When The Voice sensation Todd Michael Hall was announced as the vocalist for Riot V (e.g., the re-constituted variation of New York City-born Power Metal icons Riot), few could have accurately predicted the impact he would have on the legendary group. Issuing Unleash The Fire in 2014 and Armor Of Light in 2018, they boldly forged ahead with a renewed sense of purpose in the absence of deceased founder Mark Reale. With Hall now comfortably at the helm both vocally and, to a certain extent, lyrically, the newly-rejuvenated group appears destined for a well-deserved--albeit arguably unlikely--creative resurgence. Now, with the highly-anticipated r-elease of his Kurdt Vanderhoof (Metal Church, Presto Ballet)-fueled full-length solo debut Sonic Healing now officially upon us, the multi-octave Hall seems destined for the commercial breakthrough he rightfully deserves.
Todd: Let's start with the obvious. How'd you become involved with Riot V? Was it via your time on The Voice?
Todd: “Initially, I became involved with Riot V because a man named Bart Gabriel who owns a record label in Poland called Skol Records. He Produced the album Land Of The Damned from Jack Star's Burning Star that I had sang on and he also helped arrange some shows for Jack like the Keep It True festival. That was the first time I met Bart in person. After I returned from the Keep It True festival show, he met with me and said 'Did you know that Riot's looking for a singer'? He'd been talking to (bassist) Donnie Van Stavern about potentially Producing an album for them. That's how I got in. Obviously, they've had some very serious singers in the past.”
Todd: Were you initially apprehensive about joining a group with such a storied history? That's a lot of pressure.
Todd: “Yes, I was. First and foremost was the notion that Mark had passed away and whether or not their fans were going to be okay with me doing it. ...I remember specifically telling Donnie Van Stavern 'Can you give me a suggested set list?' At the time, the only place I had a stereo at the time was in my basement at home, so I went down to my basement, and just like the old days when I was a teenager, I sang along to the stereo to get an idea like 'Is this something I think I can pull off?' In a way, I feel like I was meant to be in the band because the two guys that you heard the most singing for Riot were Guy Speranza and, more notably, Tony Moore because we tend to lean toward the Power Metal side of things in Riot V. I am really comfortable with works from both of those guys. ...I'm not saying they're easy vocals or anything like that, but they do match my range rather nicely.”
Todd: Sonic Healing was written and recorded with the assistance of Kurdt Vanderhoof. How did this particular collaboration 'come together'? Was it something born from you being signed to the same label as Metal Church?
Todd: “I hooked up with Kurdt Vanderhoof through Joe O'Brien at Rat Pack Records. Incidentally, I had met Kurdt in 2015 or 2016 when we'd opened up for Metal Church in Switzerland at the (Pratteln, Switzerland-based) Z7 Club. I remember hanging out with him because he watched our soundcheck and was like 'I love (the song) “Swords And Tequila”', so I'd sat with him at a table and we chatted for a few minutes. Obviously, I knew of Metal Church because they've been around for a very long time, but I didn't really think about it. When I approached Joe about doing a solo album, I did it because (the Riot V record) Armor Of Light (2018) almost got released through Rat Pack Records. But I had known Joe before that because I recorded the vocals on a cover song that he never released. At the time, I wanted to do something and he's like 'Hey, should we do a solo album.', but he was thinking I should do something along the lines of Metal, but I told him I wanted to do something more like old school Rock and then we just never really did anything with it. But after I appeared on The Voice and my “Jukebox Hero” cover went over really well, I contacted Joe again. I said 'Hey, this is what I really want to do. What do you think?'. I told him 'I have a bunch of songs, but it tends to be more of singer-songwriter style because I only play acoustic. I'm not really much an electric player'. I said 'If you can hook me up with someone and help me turn my songs into Hard Rock interpretations, then I think we might be able do something' and he's like 'Well, I think I got a guy' and then later said 'I'm going to hook you up with Kurdt Vanderhoof because he loves old school Rock and I think he'd be good for this.' When Kurdt and I hooked up, we bonded well over that style of music and that era, that kind '70's and real early '80's type stuff and I think we both had a real common vision about what we hoped to accomplish. Kurdt listened to all my songs because I had given him like twenty-five to listen to and he's like 'You've got some great stuff, but I'm just going to let some songs come out and see what happens'. He's real unique in that way, too. It's almost as if he puts himself into this mode and then it all comes pouring out. Over the course of twenty-one days, he wrote music for eighteen songs, so it was all really incredible. We ended up using all brand-new songs for it and didn't use any of the ideas I had had previously. During the lock down, I wasn't working full time, so every day I was totally focused. It was almost as if were having a contest. He'd be like 'I just loaded a new one to Dropbox' and I'd be like 'Oh, yeah? I just loaded one to Dropbox, too. Check it out'. At the same time, I had wrote lyrics and vocal melodies for sixteen songs and we recorded fifteen. And it was all so hard to to believe because it was too easy.”
