Sunday, May 17, 2015

Remembering Dio - Five Years Later

Our lives are filled with watershed moments, but we don't always recognize them as they are happening.  Events unfold, and only later, when the details are fuzzy, do we realize that we have experienced something truly remarkable.  It's a sad fact of life, one that does us no favors as time marches on, and our memories begin to fail us.  The most important moments of our lives can be lost to us, forgotten gems that get buried under the sands of time.

I don't remember the first time I heard Ronnie James Dio's monumental voice, though I'm sure it must have come when Pop Up Video played "Rainbow In The Dark".  Even then, when I was too young to know better, I realized that the song was unbearably cheesy, and yet it still managed to stick with me.  Even though I would not remember the moment clearly, I would remember what I heard.

Sadly, Ronnie James Dio is not able to make new memories for us.  It has now been five years since we lost the greatest singer in the history of heavy metal, which is as good a time as any to take a step back and remember what Dio has meant not just to ourselves, but to the very fiber of the music we love.  Without Dio, there's no telling where metal would be, where we would be as fans, and we would have been robbed of one of the greatest careers in all of recorded music.

Ronnie James Dio remains a vital part of metal for two reasons; 1) He is perhaps the greatest voice metal has ever produced, and 2) He is the focal point of the greatest run of albums in the history of heavy music.

The first point can be debated, because voices are so subjective that there is no way to quantify one as being better than another.  Tones hit our ears in such unusual ways that a singer's voice is almost like pulling a suit of the rack; it may fit well enough, but it's the luck of the draw to find one that is perfect.

The second point, however, I would claim as being as close to a fact as you can have in a subjective forum.  From Rainbow's debut album, all the way through to the first four albums with his eponymous band, Dio barely moved the gauge off of perfection.  People can point to Metallica's first four records (a topic I will address at some point), or Iron Maiden's 80s output, but for my money, Ronnie James Dio had the greatest run, with the greatest albums, that metal will ever see.

The reason for this is that Ronnie James Dio had the ability, as sports fans would say, the ability to play to his competitor's level.  When he was matched with Ritchie Blackmore at the height of his powers, or a Tony Iommi with everything to prove, Dio was untouchable.  It was only when he was paired with a guitarist who lacked the fire or the skill that he stepped down from the top of the mountain.


Ronnie James Dio's career started long before he met Ritchie Blackmore, but that was the genesis of the Dio we know.  Dio met Blackmore while his band Elf opened for Deep Purple, and after the fracture that led to Blackmore leaving Deep Purple, Dio was recruited as the singer for Blackmore's new band, Rainbow.  In the course of three albums, Dio and Blackmore elevated hard rock to a new place, they may have written the greatest hard rock song of all time, and Dio began the greatest run in the history of heavy music.

