Riot @ Scout Bar, San Antonio TX, June 2, 2009

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By Matt Johnsen

For the sake of disclosure, I’ll begin by noting that I have a personal connection with Riot: guitarists Mark Reale and Mike Flyntz played guest solos on my band’s latest album*. But of course, we only asked them to do it because we think they’re great, and it should go without saying that anyone who would fly from Pennsylvania to Texas to see a metal band is already a partisan. I first saw them in 1995, when I made the surprisingly long drive to Long Island, NY to see them warming up for a tour of Japan to support Brethren of the Long House. I was not, then, a long-time fan of the band, having only recently discovered Thundersteel (or rather, having only recently decided to listen to the album despite what must be one of the silliest, stupidest covers in the history of metal) but I was quite impressed by their show and my review of that performance was my very first foray into “metal journalism,” as it was printed in the long-mourned power metal bible/fanzine Sentinel Steel. I saw them again in 1999 at the first of Jack Koshick’s March Metal Madness festivals in New Jersey (probably the best festival that legendary sleazebag ever promoted), and then I saw them one more time in 2006 at a go-go bar (of all places!) in northern New Jersey. Every one of those shows was among the best shows I saw in its respective year, and with every new album they release, Riot makes me more of a fan. I can’t think of another band so long-running whose output has been so consistently excellent. This truth led to my sole disappointment when I heard that the classic late-80s Thundersteel lineup had reformed: it meant that they were likely to ignore the past 20 years as if they never happened. Normally when some old band pulls a stunt like this, you wish they would ignore their last five or six albums, but Riot didn’t put out a single bad album after they retired the speed metal and screams of the Thundersteel years. In fact, they released a candidate for their best album ever in Sons of Society. But, should these unsung legends feel like taking a victory lap on the 20th anniversary of one of their most enduring albums, who am I to judge? Riot can do what Riot damned well pleases, and I will not object. Besides, it was Thundersteel which first made me a Riot fan, and the opportunity to see that band (or rather, that band plus second guitarist Mike Flyntz, who joined Riot to tour for Privilege of Power, the second and last album featuring vocalist Tony Moore, and therefore the end of what is commonly known as the Thundersteel-era in Riot’s history) was one I would not ignore, so I booked my flights, reserved my hotels, and ultimately found myself at the Scout Bar on the fringes of San Antonio, drinking a Shiner and waiting for the main attraction.

I didn’t even catch the name of the band that was playing when I arrived. They were the kind of band that one only encounters opening for some much better band, a relic of several ages, trying to meld the bullheaded machismo of Pantera with the booze-and-babes lyrical ethic of Motley Crue, but without any vision or talent. These bands are to be found in every town, killing time before the main attraction. They’re manned by louts who consider Zakk Wylde an aspirational figure rather than a cautionary tale. They often have shirts for sale, but rarely have CDs for sale. They’re the people applying their stickers to the insides of urinals at your local watering hole. One wonders if these people are without friends, or if their friends are merely too polite to point out the obvious: that they should consider a pastime besides music. I watched them only because the Scout Bar offers no escape from the perils of the local opener: there is but one room, and there is no re-entry to the venue. Making matters worse, the lighting man cued up the “epileptic’s nightmare” program in order to assure my eyes were as offended as my ears by the spectacle of Local Opener TBA, or whatever their name was. Eventually, of course, they finished their set and left the stage, their only service the lowering of the bar.

