Riot City - Electric Elite: Is It the Best NWOTHM Album Ever?
Updated: Jul 9
I should say upfront that I wasn't super fond of Riot City's Electric Elite when it first came out. There are a couple of reasons for that, but the big one is that the vocalist oversings the everloving shit out of this thing. I mean, listening to this is like strapping my eardrums to a brightly colored bouncy ball and handing it over to a five-year-old.
But here's the thing: the dude (his name is Jordan Jacobs btw, not "dude," I'm just going to call him that) is undeniably talented, and despite how incredibly erratic his performance felt the first several times I played this album, bit-by-bit my eardrums adjusted until they knew exactly where that bouncy ball would fly off to next. Once they did, I was able to appreciate how awesome the rest of the songwriting and instrumentation is.
"Beyond the Stars"
This album's been out for almost eight months now, and in that time I've steadily shifted from an attitude of "fuck, this album is so close to being awesome but it's just getting steamrolled by dude's voice" to gleefully pantomiming each song with dramatic facial expressions as Jacobs sends his voice caroming off in every possible direction.
So considering that I've chosen to add this album to my already-not-at-all-prestigious-but-someday-to-probably-not-be-any-less-prestigious series of blog articles discussing what I believe to be the grandest, most notable, and yes, the very best NWOTHM albums in the universe, then you already know I don't hate this one.
But enough rambling before the main ramble. I'm going to chop this one to little bloody pieces using my usual butcher's instruments of Songwriting, Musicianship, and Production.
Let's get hacking.
I've kind of already spoiled the surprise on this one, but let's go deeper on why this album is simultaneously incredible and also frustrating in the particular way that small children with rubber bouncy balls tend to be.
We'll start with a song I legitimately adore, which is "Ghost of Reality," as I think it's a great representation of the strengths of this album as well as the general nature of Jacobs' vocal work throughout Electric Elite.
"Ghost of Reality"
"Ghost of Reality," and the album it belongs to, has an absolutely unbelievable sense of atmosphere. It feels like it's being beamed into my earholes from a grim, retro-futuristic dystopia, a gritty urban environment of the 1980s if the 1980s happened in the year 2157.
Nowhere is this more apparent than on the slow-build intro of "Ghost of Reality," in which Jacobs' voice floats through the minimal instrumentation like the specter of war in the remnants of a crumbled metropolis. Dramatic cymbal work and an elegiac guitar melody accent the vocal lead, culminating in this spine-tingling verse:
I am host devoid of grace and refinement
Master of this side of hell
Fear inside this house I am building
Makes the nightmare of my dreams
Dude's voice is fucking unreal through this intro. Jacobs is unquestionably one of the most gifted vocalists to ever contribute his talents to traditional metal music, and maybe in a league of his own in the modern era. A coarse whisper joins Jacobs' impeccable singing voice on this last verse, softly howling each word along with him to escalate the tension and add another layer to the impressive sense of atmosphere. When Jacobs' voice soars skywards across the final line, signaling the impending speed metal storm, it sends chills through by body every. single. time.
The ensuing audio onslaught is a perfect complement to the low-key intro and delivers exactly the right level of intensity. BUT, here's the catch: Jacobs goes from being controlled, deliberate, and ensuring that every note contributes to the overall quality of the song, to flying off on his own and injecting random notes no sane person could ever anticipate.
As much as this has grown on me, and as much as I love "Ghost of Reality" in its entirety, sometimes when I'm listening to this one I can't help but think "what is this dude doing right now?" And there isn't a song on this album that doesn't have those erratic notes peppered in, often pulling attention away from the incredible work the rest of the band is doing.
Speaking of which, let's talk a little about the other fellas in Riot City.
Despite being my favorite form of music, speed metal has a tendency to be difficult to absorb and appreciate the first few times I hear it, with the songs often feeling a bit same-y on the first few playthroughs. My favorite band in the world is Running Wild, and their classic albums from the late '80s through mid-'90s all took me multiple plays before I could properly distinguish between songs and appreciate each one for its own identity. Same again for Enforcer (whose new album is dope btw! Read the jumble of words I wrote about it here.)
