A latter day legacy revisited.
The task of quantifying the legacy of any one musician’s lifetime is a daunting one, but few could ever hope to boast the degree of accomplishment that summed up the career of one Ronald James Padavona, known better as Ronnie Dio. His was a journey that spanned the primordial days of rock ‘n’ roll during the doo-wop obsessed 1950s where suits and ties were the order of the day, all the way to the glorious renaissance of heavy metal that rounded out the first decade of the current millennium. Many fellow travelers would come and go during his more than 50 years quest for greatness, including rock and metal pioneering guitarists Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore, to speak nothing for the numerous instrumentalists that filtered in and out of Black Sabbath’s and Rainbow’s ranks during his tenure with said bands. With the dawn of the 2020s at hand and the 10th year anniversary of this legend’s passing approaching, one might guess that all has been said and done regarding Dio’s work, and one would be quite wrong in light of the most recent box set release bearing his insignia.
Endless conversations have raged with regard to Ronnie’s formative years prior to the inception of the band bearing his stage name, alongside the 80s offerings of that would follow, but the subject of his latter day works has garnered far less attention from the masses. The factors surrounding this unfortunate eventuality are many, with a healthy contingent of fans obsessing over the early days with original guitarist Vivian Campbell manning the six-string and the decline of heavy metal’s popularity following the advent of grunge being the most frequently cited culprits. Nevertheless, Dio’s ongoing pursuit of excellence refused to bend with the winds of change, and the culmination of his efforts from the mid-90s until the end of his life stand as four highly ambitious albums that are a testament to a musician and songwriter who had one foot steadfastly planted in heavy metal traditionalism, while the other moved freely with the evolution of metal and was always open to assimilating the latest innovations into his craft.
For those old enough to count themselves among the ranks of Generation X, the mid-90s will no doubt conjure up memories of a dark period in heavy metal where its relegation to the underground was accompanied by a sound defined by rage, dissonance and confusion. It is in this context that Dio’s controversial 7th studio offering “Angry Machines” fell, and his own sense of discontent following the disintegration of Black Sabbath’s short-lived 1992 reunion is on full display amid a stew of seemingly contradictory influences. With the aid of longtime band mate and drummer Vinnie Appice, ex-Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson, recently recruited keyboardist Scott Warren and wild card guitarist Tracey G, it is an album that walks a fairly confused path; incorporating the asymmetrical songwriting and odd time progressive quirks of Dream Theater, the fatalism and sludgy murkiness of Crowbar, and the dissonant tonality and chaotic aesthetic of Napalm Death into a shaky traditional metal template, arguably teetering on the edge of losing the musical plot in the process.
While this album is all but universally panned as Dio’s weakest studio outing, veering too far into the cynicism and angst of the 90s for his core audience to process, it carries a certain historical significance and charm that is not without some merit. Per Ronnie’s own testimony, nobody really knew what heavy metal was in 1996, at least insofar as the continental United States was concerned, and between an exemplary vocal performance out of the front man himself that is well within the parameters of what one would expect out of him and an impressive technical display by his partners in crime, a sense of musical catharsis exists for those willing to dabble in the extreme end of the metal spectrum. The re-mastered versions of these songs accent the muddied doom/sludge character of the songwriting, with the trudging “Institutional Man”, the groove thrashing speeder “Don’t Tell The Kids” and the epic ode to metal anguish “Stay Out Of My Mind” being the apex points. The accompanying bonus material consists of about 90% of the material found on the out of print 1998 live album “Dio’s Inferno: The Last In Live”, showcasing a darker and more chaotic approach to his classic live staples alongside a smattering of offerings from the then latest studio offering.