Todd: Aside from Kurdt, what other musicians did you work with? Was there a lot of other outside contributors?
Todd: “We recorded everything last April and May, so we've actually had the album in the can since the end of June of last year. It's just taken us forever to get it out. ...We were in lockdown mode, so Kurdt ended up playing bass, drums and everything. All the music was written by Kurdt and the vocals are all me. Kurdt is amazing. My New Year's resolution for this year was to learn how to play electric guitar because there's certain techniques like palm muting and, well, speed and accuracy that I haven't ever needed on an acoustic, so I've been trying to practice every day. One of the things I do is I meet with Kurdt via Zoom and he shows me how to play our own songs, so I've been having a lot of fun with it. A lot of it's simple, but the way he plays everything makes it so great. I can't make it sound the way he does as there's a lot of technique involved. He's such an amazing player.”
Todd: Musically, what are your influences? When I listen to you sing, I hear many different undertones. When you were still literally finding your voice, who did you draw from the most? Was there one person in particular?
Todd: “I've been singing forever, so when I was really young, I had influences like Barry Manilow and Lionel Richie. ...And then, in the '70's, I can remember listening to the Queen record The Game (1980), which has (the song) “Another One Bites The Dust” on it. ...And we also had that other one (News Of The World, 1977) that had “We Will Rock You” on it. I also remember that we had REO Speedwagon and Styx, so those were a lot of my early, early influences. Back then, I hadn't hit puberty yet, so my voice was still pretty high, obviously. When I was a kid, that was the kind of music that really rang true with me. And then as we moved into the '80's and I reached a point in '84 where I saw Geoff Tate perform (with Queensrÿche). They opened for Kiss at my local arena here in Saginaw and I was just absolutely blown away. I had already started a band with my brother, but my voice had started to change, so I really didn't have that access to my upper register anymore. When I saw that, it blew my mind and started me on a quest to learn how to use my head voice after that, which is what I told them on The Voice ...In the '80s, I was very much into Geoff Tate. I would say he was certainly my number one influence, but there were a lot of others like Tony Mills from (the band) Shy and Tony Harnell from TNT. Obviously, everybody loves (Iron Maiden frontman) Bruce Dickinson and (Black Sabbath, Dio and Rainbow vocalist) Ronnie James Dio and what I discovered is that I don't have a lot of gravelly tone to my voice. I also loved (vocalist) Eric Adams from Manowar. He was probably my number two influence. Part of the reason I think Geoff had the edge is because Eric can do all the growling stuff that I can't do. When I do it, I sound like a caveman (laughs). ...It's like when you have straight hair, you wish it was curly and when you have curly hair, you wish it was straight. It's the same way with being a singer. I hear other people that have these tonal qualities to their voice like (vocalist) Parramore McCarty (Steve Steven's Atomic Playboys, Radiation Romeos, Warrior). He can make this tone come out that I can't even pretend to make. When I hear that kind of stuff, I think 'Wow, it would be neat to be able to turn that on now and then'. But I have a hopelessly clean voice, so when I try to make something sound gritty and play it for my brother Rick, he'll be like 'It doesn't sound any different to me.'”
Todd: How did you become a contestant on The Voice? Is there a specific set of instructions that hopeful talent is required to follow? With the show being so massively popular, there must be some distinct protocols in place.
