For those of us who don’t believe in predestination, the past is an endless series of could-have-beens. Every adventure left unchosen branches out in infinite directions, all the possible pasts and futures winding around one another into a vast network of alternate dimensions, each separated by a what-if. What if I’d turned left instead of right? What if I’d not had that tenth beer? What if I’d listened to my dear old mum? What if, what if, what if, we ask, and in some parallel universe, that reality exists.
Or so the theory goes…
And, if that’s the case, then somewhere in some timeline adrift in all those universes, Riot achieved all the success they deserve.
Born in Brooklyn in 1975, Riot was initially a direct product of the hard rock of those times, inspired by the likes of Montrose, Derringer, and Nugent, a high-energy guitar-slinging rock ‘n’ roll machine. Childhood friends Mark Reale and Peter Bitelli — guitarist and drummer, respectively — joined forces with bassist Phil Feit and vocalist Guy Speranza and were working the local clubs when they were discovered by producers Steve Loeb and Billy Arnell. Loeb and Arnell took the young band under their wings and into their studio, serving as managers and creative directors, although the nature of their business would prove contentious and would color Riot’s entire four-decade career, for both better and worse.
Throughout those four decades, no member of Riot would ultimately last through splits, firings, break-ups, and deaths. Almost every album saw a change in the line-up, and the band officially disbanded for two years in the mid-80s, as Reale relocated to San Antonio and formed the short-lived Narita before re-activating Riot with an all new cast. Now forty-plus years removed from those Brooklyn clubs, Riot soldiers on, though now under the modified name of Riot V after the untimely and tragic loss of Reale in 2012.
And what of Riot’s what-ifs? What if Fire Down Under or Thundersteel had been the commercial forces that both seemed tailor-made to be? What if Riot’s history wasn’t a Behind The Music-esque litany of unhappy band members feeling ripped off by businessmen? What if they — and no offense meant here to the Mighty Tior — had chosen a mascot that was more metal and less ridiculous? What if Speranza had stayed behind the mic? Or what if Rhett Forrester had, or Tony Moore? Or what if Mark Reale were still here to guide the ship? Would any of those scenarios have made Riot more than just America’s #1 cult-classic heavy metal band? Would any of those have made them superstars?
Who’s to say what could have been now, of course. What’s past is past. V or no V, Riot is what they’ve always been — a hard-working high-energy band who makes kick-ass music, and whether or not that’s a measurement of success comes down to subjective definitions of the term. What isn’t up for debate is that, in those four decades (and hopefully for many years to come), Riot has graced us with some seriously high-class heaviness, crafting a catalog that holds a handful of undeniable classics and many under-appreciated gems. So, without further pontificating, let’s see what we’ve got.
[A quick note: Since we’re covering forty years of records here, I’m omitting three live albums and a live EP from this chronological foray, simply in the interest of keeping the proceedings as compact as possible.]
RIOT I: THE SPERANZA YEARS
Rock City [1977, Fire Sign Records]
Everybody starts somewhere, and here’s where our tale begins, in the year of peak punk popularity and in the city that started that style. At this point — and pretty much forever thereafter —our intrepid heroes are out of step with the times, following the leads of long-haired guitar rockers instead of the spiky-headed spitters that were dominating the cultural conscience. First released on Loeb and Arnell’s in-house Fire Sign Records and the first of nine albums recorded at their Greene Street Studios, Rock City is the only Riot album to feature contributions from founding bassist Phil Feit, who was gone before recording was finished, and also from second guitarist Lou “L.A.” Kouvaris, who would be quietly left behind before the second record despite co-writing several songs that appear there. Stylistically, Rock City is a hard rock record, equal parts Boston butt-rock and Budgie proto-metal, and though that formula is sound and some of the songs certainly score, the result is not a cohesive whole. It’s a portrait of Riot in adolescence, showing some signs of what they’d grow up to be, but still a way’s away and more than a bit awkward, lacking the metallic focus that the band would gain soon enough.
All was not an entire loss, however, as Rock City showed what Riot was capable of, even if it wasn’t a complete package yet. Reale and Kouvaris weave their guitar lines together masterfully, and Speranza’s straight-ahead vocals are clear and punchy, his high clean tone floating nicely atop the otherwise flat mix. He’s not quite a Golden God like a Halford or Gillan, but instead is more street-level and blue collar, like Riot themselves. Most importantly, Rock City managed to gain the band a foothold in the UK and particularly in Japan, with both of those markets proving to be very important very quickly as Riot’s home country largely ignored them. On the strength of tracks like “Warrior” and “Angel,” Rock City presages the coming NWOBHM revolution (of which they would soon be honorary members), all speedy riffs and soaring melody and street-tough swagger.
