The history of hard rock and heavy metal is littered with bands that people say should have been huge, but Riot is one that actually had everything in place to do so. Killer songs, feral guitars, and a definitive masterpiece in 1981’s “Fire Down Under” that remains a 10 out of 10 to this day.
Why they didn’t ascend to the highest level is a familiar tale of changing personnel, adversarial personalities, and just plain bad luck, which was echoed by former guitarist Rick Ventura when I interviewed him earlier this week. His perspective on everything that happened is inspiring, because, while it would be easy to feed into the bitterness regarding how their spark fizzled out, he looks back on that era with a deep respect for what they achieved and is optimistic about what the future holds for his new project.
If you’re one of those people still clinging to the ‘rock is dead’ mantra, Riot Act’s debut album, “Closer to the Flame,” is yet another example of why that outlook is dead wrong.
MNOD: Riot Act is a project that feels like a long time coming. How did everything fall into place?
Ventura: A few years back, Riot was inducted into the Metal Hall of Fame, and Lou and I were in attendance to accept the honor. We were blown away by the level of influence that Riot had on younger bands. I never really thought about it, because I had left the band so long ago that I wasn’t aware of how many younger musicians were fans of ‘Fire Down Under’ and other stuff we did back then. That was really the genesis of it. We started jamming on those old Riot songs and decided that we should put something new together. I would run into Lou from time to time, as well, and we always talked about it. Riot was a band that never left me. I would come across reviews of albums by kids in their teens and realize just how much of an impact we had. Lars from Metallica is a big fan, but the scope of it was something I wasn’t fully aware of then. The new band has great lineup that came together quite naturally.
MNOD: COVID-19 hit just as things were heating up, so what was the recording process like given how quickly things changed?
Ventura: We started recording new versions of the old Riot material first, but then tragedy struck when Lou died of COVID-19. It was two years ago this month and I was just devastated. We had a lot of good ideas and music, but COVID hit big time, which made getting together more difficult. It was an unusual process to work under. I would send Don, the singer, my ideas and he really related to them, so he would work on them by himself at home. He would come up with melodies, but then I wouldn’t hear from him for a while. The rest of the band and I would record as a three-piece without Don there a lot. ‘Wanted’ ended up being the first single we released, which is just a hard-driving song that tells that what this band is all about. We’re excited to get out there despite the sad circumstances that transpired in the past two years. We’re hitting England and Spain for live dates to start with. There is talk about doing some shows in America in September and October, as well. It’s been so long since we’ve played a show that we’ll probably explode.
MNOD: The original Riot is a band that I came into as a teenager in the mid-2000s and was surprised by how you guys never took off like so many of the other bands from that era did. What is your take on why Riot didn’t become massive following ‘Fire Down Under.’?
Ventura: I look back on that time as being a very memorable time. We were focused and a really tight band. We toured with Black Sabbath and Sammy Hagar, but also had a lot of bad luck. We did achieve some underground fame with ‘Fire Down Under,’ but the string of back luck we had became very frustrating. The tour with Sammy Hagar came about, because we were on the same label and they thought it would be a good match. Of course, we were big fans of Montrose and considered them to be a big influence, so being paired with Sammy was great for us. We won over every audience and played with a lot of energy on stage every night. A lot of people didn’t take the warmup acts seriously, but that wasn’t an issue for us. All of those times were a blast, though. Touring with Sabbath was a thrill that I never would have imagined. Rainbow was also big, because Blackmore was such an influence on me.
MNOD: How did you first come to join Riot?
Ventura: They were a band in my neighborhood. Mark (Reale) lived around the corner from me and we were both guitar geeks. We became friends and I came into the band at the beginning of ‘Narita.’ I knew the material and was around all the time, so I was the logical choice. When I left the band after ‘Born in America,’ I was just so sick of what went down and the energy had just fizzed away. I always had thoughts of doing other projects, but my mindset was that it had to be the right combination. If something came of it, great. If not, that was OK, too.
MNOD: You mentioned that you were a guitar geek. What kinds of guitars did you play on the new album?
Ventura: I still play the same Les Paul from the original Riot days. There’s something special about that guitar. I picked it up in ’76 and have used it ever since. I also used a Telecaster and a Stratocaster on this album. I’m always focused on riffs and songs, so I probably don’t practice as much as I should. There was a period during the pandemic where everything came to a halt for a while.
MNOD: How much of the new album do you plan to put into the live set?
Ventura: It’ll probably be half and half. The album will be three or four months old by the time we hit the road, so we’ll play it by ear. It’ll be a good mix of the new and old Riot material. Certain songs come across better live than on record, but that was never really a problem for Riot in the early days. Everything we did was high energy and 100% adrenaline all the time.
MNOD: What is your relationship like with the band that calls itself Riot V?
Ventura: Mark continued on with that, but they became something different after he passed. I’m friends with them and even played ‘Fire Down Under’ with them in Japan. Something like that lights a fire in you and is probably why Riot Act is here now.
MNOD: Which Riot album is your personal favorite or the one that you still enjoy coming back to most?
Ventura: I love each album for different reasons. ‘Narita’ is the album that I came in on and it was just such a fun recording process, but most people would say that ‘Fire Down Under’ is the definitive Riot album. I do love every song on ‘Narita,’ though.
MNOD: I actually found an original copy of ‘Narita’ on vinyl last year, which was exciting.
Ventura: That’s cool. I was in record store not too long ago and came across a copy, so I bought it. I brought my turntable out of retirement recently and set it up. There’s something about pulling a record out of the sleeve and reading the liner notes that really strikes a chord in me.
Riot Act’s debut album, “Closer to the Flame,” will be released on April 1 in Europe as a 2-CD Digipack on Global Rock Records and April 15 in America.