Todd: “The way The Voice works is if you post videos to YouTube, there are scouts that will find you. What was interesting to me is that when I went to an executive call back in California, I was already pretty far into the process. It was me and one other person that had also done the open call. Pretty much everybody else had gotten contacted or had submitted a video that led to them getting picked. I saw in an email that they were having an open call in Chicago and I was free that weekend, so I thought 'What the heck? I'm going to see what happens. I might even have some fun. There were two different shifts and I chose the afternoon. There were between eight hundred and a thousand people in each shift, so there's about two thousand people there that day. But you know what? Before you get too cocky and think that you've got such an incredible voice, they have all these other incredible voices that are there just to fill the other boxes they need to tic. You can't be an asshole and you can't be a drug addict. You've got to be responsible and you need to have a support system or money because you've got to be away from home for a while. Fortunately for me, my work is a family-owned business. They didn't cut my salary while I was gone, but there were other people that gave up their jobs just to go try to be on the show and you're not really making any money when you're there. ...My point is to not necessarily disparage myself, but just to say I don't have too big of a head because there's tons of great singers out there. I feel very fortunate and blessed to have had the opportunity to be a part of show. Overall, it was actually a really great time for me.”
Todd: Has the success you experienced while performing on The Voice translated to offers for additional work? The YouTube clip alone should have led to any number of new or established groups interested in such services.
Todd: “I thought it might, but it really hasn't. Other than Joe from Rat Pack saying 'Yeah, maybe we should do this album', there really isn't anyone that wasn't there before. I was asked to do another song for (ex-Stratovarius mastermind) Timo Tolkki (The Enigma Birth, 2021), but I had already done one before I'd done The Voice and I was just too busy to do it. I'm not sure what opportunities there would be but, I didn't get a call from Quiet Riot. Maybe it's because we were in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. I'm in a weird situation where I already have a job where I run a manufacturing company, so it's difficult for me. I can't just take off for six months. Fortunately, it's flexible. I can take off for a while, I just have to block it out here and there. What's interesting for me is the next step up. I don't know if it's feasible because the next step up is a little more full-time and I really can't give up my job because the music doesn't really replace it monetarily speaking. In fact, it doesn't even come close. And I think the other thing is that I'm at the point with Riot V where I'm a little spoiled. Riot has a great legacy that helps us book shows and it's a level of shows that I can handle with my work. But at the same time, we're also still viable and we're still producing new albums. When I go play at places with them, people in the audience are singing back. They're wanting to hear new songs and they're singing back lyrics that I wrote, so I've got the best of both worlds in terms there being a great legacy behind us. I really wouldn't want to be in a band that was strictly a legacy band. It's not that it wouldn't potentially be fun, it's that I only have so much time I can give to the music and I really want to create my own thing. I've been impacted by music, it's touched my life and has been such a wonderful thing, so I have this fantasy and desire where I can do the same thing for others by writing music that impacts them. That is my goal in the limited amount of time I have for it.”
Todd: When on tour, how do you keep your voice 'in shape'? You obviously have a rather significant range. Do you use traditional warm-ups/warm-downs to ensure you are able to perform at your best each and every night?
Todd: “I really don't. I don't warm up at all in the traditional sense. Or if I do, I only warm up my lower end range. There's a Queensrÿche song from Operation: Mindcrime (1988) that I would sing that to warm up my lower voice, but I'm a little more into it now. When I was on The Voice, there was a nice vocal coach that shared some warm-up ideas, so I'm more into trying to warm up. Really, when it comes to keeping your voice on the road, first and foremost, don't scream your head off when you're singing. And then when you're off the stage, don't sit and talk over loud music because talking is worse than singing, especially when you start talking loud. Those are the first and foremost. Second of all, you can't stay up and party until dawn. I'll have a beer after the show, but that's about it. I try my best to get good sleep, but it's really hard on the road because I get wired when I'm playing the show and when I lay down, it's really difficult for me to fall asleep. And then invariably, there's the early morning wake-up calls to get on a plane, so the sleep is tough. But I do eat right and I do get my ten thousand steps in every day. I just try to stay healthy. When I was on tour with (German Power Metal legends) Primal Fear, I even bought exercise bands, which was hilarious. We'd be backstage and I'd be doing curls and bench presses. I thought (Primal Fear vocalist) Ralph Schepers would work out with me because he's huge, but he said 'When I'm on the road, I like to save all of my energy', so I never even got to talk him into working out.”
Todd: For the uninitiated, what can you tell us about your non Hard Rock solo effort Letters From India (2017)?