Also, of course, here’s the first appearance of two Riot trademarks: First and most obvious, Mighty Tior, the seal-headed whateverthehell that would grace many a Riot album cover forever onward, dishing out for this one a battle axe’s worth of street justice to some yellow being while New York burns in the distance. And second, the “shine on” chorus of “Warrior,” which would be quoted in later lyrics and provide the title of a live album some two decades later. Not a bad start, but there’s better to come…
Narita [1979, Capitol]
In March of 1978, after over a decade of civil unrest concerning construction and land appropriation, protestors broke into the soon-to-be-opened Narita airport in Tokyo and destroyed $500,000 worth of equipment, delaying the airport’s activation for two additional months. I guess that’s what Tior is doing on this weirdest of the many album art abominations that Riot offered up, all axe-wielding sumo-wrestling meets North By Northwest on a field of skulls.
It may be wrapped in an incomprehensible visual nod to the band’s fans in Japan, but at least the music is mostly good, a slightly more polished and refined guitar rock built upon Rock City‘s roots, though like its elder brother, Narita is inconsistent. With new foil Rick Ventura on second lead, Reale shreds in that classic rock way, and most of these tunes still walk the line between what was growing into the NWOBHM and the guitar boogie of the dying decade, all of it buoyed by the charismatic keen of Speranza’s voice. Not every song is a knockout — “Kick Down The Wall” is a stomper that isn’t quite fully baked; there’s a pretty pointless, albeit rocking, cover of “Born To Be Wild”; and some of the second side degenerates into hard rock cliche, effective if not noteworthy. Nevertheless, there’s still enough win in tracks like the rollicking proto-speed of “Road Racin'” and the hard-driving instrumental title track to keep Narita in flight.
Overall, this sophomore effort was a step forward — even earning the band an appearance at the Monsters Of Rock festival — but that momentum was short-lived. Narita would be the first and only album Riot would release for Capitol Records, that label having signed them as a favor to Sammy Hagar’s manager because Riot was the Red Rocker’s choice of support acts, their metallic spirit lending a certain street cred to his more pop-shiny rock. This one’s still a snapshot of a band in growth, but my God, look what comes after…
Fire Down Under [1981, Elektra]
With Riot making a name for themselves on the road and especially overseas, and yet records not exactly flying off the shelves, it was “put up or shut up” time for our seal-headed friends. Founding drummer Peter Bitelli and bassist Jimmy Iommi were unceremoniously dismissed in favor of the more technically adept Sandy Slavin and Kip Leming, respectively. Labels doing what labels do, Capitol wanted a hit single, and Reale admits that Riot attempted to write some more commercial material before eventually realizing that the best course of action is to “just be yourselves.” This third album would prove that old adage to be truth — not only is Fire Down Under Riot’s finest album, it’s one of the finest albums in all of early heavy metal, no question, with Riot finally finding that pinpoint focus whose absence had plagued Rock City and Narita.
But of course, nothing is easy. When Riot handed the album over to the fine leaden-eared fellows at Capitol, the label deemed it “commercially unacceptable” and shelved it, apparently indefinitely, thereby putting the band on ice. Undeterred, Loeb initiated a grass-roots campaign of civil (and not-so-civil) disobedience amongst the fans. Petitions were signed in the UK; Capitol executives’ cars were vandalized in Los Angeles. Interest was generated at competing Elektra Records, and as the pressure mounted (and the annoyances piled up), Capitol allowed Elektra to buy out Riot’s contract, bringing Fire Down Under to a label that viewed the band as something more than just Sammy Hagar’s opening act.
Firing first with one of early metal’s greatest tracks, the almost unbelievably stellar singalong “Swords & Tequila,” Fire Down Under is 37 minutes of absolutely perfect traditional metal, with all the Riot hallmarks like those fiery dueling guitars and Speranza’s bell-clear belting. Don’t believe me? Then don’t take it from me: We’ve already covered the album in our Diamonds & Rust metal classics series, and when you’re done reading this Primer, jump over to here to read a spot-on and more in-depth take on Fire‘s perfection. There’s more to this record than can be unpacked in a three-paragraph blurb, anyway, so we’ll shorten it to the important bits: Fire Down Under kills.
Unleashed Fire: literally every second of this album except “Flashbacks,” which is fine but unnecessary.
RIOT II: THE FORRESTER YEARS
Restless Breed [1982, Elektra]
But of course, nothing is easy. (Didn’t I say that already? Well, get used to it — you’ll read it a few more times to come.) While touring behind Fire Down Under, vocalist Guy Speranza drifted away from the band, deciding to pack in his burgeoning career as a rock singer for the illustrious (and far more financially stable) vocation of pest control. Now with the success they’d fought for seemingly within their reach, Riot found themselves a man down, and missing one with a very distinct sound.
