Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow (Polydor ’75) Rating: B+
After leaving the frustratingly democratic (for him, anyway) Deep Purple, Ritchie Blackmore took a diminutive singer with a gigantic voice named Ronnie James Dio (simply Dio will do) and embarked upon an also influential career as Rainbow (excuse me, Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, as they were initially called lest anybody doubt whose band it was). Actually, Dio had been in a band named Elf, whose other competent but fairly faceless members also joined Blackmore in Rainbow (minus their guitar player, of course). Interestingly, given this album's egocentric title it's a fairly democratic undertaking, with Blackmore and Dio co-writing most songs and Blackmore rarely overshadowing his band mates. This isn't necessarily a good thing; Blackmore is supposed to be the star, and he seems to be holding back at times. Still, aside from "If You Don't Like Rock 'n' Roll," a generic and generally lame Southern boogie, this is a consistently strong first set with at least one classic track in "Man On The Silver Mountain," a fairly straightforward hard rocker. In addition to a catchy, singable chorus (the folks at Coors beer evidently thought so), the song also has great riffs, gritty grooves, and some moodier sections going for it, while "Self Portrait" could also be classified as "moody hard rock" and is impressive as well. Their Quatermass cover "Black Sheep Of The Family" also delivers melodic, boogie-based rock but is much better than "If You Don't Like Rock 'n' Roll," with an increased emphasis on keyboards and arguably the album's catchiest chorus, while "Snake Charmer" is another successfully straightforward hard rocker a la "Man On The Silver Mountain," though this one is more reliant on a funky groove and isn't nearly as memorable. Elsewhere, lush synthesizers mark a pair of surprisingly dreamy (and surprisingly good) medieval ballads, "Catch The Rainbow" (the better of the two) and "The Temple Of The King," both of which boast evocative if essentially meaningless imagery, fairly restrained vocals from Ronnie (almost operatic on the gothic former track, multi-tracked on the singable latter tune), and gorgeous guitar solos from Ritchie. Later on, "Sixteenth Century Greensleeves" registers higher on the intensity (and the “rocking out”) meter, while their instrumental update of The Yardbirds' "Still I'm Sad" is a stellar Blackmore showcase with a melodic groove and a gothic touch. The band, and Dio in particular with his emphasis on demons and wizards imagery, would move further in this direction on the band's harder rocking and more fully realized next album. By comparison, Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow seems a tad tentative, perhaps in part because the overall talent level in the band wasn't nearly as high as on their next release, but also because it took an album for Blackmore and Dio to figure out exactly what they wanted their band to be.
Rising (Polydor ’76) Rating: A
After Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Blackmore retooled the band (something he did regularly, as he was a notoriously difficult sort who seemed to have trouble getting along with anybody for an extended period of time) for this, the band’s second and best album. Featuring only 6 songs that clock in at a mere 34 minutes (an EP by today’s standards), Rising features terrific all around playing by the best of the many Rainbow lineups. Cozy Powell's titanic drum fills, Jimmy Bain blistering bass grooves, and Tony Carey's mystical keyboard colorings added whatever heft and character were lacking the last time out. Indeed, each individual band member was now something of a minor star in their own right, and while listening to this album it dawned on me that for a short while there Rainbow was a truly great band. Sure, the songwriting isn't always up to the band's playing, but “Starstruck” and “Do You Close Your Eyes” are melodic and catchy enough in a generic hard rock kind of way, while “Run With The Wolf” is a sleek and powerful bluesier effort. True, some of the album's lyrics are pure silliness, but the music is always suitably heavy and intense, especially on the three epic songs that take up 2/3 of the album's running time and which are this album's primary claims to greatness. “Tarot Woman” begins the album with the ever-prominent keyboards of Carey (which here recall Led Zeppelin's “In The Light”) before giving way to Blackmore’s explosive riffs (which are immediately more exciting than anything on the debut), the galvanizing gallop of Bain/Powell's pummeling rhythms, and Dio’s inimitably forceful vocal growl. At 3:20 Ritchie (playing as if he has something to prove) takes over with a jaw-dropping display of technique and talent; never obvious, his playing was especially unique in that it drew its inspiration from classical influences whereas previous hard rock masters had always taken their cues from the blues. Anyway, great though "Tarot Woman" is, the album’s piece de resistance is the towering 8-minute epic “Stargazer,” a brilliantly bombastic, awesomely atmospheric multi-sectioned masterpiece. Simply put, this is THE Rainbow song, what with its "Kashmir"-esque orchestrations, gothic overtones, massive riffs (plus a predictably phenomenal