The dawn of the new millennium proved a more fertile time for Dio’s brand, as a new generation of metal maniacs came to know the man on the silver mountain thanks to the ascendant European power metal scene. Coupled with old friendships being rekindled, 2000’s “Magica” would mark a triumphant return to form, all the while not wholly shedding the darker doom-side of Dio’s recent past that first reared its head on his work with Sabbath on Dehumanizer. The involvement of late original bassist Jimmy Bain, latter 80s axe man Craig Goldy and short-term early 90s drummer and former AC/DC kit man Simon Wright left little doubt in anyone’s mind that Ronnie’s traditionalist core had re-emerged, this time manifesting as an expansive conceptual fit of Sci-Fi/Fantasy storytelling that blurs the lines between his 80s heavy metal past and the concurrent symphonic metal craze, seeing a highly ambitious role for keyboardist Scott Warren to complement Goldie’s virtuoso shredding and Dio’s own triumphant vocal delivery, which had lost none of its power and intrigue over successive decades of touring.
To call “Magica” an iconic new classic would be an understatement, and the tweaks accomplished in this latest master showcases an album that could have been recorded this very year, while losing zero of its early 2000s metal revivalist flavor. Be it the haunting atmosphere of the various voice-over interludes featuring the alien storytellers, the crushing riff work of Dream Evil throwback anthems such as “Fever Dreams” and “Challis”, the symphonic bluster displayed on highly ambitious doom metal anthems such as “Eriel”, “Feed My Head” and “Otherworld”, or the serene brilliance of the epic power balladry of “As Long As It’s Not About Love”, the impact factor has been fully maintained. Perhaps the lone flaw in this era of Dio’s latter days is the criminal absence of live renditions of these timeless anthems, which has now been almost fully addressed with the inclusion of live performances of about 80% of this album. Though the venues in which these songs were performed were no doubt humble in comparison to the arenas that Dio headlined during the “Sacred Heart” tour, there is a colossal character to these performances that will undoubtedly conjure comparisons to said era.
As the early 2000s progressed, it became very clear that the nostalgia factor amongst the metal faithful had reached a boiling point, and with this came a demand for a more pronounced return to the good old days. Whether by coincidence or response to public demand, the exit of guitarist Craig Goldy saw Dio attempt a full on rehash of the Vivian Campbell era of his past, culminating in 2002’s “Killing The Dragon” and a far larger crowd draw during the corresponding tour. Although the rift between Ronnie and his original guitarist had not vanished and his return remained a total impossibility, a more than suitable guitarist with a similarly wild, flashy style was tapped in Doug Aldrich. Truth be told, Aldrich shines about as brightly as Dio himself, launching a volley a riff-happy anthems and tearing up the fret board with an even more virtuosic display than the swift shred sessions that adorned “Holy Diver” and “The Last In Line”. This is not to say that the album in question is better than the aforementioned classics, but more so that Aldrich achieves the same spirit of sound on this album to an absolute fault.
Although only standing at 18 years of age at this point, “Killing The Dragon” is given a slightly grittier feel thanks to the remastering work of this box set’s engineering wizard Wyn Davis, who actually was responsible for all of the original albums’ post-production amid a number of prominent albums by the likes of Dokken and several others. Of particularly auspicious note is the galloping, quasi-Iron Maiden inspired title song “Killing The Dragon”, the quick-paced rocker “Better In The Dark” and the Deep Purple-influenced coaster with some fancy keyboard additives “Before The Fall”, though there are no real slouches to speak of in this impressive display of old school heavy metal versatility. The corresponding live material included as bonus material here highlights the nostalgia factor and the more energetic character of Doug Aldrich, largely featuring swifter selections from Holy Diver and The Last In Line, alongside some exemplary performances of this album’s comparatively younger yet equally biting anthems. Though only the ignorant would assert that Dio ever left the stage, this was definitely the time where most were wont to acknowledge that the original version of this iconic outfit was back in full force.