Enter a shaggy-haired rock star from Atlanta with the perfectly Southern name of Rhett Forrester, a hard-drinking singer with an outsized personality that was born for the stage. The transition wasn’t exactly seamless: Forrester’s gritty growl was more than a few steps away from Speranza’s streetwise tenor, like a Southern-fried combination of Blackie Lawless and Mike Howe, and the subsequent material would split time between straight-ahead traditional metal and Forrester’s bluesier influences, stepping backwards over Fire‘s metallic bite to the more classic rock climes of earlier efforts, only now less Boston grandeur and more Bad Company bluster.
Even if some of the tracks tread too close to Paul Rodgers territory for complete comfort among the Riot faithful, there remains some strong material on Restless Breed. When Riot sticks to their blue-collar metal formula, Breed hits hardest, most notably on the opening tandem of Forrester’s “Hard Lovin’ Man,” a tune he brought into the band from his previous outfit, and the political rocker “C.I.A.” The title track showcases Forrester’s whiskey-soaked bluesiness to good effect, and the galloping cover of the Animals’ classic “When I Was Young” and the revved-up “Loanshark” are both wins. But then the album stalls out amidst some less-than-exciting rock numbers in the second half, including the lackluster Lizzy-meets-Bad-Co “Showdown” and the toss-off tracks “Dream Away” and “Loved By You.” In the end, Restless Breed ends up half-and-half, like the schoolboy on the cover, neither here nor there and yet firmly a step backward.
Also noteworthy: This is the first (and only) album in Riot’s first decade with album art that doesn’t immediately elicit confusion or chuckles. Sure, it’s not exactly a masterpiece, but just look at what’s coming up next…
Born In America [1983, Quality]
So you may ask yourself, “Is nothing ever easy?” and you already know the answer: Nothing is ever easy. Restless Breed‘s stylistic shift and return to inconsistency halted the hard-won momentum of Fire Down Under, costing the band their Elektra deal in the process. Now relegated to a small label (and one primarily known for dance music, apparently), Riot and their management team were forced to take on an even greater amount of work, bringing in house previously outsourced label tasks like publicity, radio promotion, and (quite obviously) graphic design.
The seal-headed elephant in the room here is that, no matter how good it may or may not have been, Born In America looks abysmal. In fact, it might well have the worst album cover ever to grace a heavy metal album. There’s an alternate cover, one that shows a black-and-white shot of a young lady in a Riot t-shirt, but that’s not the one anyone sees, so instead we get this cut-and-paste job so hideous and laughable that it almost (ALMOST) becomes endearing. Lifted wholesale from the baffling-but-busy Narita cover, Tior is robbed of color and then just dropped onto this plain background beside an American flag — because America: It’s where he’s born, y’know? — and then… he’s also over there again, because… well, why not, I guess…
If you can get past the cover, Born In America was at least a solid record, and certainly a better one than Restless Breed. The stomping title track garnered some MTV airplay, though it was far from a hit. (Watch the video to see Rhett peel his own face off to show that he is actually Tior himself, and he would’ve gotten away with it if it wasn’t for you meddling kids…) Reale’s deep fascination with the Wild West brings out “Gunfighter,” and the melodic mid-tempo “You Burn In Me” is another should’ve-been-a-hit. With those and the galloping “Running From The Law” and the raging “Heavy Metal Machine,” America is a much better album than history would have you believe. The problem, of course, is that, once again, the album was a flop regardless of quality (and maybe in part due to being released by Quality). Broke and broken, the band ground to a halt thereafter, parting ways in the aftermath, seemingly forever…
RIOT III: THE MOORE YEARS (TAKE 1)
Thundersteel [1988, CBS]
Relocating to San Antonio, where the weather is better and the Alamos are steadfastly remembered, a now-Riot-less Mark Reale reconnected with former S.A. Slayer bassist Don Van Stavern, a jamming buddy from previous Texas visits. Combining Van Stavern’s more technical approach to songwriting with Reale’s classic-metal vision, the two began collaborating on new material. Bringing in fellow S.A. Slayer members vocalist Steve Cooper and drummer Dave McClain (who would go on to Sacred Reich and later Machine Head), the pair put together a new band called Narita.
But nothing much would come of their three-song demo, though the first track would prove useful soon enough. Eventually, Reale moved to Los Angeles to catch up with Riot alumni Slavin and Forrester to try to bring the magic back. With ex-Riot bassist Kip Leming declining the offer to rejoin (and Ventura seemingly forgotten in New York), Reale invited Van Stavern to California, and that foursome briefly attempted a Riot comeback before Rhett quit yet again to pursue a solo career. Jag Panzer vocalist Harry “The Tyrant” Conklin was brought in from Colorado for a few gigs, but he blew out his voice and was dismissed. Not long thereafter, Sandy Slavin departed, too, and with him, the last ties to classic Riot.
