Few people ever written about in Metal Hammer over the years it’s been around can lay claim to singing on three bona fide, jaw-droppingly brilliant classic albums in their career. Ozzy can’t. Lemmy can’t. Phil Anselmo can’t. And Axl certainly can’t. But Ronnie James Dio can. The veteran rocker has lent his larynx to Rainbow’s Rising, Black Sabbath’s Heaven And Hell and his own band’s Holy Diver. Admittedly all from an era before many of you were born, but three albums that would still appear in any ‘Greatest Hard Rock/Metal Albums Of All Time’ lists.
Ronald James Padavano formed Dio in 1982 after he and Black Sabbath – in which he had successfully replaced the sacked Ozzy Osbourne – fell out over the mixing of Live Evil. It was perhaps the best move he’d make. Taking drummer Vinnie Appice with him and reuniting with ex-Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain and discovering Sweet Savage guitarist Vivian Campbell, the band released their debut, Holy Diver and immediately found success. Thematically it was still the Dungeons & Dragons fare Dio loved to trade in, but with more of an ear for melody, MTV picked up on the band and they were away.
The Last In Line (1984), Sacred Heart (1985) and Dream Evil (1987) continued the successful trend, much to the chagrin of a solo Ozzy who took to hanging a midget named Ronnie in his live shows. However, an ever-fluctuating line-up – the 17-year-old UK unknown Rowan Robertson featured on 1990’s Lock Up The Wolves, and then promptly disappeared – dented progress. So did a disastrous attempt to move with the increasingly aggressive strains of metal albums like Strange Highways (1993) and Angry Machines (1996) nearly killed the band off completely.
Trouper that he is though, Ronnie rallied a new line-up and 2000’s Magica returned to a more classic sound to the delight of fans. Since then, Dio continue to tour successfully, if more recent albums have only appealed to die-hard fans. Then again, with a career that’s stretched, staggeringly, over 50 years and some of rock’s biggest bands, the little man with the big voice is unlikely to worry too much.
MUST HAVE Holy Diver Vertigo, 1983
Everything fell into place for Ronnie after he and Sabbath went their separate ways amid recriminations that the frontman had crept back into the studio to toy with the mixing of the band’s live album Live Evil. Having previously found himself sans band after he left Rainbow, with much procrastination before teaming up with Sabbath, this time Ronnie wasn’t about to let the grass grow under his feet. Taking drummer Vinnie Appice with him, he hooked up with ex-Rainbow colleague Jimmy Bain, and as a noted Anglophile, he secured the services of a youthful Vivian Campbell on guitar. Dio was born.
Within a year, the four men (with Dio handling production duties as well as keyboards) had finished the debut Dio release, and immediately caught the imagination of the metal- loving world. An established vocalist of note, his tenure in Rainbow and Sabbath were much celebrated even if the latter still provokes endless debate, this essentially gave Ronnie a platform for success. Equally, given his dedication to his craft (there is little to which the name Dio is applied that doesn’t impress), few expected him to come up with a turkey. And as it is, Dio the man and Dio the band triumphed. Pre-thrash, the metal world of 1983 was more than willing to accept the blend of crunching metallic riffs sprayed with a coat of gleaming melody that makes up Holy Diver. A charismatic blend of Ronnie’s songwriting skill and the dextrous musical ability of the band he’d put together, Holy Diver was an immediate hit. Opening with the barnstorming Stand Up And Shout may have been a statement of intent, but the title track, second song in, let everyone know what the band were all about: towering vocals, precision musicianship and housed in a sleeve which played up to the fantasy themes contained therein, of a devil drowning a priest. Or as the ever-playful Dio would suggest, perhaps a priest destroying a devil. He would know, Dio means God in Italian!
