Boxset Review: Dio - The Studio Albums: 1996-2004
Reviewed by Dan Barnes
After leaving Black Sabbath in 1982, apparently over a disagreement with the mixing of Live Evil, Ronnie James Dio and drummer, Vinnie Appice, formed the first incarnation of the band, Dio. A creativity tsunami would follow the 1983 issuing of debut album, Holy Diver, with Last In Line, Sacred Heart and Dream Evil seeing the light of day within the space of five years.
After Lock Up the Wolves in 1990, Ronnie and Vinnie found themselves back in Black (Sabbath) for the awesome Dehumanizer record, but the reunion was to be short lived, and Dio returned to his solo project for 1993’s Strange Highways. Known for his fantastical lyrical imagery and distinctive sound, both Strange Highways and its follow-up, Angry Machines, would polarise the fanbase by taking steps toward a more modern aesthetic.
And it is with the 1996 album, Angry Machines that we begin this journey through Ronnie’s final solo studio albums. Adorned with a cover from Bloodstock’s, Paul Gregory, the seventh album from Dio sees the same four members reassemble after Strange Highways, Tracy G and Jeff Pilson joining Ronnie and Vinnie. While underperforming commercially and not receiving the usual critical reception afforded to a Dio record, Angry Machines still has moments of interest.
Opening with a more menacing tone that one would normally expect from the band, Insitiutional Man takes the darker atmosphere of Dehumanizer and recreates it in the Dio solo band image. The heavy, dirty and crunching riffs give much to be hopeful for; Hunter of the Heart has bags of the old school vibes and is clearly the best song on the record.
Golden Rules and Dying in America seem to want to balance the two aspects of Angry Machine and have varying levels of success. But sometimes the attempts at blending, as on Double Monday and Big Sister, feel a bit clumsy, but there are momentary flashes of Dio-isms during Don’t Tell the Kids.
Probably the most successful integration of styles comes on Black, but whether it’s enough to rescue the whole of the experiment is debateable. Regardless of what one thinks of the compositions, it’s clear that all involved are bringing their all to the endeavour. So, if the most anyone can do is be critical of the idea of trying something new, then it’s a weak argument against so doing.
Angry Machines would be the last time Vinnie Appice would work with Dio in a solo format as he, along with Tracy and Jeff, exited before the beginning of the Magica project.
Released in 2000, Magica saw Dio return to more familiar thematic and musical territory for the only concept album in the band’s discography. And along with the familiar themes, Dio re-recruited Craig Goldy, Jimmy Bain and Simon Wright into the fold, giving Magica a more traditional Dio sound.
The story of Magica is typical of the fantastical Dio imagination, pulling grand ideas of Good verses Evil, Dark verses Light and played out against a planetary canvass. In order to fully understand the story of the record, the final track is Ronnie himself giving an eighteen-minute narration following the musical coda.
Following the scene-setting introduction of Discovery, we get the suitably bombastic Magica Theme, a world away from the dissonance of Angry Machines, this sees Craig’s hypnotic guitar and Simon’s precise drums setting the scene for Ronnie to unfold his tale.
Lord of the Last Day could be a standalone track of those later Eighties albums, with Ronnie’s voice both smooth and powerful, unconstrained by the unconventional approach of the last couple of records. Fever Dreams and Turned to Stone continue this direction, and Feed My Heart combines the punchy riffs with a balladic mid-section and a strong outro into one of Magica’s central compositions.
Eriel is a blustering frenzy of all the wildest excesses of Heavy Metal: big riffs, bigger vocals, epic and multi-faceted. At seven-minutes-plus, it represents the longest song on the record, but also the most Dio of Dio tracks on the record Ronnie was destined to make. Challis could have been lifted from either Heaven & Hell or Mob Rules albums, while As Long as It’s Not About Love goes for a doomier feel.
When you look back and considered the musical landscape of the time of Magica’s release, you realise it took some conviction to put out a concept album and for it to compete against the Nu Metal bands. Better received both critically and commercially, Magica showed that Dio was still relevant and did not need to alter his style to prove that fact.
For Killing the Dragon, Disc Three of this set, in 2002, the Dio line up would change again, though not to the extent of the wholesale change going into Magica. Craig left to give way to Doug Aldrich, but the rhythm section of Bain and Wright remained.
Although departed, Goldy’s work can be heard on the huge, Twisted Sister-sounding Rock & Roll, the unstoppable Push and the lighters in the air – as phones were still not the ubiquitous pocket item they are today - Throw Away Children.
For his part, Aldrich contributed Along Came a Spider and Scream, two bombastic Dio anthems that showcase Dio’s vocals. That a large number of Killing the Dragon’s songs are collaborations between Dio and Jimmy Bain give them the quality of the early albums, with the feel of a modernised sound. Better in the Dark and Before the Fall are raucous stomps back in time and the title track, while using the image of the Dragon as a metaphor for the threat technology poses to society, it still does so with the familiar Dio tropes.
Disc Four, Master of the Moon would emerge in 2004, and see another wholesale reorganisation for what would be Dio’s tenth and final solo record. Pilson and Goldy returned to replace the departing Aldrich and Bain, with Scott Warren joining on keyboards.
Listening to this collection – and comparing these albums to the six that went before – it’s clear that Dio never made the same record twice. And, to close out his solo career, Ronnie wasn’t about to start in 2004. Such was the genius of the great man that he was able to give us hugely familiar records while being imbued with variation. The Man Who Would Be King and I Am have the classic Dio sound, while The Eyes and Death By Love have the old school vibes brought into a post-millennial world.
In amongst Master of the Moon’s Dio-isms are the classical Heavy Metal and Hard Rock anthems of One More for the Road, Living the Lie and End of the World. The title track, Shivers and the closing In Dreams can’t resist a dirty stomp and a fuzzy bass.
After this, Dio and Appice would reunite with Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler for the Heaven & Hell tour in 2007, which led to the tremendous The Devil You Know Album two years later. Sadly, Ronnie James Dio would succumb to cancer and join the Choir Invisible in May 2010, but it is sets like this that the deeper cuts of his career can and should be heard.
All four records here have something to recommend them to one degree or another and, although the dalliance with perfection heard on Rising, Heaven & Hell and Holy Diver are missing, there are flashes across the collection to remind us of the genius at work. There is no occasion that a bit of Dio cannot make better. Long live Rock N’ Roll.