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Riot: Fire Down Under - Album Of The Week Club review

Riot's third album Fire Down Under might just be the finest NWOBHM album released by an American band

Riot: Fire Down Under
(Image: © Elektra)
Thin Lizzy - Nightlife

Riot: Fire Down Under

(Image credit: Elektra)

Swords and Tequila
Fire Down Under
Feel the Same
Outlaw
Don't Bring Me Down
Don't Hold Back
Altar of the King
No Lies
Run for Your Life
Flashbacks

Between 1977 and 1981, New Yorkers Riot released a string of albums that should have turned them into superstars, and 1981’s Fire Down Under is often proclaimed to be one of the great hard rock records of the era. 

Fire Down Under stands as the high point of Riot’s career, and a landmark early-1980s hard rock record. Bridging the gap between founder Mark Reale’s beloved Montrose and the nascent thrash metal scene that would emerge a few years later, it balanced its melodic chops with a tight energy and walked a lyrical tightrope between fantasy and gonzo rock’n’roll. 

An undoubted highlight was anthemic opener Swords And Tequila, a song that has been rightly fêted as a classic by Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich. Surprisingly, it also may have influenced another, more unlikely musician. 

“Listen to the beginning of Swords And Tequila, then listen to Lady Gaga’s track Electric Chapel,” says former drummer Sandy Slavin. “The guitar intro on that is so fucking close it’s unbelievable. Not just the notes, but also the sound. She’s really into 80s rock, right?” 

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in February 1981

  • Killers - Iron Maiden
  • Difficult to Cure - Rainbow
  • Moving Pictures - Rush
  • Face Value - Phil Collins
  • St. Valentine's Day Massacre - Motörhead & Girlschool
  • Another Ticket - Eric Clapton
  • Working Class Dog - Rick Springfield
  • Point of Entry - Judas Priest
  • Bangkok Shocks, Saigon Shakes, Hanoi Rocks - Hanoi Rocks
  • Captured - Journey
  • Feels So Right - Alabama
  • The Fool Circle - Nazareth
  • My Life in the Bush of Ghosts - Brian Eno & David Byrne
  • Stray Cats - Stray Cats
  • The League of Gentlemen - Robert Fripp and The League of Gentlemen
  • Wild-Eyed Southern Boys - 38 Special

What they said...

"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. (Pop Matters)

"This is a great example of one of those rare, truly flawless albums that come along once in a while where there’s no bad tracks, and no filler. You’ll see why all your favourite metal bands from the 80s and 90s cite this album and Riot as one of their favourites." (Infrared Magazine)

"Opener Swords And Tequila is a song for the ages: a dynamite riff, and Speranza’s soaring vocals set you up for ten songs of metal magic. Follow up track, the title song Fire Down Under, notches up the speed and features another awesome chorus. By now, it is obvious that we are into something very, very special – wonderfully crafted songs accented by sparkling production. (Sleaze Roxx)

What you said...

Mike Canoe: Pure bullet belt metal. Swords & Tequila is one of the greatest metal call-to-arms ever but, as a whole, Fire Down Under is a sterling example of riff-tastic early 80's metal.

While unquestionably New York boys, at its best, Fire Down Under has the energy and attack of the NWOBHM (non-Sabbath division). The snarling title track lands just this side of speed metal while Don't Hold Back and Altar Of The King surf on their propulsive bouncing riffs. Run For Your Life has a great riff that reminds me of classic Schenker UFO and Outlaw might be the best song about gambling since Ace Of Spades. Feel The Same, the closest to slow-burner, still rides a mammoth riff.

I've noticed that I've used the word "riff" a lot and that's when the album is at it's best. Songs like No Lies and Don't Bring Me Down are a little noodly for me but still work up a good groove. And closing track Flashback is more sound collage than actual song, but these are minor quibbles for an otherwise head-banging classic.

Thick House: Riot belongs to the second string of late 70s/80s metal bands – the groups that never got the widespread commercial success and legendary status of bands like Priest, Maiden, or Sabbath. The reasons why these bands never reached these statuses vary – sometimes lack of label support, personnel crises, and other music business drama got in the way. But sometimes it was just a lack of the catchy hooks, solid songwriting, and powerhouse vocals that the major bands had. 

This seems to be the case with Riot (at least on this album). The album is a solid slab of fast-paced early 80s hard rock, with a few mid-tempo (read: boring) songs thrown in. The band is at its best when delivering fast songs with galloping riffs. Swords And Tequila, Fire Down Under, and Outlaw especially are highlights of the album. Altar Of The King maintains a solid, mid-tempo riff throughout, but Feel The Same and No Lies just plod. Flashback is a complete waste of space – a noodly guitar solo superimposed over audio clips of people talking about the band. It would have made a cool intro to a song, but throwing it at the end of the album just seems wasteful. 