Ritchie Blackmore was always eccentric, and without the rest of Deep Purple to reign him in, there was no telling what his new band would sound like.  Coupled with a singer most of the world was hearing for the first time, Rainbow's first album was met with a fair amount of skepticism.  The record was not great, but it showed a band with enormous potential.  Dio was one of the few singers who could match the power of Blackmore's guitar, and on songs like "Man On The Silver Mountain", the combination was impossible to deny.  Blackmore's later retreat into the world of Renaissance music is now apparent on that record, which comes through on "Temple Of The King", a song that showed Dio was more than a giant voice.
The potential for greatness existed in that record, and was fully revealed on "Rising".  In the short span of time separating the records, Rainbow had blossomed into one of the greatest hard rock bands of all time.  "Rising" was a short record, one that wore you out in the span of half an hour.  Though concise, everything about "Rising" was epic in scope.  Blackmore's playing became more fiery, Dio's voice bigger, the hooks stronger, and the songs became larger than life.  By the time "A Light In The Black" fades out, and the silence of an empty room returns, Rainbow has taken you on a journey to placed music had never gone.
"Stargazer" is often called one of the greatest rock songs ever written, and for good reason.  Everything about the song goes over the top, but in a way that makes excess feel like a good thing.  The band was at their absolute peak at that moment, and Dio's vocal was as towering and impassioned as any that came before or since.  His vocal performance is a staggering work, and remains his defining moment.  The song was something special, and "Rising" was the first in a string of classic albums Dio would be a part of.
Rainbow's final album with Dio could not match "Rising" in terms of elevating hard rock to a new level.  What the album was able to do, however, was show that Rainbow could operate on all levels of rock music, this time turning out a set of songs that was more focused on Dio's vocals than before.  His melodies carry songs like "Lady Of The Lake" and "L.A. Connection", and his soulful delivery made "Rainbow Eyes".  The only drawback to the record was "Gates Of Babylon", an amazing epic in its own right, but one that drew comparisons because of its similarity to the legendary "Stargazer".  Rainbow was done innovating, which made the splintering of Dio and Blackmore easier to handle.  They had done all they could together, and the time was right for them to move on to new projects.
For Dio, that project was Black Sabbath.  No one could have known at the time that the marriage of Dio and Black Sabbath would work.  Nothing about what either of them had accomplished to that point indicated they would work well together.  Dio had yet to make a metal record, and Sabbath's style had been typified by Ozzy singing Tony Iommi's riffs, a status Dio would surely not continue.
"Heaven & Hell" was a monumental record for everyone involved.  If it failed, there was no telling where their careers would go.  Black Sabbath would have been all but dead, and Dio would have been looking for his third band in three albums, granting him journeyman status.  They might not have known it at the time, but they were making the album that would come to define the rest of their lives.
"Heaven & Hell" was more than just an album that showed Black Sabbath was still alive, it was an album that ushered in an entire new era of heavy metal.  Just as their first four albums created metal as we know it, "Heaven & Hell" created the metal that came to define the 80s.  Each side changed the other, Dio giving Iommi the freedom to write more than simple block riffs, and Iommi giving Dio the platform to unleash his imagination.  Together, they rebuilt what was expected of heavy metal at the time.  Instead of being slow, lumbering music that was full of gloom, Black Sabbath had shown a new light, one in which heavy metal could be musical, could be positive, and could escape the stereotypes it had become chained to.
For the first time, metal had a band that was still heavy, but was playing melodic music that took as much influence from rock as it did Black Sabbath themselves.  By reinventing who they were, Black Sabbath reinvented the entirety of metal.  Dio's melodic edge, along with his fantasy-inspired lyrics, opened up a whole new world that would soon be populated by the success of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, along with the hair and glam bands on the Sunset Strip.  Countless bands would call "Heaven & Hell" one of their greatest inspirations, a fitting tribute to perhaps the greatest heavy metal album ever made.
"The Mob Rules" followed, and as was the case with Rainbow, the next album was rooted in growth.  Though it was not far removed from the sound of "Heaven & Hell", "The Mob Rules" expanded the compositions, juxtaposing moods and textures to a greater degree.  "The Sign Of The Southern Cross" had not yet been contemplated as they made their first record together, but now it was at the very core of who this version of Black Sabbath was.  They were the light and dark, the yin and yang of metal.  The album proved they were a band that could do anything they wanted, but greatness always comes at a cost, and for Black Sabbath it meant moving on to yet another new singer.
Having been a part of four classic albums in a row, Dio's next venture was likely to fail.  The odds of making yet another classic album were against him, but Dio proved his legend.  With an unheralded new guitarist in tow, Dio's first album under his own name became the landmark of his career.  "Holy Diver" was not just an album as good as any of his previous works, it provided him with his most lasting image, "Rainbow In The Dark".  The song, powered by one of the most memorable keyboard lines in history, became an unlikely hit on MTV.  Dio was not just a great singer making albums metal fans loved, he was now a star.
Where the streak ends is a question up for debate.  "The Last In Line" is a classic metal album that deserves to be included, but for me the run ends with "Sacred Heart".  Though it isn't any different than the other Dio albums, it is where the inspiration begins to fade away.  Without that spark, it's a tough album to love, and where I think Dio finally became mortal.  Still, releasing six consecutive albums that stand the test of time as classics is a feat no one else in rock and metal history can match. 


Ronnie James Dio isn't just the greatest singer in the history of metal because of his giant voice, or the string of classic albums he created.  He is the epitome of a metal singer because his greatness endured until his final recording, and he coaxed the best out of everyone he played with.  Blackmore may have been more popular with Deep Purple, but he was never better than he was in Rainbow.  Tony Iommi's best work was done with Dio in Black Sabbath.  Vivian Campbell never matched his work on those first albums with Dio.  Whoever was standing next to him on stage, Dio made them better, and they made him better.  Dio was at his best when he was working with a great guitar player, and his inability to find one who could live up to his standards is the only reason Dio stopped making classic records after "Dream Evil".
For Dio, everything was about inspiration.  He was a musical vagabond because he was always in search of what was going to spark his creative fire next.  He never lasted more than three albums with the same guitar player, which is what allowed him to continue being great.  Being comfortable can be a good thing, but it doesn't always lead to the best work.  By moving from guitarist to guitarist, Dio never pigeon-holed himself into one identity.  He was able to do anything he wanted, and the audience trusted him enough to go along for the ride with him.
Dio wasn't perfect, and not every record he made was great.  His voice would always prevent them from being terrible, and his worst were still better than every other legendary band's.  At the end of his life, Dio was finding his spark once again.  "Master Of The Moon" was the best Dio album in a decade, and teaming with Black Sabbath one more time for "The Devil You Know" produced one of the greatest songs Dio ever sang, "Bible Black".  I can only believe that if Dio had gotten the chance to make one more record, it would have been one more classic to cap his career with.  Even without it, Dio's voice and career make him the greatest there ever was.


