Riot became heavy metal legends in their own lifetimes when they produced a string of albums in the late 70s and early 80s – a time when it wasn’t unusual for bands to produce an album of shockingly good quality every year or two. Rock City, Narita and Fire Down Under – all released between 1977 and 1981 – stamped the band’s mark on the world (try listening to Swords & Tequila and not thinking Iron Maiden). But, whatever the critics say, the band is just as fondly known these days for Thundersteel with its sheer over-the-top power metal speed-fest title track and memorable B-side which takes an entirely different tack. I’d even argue that, certainly within some sections of the metal fraternity, every Riot album since then has been graded against that pinnacle of speed metal that should really be mentioned in the same breath as any German release that helped formed the benchmark for the power metal scene ever since. While nowhere near as influential as Helloween and their ilk would prove to be, there’s no doubt that Thundersteel (if not, sadly, its overlooked follow up – but my personal favourite, 1990s The Privilege of Power) is now regarded as a classic alongside the early releases.
The history of Riot’s line-up is probably also worth a mention at this point too. The name Riot V is a nod to the fact that the band has gone through several incarnations. Guitarist Don Van Stavern is the only member still in the line-up from the Thundersteel days despite the appearance of Tony Moore on the sensational and aptly named Immortal Soul – which turned out to be the swansong for founding member Mark Reale who sadly passed away shortly afterwards at the age of just 56. Van Stavern apparently vowed to continue the band after a conversation with Reale’s father and this is the second outing after 2014’s Unleash the Fire with new singer and Tony-Moore-a-like Todd Michael Hall. So this can probably be regarded as a tricky second album for the new line-up. But I think it’s safe to say that the Riot flame is being well and truly looked after on the strength of this. Not only does the album actually manage to connect Riot through the years very well, despite the mix of new and old-ish faces, it also sees every member of their band playing their part to the full with regular high velocity bursts from the rhythm section, blistering leads and Todd Michael Hall (who also sings with Jack Starr’s Burning Starr) doing his very best to make us not feel too much like we’re missing Tony Moore. Twelve tracks could have felt a little overlong (and anyone whose not into the vocal pitch or Riot’s cut glass brand of US power metal may still think it is) but the band manages to maintain quality throughout baring one or two chorus lines which didn’t quite hit the mark – for me at least.
What’s impressive is that the band once again stays firmly on the side of vintage quality with a style that could so easily end up sounding lightweight and cheesy in the wrong hands. Armor of Light takes us right back to the 80s – right down to the Iron Maiden-esque title track which feels like a cheeky call back to The Trooper, Helloween (on Ready to Shine) a bit of Dio (Caught in the Witches Eye), and even a heavier finale reminiscent of Spreading the Disease-era Anthrax. But at its heart this is Riot through and through and, while there is no sky-shattering equivalent of Thundersteel, there are treats aplenty for the average Riot fan with the likes of rousing Messiah (which comes close), Angels Thunder – Devil’s Reign (another piece of classic Riot that could have been cut from The Privilege of Power) and Heart of a Lion.
The only complaint I have about modern day Riot is that it sounds a little clinical, produced to perfection and now risks sticking a little too closely to the formula – because that’s clearly what Van Stavern and the band is there to do. So don’t expect too many surprises and by the end of Armor of Light the tracks do blur into one a little. There are also perhaps too few goosebump moments for a jaded power metal fan like me whose always looking for his next hit and has been numbed by listening to far too much of this stuff in the past. Picking out a favourite track is also difficult despite this album clearly being a solid one, which also suggests that, while decent and enjoyable enough, this hasn’t quite blown any of my tiny power-metal overloaded brain cells. But this is still, nevertheless, a worthy addition to the Riot catalogue. Mark Reale’s dad should be proud and so should Van Stavern. But I think there is perhaps more to be done with the Riot formula, as we saw on Thundersteel and Privilege, than is in evidence here.
(7.5/10 Reverend Darkstanley)