RECOMMENDED The Last In Line Vertigo, 1984
It was pretty much business as usual when Dio returned to the recording studio for their not-so-difficult second album; swiftly as it happens (it was released within a year of the debut) and was as equally well-received as their impressive first album. Abrupt left-side switches to banal normality and heads-down metal would have to wait for a whole decade. Instead, with the sleeve a play on the demonic character of the debut album, the music also seemed to carry a similar beat. From the opening autobiographical anthemics of We Rock to the epic closer Egypt (The Chains Are On), it’s another horn-throwing slice of classic Dio. Although it slightly lacked the impact of the debut, tunes like One Night In The City, Evil Eyes and the emphatic title track rapidly became live favourites and still rank among some of Dio (the band’s) finest ever songs. And despite his moderate lack of leading-man looks, Ronnie was still a mainstay on MTV!
RECOMMENDED Sacred Heart Vertigo, 1985
In which our vertically challenged, God-voiced hero introduces a terrified world to, er… Denzel the dragon, who not only graced the cover of the third Dio album, but – sitting alongside a giant spider so daft it might as well have appeared at the end of the film of Stephen King’s It – also made up the less than Spielberg-quality stage props for the ensuing tour. OK, so Dio’s Tolkienesque imagination might have been wildly out of control on the theatrical side of things, but song-wise he was on form yet again, throwing out gems like Rock’N’Roll Children, Hungry For Heaven, The King Of Rock And Roll and the title track to match the best of his impressive canon. Yes, it’s all slightly ridiculous and overblown in places, but who cares? Don’t you think Ronnie James Dio knew that? And don’t you think Dio fans the world over revelled in the fact? Of course they fucking did. This is the essence of metal we’re talking about after all.
WILD CARD Dream Evil Vertigo, 1987
Dio’s fourth album pretty much keeps the quality levels at the extraordinarily high standard he’s always set for himself, as well as almost maintaining the level of commercial success the band found as they rose to the top of heavy metal. And although the album itself didn’t really dip too much, its impact was perhaps slightly less than the three preceding albums due to the beginning breezes of the wind of change that would run through metal, manifesting itself in rapidly emergent thrash and coming to a head with the advent of grunge. Interestingly Dream Evil is the first Dio album to feature anything approaching a power ballad in All The Fools Sailed Away. But there was still more than enough quality melodic metal on offer, not least on the grandiose title track and the typically Dio-esque I Could Have Been A Dreamer. And it was still better than most metal albums released that year.
FANS ONLY! Magica Spitfire, 2000
Having staggered through much of the 90s evidently displaced and uncertain of where he should lead his band, the normally direct and confident Ronnie entered the new decade seemingly freed of the shackles that had previously restrained him. The return of drummer Simon Wright and bassist Jimmy Bain, along with guitarist Craig Goldy, settled a line-up with which Ronnie was comfortable, and to the delight of Dio fans worldwide the conceptual album saw a return to the sword and sorcery themes that had suited the band so well in the past and which, after his tenure with Rainbow and Black Sabbath, showed that he really was an adept old hand. The likes of Fever Dreams and Feed My Head might not be classic Dio, but they show there’s more than enough life left in the band, although their questionable decision to include an 18-plus-minute narrative at the end was pure self- indulgent folly.
AVOID! Angry Machines Mayhem 1996
There are some things you shouldn’t do in music. You wouldn’t want to hear Phil Anselmo release an acoustic album of James Taylor covers, or Iron Maiden asking you if you like their new Jamiroquai direction. Likewise, you didn’t really want to hear Ronnie James Dio tackling thrash metal and grunge, but that’s pretty much what he did on Angry Machines. Even worse than Strange Highways, its predecessor, Angry Machines is a plodding, Neanderthal mess which eschews traditional Dio themes in a misguided attempt at modernisation that even the man himself disowns to this day. Horrified, many fans laid the blame at the feet of guitarist Tracy G, a clown who’d come from unfunny joke thrashers WWIII. Seeing the error of his ways, Ronnie recalled Craid Goldy. Thankfully, Tracy G stropped off when asked to remain as the band’s rhythm guitar player.