guitar solo), pounding rhythms (Powell at his beastly best), and some of Dio’s most awe-inspiring vocals. If you don't think Dio is one of the greatest hard rock singers ever you're flat out wrong; when he sings “there’s a rainbow risiiinnggg” I get chills 'cause it's almost like he became a legend on the spot (much like when Rob Halford unleashes his blood-curdling scream on "Victim Of Changes"). "A Light In The Black," which chugs along on a simple riff/groove for over 8-minutes, would seem anti-climactic by comparison if its frenetic groove wasn't so fantastic, and if its solo sections (by Blackmore and even Carey) weren't so inspired. All of which makes Rising a certifiable classic despite its slight mid-album slippage. Though somewhat overlooked, the album is also extremely influential, and in fact you could make a case that it both birthed Euro-metal (Lars Ulrich, Yngwie Malmsteen, and King Diamond are major devotees of the album) and that the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (Iron Maiden, anyone?) would be inconceivable, or at least would be vastly different, without it. So, an essential album rating it is. One final note: The colorful (if cheesy) album cover gives an indication as to the fantasy-laced nature of much of the album’s lyrics (a Dio trademark), and Martin (The Wasp) Birch’s powerful production also helped make Rising a heavy metal classic.
Live In Germany 1976 (Castle '96, '02) Rating: A-
This archive release of their 1977 tour used to be called Live In Europe (released in 1996 from King Biscuit/Mausoleum Classix) and was hard to find Stateside, but in 2002 it was re-released worldwide (with new artwork) as Live In Germany 1976 (reissuing old cds with new titles and packaging is one of the oldest record company scams in the book, after all). Also, Rainbow has another (much shorter at 65 minutes) live album called On Stage (which was actually released in 1977), and unless you're a diehard Rainbow fan you probably only need one such live statement, so I decided to review only this one, which contains more material and is generally considered the superior of the two. After all, this is a top-notch live effort, one whose 8 songs cover 2 cds and 100 minutes, thereby allowing this band of powerful players to stretch out, with many solos along the way. Blackmore, always one of rock's greatest improvisational guitar soloists, in particular is on fire throughout, beginning with "Kill The King" (soon to make its first studio appearance on Long Live Rock 'n’ Roll), which adds a gorgeous guitar tone to a truly rockin' introductory effort that's comparatively brief (5:22). Perhaps there's too much noodling around on their bluesy version of Deep Purple's "Mistreated" (15:40), but Dio puts in a commanding performance and the song certainly has its fair share of impressive moments. Blackmore eases into "Sixteenth Century Greensleeves" (7:55) with some pretty playing before the song gets suitably intense, and though "Catch The Rainbow" (14:45) sometimes sounds like a watered down "Little Wing," this rendition (now a fully-fledged power ballad) achieves an epic scope that the original had only hinted at. "Man On The Silver Mountain" starts cd 2 rather slowly (or "Lazy"-ily, you might say) before taking off at around the 3-minute mark, getting slow and bluesy at 8:40, and then bringing it all back home at 12:50. Wow, a large part of that song is way different than the original, and the 5-minute Carey-led intro to a 17-minute version of "Stargazer" is another change of pace, though it's also another example of the album having a tad too much padding. Still, much of the soloing on the album is genuinely interesting and exciting, and once "Stargazer" does start in earnest it's monumental (if not quite as great as the awesome studio original), and the band then wisely brings vocals back to "Still I'm Sad" (15:00) (you'll recall that the version on Ritchie's Blackmore's Rainbow was a Dio-less instrumental). It's a pity about the drum solo (seemingly obligatory on all ‘70s live albums), but at least it's pretty brief, and a large portion of the song simply smokes. “Do You Close Your Eyes,” a rare straightforward sex song (usually Ronnie's women are trapped off in a tower somewhere), then ends the album with 10 minutes of Ronnie all hot and bothered; though not a highlight, Ritchie still rules, and it's nice to see Ronnie forget about demons and wizards at least for a little while (that said, "Stargazer" should've been the finale). Anyway, all in all this is a highly recommended live release because these songs are no carbon copies of the originals and Blackmore's best Rainbow band is in fine form. Sure, most of these songs are too long, and the sound quality isn't always great, but Blackmore's brilliant playing, Dio's stellar singing, and the band's adventurous arrangements result in a supremely positive overall experience. Wish I could've been there, in fact...Note: Another archive double live album, Live in Munich 1977, appeared in 2006, and like On Stage it's a worthwhile listen for big fans of the band, though for my money Live In Germany 1976 trumps them both because it's the only one that features the best Rainbow lineup (the 1977 album features Bob Daisley and David Stone; see the next review) as well as their best song, "Stargazer."