Broken Teeth
, the penultimate act, at least entertained. Fronted by Watchtower and Dangerous Toys alumnus Jason McMaster, Broken Teeth are easy enough to describe: Bon Scott-era AC/DC, but with a screamier singer. As one of my show-going companions said, “They’re a great band but I don’t like their songs.” AC/DC is not, has never been, and never will be my thing, but thanks to a brother whose tastes run to the contrary, I’ve heard a lot of AC/DC in my day, and I can safely say that Broken Teeth do that style very, very well, and there’s no denying McMaster’s on-stage charisma. But, with songs so totally and shamelessly derivative, Broken Teeth would almost certainly be better off as an actual AC/DC tribute band. They mimic that band so well that they could probably draw 500 people a night, five nights a week, and they’d almost be playing the same songs they’re playing now, except they wouldn’t have written them. Sure, one of those guitarists would have to buy a Gretsch and the other would have to buy a schoolboy uniform, but I daresay it would be the best career move they could make. Mercifully for me, they kept their set pretty short and riled up the crowd (in a good way) for Riot, and it’s always a pleasure to see McMaster perform, so I won’t hold their tunes against them, this time.

The Riot set began with some kind of Powerpoint-type slide show, scored by the intro (I think) from the Live in Japan album. It was fairly well done and it did a fine job of introducing a band that needed no introduction. Although Riot was first assembled in New York in the 70s, the Thundersteel lineup was born in San Antonio, after Mark Reale disbanded the NY lineup and moved south. There he recruited locals Don Van Stavern, Dave McClain, and Steve Cooper of S.A. Slayer for a new band called Narita. They cut a three song demo before replacing McClain (later of Machine Head) with another local skinsman, Bobby Jarzombek (who had played with Cooper in Juggernaut), and Cooper with a New York-based singer, Tony Moore, and reclaiming the Riot monicker. Van Stavern (who played bass) was the speed metal yin to Reale’s hard-rock yang, and the marriage was a shocking success, creatively. It was only a couple years, though, until grunge put the lid on major label metal, and after only one more album, the third major incarnation of Riot fell apart and Reale returned to New York. But, for those two albums, Riot was a band from Texas, and the fans at the Scout Bar needed no slide show to welcome their prodigal son back to the lone star state.

The band finally came out and busted into the instrumental “Narita,” as the slide projector was dismantled. My friend thought they should have opened with “Thundersteel,” and maybe he’s right, but the real mystery to this whole affair was, “What’s Tony Moore going to sound like after all these years?” and the instrumental tease of “Narita” did a lot to prolong the exquisite agony of waiting to find out. “Narita” finished, they blazed straight into “Fight or Fall,” and out came Tony. He looked good, and he looked happy, but I for one had a small lump in my throat as I waited for those first, impossibly high notes to come out. And when they did, well, the place went apeshit, because Tony Moore Still Has It. “On Your Knees,” the wickedly fast first proper song on Privilege of Power was next, and it really did feel like 1990 all over again. I should mention now one of the more visible reminders that it was not, in fact, 1990 anymore: Don Van Stavern’s wig. In the 80s, the man had comically poofy blond hair (think Dee Snider on a bad day) and was taken to wearing a rather ridiculous leather cap. Well, he strode out on stage with said cap, and said poof, and I expected after a song he’d throw off the hat, hair attached, and we’d all have a laugh. Except, when he took off the hat, the hair was still held to his head with a well-tied bandana. I’m not sure, then, if we were meant to believe that his wig was his actual hair, or if we were meant to grin at the silliness of the thing. This is the guy, after all, who tormented us in the 90s with Pitbull Daycare. But, joke or no, he rocked the wig hard and after a little while, I even stopped staring at it.