The riffs are serviceable, but not particularly memorable, the vocals are decent, but not Bruce Dickinson or Rob Halford level, and the lyrics check off a lot of early 80s metal themes, but never tell a coherent story or present a surprising turn of phrase. 

I think the most interesting thing about this album is that it demonstrates how much metal has levelled up since 1981; if this came out today, I doubt it would make the top 10 albums of the week, much less album of the year. If you love old school hard rock/heavy metal, it's worth playing loud once, but I don't see myself going back to this one very often.

Gary Claydon: An album that almost didn't see the light of day thanks to some Capitol Records shenanigans. I remember there being petitions to the label by fans in the UK demanding the album be released. Thankfully, the band were allowed to sign a deal with Elektra and Fire Down Under was finally unleashed.

It was no surprise that Riot found popularity in the UK initially. Although their earlier albums were a bit more melodic, overall they fit nicely with the zeitgeist of those NWOBHM years. U.S. bands such as Riot, Y&T, The Rods and a few others found favour with British audiences before they had made any significant headway in their homeland thanks to uncomplicated hard rock/metal. Riot were also helped by some high profile live dates, including being second-up at the inaugural Monsters of Rock at Donington Park in 1980.

Fire Down Under is a more raw, harder-edged affair than the band's previous two efforts. They also had a new rhythm section on board. For me, this is their best album and I reckon their darker, heavier sound was influenced by their time & relative success in the UK.

The album opens with a blistering one-two. If the rollicking Swords & Tequila isn't fast enough for ya, then how about the proto-speed metal of the title track?, still Riot's finest two and a half minutes to my mind. If the rest of the album doesn't quite reach the same heights there is still plenty of quality. The epic Altar Of The King - Riot's Stargazer - the brooding Feel The Same, the gambler's tale of Outlaw. Elsewhere the kind of twin guitar, galloping bass attack a la Priest & Maiden is front and centre on tracks such as Run For Your Life, while album closing curio Flashbacks is dedicated to the legendary Neal Kay - another NWOBHM link.

Overall, Fire Down Under is a prime slice of early 80s, riff-driven metal. Shame about the album cover though. As band mascots go, Johnny, The Mighty Tior doesn't really cut it!

Roland Bearne: Some of my mates at school had Riot albums (this and Narita) but any time I asked if I could borrow a record (as we all did, a lot!) The answer was always, "yeah, they're pretty cool, but you really need to check out [insert band name here]. So Riot with their weird baby seal mascot thingy never got the benefit of my pocket money. 

Listening for the first time 40 years on, I'm thinking this is dated but pretty fine. The best NWOBHM album released by a non UK band? Mark Reale entered my 'verse via Westworld (by golly but they were good!!!) and there is some very fine guitar work here. Good riffs, good solos, a singer of excellent NWOBHM ilk, all ... well, really good! 

If I had got this at age 16, it might well be a tugger of nostalgic heart strings all these years later, as it is it's good riff-based metal with an ok singer and some highly competent guitar work. Quite one-paced overall but my denim cut-off on the rack in the attic is twitching even though my 55 year old Dorian Gray is saying "I deny thee". It's a cool record, a nice time capsule and I'm glad I finally got to sample Riot.

Greg Post: Had this on vinyl when it was first released, and 40 years later I am still listening to this album regularly. Great Rock Album!

Marco LG: Fire Down Under is the only Riot album to have made it in my collection, but it did so somewhere around 1989. It's one of those albums I bought multiple times over the years: at first on tape, then on vinyl and eventually on CD. It survived several major life events, including the life changing move to the UK that saw me culling my collection drastically, keeping only the 2,000 or so CDs I was most attached to. It's fair to say I cannot possibly listen to Fire Down Under with unbiased ears.

After all these years I can still sing by heart all the words and all the guitar riffs. I always loved to sing along the guitar riffs! A lot of those ended up gracing tunes by Gamma Ray, Edguy, Heavens Gate and countless others power metal bands of the 90s, never diminishing the quality of their output. In this respect Fire Down Under is probably the most seminal album most people have never heard.

Although in my eyes none of the ten songs included in the album is a filler, I will happily admit that Swords And Tequila, the title track and Outlaw are the best of the lot by some margin. It is worth however spending a few words on Flashbacks: to a non-native speaker a song like that sounds epic! Not only there is a cool guitar solo going on, but the spoken words beneath it tell a story of success against the odds. All right, I might have been reading a bit too much into it, but that's what happens when you spend literally hours listening to four minutes of music trying (and systematically failing) to understand every word.

