The 80s were tough on Riot, even as the band was creating classic metal albums. There were endless line-up changes, contentious dealings with labels, managers, and producers, and mostly, there was a massive disparity between the quality of their music and the success it brought them. Part 1 of our two-part tribute to New York’s Riot covered their twin commercial and creative peaks, the high points of Fire Down Under and Thundersteel, and also the lows that surrounded them, the frustrations of a career that seemed constantly thwarted and a general sense of calamity that saw the band cycle through three distinct periods before collapsing again after 1990s The Privilege Of Power album.
Of course, the 90s were tough on just about all 80s metal bands. Yet, in some perverse twist of fate, Riot would find some semblance of the stability that had previous eluded them, although the result was even less successful. This second installment opens in somewhere around 1992, just after the departure of vocalist Tony Moore and the final dying gasp of the Riot III line-up. Picking up here, we find Riot once again in the throes of an overhaul…
[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 IV: THE DIMEO YEARS
Nightbreaker [1993, Sony]
With his band once again in shambles, Mark Reale did what he always did: got on with getting back on his feet. Initially conceived as a solo album, Nightbreaker would end up as a Riot album, ushering in the era of Riot IV. Bassist Pete Perez relocated from Texas to fill the spot vacated by the departed Don Van Stavern, and vocalist / keyboardist Mike DiMeo was plucked from the local New York scene to front this newest incarnation. DiMeo was virtually unknown at the time, but he’d already had one giant brush with stardom: He’d been considered for the vocalist position in Deep Purple, even going so far as to record some demos with the band, before he was passed over in favor of a returning Ian Gillan for the Mk. II line-up reunion album The Battle Rages On. His gruff and powerful voice was far removed from Tony Moore’s operatic soar, much more Coverdale / Joe Lynn Turner than Halford / Kiske, so once again, Riot’s sound would shift to best fit its membership. The golden-throated power metal sound of Thundersteel was abandoned in favor of a more classic metal approach, like a heavier and more modernized version of the Rainbow albums that inspired them so long ago.
With or without its stylistic shift, Nightbreaker is a strong record, with a few stumbles, though like its predecessors it wouldn’t bring anyone international fame or fortune. Initially, it was released only in Japan, once on Sony and once on Rising Sun, both with two different covers — it wouldn’t make it stateside for another 6 years, with the band then on Metal Blade, and also, oddly, with a third album cover. (The one pictured above is the original Sony cover, not that it matters at all.)
DiMeo and Reale crafted some barn-burners for this one, like the title track or “Soldier” or “Magic Maker,” but as mentioned, the album does falter in a few spots. Opening with two killers and a fun cover of Deep Purple’s “Burn” (in case DiMeo’s brief Purple connection and immediate Coverdale comparisons weren’t quite obvious enough), Nightbreaker first stumbles into the schlocky ballad “In Your Eyes,” which may be the worst song of the DiMeo era, right there hitting clean-up on the first album. And then Nightbreaker stumbles again on an unnecessary metalized version of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade Of Pale,” which is a great song that just doesn’t translate in this arrangement. There’s also a re-recording of “Outlaw” from Fire Down Under that is neither good nor bad, and thus may or may not be of interest to the long-time Riot fan, depending on how sacred they hold the original.
Still, Nightbreaker is mostly a pretty good album, a strong introduction to Riot IV, which would soon prove to be the most stable line-up in the band’s history, for better or worse. On one hand, DiMeo would last a full decade and six albums, something no other Riot singer could claim, and the band behind him would mostly solidify. But on the other hand, most of those albums tend to blur together into an indistinguishable collection of melodic metal, with certain albums standing out more for their concept than their content, like, for example…
The Brethren Of The Long House [1995, Sony]
Inspired by the Daniel Day-Lewis film The Last Of The Mohicans, The Brethren Of The Long House is a concept album about Native Americans. On paper, a blue-collar speed metal band doing a rock opera about a dramatic and romantic period piece actually sounds… well, pretty terrible. But in practice, The Brethren Of The Long House works a little bit better than I would’ve thought. Once again released only in Japan (and again not in the US until 1999), Brethren would be ignored at home, and yet kept the band afloat overseas, in some form or fashion.
