Holy Diver (Warner Bros. ‘83) Rating: A+
After short but spectacularly successful stints in Rainbow
and Black Sabbath, Ronnie James Dio recruited bassist Jimmy Bain (ex-Rainbow), drummer Vinny Appice (ex-Sabbath), and a young guitar hotshot named Vivian Campbell to form Dio. And for awhile there in the early-to-mid-1980's Dio was one of the best heavy metal bands around. I say band because, although Dio’s throaty, melodramatic heavy metal voice is clearly the band’s centerpiece, as it should be since he’s one of the best heavy metal singers ever, Campbell delivers killer riffs and blazing guitar solos throughout, while Appice and Bain formed a relentlessly galloping rhythm section. Granted, Dio’s lyrics can be silly and the keyboards (by Dio and Bain) can sound hopelessly dated, but I still get a big charge out of high octane rockers such as “Stand Up and Shout” and “Don’t Talk To Strangers.” “Gypsy” is another personal favorite that features a great Dio vocal, and “Caught In The Middle” is atmospheric and surprisingly poppy, while “Holy Diver,” “Straight Through The Heart,” and "Invisible" all powerfully chug along on intense mid-tempo grooves. Some moody mellower sections and gothic touches (again see "Don't Talk To Strangers") round out this powerful package, which is highlighted by the classic “Rainbow In The Dark.” Even though its cheesy ‘80s keyboards haven't aged well, its terrific riffs and vocals certainly have, and the song brilliantly climaxes with a great Campbell guitar solo followed by an awesome Appice drum crescendo. Either you go for this kind of hard rocking stuff or you don’t; if you do you’ll love it!
The Last In Line (Warner Bros. ’84) Rating: A
The great grooves and riffs of “We Rock” immediately announced that this would be more of the same high quality, high energy stuff (Appice’s drum performance on this song in particular is among my favorites of all time). Next, the terrific title track starts slowly but soon eventfully explodes, ultimately rivaling “Rainbow In The Dark” as the band’s best song. Like “Rainbow In The Dark” its keyboards have aged poorly, but the song features a powerhouse Dio vocal and arguably the underrated Campbell’s classiest guitar solo on record. Elsewhere, the band delivers more tough mid-tempo material on “Breathless,” “I Speed At Night” is a speed rocker set to stun, "Evil Eyes" gallops along in inspired fashion, the surprising “Mystery” is a bright keyboard-led pop song that actually got some radio airplay, and “Egypt (The Chains Are On)” broodingly ends the album on a memorably epic note. The material is perhaps slightly less consistent this time out, but this was still another tremendous effort from a band who in their mid-80s prime could teach the current metal pack a thing or two about power and melody. Second straight cool spooky album cover, too!
Sacred Heart (Warner Bros. ‘85) Rating: B+
My expectations for this album ran extremely high coming off of the band’s great first two albums, not to mention Dio's prior years of excellence in Rainbow and Black Sabbath; really, his 10-year run from 1975-1984 is among the best in hard rock history. So Dio’s return to merely mortal status on Sacred Heart was a major letdown to me way back in 1985. Still, listening to this now it sounds like another consistently solid album to me, though the band has always been instinctively dismissed by mainstream critics who’ve probably never even bothered to actually listen to their albums (for proof see the pathetic Rolling Stone Album Guide’s perfunctory ratings). It definitely lacks the snap, crackle, and pop (with apologies to Kellogg's) of the first two Dio albums, which are certified metal classics, and it also lacks truly great tracks. Plus, as per usual Ronnie’s lyrics are off in fantasyland, the album has an overly commercial sound as they were obviously chasing commercial success, and the further integration of keyboardist Claude Schnell has only increased the cheese factor; the keyboards are way too prominent on some of these songs. Fortunately, the band still has a relentlessly great sound and singer, and “Sacred Heart” (the album's mostly successful epic attempt), “Rock n’ Roll Children” (which got some MTV airplay back in the day, though of course Ronnie’s lack of sex appeal limited any serious crossover potential), “Hungry For Heaven” (which also appeared on the popular Vision Quest soundtrack alongside John Waite and Madonna!), “Just Another Day” (which is poppy but also has their trademark gallop), and “Fallen Angels” (which like most of their best tracks boasts a simmering intensity) are further examples of catchy, kickass metal. That said, there's no denying that Sacred Heart was and is a disappointment coming after Holy Diver and The Last In Line, and it would unfortunately prove to be the last Dio album featuring the original "classic" lineup, as Vivian Campbell soon left to pursue a career of underachievement.