The NWOBHM band's first album in a decade is a lot better than any of us could have expected.
When you compare the career arcs of 2009's comeback darlings Anvil and British trio Raven, it's amazing just how the two bands parallel each other. Both bands came from the same era (the late 1970s), hailing from locales not exactly known for cutting-edge metal, Anvil from Toronto, Raven from Newcastle. Both played a key role in the development of metal music at the turn of the 1980s, bringing a level of intensity and speed that predated thrash metal by several years. They both had rather comical gimmicks: Anvil's "Lips" Kudlow played guitar with a dildo, Raven boasted the hockey helmet-wearing Rob "Wacko" Hunter on drums. By 1983 Anvil's Forged in Fire and Raven's All For One had both acts on top of their game (Raven's "Kill 'em All For One" double bill with Metallica that year is the stuff of legend), but as the '80s went on, some horrible musical decisions rendered both bands passé, leaving Anvil and Raven to slog it out through the 1990s. By the time the 2000s rolled along things looked even bleaker with Kudlow stuck delivering food to school cafeterias as he scratched and clawed to get one more album recorded, while in 2002 Raven guitarist Mark Gallagher had a 20-foot wall crush his legs, his rehabilitation forcing the band to go on hiatus for five years. Anvil wound up making a respectable return with their 13th album, and this year Raven seeks to do the same with their 12th. What's the one big difference? There's no endearing, critically acclaimed documentary about Raven's recent struggles winning over audiences worldwide.
It's a shame, too, because although Raven was one of metal's most notorious victims of major label pressure in the 1980s (their abysmal 1986 album The Pack Is Back instantly killed any momentum they had), the trio, led by bassist/singer John Gallagher and his brother Mark, was responsible for some of the most unique music to come out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. From day one their approach was inimitable, and rather odd, so much so that they can be an acquired taste for some. Mark's Stratocaster riffs were tinny, squealing, and as skittish as an ADD-addled kid, chords rarely if ever sustained, the riffs a barrage of palm musts and frenzied hooks. Meanwhile, John provided a maniacal howl, ranging from nasal lower-register singing to an outrageous, ungodly screech; unlike Rob Halford's operatic vocals for Judas Priest, John Gallagher's approach was far less disciplined, his screams serving more to enhance the rambunctious energy of that the trio would call "athletic rock". Although their musical output has been decidedly inconsistent for the longest time, their first three albums, 1981's Rock Until You Drop, 1982's Wiped Out, and 1983's classic All For One are among the very best records the NWOBHM spawned.
So, here we are nearly 30 years later, Raven is back with Walk Through Fire, their first album in a full decade, and not only does it mark a very welcome return to the frenzied musicianship and melodies of their early era, it turns out to be a total, from-out-of-left-field surprise. It's amazing just how many veteran metal bands are able to sound as spirited as ever as they approach the age of 50, but with Raven it's all the more remarkable: not a lick has changed. Mark's riffs are as nimble as ever, while John still possesses that indescribable scream, but the big difference between this album and every one they've put out over the last 20 years is that for once the songwriting is there as well.
In fact, this is Raven's best effort since 1987's woefully underrated Life's a Bitch. "Against the Grain" explodes out of the gate, a crazed thrasher driven by drummer Joe Hasselvander, while "Under Your Radar" takes a similar approach but is even stronger, the trio absolutely taut, John's bassline matching Mark's wicked breakdown riff note for note. "Bulldozer" blatantly nicks Pantera's "Walk" but is great fun, as are the melodic, upbeat "Trainwreck" and "Running in Circles", a pair of total throwbacks to the NWOBHM's more accessible side. "Long Day's Journey" is a well-timed breather from the fast-paced playing, going for a more low-key approach, and it pays off, a mid-paced track with a decidedly American swagger to it.
The longer Walk Through Fire goes on, the more we expect the wheels to fall off at any time. The cover of Montrose's "Space Station #5" and the two half-decent live performances of "Rock Until You Drop" and "Live at the Inferno" aren't exactly necessary, and putting 14 original tracks on an album is already really pushing it, but incredibly, the album never stagnates. The energy is always there, the songs are catchy, and best of all, the band's renewed passion is palpable. Raven isn't trying to break new ground, they're just simply going back to what they've always done best, and they sound as spirited as bands half their age. This is one for the old-schoolers, and they will love it.