Long Live Rock 'n’ Roll (Polydor ’78) Rating: A-
Given the problems encountered (initial sessions were aborted in '77 because Ritchie fired everybody but Dio; he let Powell come back before the album was recorded, but Bain and Carey were replaced by Bob Daisley and David Stone, respectively) it’s surprising that the majority of this album turned out so well. Like Jeff Beck, in many ways Blackmore was his own worst enemy; had he been able to keep his best band lineups together he almost certainly would’ve accomplished more than he did. However, at least the core of Rainbow (Blackmore/Dio/Powell) was still intact, and as such the band’s overall chemistry remained relatively unaltered, making Long Live Rock 'n' Roll well worth the time of any fan of Blackmore or Dio or, for that matter, anyone who's interested in riff-based, melodic hard rock. The anthemic title track immediately hits on memorable riffs, a good groove, and a catchy chorus, while a gothic, mystical atmosphere returns on “Lady Of The Lake.” “L.A. Connection” delivers meat and potatoes rock ‘n’ roll more in line with Bad Company than what Rainbow had been about thus far, but it’s actually a very strong effort in that vein, while the percolating groove of “Gates Of Babylon” is more likely to be associated with some disco track or spy flick than a hard-charging, epic metal tune (which this most definitely is). This time, Stone’s synths and some eerie strings add the mystical atmospherics, none of which are necessary on “Kill The King,” a scorching speed rocker. Alas, perhaps in part due to the trying conditions under which this album was recorded, Long Live Rock n’ Roll loses some steam after its superlative start. “The Shed (Subtle)” begins with some overly familiar riffing (I’m thinking of Zep’s “Heartbreaker”) and doesn’t get much more original after that, though it does have Powell’s pounding beats and a somewhat catchy chorus going for it. “Sensitive To Light” is better but is still rather generic, and deep lyrics like “She’s a bright and shiny star, I just must be sensitive to light” don't help, though this is soon forgotten when coming upon “Rainbow Eyes,” a soft and pretty folk ballad on which Dio sings with a shocking tenderness. He’s actually crooning amid the medieval lutes ‘n’ flutes instrumentation, and though the song is overly long (a la “Catch The Rainbow”), the band (and Dio in particular) wins points for taking risks and going against type. Granted, there are surprises elsewhere as well, such as the real world lyrics of “L.A. Connection” and “The Shed (Subtle),” but by and large it is Rainbow’s medieval fantasies that continue to be most enjoyable, as the band works best as a vehicle for escapism. Although the second half sags in spots and the highlights (“Long Live Rock 'n' Roll,” “Gates Of Babylon,” “Kill The King”) are no match for the ones on Rising, Long Live Rock 'n’ Roll was another winning effort. Alas, it would be the last classic era Rainbow album, as Dio would leave the band after the 1978 tour for a brief but memorable stint in Black Sabbath.
Down To Earth (Polydor ’79) Rating: B+
With Dio departed, Blackmore regrouped by adding Deep Purple bassist Roger Glover (who also co-composed all but one song and produced the album), new keyboardist Don Airey, and singer Graham Bonnet. The album’s clear high points are “Eyes of the World,” a superbly symphonic and dramatic epic that wouldn't have sounded out of place on Rising (aside from having Bonnet on vocals, of course), and “Since You’ve Been Gone,” a cheesy but undeniably catchy and likeable pop hit penned by Russ Ballard. Aside from “Eyes of the World,” the band largely dispatches with their gothic, medieval metal sound for a more grounded and commercial approach (goodbye dragons and wizards, hello cock rock!). For example, “All Night Long” is a dead ringer for KISS (unfortunately, that goes for the lyrics as well), but at least it's good KISS, while “Makin’ Love” is a moody yet melodic, sweaty semi-ballad. Elsewhere, the catchy if generic boogie rocker “No Time To Lose” and the atmospheric, hard charging "Danger Zone" both feature memorable backing vocals, and the playing is impressive throughout the album, as evidenced by the great group interplay on the groove heavy “Lost In Hollywood.” True, Bonnet is no Dio (but he is a good hard rock singer with a bluesy voice that's used to powerful effect on songs such as the passionate ballad “Love’s No Friend”) and Airey’s keyboards sometimes sound dated (though no more so than the keyboards on acclaimed albums by The Cars and Elvis Costello released that same year), but this was another strong and often quite underrated effort overall.