“Metal Soldiers,” one of the mid-tempo rockers on Privilege of Power, came off a lot better than I thought it would (I had hoped they wouldn’t play it at all) and it was a good segue to some really old stuff, as they followed it with “Outlaw,” one of the many, many classics from the impossible-to-deny Fire Down Under, the crown jewel of Riot mk-I, released in 1981. Tony Moore, never minding his stratospheric range, is unique among the four recorded Riot singers for his reedy voice which is almost completely lacking the bluesy grit of the other three. It was not a given that he could convincingly sing the songs recorded by original vocalist Guy Speranza, but I can report that in fact, he did just fine. But, that detour to the dawn of the 80s was short, as “Outlaw” was followed by two more Thundersteel numbers, the wickedly catchy “Johnny’s Back” and the seething thumper “Sign of the Crimson Storm.” If I’m not mistaken, Moore actually sang some of the high harmonies in “Johnny’s Back,” as if to say, “If you thought I couldn’t do it, well, fuck off. I can do it.” After another trip to Fire Down Under for the awesome “Swords and Tequila,” they debuted a new song, which would be the only song less than 20 years old played all night. “Wings Are For Angels,” revisits the Riot theme of Vietnam, and the song positively smoked. It opened with a ridiculously syncopated drum beat (the closest Jarzombek came to a solo all night) and then made its way through the quick and complex riffs that were the hallmark of the Thundersteel-era. Moore’s melodies were catchy, and the song was a hit with the crowd. It was at this point in the show that I was forced to remind myself that this was not a band returning (despite Moore’s many claims of, “We’re back! After 20 years we’re back!”) but a band continuing, and I thought of all the great music they might have made without Moore coming back. It was a funny place to be, because I loved the new song, but the embarrassment of riches that is Riot can lead one to such paradoxical dilemmas.

These thoughts were fleeting, however, as the next song was the furious “Storming the Gates of Hell” from Privilege of Power. Moore’s replacement, Mike DiMeio, was a fine singer in his own right, and he more than made up for Moore’s lack of throaty gravitas, but he was mostly unable to scale the heights of Moore’s melodies, and as a result, the band’s setlists these last 20 years gave short shrift to Moore’s albums, and gems like “Storming the Gates” went unperformed for decades. For as much as I love Thundersteel, these Privilege of Power tunes were the real treat of the evening. That said, the band flipped the time-machine into high gear for two more oldies next, “Tokyo Rose” (from their 1977 debut, Rock City) and “Road Racing,” from the neglected middle-child of the Speranza years, 1979’s Narita. The back and forth contrast between the speedy power metal of the late 80s and the rootsy proto-metal of the late 70s made for an incredibly buoyant set. Springing forward 10 years, they nailed the spectacular “Dance of Death” from Privilege of Power and finally closed the set with the song they maybe should have started with, “Thundersteel.” The band left the stage, we clapped and yelled, and they came back for the obligatory encore (how I do love it when bands skip this needless ritual!) which was shockingly not “Fire Down Under” but “Warrior,” another song from Rock City. One song, another round of thank-yous, and they were done. It was a furious and draining show, and as with all Riot shows, probably among the best I’ll see all year. Who knows if they’ll make more of this go with their late 80s lineup? If it takes off, then I’m sure I’ll see them again. But if cards fall the wrong way, as they have for Riot so many times in the past, at least I’ll be able to say I was there when the hand was dealt.

(*Matt Johnsen plays guitar in the excellent Pharaoh. Their latest album Be Gone was released in 2008 by Cruz Del Sur.)

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Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.

  • mosquito

    Riot vs. Bolt Thrower. Okgo.

  • http://www.officialriotnyc.com DVS

    No I do not incorporate a wig in my stage persona, never have never will (an occasional hair extension back in the day!!!) That piece from the Pharaoh guys was pretty funny!!! But do inform that it will not fall off, so sorry about the anticipation of it doing so! Alert the presses and Unsolved Mysteries!, this mystery is now solved!!! Thanks for the flattery though cuz my do is a don’t but trying to grow at 45 is tough!!! but at least its real!!! LOL! (So is the gut!!!) Overall I hoped you enjoyed the playing!….Now as for Mark Reale!!! LOL!!!

  • Spark Plug

    I happened to like the first band. Maybe not as polished as Riot, but I definately liked them better than Broken Teeth. It was fun, and that’s what music is supposed to be right? Lighten up bro. You paid the price, so enjoy the show. No need to tear down a band because they weren’t your cup of tea. I didn’t catch their name, but I’ll find out who they were and would probablly go see them again because I enjoy going to shows to have fun and they looked like they were having a blast.