The opening song is a Riot-ous take on part of Trevor Jones’ film score from Mohicans, and as you’d expect given that, it’s a stately and majestic piece of music. In the context of an epic metal song, it works exceptionally well, and it’s particularly great as an opening statement that leads into the quintessential Riot gallop of “Glory Calling.” Within those two songs, all the potential of Brethren is encapsulated — the epic cinematic introduction leads straight to DiMeo’s raspy power, to Reale and Flyntz’ dueling leads, to the energy and subtle intricacies of the rhythm section, all in one song with simple-but-strong riffing and an instantly memorable chorus. Tragically, thereafter, the album’s promise lies mostly unrealized — muddy production robs the tracks of power, and the spotty songwriting that would characterize the next few albums begins to rear its head. The galloping title track and the mid-album cover of Gary Moore’s classic “Out In The Fields” redeem things somewhat, bringing the album’s overall quality back to a middling point.
At heart, Brethren is a tale of conflict between native and settler that is clearly evocative of (but not entirely tied to) the film that inspired it. With the strings layered atop the film-score moments, and with sound FX fitted between certain tracks, Brethren does sport a progressive quality that harks back to The Privilege Of Power, though here, at least, those embellishments fit better than on that previous album’s head-scratching turns. Still, though there are a few home runs, most of Brethren is notable more for its ambition and for what it could have been than for its actual achievement.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Riot record with some kind of behind-the-scenes upheaval, and here’s this episode’s switcheroo: Bobby Jarzombek was committed to other projects and unable to complete recording — he appears on two songs, and the rest of the album’s drum tracks are performed by former Powermad / Alex Masi drummer John Macaluso, who performs capably enough with what he’s given to work with. Brethren Of The Long House would also be the final Riot album produced by Steve Loeb — after nine albums and nineteen years, Reale and company would leave Greene Street to see what the rest of the world had to offer…
Inishmore [1997, Zero Corporation]
After you’ve covered the Native Americans, what’s left? Well, a great many things, one of which is the Irish, of course. And so Riot returns with another somewhat conceptual record, although one nowhere near as in-depth as Brethren, more just a collection of songs with a few instances of Celtic-inspired metal and the multi-part “Irish Trilogy.”
Mostly, Inishmore is business as usual for the now pretty well established Riot IV: big, blustery melodic metal songs, except with the added benefit of jig-dancing folksy tunes and a mandolin. And once again, it was a Japan-only affair…
What Inishmore gets right is correcting the weak production that plagued Brethren. With a new producer recording in a new studio, Riot returns to a fuller sound, showcasing their strengths on a stout collection of tunes like the folkish “Angel Eyes,” the fist-in-the-air melodicisim of “Liberty,” and the chunky “Turning The Hands Of Time,” which was left off the initial Japanese edition (and for shame). The only real criticism that could be leveled at Inishmore is the same one that could be leveled at the entire DiMeo era: There aren’t many standouts amongst the onslaught of countless tracks sporting speedy riffs and blustery, bluesy melodies. Records like this one certainly aren’t bad — and whenever I revisit them, I’m reminded that there’s much to like in these grooves… and then I scamper back to Thundersteel or even Born In America or forward to Unleash The Fire and forget again.