Difficult To Cure (Polydor ’80) Rating: B-
Alas, Bonnet lasted only one album with Blackmore before being replaced by Joe Lynn Turner. Cozy Powell was also shown the door, to be replaced by Bob Rondenelli (who is no Cozy Powell; let's leave it at that). Anyway, with Turner in tow Blackmore decided it was finally time to achieve some significant chart success. Not coincidentally, the three Rainbow albums with Turner were the most commercially successful of the band's career, but it also proved to be the least musically adventurous and ultimately unsatisfying Rainbow era. Whereas the band with Bonnet at times approximated KISS, as does this albums admittedly catchy and satisfyingly rocking “Can’t Happen Here,” on "I Surrender" (a minor hit again written by Russ Ballard) the Foreigner comparisons are inevitable, and though it's a solid enough pop rock song, it's plenty disappointing when one considers the heights Blackmore's previous Rainbow band had scaled but a few years before. Still, "Spotlight Kid" shows that this version of the band wasn't a complete sellout, as fast grooves and flashy solos were still a part of their repertoire. Unfortunately, I can't remember much about the likes of "No Release" or "Midtown Tunnel Vision" other than that they're pretty weak, and the stale cheese all but reeks on the almost laughable "Freedom Fighter." Really, the polished '80s production and Airey's bright and shiny keyboards make the album sound instantly dated, as this version of Rainbow could easily be slotted alongside all the other mediocre AOR bands who dominated the airwaves in the early '80s. At least "Magic" is somewhat salvaged by its somewhat catchy chorus, but again the cheese factor is way too high, and though "Difficult To Cure (Beethoven's Ninth)" has a good, melodic groove going for it (partial credit to Ludwig van Beethoven), it also has Airey's outdated synths all over the damn thing. Still, at least "Vielleicht Das Nachster Mal" is a stellar little instrumental with pretty playing from (who else?) Blackmore. Perhaps more instrumental passages (sans keyboards) would've been the way to go, but Blackmore had his mind made up; he wanted to be a star again, and Turner was the man to get him there. Did it happen? Stay tuned...
Straight Between The Eyes (Polydor ’82) Rating: B-
Blackmore got his hit, albeit a minor one with "Stone Cold," a moody pop ballad with an affecting Turner vocal. Otherwise, this album has many of the same problems as the last album, namely that Turner's vocals are generally rather colorless, the sound is too bright and shiny, the lyrics more often than not verge on being embarrassing ("Tite Squeeze" being the nadir on this front), and the songwriting is inconsistent (when Turner cockily sings "I got the power" I can't help but think that, um, no you don't). Still, if you can ignore the lyrics songs such as "Death Alley Driver" and "Miss Mistreated" have good chugga chugga grooves, and Turner acquits himself well on mellower tracks like "Tearin’ Out My Heart" (an intense power ballad) and "Eyes Of Fire" (an atmospheric epic), which somewhat right a ship that at other times comes perilously close to sinking. Well, at least we have Ritchie - impressive as always - adding his two cents here and there, and the band as a whole sound tougher this time out. Still, I doubt I'll ever play this album much, as it's one of Ritchie 's weaker efforts and a rather nondescript AOR (forget metal) album in general.
Bent Out Of Shape (Polydor ’83) Rating: B-
Don Airey and Bob Rondenelli are out, replaced by David Rosenthal and Chuck Burgi, but it hardly matters at this point as the rest of the band are basically faceless sidemen surrounding Turner and Blackmore. Well, this was another commercial success and artistic disappointment, more of the same really and pretty much what I expected at this point. For example, "Stranded" again sounds like a weak Foreigner imitation but with a better guitar player. "Fool For The Night," "Fire Dance," and "Make Your Move" have a little energy at least, though none are especially inspired, and "Drinking With The Devil" is another cheesy attempt to actually rock that mostly falls flat. Still, this album has its moments, such as a good Ritchie guitar solo on "Desperate Heart" and a pair of moody instrumentals ("Anybody There," "Snowman") with more soulful playing from Blackmore and keyboards that aren't over the top for once. Best of all is "Street Of Dreams," an evocative pop hit that I'm quite fond of (it’s easily the best Turner-era song), and which features Turner's finest vocal performance with Rainbow; his earnest performance also wins me over on the semi-ballad “Can’t Let You Go,” though I’m less fond of overly obvious lyrics like "I can't let you go even though it's over." So there you have it, another hit and (too often) miss affair from latter day Rainbow, on which the occasional use of a drum machine only serves to make the album sound even more dated. Perhaps a compilation of the Turner years is needed to appreciate what Ritchie and company were trying to accomplish during this period. Actually, we know what they were trying to accomplish, but given that they only had a few minor radio hits and the reissued Dio albums now steadily outsell the Turner albums, I guess you'd have to conclude that they failed on that front as well.
