As outdated and classist as the term may be, “Blue collar” still conjures a good vision of what to expect from a US power metal record like this. You have the more aggressive vocals and a fast tempo that verges or veers into thrash territory, yet still retains a strong foundation in the heavy metal pioneered by the NWOBHM bands of the early 80s. It’s metal that is rough around the edges, but packs a potent punch and carries a good dose of sing alongs that get the blood flowing. Among the early purveyors of this style was Griffin, a band from the Bay Area that formed in 1982 (previously Sinister Savage from 1980-1982) and put out one demo in 83 before signing to Shrapnel Records and releasing their debut, Flight of the Griffin in 1984.
Dissecting Griffin’s sound is interesting since it occupies a curious medium. This was 1984, when Thrash/speed were still in their infancy, so the album doesn’t step up into lightning fast tempos or wild double bass the way later classics in this style would (e.g. Master Control, Thundersteel). Yet it’s also distinctly different from its core influences (the aforementioned NWOBHM acts, particularly Maiden and Priest) by employing a more aggressive guitar rhythm section and upping the frequency of guitar solos. The vocals are throatier, yet still retain a sort of melodic sensibility.
With these ingredients in mind, Griffin delivers a first album for the ages. What we get is essentially 40 minutes of commanding, in-your-face Swords and Sorcery metal that symbolizes everything great about this style of Power Metal. The opening track “Hawk the Slayer” starts with a nice spoken intro, giving way to a quick bass notes that end with a commanding shriek: “ASSEMBLE AT ONCE”. If by this point you’re not clinching your fist from the rush of adrenaline, this record might not be for you. The course of the song goes through a great variety of tempo changes, complimented by a strong rhythm section and numerous guitar solos that feel like a wild roller coaster ride. This might be Griffin’s greatest strength – their ability to write straight to the point songs that are sufficiently different from one another but never straying significantly from the formula.
The way vocalist William McKay and guitarists Rick Cooper and Yaz complement each other is a real delight. If the first track wasn’t enough for you, it is followed by the unforgettable “Heavy Metal Attack”. While there are innumerable metal bands from the 80s dedicating at least one song on their albums to the genre they play, Griffin push it to newer realms. After an ominous synth intro, the song moves at a mid-paced rhythm, feeling like a continual build-up before erupting in flames with the arrival of the chorus. Flight of the Griffin is replete with tracks like this, even those that move at a more pedestrian pace (“Creeper”, “Hell Runneth Over”) and yet the band never loses track of this formula even during the album’s slowest cut, the title track “Flight of the Griffin”. This first half of the song is largely left in the hands of McKay. Tracks like this can make or break a band, but McKay’s entrancing vocals help maintains us hooked throughout the course of the song, before giving way to one of the face-melting solos of the record – one where Cooper and Yaz display their guitar prowess and chops to their fullest extent.
Despite all its strengths and obvious talent, Griffin’s debut was not enough to propel them to widespread fame in the scene. In fact, the band didn’t survive much longer. Their guitarist, Yaz, would go on to achieve more recognition joining Thrash/Speed act Heathen. While we can speculate all we want on the reasons for their lack of success, Occam’s razor dictates it may simply be due to its release year: 1984. Any metal aficionado knows this year was monumental in terms of releases. On one hand, you had important releases by legendary bands (Powerslave, Defenders of Faith, Don’t Break the Oath), Thrash was emerging as a force (Ride the Lightning, Haunting the Chapel) and even Black/Death metal had important foundational records out (Bathory, Morbid Tales, In the Sign of Evil). Even within the realm of USPM, Griffin had to contend with other extraordinary debuts (Battle Cry, Ample Destruction, And the Cannons of Destruction Have Begun…).
With all this in mind, it’s not hard to see why Griffin had such a hard job standing out in an extremely crowded field. Maybe Flight of the Griffin is a good representation of why USPM never took off the way many of us wish it had: too aggressive for the average mainstream metal fan, too dated for the Thrashers, and not extreme enough for the extreme metal crowd. Yet for those who are on the lookout for a Heavy Metal record that has both grit and flashiness, you can’t do much better than this.
Album rating: 90/100
Favorite track: Heavy Metal Attack