Revisiting Dio's First Two Albums, 30 Years Later

Ronnie James Dio in his natural habitat -- in front of a microphone.
Ronnie James Dio in his natural habitat -- in front of a microphone.

It's hard to believe that it has been four years since legendary metal front man Ronnie James Dio passed away from cancer. His body of work and contributions to the metal world will never be forgotten, and that was hammered home recently when Foo Fighters released their Sonic Highways single "Something from Nothing," with a huge riff clearly culled from Dio's first solo hit, "Holy Diver."

Dave Grohl is a metal guy, so this very clearly isn't a coincidence. It's an obvious homage and tribute to the departed metal god, and it sticks out clearly to those of us who have been Dio devotees for most of our lives. Hearing that song, as great as it is on its own, immediately made me want to bust out Holy Diver all over again, and it reminded me that this year is the 30th anniversary of that album's follow-up, The Last In Line.

How do those two records hold up today? What is their legacy in the metal landscape? For all the praise heaped on Dio before and after his death, does his solo work truly hold up?

Holy Diver
Holy Diver

In 1983, Dio was fresh off the heels of one of his most successful periods, when he was fronting Black Sabbath after the departure of Ozzy Osbourne. For whatever people may think of what Sabbath did without Ozzy, almost no one will question of the greatness of their work with Dio.

Unfortunately, the combo proved to be short-lived, and after two albums, Dio started a solo career. After assembling guitarist Vivian Campbell, bassist Jimmy Bain and former Sabbath drummer Vinny Appice, who left with Dio the previous year, Holy Diver was recorded and released almost immediately.

In many ways, it picks up right where Dio and Appice had left off with Sabbath. There is a formula to the record, the same they used with Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler for Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules. It starts off fast and heavy with "Stand Up and Shout," the immediate successor to "Neon Knights" and "Turn Up the Night." The quick punch-to-the-face opener had already become a Dio trademark, and it serves well here as an introduction to the band.

Listeners know that this is going to be what they loved about Dio in his previous bands, but the guitar playing is vintage Campbell, distinguishing himself from the opening night from Ritchie Blackmore or Tony Iommi. The Last In Line would also follow that formula, opening with "We Rock." Of all these opening tracks, it's maybe the weakest, but it was a pattern Dio swore by.

For both albums, the second track was the big, mid-tempo hit. They were also both the tracks the albums were named after, so Dio had a pretty good idea of which songs off each album were going to be his most popular. Both "The Last in Line" and "Holy Diver" are epic tracks with hard-hitting riffs that make you want to bang your head from the first note. You could tell Dio had this thing down to a science.

In terms of hits, though, there's only one other really major one from either record, which is maybe what sets Holy Diver apart from The Last In Line. "Rainbow in the Dark" is an oddity in the Dio catalog, and a track which defies the formula of either record. With its dominating keyboard riff, it separated itself from the pack. Sure, it was still Dio, but it was definitely something different from any of Dio's previous bands, or really anything else Dio would record for these sessions.

It wouldn't be until 1985's Sacred Heart that Dio would again embrace overwhelming keyboard tones, and that's one thing that makes Holy Diver and The Last in Line as a pair stand out. After them, Dio would shake up the formula, and his career would never quite follow the same path. Your mileage may vary on how great those later records are, but The Last In Line's anniversary is significant partially because it was the end of an era for Dio. He'd never see so much commercial success, nor would he ever beat that particular path again.

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What sets the two records apart, though, is perhaps how strong their back halves are. In the vinyl era, many albums wound up top-loaded, and Holy Diver and The Last In Line were no exception. Though "Rainbow In the Dark" is an outlier, both albums packed the hits at the very beginning.

But further listening shows that the B-sides were just as strong, if not stronger, than their more famous counterparts.

In the case of Holy Diver, "Don't Talk to Strangers" closes the A-side, is one of the absolute greatest songs Dio would record among any of his bands. It's a classic vocal performance from the man himself, but the riffs composed by Campbell are up there with anything Tony Iommi composed for similar tracks like "Falling Off the Edge of the World" for Mob Rules.

The Last in Line
The Last in Line

"Rainbow In the Dark" is obviously the highlight of the rest of the record, but "Invisible" and "Straight Through the Heart" are vintage stompers straight out of the Rainbow era of Dio's career. They might not be as crowd-pleasing as the hits, but they're rockers all the same. Not to mention the intro to "Invisible" is one of Campbell's greatest moments as a composer.

On The Last in Line, the B-side was not quite as strong, but was still great in its own way. Aside from the truly awful attempt at rewriting "Rainbow in the Dark" with the keyboard-driven "Mystery," which falls flat on its face, this one is loaded with greatness too. "Evil Eyes" is a primo speedy Dio rocker, and "Eat Your Heart Out" has a killer riff.

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But the best song on that second half, and one of the best songs of Dio's solo career, is "Egypt (The Chains Are On)," which closes out the album. It's another of Dio's epic, majestic storytelling songs like "Heaven and Hell," with that simmering slow build of a riff that almost qualifies it as a ballad, but rocks just a little bit too hard. It doesn't quite come to a peak like "Heaven and Hell," but rather almost follows a more progressive rock-song structure.

However, it does represent what amounts to a peak of Dio's career. As The Last In Line ends, so does that particular phase of Dio's career. As companion pieces, Holy Diver and The Last In Line perhaps represent the pinnacle of Dio's work, showing him at the highest of his talents, following the greatest formula he'd ever discover for writing albums.

Sacred Heart would be a weak follow-up, and the rest is history. Now, 30 years on, it's clear to see that this was the end of an era. And how does that era hold up today? Pretty well, all things considered. Yes, they're tinged with a little '80s cheesiness, and the inherent Dungeons & Dragons vibe that all Dio material carries, but they stand up as absolute metal classics from a brief, four-album time period when Dio was firing on all cylinders and could do little wrong.

It's no wonder guys like Dave Grohl are giving these classics a shout-out 30 years later in their own songs. They deserve all the credit they can get.

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