In 1981, hard rock and heavy metal existed as two names for what oftentimes was essentially the same thing. But at this point in history, one could sense the genres beginning to pull apart. Riot (now known as Riot V), a Brooklyn-based five-piece, straddled this divide with Fire Down Under (Elektra, 1981), an album considered by many to be the crowning jewel of their discography. Not only did this album represent a stylistic tension within the band but also reflected this divide for Rock and Metal as a whole.
Originally formed in 1975 by guitarist Mark Reale, Fire Down Under was the group’s third album and featured a new rhythm section of Kip Leming on bass and Sandy Slavin on drums. The band was rounded out with Rick Ventura on second guitar and Guy Speranza on vocals. Their previous album, Narita (1979 US) generated quite the buzz despite little support from Capitol Records and the group hit the studio with a sense of momentum behind them. While Narita was an impressive collection of Rock songs that sat comfortably among the work of their peers, Fire Down Under possessed a harder, darker edge.
By today’s standards, much of the album really isn’t hard or dark, but it certainly rocks. The album opens with the one-two punch of “Swords and Tequila” and the title track, showing the group at their most aggressive. “Fire Down Under” in particular hints towards a heavier approach with its accelerated tempos, kick drum attack, and shredding solo. From there, the album contains no shortage of killer material.
At first glance, “Feel the Same” seems a bit too heavily indebted to Led Zepplin, but the minor key main riff foreshadows Def Leppard’s best songs off “Pyromania”. Indeed, Riot summons many contemporaries throughout the album, Thin Lizzy on “Outlaw” or a bit of Aerosmith on “Don’t Bring Me Down”, yet they put their spin on things.
But it’s the more metallic tracks that reveal their influences moving forward. The epic “Don’t Hold Back” is one such tune. One can trace a straight line from “Immigrant Song” and “Barracuda” to this tune and then forward in time to the likes of Crimson Glory’s “Valhalla”. Even more revealing is the last full song on the album, “Run for Your Life”. The riffing style takes on an almost Speed Metal feel and is more Metal in character than Judas Priest’s “Point of Entry”, which also came out in 1981.
The album ends on the surprising note of “Flashbacks”, which consists of a free form guitar jam interspersed with crowd noise, on-stage banter clipped from various concerts, and other snippets of dialogue. It’s an odd move for a band that, throughout the record, displayed no real penchant for avant-garde maneuvers, but it’s not without merit. It may not be the most important piece on the album, but it is the most intriguing. One could imagine it as an influence on the Queensrÿch’s “Anarchy X”, which kicks off their legendary Operation: Mindcrime (EMI, 1988).
No matter what mode Riot are in on each song throughout Fire Down Under, they are firing on all cylinders. The rock tunes are killer and the metal songs are that much more intense. It’s consistently top-notch material without any filler. So it’s hard to imagine that the album almost never saw the light of day.
The band initially was signed to Capitol due to its relationship with Sammy Hagar. When Narita came out, the label showed little interest in actually supporting it. Any success the album enjoyed was strictly due to the work of the band and their management creating a word-of-mouth buzz. When Fire Down Under was completed, Capitol refused to release it or let the band out of their contract.
In the 2017 Riot documentary, Fight or Fall, journalist Martin Popoff and Riot producer Steve Loeb discuss the concerted campaign by the fans, through petitions in the UK and nothing short of vandalism of the label’s headquarters in Los Angeles, to finally convince Capitol to release the band. The album finally came out on Elektra and the rest is history.
The band toured intensely in support of the album and began to enjoy a modicum of success. However, vocalist Guy Speranza soon quit, seemingly wanting to get away from the musician’s lifestyle and settle down to start a family with his new wife. While Speranza’s performances on the first three records are excellent, the band sought a new singer with an increased range and more of a calculated persona. They found their man in Rhett Forrester, and this cemented the band’s direction heading forward. From the next album on Riot were definitely a metal band.
On Fire Down Under, however, Riot’s long-term identity was not yet established. It’s a transitional record, but this is a strength, not a weakness. If rock and metal began to experiment with a trial separation in this era, it’s reflected on a smaller scale with Riot’s own evolution. They would continue to produce countless speed and power metal records, many of them beloved by fans worldwide. But ultimately Fire Down Under would prove to be the band’s crowning achievement.