Sons Of Society [1999, Metal Blade]
So, yes, most of the Mike DiMeo-fronted Riot albums are defined primarily by their interchangeability, which is ironic for a band that had made a career thusfar out of perpetual change. That’s the double-edged sword of consistency, I suppose. Still, by default, some albums have to be better than others, and of all the DiMeo-fronted Riot discs, Sons Of Society is arguably the strongest, simply because the band composed some of their strongest material. Also, the return of Bobby Jarzombek for Inishmore brought Riot IV back to full strength, his drumming always providing that extra certain spark, so the band is firing on all cylinders again. And hell, even the artwork is better… or at least, more Riot-like, the first in this decade to display Tior, and the first in this decade that looked like someone spent more than 20 minutes on it…
Eschewing the conceptual leanings of the previous two albums, Sons Of Society gets back to Riot doing what Riot does best, which is to say: playing melodic metal and rocking. And that’s pretty much the gist of this one. At least, Sons Of Society breaks the trend of having some good tracks scattered amidst some lesser ones, with the pretty much every track being a quality Riot burner, from “On The Wings Of Life” through “Twist Of Fate,” with DiMeo’s Hammond organ providing some subtle but strong underpinnings, to the bluesy “Cover Me” and the classic-rock-cum-speed-metal of “Time To Bleed.” There are no surprises here — anyone who’d been keeping up through the previous four albums knows what they’re getting, but on Sons, the material holds up stronger, and the performances reflect that increase in overall quality. [The later edition features the bonus track “Queen,” which regrettably adds a slightly lesser track back in the mix. But hey, it’s a bonus track, so let’s not get too worried about it…]
The 90s weren’t Riot’s most successful period — on either the commercial, critical, or musical fronts — but they opened the decade in a shambles once again, and they closed it out back on a high note.
Unleashed Fire : “On The Wings Of Life,” “Sons Of Society”
Through The Storm [2002, Metal Blade]
With Jarzombek once again taking time out for other engagements, enter ex-Rainbow / Sabbath sticksman Bobby Rondinelli for his sole appearance on a Riot record. Whereas Jarzombek’s playing is more on the technical side, though always tasteful, Rondinelli is a much more straight-ahead hard rock drummer, and consequently, Through The Storm hews closer to a more straight-ahead hard rock than to the power-y classic metal of Nightbreaker or Sons Of Society. Through no fault of Rondinelli, Storm is also probably the lowest point of the DiMeo era, and one of Riot’s weakest albums overall, but that’s more to do with a general lack of focus than any one particular performance.
The title track hints at what the album could have been, a majestic and epic Riot IV stomper with a killer chorus hook, and late-entry instrumental “Isle Of Shadows” offers a return to Inishmore‘s Celtic metal shenaningans, to a fine result. But the promise of those is squandered across the rest of the record, with throwaway numbers like “To My Head” and “Burn The Sun” and some ill-fated attempts at modernization in the stuttering grungy “Endless Enemies.” Fill it all out with two decent but underwhelming covers — UFO’s “Only You Can Rock Me” and an instrumental take on “Here Comes The Sun” that never really takes off — and here you have Through The Storm, lackluster and under-cooked, an album best left to the back end of any future fan’s deep dive into the Riot catalog.
Army Of One [2006, Metal Heaven]
Recording this one in 2003, Riot’s business had slowed to the point that Army Of One didn’t see a release for three years, by which point, the DiMeo era was effectively over. (Vocalist Mike Tirelli would fill in on the tour, but since he didn’t record with the band, he doesn’t get his own Roman-numeraled version of Riot. Call it Riot IV.II, I guess, if you simply must number things.) Army Of One also saw the arrival of former Virgin Steele drummer Frank Gilchriest, in whose power metal spirit the band finally found a suitable replacement for Jarzombek. Gilchriest’s playing would lend the best tracks on this album that certain kick-in-the-pants that was lacking on Through The Storm… but there just aren’t all that many of those best tracks. In true Riot fashion, the band righted one wrong and then fell prey to the inconsistency that plagued the worst albums of the IV era.
At least the first two songs aim high, the title track and the catchy almost-AOR rocker “Knockin’ At My Door” setting Army Of One up to win from out of the gate, before that energy is mostly squandered in fine-but-forgettable numbers like “One More Alibi” and “Still Alive” or in the pretty weak bluesy stomp of “Helpin’ Hand.” Like Through The Storm, Army Of One treads closer to a generic hard rock template at times, lacking the speed metal fury that, by now, should be synonymous with the band’s name and with that silly ol’ seal.