Bandless yet again, Reale reconnected with Steve Loeb in New York. Loeb expressed interest in the material Mark and Don were writing, a speedier and thrashier take on Riot’s trad metal, foreshadowing a mixture that would eventually become power metal. With Steve back on board (Billy Arnell having been edged out earlier) and with drummer Mark Edwards, Reale and Van Stavern relocated to New York. A Greene Street Studio employee had a friend named Tony Morabito, the bassist in a jazz fusion band who could also capably pull off the high helium soar of Cooper’s demo vocals. Under the shortened moniker of Tony Moore, he was brought into the fold and a new Riot was born, a faster Riot, a heavier Riot, and yet still very much a melodic Riot. A four-song demo landed a deal with CBS Records, but Edwards couldn’t commit and was replaced by Texan Bobby Jarzombek for the remainder of what would become Thundersteel.
That first track from the Narita days would end up the title track of this newest offering, a siren call of speed metal glory, one of the band’s signature tunes still, some thirty years later. “Thundersteel” is an absolute scorcher that reaches Painkiller levels of metallic melodicism three years before Priest’s fiery thrash-tinted rebirth. Hooks the size of planets grace the likes of “Fight Or Fall,” the stomping “Sign Of The Crimson Storm,” and the immediately memorable “Johnny’s Back,” and through it all a Riot reborn soars higher and higher on wings of eagles.
Also of note: The Thundersteel tour saw the addition of fellow New Yorker Mike Flyntz on second guitar, establishing the full line-up of Riot III.
Unleashed Fire: also literally every second of this record, too — there’s not a single bad track on Thundersteel.
The Privilege Of Power [1990, Epic]
“You know what Riot needs? Horns,” said no one ever. But yet, here there are horns, honking away some of over the most technically challenging album any version of Riot would ever produce. It’s an odd pairing, the Tower Of Power / Brecker Brothers blare atop speed metal fire, and though it’s the most immediately noticeable, it’s not the only idea on The Privilege Of Power that flats flat. Allegedly without the band’s knowledge, Loeb added a slew of sound effects between songs, designed to lend a heady Mindcrime conceptualism to what would (and should) have just been Thundersteel-on-11. There are session appearances by bassist T.M. Stevens, jazz guitarist “Blood” Ulmer, and Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith, plus — in the only one of those decisions that made sense — a duet appearance from Rainbow / Malmsteen belter Joe Lynn Turner.
Amongst all the chaos, when The Privilege Of Power works, it works well, still speedy as hell, and more intricate than earlier outings. Drummer Jarzombek excels at this type of thing, as his later tenure with prog-gods Fates Warning and Arch / Matheos would prove again tenfold, and the rest of the band shines on, as well, riffing and shredding their way through the mess layered around their tracks.
Not surprisingly, Power is best when the bullshit is minimized, as on the Priest-ly “Dance Of Death” (even with it’s excessively long FX intro) or the double-kick-driven pure speed metal of “Black Leather And Glittering Steel” or the straightforward “Storm The Gates Of Hell,” which does feature the album’s best and only sensible use of a horn: a bugle signaling the call to charge. The closing cover of Al Di Meola’s jazz fusion classic under the amended title “Racing With The Devil On A Spanish Highway (Revisited)” shows exactly how good this line-up truly was, easily capable of handling that songs twists and turns.
I’ve read much effusive praise for this record through the years — some even hail it as Riot’s peak —and clearly that’s a level of enthusiasm that I do not share. To these ears, the horns are unnecessary at best, and at worst ridiculous —without a doubt, the songs were not written with a jazz horn section in mind, and as good as these songs would be without those horns, it’s a shame that they aren’t allowed to stand alone on their own merits. Similarly, the sound FX and forced conceptualism just distracts from the celebration of pure speed metal glory that Privilege Of Power should have been.
Regardless, good or not, confounding or not, well performed or not, The Privilege Of Power saw the band continuing to flounder commercially, turning Thundersteel‘s promise into the swansong of Riot III. Midway through the tour, dissatisfaction with management / producer accounting lead to the departure of Don Van Stavern, and not long thereafter, Tony Moore followed him out the door. Once again, Riot had taken two steps forward, and then three steps back, making one and three-quarters great records and firmly establishing a foothold, only to fall apart and disappear.
Unleashed Fire: “Dance Of Death,” “Racing With The Devil On A Spanish Highway (Revisited)”
Riot’s first fifteen years hold their two most acclaimed records, but there’s much more fun to come —we’ve got more concept albums, more line-up changes, one heartbreaking tragedy, and most important of all, more killer heavy metal… Tune in for Part 2 for Riots IV and V.