    I know Donnie and his hair is real.

  • http://www.solarflight.net Matt Johnsen

    Don – sorry! A thousand pardons! You’re a kick ass bassist even on a bad hair day. But please, don’t bring back the leather jackets with fringe. That would be taking this reunion a step too far.

    Spark Plug – Me lighten up? Sheesh. I paid to see Riot, not some crummy opener, and anyway, it’s the job of a critic to point out what sucks (and to entertain). And what’s funnier than Zakk Wylde jokes?

  • Joey Hollywood

    Your review is a stark reminder of the fact that anyone can be a “journalist”. The opening band you refer to is called Top Dead Center, a band created from some allstar San Antonio legends such as Pitbull Daycare and Billy Mack as well as others. Here’s a thought: review the music as everyone sees it, not from your dull perspective. If you’re the only one standing in the corner trying your hardest not to enjoy the show, you won’t. Ask the hundreds of people that were at the show about TDC and you’ll get a much different review of this great genuine rock and roll night. You stated it’s the job of a critic to point out what sucks… you are wrong. It’s your job to describe the night as a whole, did you forget to maybe include in your dribble the fact that the rest of the club loved the opening act and Riot as well? Open your eyes or shut your mouth.

  • Sandee

    LET ME SEE, YOU’RE LAME AS A MUSICIAN AND NOW EVEN LAMER AS A WANNA BE REVIEWER? OR WHATEVER YOU FEEL COMFORTABLE WITH CALLING YOURSELF, BECAUSE YOU ARE NO JOURNALIST …YOU LEFT OUT THE NAMES OF 2 OF THE BANDS THAT OPENED UP THAT NIGHT.-ALLOW ME TO REFRESH YOUR MEMORY, THE NAMES ARE TOP DEAD CENTER AND EDEN BURNING. OH AND BY THE WAY I DIDN’T EVEN BOTHER TO READ ALL OF THE ARTICLE , BECAUSE FIRST OF ALL IT DRAGGED AND THEN YOU SEEMED TO MAKE IT MORE ABOUT YOU THAN THE TALENT THAT YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO SPOTLIGHT……

  • mosquito

    Matt,

    1. You were saying that this was a contestant for best show of the year. So… Riot vs. Bolt Thrower.

    2. I think you hurt that opening band’s feeling. A band created from some all star San Antonio Legends? I don’t know anything legendary in San Antonio…

  • http://www.solarflight.net Matt Johnsen

    Mosquito – it’s a really tough call. There’s no doubt that the Bolt Thrower shows were more special (especially the inside set) but this might also be the only time I see this Riot lineup. Bolt Thrower were flawless live, and Karl is a great frontman, but the playing was more impressive at the Riot show. Plus, I got to meet Reale and Flyntz after the show and they blew smoke up my ass and told me I was a great guitarist. That’s always a plus! It’s a toss-up. Can’t it be a tie?

    Sandee – you totally rule. Keep up the good work. We can all learn a thing or two from your dispensed wisdom.

  • PharaohPhan

    Matt….Fuck opening bands!!! We all know why we really go to shows!!! To see the headliners! Who gives a rats ass about some shitty band that probably got some guitars for christmas! You know what’s up! You rock, and keep on writing your insightful reviews about how everybody sucks and you’re cool! Pharaoh Phan Phorever!!!!

  • mosquito

    There can be no tie.

  • Wendy

    I think your a lame ASS. Your whole article sucks. A for sure wanna bee guitar player that never did anything, now just trying to put everyone else down just because it’s not your cup of tea. How many albums did you ever put out? How come I’ve never heard your music. Probably because it sucks just like you Matt Johnson.

  • PharaohPhan

    Holy Geez!!!!! Get over it!!!! What was the name of the band matt?? Somebody said it…(scrolling up) Top DEad Center….I am gonna check them out myself, and give a verdict…My theory is, if Matt thought they sucked…they probably sucked…hard!!! So…to all the opening band fans…suck it!!! MAtt…you so rule bro!!!! Pharoah Phan Phorever!!!