Todd: “I don't want to say I don't take it seriously, but it's not Rock And Roll even though I'm mostly known for Rock and Hard Rock. Letters From India was done as a gift to my wife, really. I had written a bunch of songs back in the day that I never thought I would release. But I had a tremendous opportunity to do so when I hooked up with (guitarist) Francisco Palomo (HolyHell, Joe Stump, Tower Of Babel). It started with me trying to turn one of my Christian songs into a choir piece with a piano backing. From there, I was like 'Can you do bass and drums?' and he's like 'Yes'. Through the inspiration of that, I actually wrote a couple more songs and ended up with a total of twelve, so I released it independently. I think I've gotten rid of five hundred copies and I've given away some. ...It isn't a tremendous amount, but I did manage to make around three thousand dollars for charity.”
Todd: Overall, how have fans responded to Sonic Healing? While I'm certain a cross-section of listeners were undoubtedly expecting music à la Metal Church or Riot/Riot V, the end result of your efforts are much different.
Todd: “I've had a lot of people respond very positively to it, even the typical Heavy Metal fan. Ultimately, as an artist, you have influences from all over, so it's really difficult when you become popular and end up being so boxed in. It makes sense because people need to be able to put you into a box and it's not necessarily a negative thing because once they have, they know they can count on you, ya know? And that's why a lot of bands need that laser focus in order to really catch on. Can you imagine how the first Guns N' Roses album (Appetite For Destruction, 1987) would have been received if one song was Country, one was a ballad and one was full Hard Rock? People would have been like 'What is this?'. Because I'm in Riot V, I don't find it necessary to release a Heavy Metal album as a solo artist. ...Donnie and Mike rule the roost when it comes to writing in Riot V. I write my lyrics and some of the vocal melodies, but as far as the music is concerned, they dominate, which makes sense because I'm more of a singer-songwriter when I write stuff. That was what I had in mind with this solo album. I wanted it to Rock, but I wanted to get more of an old school Rock sound. Some people were like 'Well, it doesn't sound like Metal Church and it doesn't sound like Riot', but that was specifically our intent, ya know? We didn't want to produce a Metal Church or a Riot album. That was the opposite of what we tried to get done.”
Todd: How do look back on your time, albeit relatively brief, as a contestant on The Voice? I would imagine the entirety of that experience was a massive amalgam of anxiety and competitiveness that was difficult to focus on.
Todd: “It really is. I'm still dumbfounded in a sense. ...When I watch the video, I'll be like 'Wow, I did actually that. I can't believe I really did that.' And the “Juke Box Hero” video clip has over 4.4 million views, so I think, overall, I had a really wonderful experience. Everybody on the show was really nice to me and everybody was very kind. I met all the other cast mates because you're all in one hotel with all the others, even during the blind audition process. You're there with eighty-five other people, so you can hang out and talk. You get to make a lot of new friends. ...I honestly, never thought I would win, but you always have that fantasy in your head where you're like 'What if I got huge and everybody loved me after this?' I'm certainly not immune to fantasizing, but realistically, I have a good job, so it was more like 'I just want to have the experience and see what comes out of it.' And I had a great time, but it sometime feels like it was all a temporary blip because you've got to have that really intense focus and it's really hard to carry all that with you. A lot of the attention you get is from the The Voice machine and the machine isn't necessarily yours, so it's hard to take it with you when you leave the show.”
Todd: In retrospect, what was the most difficult aspect of performing on The Voice? Did you have any concerns?
Todd: “Technically speaking, I'm not supposed to say a whole lot about any of it, but I must say that one of the biggest disappointments for me was really just feeling like I didn't get to spend a whole lot time with (co-host and Pop and Country star) Blake (Shelton), ya know? ...The time I got to spend with him was pretty much all on camera and that was about it. I thought we might have a half hour session where we'd sit down and discuss all things music, where I come from and what he wants to do with me. And I get it, ya know? There really is a lot of people involved, so he's a busy guy. ...And you're still getting a lot of help with your performance, but it's not necessarily coming from the coach. I certainly don't intend to disparage the show, because as I was saying, I get it. There's a lot of time involved and a lot of different people involved, and let's face it, these people are massive stars with busy lives. ...They really don't have all day to hang around all day listening to practice performances.”
Sonic Healing (2021)
Return Of Eden (2019)
Armor Of Light (2018)
Letters From India (2017)
Stand Your Ground (2017)
Gods Of War (2015)
Unleash The Fire (2014)
When Darkness Calls (2012)
Land Of The Damned (2011)
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