And to cap off this remembrance of Ronnie James Dio, here are my picks for the ten greatest songs of his career:

1. Stargazer

Along with Stairway To Heaven, Stargazer might be the ultimate rock song.  It’s gargantuan, epic, moving, and seemingly superhuman.  From Ritchie Blackmore’s extended soloing, to the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, every part of the song is super sized.  And yet, the highlight of the song is still Dio, whose turns in the greatest performance of his career, belting out his vocal with the kind of power that makes you think he ingrained his voice straight onto the record, no recording needed. 

2. Bible Black

The Devil You Know found its fair share of criticism, but even the detractors admitted the project was worthwhile because it gave the world Bible Black, the last stone-cold classic Dio song.  From his weathered voice capturing the desperation of the soft intro, to the focused roar he could still muster at will, Dio and Tony Iommi crafted a song worthy of their legacies, another example of why they were one of the finest pairings of musicians in history.

3. Don’t Talk To Strangers

Holy Diver and Rainbow In the Dark got all the attention, but Don’t Talk To Strangers was the unsung highlight of Dio’s debut album with his solo band.  Another song building from soft verses into a furious metal wail, Dio does everything he can to show why he was the greatest metal singer of all time, spitting out the line “don’t dream of women because they’ll only bring you down” with the kind of venom that can’t be replicated. 

4. Heaven And Hell

The song became Dio’s calling card, and for good reason.  The ultimate epic singer turning out another epic song, this one the culmination of a lifetime’s obsession with the battle between good and evil.  Captured by one of Tony Iommi’s greatest riffs, Dio’s voice rises and falls with the music to form another in a long line of songs no one else could have written or sung.  Heaven And Hell was the centerpiece of Black Sabbath’s comeback, both the album and the song cemented as among the best ever.

5. I

Dehumanizer gets lost in the shuffle of Dio’s career, and while not among the best of his work, there are still tracks that stand up among his best.   I is the shining example, a fabulous piece of work that finds Dio at his most vicious.  His delivery is impassioned, his voice rougher than ever before, finding malice in the slashing riff.  When he pulls back to deliver the chorus in typical Dio fashion, the result is magical.

6. Gates Of Babylon

The little brother of Stargazer, Gates Of Babylon is by itself a fantastic song.  The structure and sound are very similar, but the latter finds Dio able to pump an additional dose of melody into the song.  His descending vocal line over the staccato riff in the chorus is the kind of thing he could do at will that no one else was able to do.  It was pure Dio, and purely beautiful.

7. Shadow Of The Wind

When Dio regrouped with the members of Sabbath to write new songs for a greatest hits compilation, no one could have known they would be able to come up with anything this good.  Shadow Of The Wind found Tony Iommi going back to his roots as a player, bringing back the elements of doom he stripped away when Dio joined the band the first time.  The riff is a sludgy dirge, the kind of sound that was reflective of the deeper tone of Dio’s aged voice.  Dio’s performance is more subdued, but sharp as ever, caught in the couplet “I’m alive, I belong, I’ll be back.  It’s a half truth, still a whole lie.”

8. All The Fools Sailed Away

Dio’s popularity waned by the time Dream Evil came out, but that did nothing to change the music he was making.  All The Fools Sailed Away didn’t turn out to be a classic mentioned in the same breath as his others, a fate that was shared by many great Dio songs.  Another slow burner stretching out to seven minutes, the song was the best Dio would record for several albums, one that deserves to be rediscovered and appreciated for the greatness is represents.

9. Children Of The Sea

The very first song Dio wrote with Tony Iommi, one that cemented in their minds that the pairing of rock’s darkest band with its best singer could be something special.  Like the album as a whole, Children Of The Sea was something new for both Black Sabbath and Dio.  Iommi gave Dio more room to sing than he had experienced before, while Dio let Iommi develop nuance to his playing.  Together, they formed a perfect partnership, evident right from the start.

10. Temple Of The King

Ritchie Blackmore’s medieval leads and decidedly non-rock chords could have been a disaster on a rock record, but not in Dio’s hands.  The song, which incorporated influences Dio had but seldom showed, turned out to be one of the best songs Dio would ever sing, even if it would be overshadowed by Man On The Silver Mountain.  That takes nothing away from this song, one of the best examples of Dio’s softer vocals, the soulful crooning so many who would follow Dio failed to possess.  The range of voices Dio could muster was his rarest gift, the reason he will forever by the voice of heavy metal.

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