  • PharaohPhan

    Ok….I am actually from san antonio, and I had never heard of Top Dead Center. I listened to their stuff. Not bad…if you like fag music!!!! The singer for Top Dead Center was the singer for Pitbull Daycare along with Don Van Stavern..(so totally a wig!!) We all know how amazing pitbull daycare wasn’t!!! Anyway, I still think Matt knows exactly what he’s talking about. He’s a badass writer, and an even better guitar player. Those who think otherwise are the lameasses!

    PPP

  • Wendy

    How long have you been sucking this guys dick PharaohPhan. You two are just butt buddies yourselfs. You get over it! Move out of your parents basements already. Some people just enjoy Rock n Roll. You’re even more lame.

  • PharaohPhan

    Wendy…seriously….this blog is about the metal. Not some faggoty, 80’s rock wannabe hair band. I have never sucked Matt Johnsen’s dick. I don’t really want to. Lame or not….At least I’m not in a crappy opening act!!!!

  • Professor Black

    Hey Wendy, I’m pretty sure Matt has sold more records than the members of Top Dead Center combined. He’s too humble to mention that, but I’m not.

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  • Juice’n Ewton

    Matt, I have enjoyed your reviews and interviews from some of the more well-known mags/rags around for years. This one is no different than anything you’ve ever written – on point, insightful, observationally hilarious, and full of opinion. I have seen many a band such as how you described Top Dead Center. Christ, when I was 16 I was probably in a few of them. Why anyone would care if you didn’t like them is beyond me. Maybe your hair is cooler than theirs. Just a guess though.

    I’m wondering what these people would prefer you say about bands you didn’t care for? After all, bad press is better than no press.

  • Neight

    Pharaoh. Just went to the Myspace and I thought I was at the Dragonforce site then noticed I was not. Yeah when you sound like a well established band that is on Guitar Hero people tend to pick it up, because well most people are stupid. Sure most bands rip off other bands, but the different is they put there on style into it. Pharaoh could have just called the album Dragonforce and sold millions. My point is Pharaoh is never going anywhere, because there is a band called Dragonforce. It’s like starting a band that sounds just like Metallica right after the Black album came out. It’s lame. You will only be famous in your home town. So stop talking sh*t about a opening band (Top Dead Center) that I’ve seen and thought were rocking and a fun band. They maybe ripping on the 80’s but a lest it’s not a Guitar Hero band like yours. Hey we all were a opening band at once never forget that. If I saw your band open up for lets say Goatwhore. I would think Pharaoh was a Dragonforce wannabe and the guitar players must have a sticky altar to Sam Totman and Herman Li.

  • Neight

    What time is recess?

  • jeff

    Hi, this is jeff from TDC. I don’t know what all the stink is about. Somebody doesn’t like our music. Big deal. Not everybody is going to dig it. I know that and it doesn’t matter to me. I play in the band because I like it and that’s all that matters to me. SO, everybody quit getting butt hurt over one (or a few) guys opinion. I however did not “get my guitars for christmas”. I have been playing guitar over half my life. Maybe I haven’t “sold more albums” than pharaoh or whoever but so what. As I said before, I play guitar because I enjoy it. I don’t think either of our bands have done much to brag about anyway. Maybe I’m wrong though. What exactly has pharaoh accomplished? I had never even heard of the band before all of this silly stuff. Please enlighten me.

    PS- our hair is much better. haha!! (it’s a joke) I also hate zakk wylde.

  • Professor Black

    Pharaoh formed in 1998, when the members of Dragonforce you mention were still paying homage to Hitler in the band Demoniac. I have never heard of Guitar Hero but maybe I will ask the kids at recess to explain it to me tomorrow.