In conclusion: this is an absolute classic that has been ripped off countless times by some of the most successful metal bands of the last three decades. It's slightly unbalanced in the sense that the best three songs overshadow the rest, but it remains worthy of a very high score in my opinion. 9 out of 10 from me.

John Davidson: Damn. I'd have loved this at age 18. Not sure how I didn't hear it. I'd heard of Riot but not heard them. Clearly none of my mates had either

They sound like a cross between early Iron Maiden, Blue oyster cult and Judas Priest...

Great stuff. Its not just head down boogie either but covers the gamut of heavy metal.

Although this is their third album (and they were from the USA) it sounds very much like a product of the NWOBHM.

Top tracks are Swords & Tequila, Outlaws, Feel The Same and Altar Of The King but they're all good except perhaps the last song Flashbacks which is still ok.

No complaints from me at all on this. 9/10

Mike Ginsberg: Classic album with killer tracks from start to finish

Alex Hayes: Apparently, after taking delivery of Riot's third album Fire Down Under in 1981, the bigwigs at Capitol Records were a little underwhelmed by it. They turned the album down, and, if Riot's Wikipedia page is to be believed, and even went as far as to describe it as 'commercially unacceptable'.

Let me just reiterate that year again, this was in 1981. The year we were blessed with Diary Of A Madman, For Those About To Rock, Killers, Fair Warning, Mob Rules, High 'N' Dry, and countless other classic rock and metal albums. You really do have to wonder about the decision-making and lack of genuine musical nous that industry 'suits' occasionally show themselves up with. The word clueless doesn't really go far enough sometimes.

One thing that heavy metal most definitely couldn't be accused of being in 1981 was being 'commercially unacceptable'. Those albums listed above sold many millions, the post-NWOBHM metal scene was in its ascendancy, and Fire Down Under benefits from one musical characteristic that defines it over everything else. This, this, is the sound of cutting edge heavy metal in 1981.

It's got a superbly balanced production, I must say. Raw, but still clear and professional sounding, rather than just being a cluttered and muddy mess. The songs are mostly cut from good cloth too. I wasn't too enamoured with Flashbacks if I'm being honest. I'm well aware of what the band were looking to achieve with that but it didn't really work with me. The rest of the album consists of decent quality and well performed material that shines brightly enough though.

Do I rate it as highly as, say, Diary Of A Madman? Not really. Having just been turned on to Triumph a couple of weeks ago, I'd say that I probably prefer their '81 album Allied Forces also. This album, and Riot themselves, deserved better breaks than the music industry afforded them for sure. I still doubt that Fire Down Under would have had the impact or left behind the same kind of legacy that High 'N' Dry or Foreigner's 4 managed though. This was a good album from a good band released in what turned out to be a great, and highly competitive, year in rock and metal history.

I don't want to sound too negative though. Fire Down Under is the embodiment of an underrated cult classic and, if you're looking for something fresh to listen to as opposed to Moving Pictures for the umpteenth time, comes highly recommended.

Uli Hassinger: This album is an epic metal classic and Riot should be mentioned more often when it comes to influential metal bands. At the beginning of the 80s they, along with Anvil, were the only transatlantic bands which could compete with the NWOBM according to power and speed.

Riot were a band improving more and more by every album they made. This is the highlight of the Guy Speranza period. It's a pity that he left the band after that album and never been heard of again. He was such a great singer and songwriter. The successive albums with the new singer I didn't like at all back then, so I ignored the band. Years later I found out, that even after their revival they had made excellent albums (Thundersteel, Privilege of Power). But they never could catch up to the level they showed in Fire Down Under). Probably I should give Born In America and Restless breed another chance.

The album starts with two killer songs so your are captured by their energy right away. The third song Feel The Same is a nice change because it's slower with a darker groove. Outlaw is one of my favourites and the song structure reminds me strongly of Blue Oyster Cult. Don't bring me down is the weakest song of the record. The rest of the album contains only killers. Altar Of The King is obviously influenced by Rainbow. Run for your life is another buster. And the outro with live samples is pure passion.

I was torn between scoring 9 or 10. But fuck off. There is only a little bit weaker song on the album. All the rest bangs. So 10/10.

Adam McCann: Stone cold heavy metal classic.

Uli Hassinger: Brilliant album. Love it.

Ben L. Connor: This came out when I was two years old. So I first heard it a few years ago. I have to say, that for me it falls into the same category as artists like Y&T and Michael Shenker Group: perfectly good but not exceptional.

I can tell why some people have a great affection for this album. It was part of the golden age of hard rock in the late-70s/early-80s that laid the foundation for heavy metal as we know it. But to my ears there’s nothing truly special or distinctive here.