Also, let’s be honest, releasing an album with a singer that’s no longer in the band is a very Riot thing to do, and Army Of One went all but unnoticed when it finally did come out. Perhaps it’s lasting contribution is that, once again, it put Reale into a situation wherein he had to revamp his band, and at just the right time, it seemed…
RIOT III: THE MOORE YEARS (TAKE 2)
Immortal Soul [2011, Steamhammer]
When 2008 arrived to herald the 20th anniversary of Thundersteel, Riot’s commercial prospects were more or less at rock bottom. A decade behind Mike DiMeo’s throaty wail had provided some stability, but no standout recordings. Now 20 years removed from their last seminal effort, the decision was made to celebrate Thundersteel by getting the band back together. Starting with Van Stavern and Jarzombek, Reale began crafting the songs that would become Immortal Soul — and of course, in true Riot fashion, they started a year late because … well, nothing is ever easy.
Still, the end often justifies the means, and Immortal Soul is absolutely indicative of that. It’s hands-down the strongest Riot album since Thundersteel, picking up where that album left off with more of the same fiery melodic metal. Tony Moore hadn’t lost a step in the intervening years, even though he’d virtually left the music business and taken up a career in graphic design, and here he swoops and screams and soars in equal measure. Most importantly, Reale, Flyntz, and Van Stavern crafted an album’s worth of great music, riff-heavy and filled to the brim with ripping guitar leads. Bursting forth with energy to spare, “Still Your Man” picks up the tale of Thundersteel‘s Johnny, returning to rock the thousand times twenty that called out his name. The blistering political rager “Riot” is another knockout, delivered entirely in operatic falsetto… From there, Immortal Soul is one great Riot ripper after another, achieving the same feat as Thundersteel before it: No bad songs in sight.
But, of course, back to our overarching theme: Nothing is ever easy. Immortal Soul‘s triumph turned to tragedy, beginning even before the album was finished. After decades spent suffering from Crohn’s disease, Reale’s health took a drastic turn for the worse and he was unable to perform on the record to the extent that he always had before, and most of Immortal Soul‘s guitar parts were performed by Flyntz. A few months after Immortal Soul was released, the band was scheduled to perform on the 70,000 Tons Of Metal cruise — in interviews leading up to those shows, Reale was enthusiastic about this returned Riot, looking forward to those shows. Unfortunately, he never made it onto the boat — he was hospitalized in January of 2012, and he slipped into a coma after suffering a subarachnoid hemorrhage. He passed away on January 25, 2012, at the age of 56, leaving behind thirty years of kick-ass heavy metal as his legacy.
RIOT V: THE HALL YEARS
Unleash The Fire [2014, Avalon]
With their leader gone, Riot had a decision to make: fight or fall. Tony Moore chose to depart, and Jarzombek moved on to other projects, leaving only Van Stavern and Flyntz to soldier on. The pair reached out to Reale’s father Tony and were granted his blessing to continue on, with one caveat: The band would henceforth be officially known as Riot V, though some versions of Unleash The Fire were released under the plain Riot moniker. Gilchriest returned to the drum throne, and vocalist Todd Michael Hall was poached from Jack Starr’s Burning Starr. To complete the line-up, Flyntz brought in one of his most talented guitar students, a relative youngster named Nick Lee. (Live, on the classic Riot material, Flyntz plays Reale’s parts now, and Lee plays what were previously Flyntz’ parts.)
Losing a band member is tough, but losing the one man who’d steered the ship for decades would’ve deep-sixed almost any band. So Unleash The Fire could’ve been a disaster, of course, but thankfully, it’s anything but that. In fact, it takes the fire that characterized Immortal Soul and continues onward in much the same manner, channeling that energy just as Tior does on the cover, catching lightning and rocking hard. Of course, Reale’s passing colors everything — there are two songs directly written to him, “Immortal” and “Until We Meet Again,” plus “Metal Warriors” and it’s Johnny references are very much a tribute to Riot’s past, and therefore, to Reale himself, the two inextricably entwined forever.
