Thursday, March 8, 2012

Review: Dio, "Holy Diver" (Audio Fidelity remaster)

Believe it or not, there was once a time when metal was just metal. You didn’t have the death and black metal guys looking down their noses at the power and traditional metal fans and vice versa. You didn’t have publicists mangling language to create a subgenre like “blackened jazz thrash death polka” so their band could be the only act in that category. Metal just was.

I miss those days, and I get exasperated with my metal brethren who so often wall themselves up inside one subgenre and insist on bickering and fighting about what’s “true metal” or not. You can throw out a band name on many message boards and watch chaos ensue, but there are a few rare albums in history that you’re not likely to get much argument about. This is one of them.

Dio’s Holy Diver is an undisputed metal classic. It proved with the single “Rainbow in the Dark” that synthesizers could have a place in metal without taking away its toughness. The loping main riff of the title track is as immediately recognizable to classic rock fans as to hardcore metalheads. And for as much play as they get, those are not even the two best songs on the album.

Originally released in 1983, Holy Diver introduced Ronnie James Dio to the metal world as a solo artist after stints in classic bands Rainbow and Black Sabbath. It was far from Dio’s first rodeo, as his career stretches back as far as the late 1950s with doo-wop groups Ronnie and the Redcaps and Ronnie Dio and the Prophets. But this was the first record that finally put Dio and his amazing voice completely in the spotlight for hard rock and metal fans. There was no Ritchie Blackmore pulling strings, and he was out of the shadows cast by Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. This was Dio’s show, and he took full advantage of it.

For the lack of – at the time – big names, Dio built a band just as solid as any he’d been in before. From his old bands, he brought Black Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice (who had replaced Bill Ward for 1981’s Mob Rules) and Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain. He also recruited young guitarist Vivian Campbell (Def Leppard) from New Wave of British heavy metal outfit Sweet Savage. The relationship with Campbell would sour and turn ugly just a few years later, with the guitarist calling Dio at one point “one of the vilest people in the industry” – an opinion that almost no one who ever had dealings with Dio, myself included, seems to share. But for Holy Diver and the two albums that followed, they were locked in tight, and Campbell’s guitar drove songs like “Invisible,” and managed to keep that metal edge in the synth-heavy “Rainbow.”

Now, how about those two best songs from the record again? Well, there’s not a bad tune to be found on Holy Diver from front to back, but for me, “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and “Invisible” are head and shoulders above the other seven songs, which is saying something considering the esteem I hold those remaining numbers in. “Don’t Talk to Strangers” opens with a soft, dark acoustic guitar lick and Dio singing in a soft falsetto that gives way over the course of the first verse to his full, powerful voice, which leads the assault into the heavier part of the song. There’s an appropriate air of danger and menace to “Don’t Talk to Strangers” that Dio’s work has when it’s at its best. If, God forbid, I could only listen to one Dio song for the rest of my life, this one would probably be it.

“Invisible” shares many of the same characteristics. It has a soft opening with a touch of peril for the subject of the song, before blowing up into a full-on metal attack. The star of the show here is Campbell’s big guitar riff, swaying and stalking with those pinch harmonic squeals punctuating its power. Over it, Ronnie delivers one of his most commanding vocal performances. It had a message that as a teen, and even today, I could connect with – the desire to just disappear from the issues and aggravations of life.

The song, which revolves around three different stories, is also interesting from a lyrical perspective as it tackles gender issues that were taboo in metal at the time – and still in some circles today – in its second verse. “He was just eighteen and in between a lady and a man/He was daddy’s girl in mama’s world and that was when he ran,” Dio sings. It’s just another example of the forward-thinking mind of the metal legend, who was active in charitable causes throughout his career, despite the dark brush that he was often painted with.

Not that the reputation was entirely undeserved. Dio often flirted with darker subject matter in Black Sabbath and also in his eponymous band. You need look no further than the cover of Holy Diver, which depicts a demonic figure tossing a chained priest into the ocean, to make the argument. He once explained these songs and images to me as cautionary tales.

“I think anyone who listens to my songs or Sabbath’s songs realizes that they were songs telling you to beware of evil,” he said. “We were not saying ‘here comes the devil, he’s a great guy.’ It’s exactly the opposite.”

He said it right after quoting me a line from “Heaven and Hell,” which remains one of the biggest geek-out moments of my journalism career.

But for the darkness in much of his music, Dio could also deliver an uplifting number here and there, too. For Holy Diver, those come in the form of the high-speed album opener “Stand Up and Shout” and “Caught in the Middle,” which like many of Dio’s tunes urge people to action – to stand up for themselves and follow their dreams. It was a big subject for him that pops up again and again throughout his career.

The album is rounded out with more top-notch songs. “Straight Through the Heart” has another one of those big guitar riffs, “Shame on the Night” shuffles with a dark, bluesy flavor, and “Gypsy” is a great pure rock ‘n’ roller.

This new, remastered version of Dio’s debut album from Audio Fidelity comes on a limited edition 24-karat gold CD. I was a little skeptical that would make a difference, but playing it side by side with my twenty-something year old standard CD, it does seem to be just a little more crisp and clean, particularly on the softer portions of the songs. The gold run is also limited to 5,000 copies, which is kind of cool for a guy like me who still has a great attachment to the physical product in an increasingly digital world.

About the only nit that I can pick with this reissue is with the booklet, which reproduces the photo collage from the original LP. It would have been nice to have that as a fold-out rather than a two-page spread in a stapled book, so that we could see the old photos a little better. Everything else is pretty much perfect – just like the record itself.

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