  • Neight

    Pharaoh started in 1998 and I’ve never heard of them? Need I say more.
    I’m 30 so I think I would have heard of them. I also have a knowledge of the underground scenes. I was watching Eyehategod and Soilent Green at Zeppelin in New Orland’s in 1998.

    Oh and you know what Guitar Hero is. Don’t even try. That comment just shows to people that you probably do play it.

    But hey, I could be wrong. I mean who am I? Nobody Really.

    The only thing I know is, I know nothing.

  • Professor Black

    You called my bluff. I am an alcoholic cave-dweller, nothing more.

  • George

    The fanboys with the hurt feelings on here are pathetic. According to you crybabies, a reviewer needs to have a better band than the bands he reviews now. One dope wants Matt to interview people in the crowd to get their take. That’s a report, not a review. Does Roger Ebert ask people in the theater if they liked the movie? Does he need to personally make better movies than the all the movies he reviews? Of course not. Quit whining already. Clearly, none of you has any conception of what a reviewers responsibilities are, because it’s not interviewing people, or lightening up cuz it’s all in fun. It’s to give his honest opinion. Done.

  • PharaohPhan

    Ok…we all agree…opening bands are there to annoy us until the headliner gets on stage. Matt’s reviews are always right. Some people on this thread got hurt feelings. Top Dead Center is still gonna wake up in the morning (and still suck..j/k)

  • Bishop

    Hey Matt and fellow critics, I am Stephen Bishop, singer for TDC and formerlly Pitbull Daycare. I loved your review of the show. After a long and painful 12 year run in PBDC w/ Don Van Stavern…not a wig….I have come to accept the fact that not everyone is going to like what you do. You love it, you hate it. No big deal man! You have a job to do and that job is to review it the way your readers and fans expect you to review it. You readers and fans already know your temperment and personality, and they probablly have like interests. THAT’S WHY THEY READ YOUR COLUMN! You reported it the way you saw it. you have every right in the world to call it like you see it. I, of course, don’t think that I agree with your opinion, but just like I said,that is my opinion.

    We can’t please everyone. I personally am not a huge fan of alot of bands that I have had to sit through waiting for the headliner. There have been a few instances when the openers destroyed the closer though…did anyone see System of a Down and Incubus open for Pitbull Daycare? lol

    I guess what I am trying to say is that keep on doing what you are doing and let the general public decide for themselves. I can’t relate to all critics. I kinow when some of you guys say you hate something, chances are I’ll love it. That just comes with the territory and knowing a little about the sourse you are hearing it from. I appreciate you giving us your opinion and maybe in some strange way, it’ll help us to get better and try to steer you in our favor.

    We are not legendary, few people are. We are just a bunch of guys that love what we do and are trying to have fun and make a few fans along the way. Take it for what it is people. We are the support act for a reason…so you feel like you got your $40 worth by not having to stand around and listen to an IPOD for 3 hours before the Headliner comes on! You don’t like it, then tune it out and head to the bar!

    Thanks again guys and if you like simple trash rock with a southern rock influence, then check us out.

    ESPCIALLY Thanks again for all the passionate, and not so passionate friends and fans and thanks to you Matt for stirring up a little buzz for us.

    RNRLAMF

  • I don’t wear a wig
  • Jack III

    A review that ended with a bunch of reviews of the review… Thats funny! Go listen to Top Dead Center http://www.myspace.com/topdeadcentertexas And make sure you go see them opening for some better band in your home town soon!

  • http://demolishmag.wordpress.com/ Curt King

    Matt,

    Although I am a litle late to the plate on this review/post:

    I really liked the spot-on review mate.

    Not sure what all of these cry babies are
    tearin’ up about?!

    Your comments, feedback and or rants are always welcome over at our 80’s Metal site called DEMOLISH.

    Peep it here (where we tell the TRUTH about the music as well):

    http://demolishmag.wordpress.com/

    Rock on!

    Kinger
    Editor in Chief
    Demolish – Chicago HQ

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