(Fire Sign/Metal Blade, 1982)
Riot (now Riot V) have done a lot of things in their career of 40-plus years. Quitting is not one of them.
Perhaps the legendary New York City-based metal band could have also dubbed themselves Riot of Perseverance, for they have survived despite facing a plethora of adversity: frequent lineup changes, labels dropping them haphazardly, shifting musical tides, and the tragic death of beloved guitarist and band leader, Mark Reale. But much like the once-ubiquitous Energizer Bunny, Riot have kept on going and going, releasing a series of landmark albums through several distinct epochs of their history. They are some of metal’s most unheralded elder statesmen, and their fantastic back catalog always deserves a second look.
Picking a favorite Riot album or era invokes the tired cliché of trying to choose a favorite child. On one hand, I absolutely adore the youthful proto-metal glory of their Guy Speranza-fronted years, and perhaps I will highlight one of these records in the future. Then, there’s the blistering, exhilarating U.S. speed/power metal of the Tony Moore albums, with 1988’s Thundersteel standing tall as the apotheosis of that genre. The 1990s saw a strong resurgence of Riot with Mike DiMeo on vocals, and then Moore briefly rejoined the band for 2011’s outstanding Thundersteel-lineup comeback, Immortal Soul. After Reale’s untimely 2012 passing due to Chrohn’s Disease, the band reunited under the new moniker Riot V, so-named after their new and fifth singer Todd Michael Hall (of Detroit power metallers Reverence). But of all the highly-worthy Riot incarnations and records, it is the early-‘80s era featuring singer Rhett Forrester that is perhaps the most widely overlooked. So, ever the obstinate contrarian, I am now reviewing their 1982 Restless Breed album.
Now, I am not implying that this is my favorite Riot album or even incarnation; that would be Thundersteel and the early, Speranza years, respectively. But there is just something innately magical about Restless Breed and the lineup that created it. This album marks a particularly difficult transition period for Reale and company. Speranza, who possessed a unique voice and captivating stage presence, decided he could no longer reconcile being in a heavy metal band with his Christian beliefs; he quit the band following the relatively successful Fire Down Under album. Enter Rhett Forrester, a 25-year-old Georgia native who sported curly, golden locks and had a voice just as gilded. Forrester had been singing in a New York-based cover band when he auditioned for the Riot gig. Their choice for new lead singer would leave an indelible mark on the history of heavy metal.
Restless Breed remains a crucial transitional album for Riot, and Forrester’s fantastic vocal performance is its primary calling card. That is not to say that the music here is unremarkable or in any fashion inferior its predecessors. It’s just that Forrester’s voice shines so brightly that it’s like a Great War signal shell, launching itself to great heights and dazzling colors on an all-too-short career arc. Forrester possessed a solid, though not stratospheric, vocal range. It is his tone that is truly remarkable; he could belt it out with a bluesy rasp when needed, but then he could turn around and sing with a beautifully soft tenderness. He really had that rare combination of vocal quality and charisma to succeed as a pop star, if he had wanted to. Forrester would sing on Riot’s solid 1983 follow-up, Born in America, before venturing on to work with Virgin Steele guitarist Jack Starr and release his own solo material. Sadly, Forrester’s life was cut short on January 22nd, 1994, when he was murdered in Atlanta during an attempted car-jacking. He was 37 years old.
Musically, Restless Breed serves as a fantastic bridge between the high-energy hard rock/proto metal of the Speranza years and the all-out melodic speed-metal assault of their late ‘80s/early ‘90s epoch. Despite the turmoil the band had endured prior to its release, this album retains the core musicians from Fire Down Under: guitarists Reale and Rick Ventura, bassist Kip Leming, and drummer Sandy Slavin. The music benefits from that lineup continuity, culminating in a tightly-performed and well-balanced record. Riot fans from the ‘70s era likely salivated at the up-tempo rocker “CIA,” which recalls the hard, boogie rock-and-roll of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” or Motorhead’s “Stay Clean.” Similarly, the driving, bluesy hard-rock riff, pounding eighth-note bassline, and big power chords in “Loved by You” would not have sounded out of place on the Let There Be Rock or Powerage albums. Riot contrasted these old-style tunes with a more-refined aggressive edge on speed-metal scorchers such as “Loanshark” and “Violent Crimes.”
Restless Breed’s best songs are its most dynamic, starting with opener “Hard Lovin Man.” This slower, groovy number features a crunchy, straight-ahead verse and a deliberate and crushing, Sabbath-style riff in the chorus. The proverbial riot of New York ups the ante on the gun-slinging title track; this excellent song includes a big-chord intro, ringing guitar harmonics, emotive vocal lines, and a dreamy interlude that showcases some of Reale’s most somber and soulful licks. “When I Was Young,” a galloping cover of Eric Burdon and The Animals, is Restless Breed’s catchiest track and features Forrester’s most plaintive and gorgeous singing. Other album highlights include “Over to You,” an uplifting, mid-tempo fist-pumper, and the heartfelt, bluesy balladry of “Showdown,” which again reminds me of AC/DC, albeit at their mellowest moment (“Ride On”).
This album, Riot’s fourth, is well worth a second look nearly 35 years on. R.I.P. Rhett Forrester.
Review by Jonathan Kollnot