Riot City is not free from this – I think it's just the nature of the high-speed beast. So acknowledging that most of these songs are fast as hell and deliberately aiming to create energy and excitement rather than unique pieces of audio art, the fellas in Riot City absolutely crush this album. There's beautiful pacing to the songs, a great sense of when to back off the accelerator, and some miraculously subtle melodies worked into the riffs that make the instrumental efforts on this recording a delight to hear.
"Lucky Diamond" provides my favorite example of just how powerful these songs can be. Jacobs' performance here is exhilarating, and the relentless propulsion of the songwriting stirs up intense emotions in me as I listen: excitement, joy, and something else I can't quite put words to – it just fucking moves me.
I've cried happy man-tears to that song.
It's also worth mentioning the final track on the album, "Severed Ties," in which the band backs off the velocity in order to craft a much more nuanced, varied, and cerebral offering. And once again, it's fantastic. If there was any question about Riot City's songwriting chops, this 10-minute closer with its many gratifying twists and turns shatters that doubt entirely.
So, I'm sure I've hammered on Jacobs' occasionally erratic note choices to the point that it completely overshadowed all the gushing that followed, but to sum up the songwriting section, it rules, dude. These guys are exceptionally talented, and with Electric Elite, Riot City has created some of the most exciting and memorable traditional metal songs I've ever been fortunate enough to hear.
Is this section redundant because I already talked about the players' performances in the last section? I mean, yeah, probably. The good news is this write-up is already running long, so I'll keep this part short. With the exception of the excessively aforementioned concerns about dude and dude's voice, the musicianship on Electric Elite is clean, tight, and well worth badgering your non-metalhead friends about.
In my recent Enforcer review, I mentioned that there are some spots where you can clearly hear the fellas missing frets or slipping out of synch with each other. Not so here, Riot City keeps their shit tight. Overall I give the musicianship on this album 13 out of 14 laser-based cyborg arm cannons, with one point deducted for the shouty -shouty parts.
I'm not sure if the same dudes responsible for mixing and mastering Electric Elite also handled the band's first album, Burn the Night (I'm too lazy to research this. If you know, tell me below), but it sure sounds it. Most notable is the distinctly thin low-end with its authentic '80s vibes. For years now I've been slowly and clumsily building a giant playlist that mashes up the best NWOTHM releases with albums from the '80s and early '90s (give it a listen, it's this Old School Heavy Metal playlist) and one of the biggest obstacles in making that combination gel properly is how much fatter the low end is on many NWOTHM releases.
But if we're purely talking about sonics and not the frenetic songwriting, then Riot City's Electric Elite stays true to the classic era.
All the instruments feel balanced and clear in the mix, and in a move so notable I'm willing to mention it twice, there's an absolutely indescribable layer of grim, dystopian atmosphere built into every inch of this thing.
So to sum it up: production is badass. Old in a good way. Haunting and uniquely cinematic in a spine-tingling way. I give it 12 out of 10 armor-plated sandwich delivery drones.
Conclusion about Riot City's Electric Elite
I mean, I basically said it all, so if you've already read this review, you know what's coming here. On the other hand, you might be the type of person who likes to open their Christmas presents early, in which case you did the smart thing and skipped the pedantic and not-at-all-grounded-in-any-kind-of-objective-analysis stuff above and jumped straight to the self-evidently biased conclusion. So here it is:
This album mutilates underground-dwelling flesh-eating mutants.
With its mind.
Part of me still laments some the hyperactive vocal work, but it honestly doesn't spoil the album for me anymore. In fact, it's become kind of charming to me in its own quirky, dumb sorta way. I've never heard anyone sing like that before, not even on Riot City's first album, and that just adds one more layer of uniqueness to the recording.
Electric Elite is strong enough in all the ways that truly matter to rank among the very best traditional heavy metal albums of the modern era. Is it the absolute, unequivocal, undisputed BEST fucking NWOTHM album in all the known universe? I mean, no, probably not...but damn, it's right up there. Here's what I can tell you with certainty: if you're a fan of old school metal (and why are you reading this if you're not?), then Electric Elite has absolutely earned the right to occupy space in your earholes for awhile.
Like Riot City? Check out more awesome, high-speed heavy metal bands of the new era in my NWOTHM playlist – updated regularly since 2014!