tequila,” all the way through to “Flashbacks,” this record rocks. The twin-guitar attack of Mark Reale and Rick Ventura never sounded better than on “Run For Your Life.” And the vocals of Guy Speranza on the likes of “Don’t Hold Back” are awesome.
Riot had the potential to be an American Judas Priest. Speranza’s voice definitely holds its own with that of Rob Halford, and Reale and Ventura’s guitars easily spar as well as those of Downing and Tipton. Circumstances conspired against the band in a big way, though. The biggest blow came with the departure of Guy Speranza following Fire Down Under. Throughout the eighties, Riot’s lineup seemed in a perpetual state of flux, and they never regained the momentum they had following their classic third album.
The audiophile label Audio Fidelity are launching their new mid-line Target Series with Fire Down Under, which will be available in both the vinyl and CD formats. For those of us who have been enjoying the resurrection of vinyl recently, their Target Series holds particular promise. Previously, the only new LPs in stores have been very expensive 180-gram limited edition selections. These hold great snob appeal, and do sound wonderful, but there has been no alternative until now. Audio Fidelity’s Target line prices their high quality albums the same as their CDs, which is a really cool development.
Fire Down Under is an early eighties metal classic, and if you didn’t hear it the first time around, try it now. And a big thumbs up to this Target mid-line series as well; it is an idea whose time has definitely come.