Though the musical story of one Ronnie James still had another 6 years and an auspicious second go at reunification with Black Sabbath in the works by the time 2004 rolled in, it was this year when his last LP would come to light. Curiously enough, the principle reaction invoked by “Master of the Moon”, which saw the exodus of Jimmy Bain and Doug Aldrich along with the return of Jeff Pilson and Craig Goldie, was largely one of ambivalence. Standing as one of Dio’s more nuanced offerings, it is ironically the album most heavily impacted by Davis’ remastering tweaks, owing to its heavily minimalist and atmospheric character. Nailing down the stylistic label that could be attributed to slow-paced, dense and somewhat static compositions that are “Master Of The Moon”, “The Man Who Would Be King” and “The Eyes” is a daunting task, as the symphonic, doom and traditional metal aspects tend to bleed together into a singular, monolithic colossus with the disquiet of the lyrical subject being the principle unifying factor.
Then again, the generally conventional character of many of these songs fit into the general scheme of his heavy-ended yet mystical offerings from the Rainbow days up until the present, though in a rather quirky way. The obligatory opening speeder “One For The Road” could pass for a toned down sequel to “Stand Up And Shout” with a heavier aesthetic conducive to “Here’s To You” off 1993’s “Strange Highways”, whereas the groovy rocking character of “The End Of The World”, “Death By Love” and “Shivers” correspond to various points in Dio’s latter 80s work with Goldy on the guitar. The bonus material largely corresponds to this general air of nuance, opting for obligatory classics in the live venue such as “Heaven And Hell” and “Rainbow In The Dark” alongside the less expected mid-80s classic “Rock N Roll Children” and a live rendition of the then current album’s most bizarre anthem “The Eyes”. Perhaps the biggest boon of this collection, barring the inclusion of “Electra” from the incomplete “Magica II” sessions, is the bonus studio song “Prisoner of Paradise”, which conforms to the slower grooving character of the rest of “Master of the Moon”, but really drives the point home during the infectious chorus section and Goldy’s idiomatic lead guitar work.
Though it is unlikely that the twilight years of Dio’s journey to heavy metal greatness will garner the same degree of interest from the general public as his classic offerings during said genre’s early 80s ascendancy, it would be a mistake to assume that this electric elf lord lost any degree of artistic zeal following the decline and rebirth of the art form. With younger acts hailing from Europe and beyond such as Jorn, Astral Doors and Lords Of Black continuing to bear the torch, to speak nothing for the multiplicity of spinoff acts that have emerged featuring former members of Dio’s fold, the relevance of these albums endures as yet another generation rises to acknowledge the achievements of the past. Those steadfast fans who were along for the ride over the decades and have a preference for this music in the vinyl medium will find this an essential piece of metal history, though no self-respecting fan of old school heavy metal should go without hearing these albums and getting a taste of just how powerful the original king of rock n roll was even as he approached his golden years.
Released by: Niji Entertainment Group / BMG
Released Date: February 21st, 2020
Genre: Heavy Metal
“Angry Machines” bonus disc track list (All tracks are live recordings)
- Jesus Mary and The Holy Ghost”/”Straight Through the Heart
2. Don’t Talk to Strangers
3. Double Monday
4. Hunter of the Heart
5. Holy Diver
6. Heaven and Hell
7. Long Live Rock and Roll
8. Man on the Silver Mountain
9. Rainbow In The Dark
10. The Last in Line
11. The Mob Rules
12. We Rock
“Magica” bonus disc tracklist (All tracks are live recordings except where noted)
- Lord of the Last Day
- Fever Dreams
- Losing My Insanity
- Electra (Studio Track)
- Magica Story (spoken word, studio track)
“Killing the Dragon” bonus disc tracklist (All tracks are live recordings)
- Holy Diver
- Heaven and Hell
- Rock and Roll
- I Speed at Night
- Killing the Dragon
- Stand Up and Shout
“Master of the Moon” bonus disc tracklist (All tracks are live recordings except where noted)
- Heaven and Hell
- Rainbow in the Dark
- Rock and Roll Children
- The Eyes
- Prisoner of Paradise (studio recording)