Like, I wouldn’t turn it off, but there are dozens of albums I’d put on before reaching for this one again.

Rick Averdahl: Fantastic album, raw production, great songs and a singer in Guy Speranza who sounds like nobody else.

Simon Fauteux: Perfect album, an absolute must have! This one goes to 11 for sure.

Terry Saunders: An above average heavy metal album, but I preferred their first two more melodic albums which contained some absolute classics like Warrior, Rock City, 49er and Waiting For The Taking.

Speranza had an amazing voice but live they were more suited to clubs than arenas.

Crazey Lupo: In my top 10 list of greatest metal albums!

Hai Kixmiller: Even today, 40 years after it was released, Fire Down Under still gets the old rock'n'roll heart pounding, the fist pumping, and the Billy Idol-ish snarl snarling. It's one of those rare treasures when you never lift the needle except to flip the vinyl... over and over. It's sonic cocaine! It's the NWOBHM sound when it was young, fresh, and exciting. It's the guitar attack of the Scorpions or Michael Schenker plus the melodic sensibility of early Def Leppard.

Fire Down Under is the perfect snapshot of where rock was going in the early 80s. Although Riot are an American band, Fire Down Under is a definitive NWOBHM time capsule. It handedly holds its own against any of its contemporaries of 1981 or even 1980, and those two years, arguably, saw the release of some of the greatest hard rock albums of all time.

Fire Down Under nearly had it all to launch the band into the stratosphere; catchy guitar riffs and hooks, good production, good writing, Zeppelin-ish vocals, head nodding and fist pumping songs. It's unfortunate that Riot's affinity for bad luck was as epic as its music. I'll leave that tale to my fellow club members... I'm gonna get back to the great rock'n'roll.

Elad Winberg: To me, this album, along with Thundersteel, are two underrated classics, and are on par with most iconic metal albums of their era. Here you got a lot of catchy and memorable songs, and Mark Reale's guitar work is top notch as always. The only issue I have with this album is the production, but then again, most Metal albums of the early 80s sounded like that, so I guess that it's fair enough.

Brett Deighton: Yet another new band for me. This might be my favourite find so far. This is a killer album, can’t believe I haven’t discovered these guys before. I was amazed at how many albums they have. 

Greg Schwepe: “What do you want to listen to today?” Somewhere one of my music media devices displayed that when it was turned on. And now with Spotify and a million artists and songs at my disposal, there are days I don’t know what I want to listen to. Then I get to thinking “Hmmm…I want to listen to some late 70s/early 80s stuff that takes me back to my HS and college days that I can just rock out to. I want something catchy with raunchy guitar, a professional sounding band, decent musicianship, lyrics not too deep, yet not too cheesy, and something that I can crank out my sunroof or when I run.” And that’s Fire Down Under from Riot in a nutshell! 8 out of 10.

Riot was yet another “I have heard of them, but never heard them” bands that I’ve been turned on to here at the Classic Rock Album of The Week Club. And as I have written before, once I get past my standard Holy Grail of Classic Rock Bands; Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Journey… the list could go on, bands like Riot are ones I totally like. Just good ol’ “Made In The USA Rock and Roll.” Or “Made In The UK” for some of these bands!

I’m a sucker for albums that tend to set the tone instantly, and 15 seconds after Swords And Tequila kicked in, I was sold! Fast, riffy, and a good groove right out of the gate. I know gauging the rest of an album after one verse of a song is like “judging a book by its cover”, but in this case I was not steered wrong! And with each song I became more impressed.

Album unfolds with good mix of rock styles; hard rock riffs, arpeggiated guitar chords that build into cool sections. I listened to the whole album all the way through. As I mentioned in other reviews, that’s kind of the benchmark for me; can I listen all the way through and not go “man, this blows, I wish it was over already…”

For these bands and albums that are unknown to me, I try to not do any internet research about them until I’ve done the review. So, I know nothing of Riot’s history, etc. But due to the fact that I don’t ever remember hearing them on the radio or seeing them on MTV (maybe they were on Headbanger’s Ball?), I would probably classify them as a “third string” rock band. 

And being “third string” is not a crack at those bands. These are the bands that put out decent music, have a good fanbase, probably sold enough records for the label to keep them (for a while!), could sell out small clubs on their own tours, or garner an opening slot for a major tour with a “first string” band. These bands continued to thrive and exist but are not ones that had a #1 hit or could headline a 20,000 seat arena. And in many cases, maybe that was never their intent.

Fire Down Under and Riot got “favourited” on my Spotify app and when I need a fix of music like this, I’ll now know where to go. Flat. Out. Rock.

Final Score: 7.92⁄10 (92 votes cast, with a total score of 729)

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