But Unleash The Fire isn’t entirely a celebration of the past — it certainly does just that, but more than anything, Unleash The Fire shows a Riot heading into an uncertain future with no signs of slowing down. It helps, of course, that Van Stavern, Hall, and Flyntz turned in another batch of killer tunes, even if some of them do tend a bit toward metal cliche. (I mean, c’mon, it’s speed metal, so we’ll cut it some slack…) “Ride Hard Live Free,” “Metal Warrior,” “Return Of The Outlaw”… they’re all a little silly, but damned it they all don’t rock. Vocally, Hall is a more than suitable replacement for Moore, the first time that Riot has switched vocalists and maintained some kind of continuity of sound, his soaring head voice seemingly effortless and clear. Lee could never replace Reale, of course, but he fills the void left in his predecessor’s absence admirably, his guitars dancing around Flyntz’ in the same melodic push-pull that made Riot’s guitar parts always so interesting. In the end, there could be no better tribute to a fallen brother…
Armor Of Light [2018, Nuclear Blast]
As you’ve undoubtedly noticed, Riot’s tale is not one filled with happy endings, and yet, after all they’d been through, Unleash The Fire performed well enough to land our heroes a slight bump up to major metal indie Nuclear Blast. So, in that sense, Armor Of Light sees Riot V’s profile on a bit of an upswing…
There are days when I like Armor Of Light better than Unleash The Fire, and days when I don’t, so close are the two in style and substance. (Hey, consistency? What?) Even the overall look is similar, only in yellows vs. blues: Here’s the buffed-up Tior back again, waving that gigantic axe, and now with a handful of similarly seal-headed and heavily armed friends. Ain’t no party like a heavily-armed seal-headed warrior party, because… well, let’s be honest, wouldn’t we all love to be there?
Like Fire, Armor is a damned fine collection of power metal tunes. Hall’s melodies leap and soar, while Flyntz and Lee’s guitars dance atop the Van Stavern / Gilchriest pulse. The production is sharp and slick, just as power metal should be. Tracks like the historical epic “Heart Of A Lion” or the rip-roarin’ (road-racin’) “Victory” are just simply fist-in-the-air fun singalongs (assuming you can sing that high), and that’s exactly what they’re designed to be. If you can spin this album (or Unleash The Fire, or Thundersteel, or even Sons Of Society) and still wear a frown, then you’re a sad-sack grump that may well be beyond hope, my friend, for this is gleeful joy in the form of riffs and rhythm with infectious melody to spare.
So what have we learned from all this, these two days of total immersion into Riot’s history? Well, we’ve learned the beauty of perseverance, that sometimes things don’t work out just like we wanted them to, but somehow, in the end, maybe they work out just as well. Maybe that’s a fatalistic approach. Maybe it’s a realistic one. Maybe it doesn’t matter, either way.
What does matter is that, forty-five years ago in a Brooklyn basement, some rockers had a dream, and now we’re all sitting here, enjoying the results of that dream. The journey may have been an arduous one — more often than not, it is — but Mark Reale didn’t give up and never gave in, and when he was gone, neither did Flyntz and Van Stavern. The legacy that they all created — the three of them, along with Speranza, Forrester, Moore, DiMeo, Hall, Ventura, Kouvaris, Iommi, Bitelli, Slavin, Leming, Feit, Jarzombek, Perez, Macaluso, Gilchriest, Lee, Edwards, Rondinelli, Loeb, and Arnell, and probably a dozen others — stands as the output of one of the greatest American heavy metal bands of all time.
And that, my friends, is what really matters.
Thank you, Mark. Thank you, Johnny and Tior and Riot. Long may the fires burn.