Finyl Vinyl (Polydor ’86) Rating: B
This 73-minute archive release is a mixed bag that's primarily for hardcore fans, most of whom will be glad that they own it. Most of the album is comprised of live cuts of the Turner years, and most of Turner's songs are improved away from the sterile confines of recording studios. Of particular note are the songs recorded in Japan in 1984, which are augmented by an orchestra, with "Difficult To Cure" being extended for 11 mostly exemplary minutes. Also, Graham Bonnet appears for a live trek through "Since You've Been Gone," his last one with the band as he would quit after that very show (Reading Festival, 1980). I'm no fan of the previously unreleased studio song "Bad Girl," another cheesy, lumbering "rocker" recorded with Bonnet in 1979, but "Jealous Lover" (a studio recording from '81 making it's first appearance on any Rainbow album) is a catchy pop tune that's actually one of the best songs of the Turner era, and "Weiss Heim" is another one of those moody instrumentals that made latter day Rainbow more bearable. Last but certainly not least, the two live songs with Dio ("Man On The Silver Mountain," "Long Live Rock 'n' Roll") alone are almost worth the price of admission; Dio's intro into the latter tune is a Spinal Tap-ish delight, and the performances of both are appealingly raw. Again, there's too much mediocre Turner stuff to make this album essential for anyone other than a diehard fan, but considering that's who this mostly live release is tailored to it does it’s job well enough.
Catch The Rainbow: The Anthology (Polydor ’03) Rating: A
Well, I said that a good compilation of the Turner years was needed to fully appreciate that era, and this 2-CD, 28-track compilation not only collects all the essential Turner-era tracks but does a great job of cherry picking the best songs from the Dio and Bonnet eras as well (their unsuccessful 1996 album Stranger In Us All with singer Doogie White is ignored). If I were to create a comprehensive Rainbow playlist it would look a lot like this, starting with the first disc, the Dio disc which takes three strong originals from Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow (“Man On The Silver Mountain,” “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves,” “Catch The Rainbow,”), the four best songs from Rising (“Tarot Woman,” “Starstruck,” “Stargazer,” “A Light In the Black”), throws in the epic 13-minute “Mistreated” from On Stage, and then closes out with the four standout tracks from Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll (“Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Gates Of Babylon,” “Kill The King,” “Rainbow Eyes”). If you’ve ever doubted Rainbow’s legitimate Hall Of Fame credentials (not that they’ll ever get nominated let alone inducted), one listen to this disc should convince you otherwise, though subsequent lineups could never live up to the Blackmore-Dio-Powell partnership. Still, their lone album with Graham Bonnet, Down To Earth, is both enjoyable and underrated, as attested to by simple but undeniably catchy pop rockers like “All Night Long” and “Since You’ve Been Gone,” plus the epic “Eyes Of The World;” the inclusion of the Bonnet-era track “Weiss Heim,” originally a b-side and also previously on Finyl Vinyl, was an inspired choice as well, as was closing out the compilation with the 11-minute “Difficult To Cure,” also previously on Finyl Vinyl. In between “Weiss Heim” and “Difficult To Cure,” the Joe Lynn Turner years are succinctly and successfully summarized by 12 mostly very good songs, including three from Difficult To Cure (“I Surrender,” “Spotlight Kid,” “Can’t Happen Here”), the essential non-album track “Jealous Lover” (also previously on Finyl Vinyl), four from Straight Between The Eyes (“Death Alley Driver,” “Stone Cold,” “Tearin’ Out My Heart,” “Power”), and three from Bent Out Of Shape (“Can’t Let You Go,” “Desperate Heart,” and “Street Of Dreams”). Granted, most of the Turner tracks can’t compare to the earlier Dio songs, as even some of the best Rainbow songs from that era sound dated and/or cheesy, but this compilation does an excellent job of selecting the cream of the crop. Whoever compiled this collection did an outstanding job.