Next month sees the two-year anniversary of the death of Ronnie James Dio. Whether or not you subscribe to the notion that Ronnie is “The Voice of Heavy Metal” is largely irrelevant. His body of work with Rainbow, Black Sabbath and his own band has been undeniably influential. “Rising” and “Heaven and Hell” are two of the most iconic albums in the history of metal and classic rock. Dio was much more than the vocalist on these albums. His good vs. evil fantastical lyrical themes formed the mythos of metal that has been added to by countless bands since. Every time a kid at a rock show throws the “Devil horns” they are, consciously or not, keeping Ronnie’s flame burning.
After Black Sabbath’s “The Mob Rules”, Ronnie formed his own band, Dio with Sabbath drummer Vinnie Appice, Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain and the relatively unknown Northern Irish guitarist Vivian Campbell (who would go on to join Def Leppard). Universal has now released Dio’s first three albums as Deluxe Editions, 2CD sets with the original remastered albums and a wealth of b-sides and live material.
1983’s “Holy Diver” is itself a classic album, from the iconic artwork to the epic title track and the perfect pop-metal of ‘Rainbow in the Dark’, surely one of the greatest singles ever released by a metal act. ‘Holy Diver’ drips with Dio’s mythology, all portentous signs, far-off lands, demons and the ubiquitous rainbow. Such themes are often used to poke fun at metal but when sung with such earnest conviction Ronnie comes across as the travelling minstrel warning the wary of the strange things he has seen and his words resonate as allegory for our own more prosaic world.
It’s not all demons and wizards though. ‘Stand Up and Shout’ is a balls-out metal anthem. ‘Caught in the Middle’ plays “Down to Earth”-era Rainbow at their own radio-friendly game and comes up smelling fresh to this day. The title track and the wonderful ‘Don’t Talk To Strangers’ revisit the epic style of Sabbath classics like ‘Children of the Sea’, ‘Sign of the Southern Cross’, ‘Die Young’ and ‘Heaven and Hell’.
The following year “The Last in Line” was released. The formula is very much the same but there is no deterioration in quality. It kicks off with ‘We Rock’, another anthem in the style of ‘Stand Up and Shout’. Only Dio could write a chorus out of such a clichéd two-syllable phrase and make it so full of import. Horns up.
The title track is another mini-epic with orchestral-sounding synths mimicking the Eastern vibe of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Kashmir’. ‘Mystery’ tries to recreate the magic of “Rainbow in the Dark” and doesn’t quite cut it but it’s still a great singalong bit of chart-friendly 80s metal. The closing ‘Egypt (The Chains Are On)’ is a 7-minute opus with soundalike ‘Gates of Babylon’ keyboard intro. No it’s not classic Rainbow but it’s not far off.
The third release is “Sacred Heart”. This was problematic for me when it was first released (yes I am old). I was starting to tire of the Dio-isms by this stage. The next album “Dream Evil” would be the last Dio album I bought on release. Revisiting “Sacred Heart” now for this new edition I have to slap myself a bit. In light of the fact Ronnie has gone and we will never see his like again it feels churlish to have harboured such criticisms.
If you buy in to Dio’s world you have to admire his dogged adherence to his craft and to his vision. Yeah, he’s singing about rainbows again, so what? Just admire a man with the courage of his conviction and throw them Devil horns in the air like you just don’t care. In this context I have to re-evaluate and say that “Sacred Heart” is a cracking album. It has ‘Hungry For Heaven’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Children’, how could it be otherwise? So it’s not of the same quality as the previous two but very few albums are.
The amount of bonus material on these discs, coupled with the pristine-yet-warm sound quality of the remasters, make these releases worthy of an upgrade if you have the old editions. There are live versions of ‘Man On the Silver Mountain’, ‘Heaven and Hell’, ‘Children of the Sea’ and a tempting snippet of ‘Stargazer’ (quite simply one of the greatest songs ever written). If you’re reading this far and still have never heard these albums you need to start by getting yourself a copy of “Holy Diver” and hearing why we Dio disciples will never let his legacy fade. Long live rock ‘n’ roll. Long live Ronnie James Dio.