By 1983, Ronnie James Dio had served terms (albeit brief) as front man for two of the biggest hard rock and metal acts of the era: Rainbow and Black Sabbath. Perhaps tired of sharing a band vision with strong-willed guitarists (we’re talking to you, Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi), he embarked on a solo career, starting a group he naming after himself. His first six releases under that moniker are collected in the new box set A Decade of Dio: 1983-1993 (Rhino). And while, technically, the release dates span just a bit longer ("11 Years of Dio" just doesn't have the same ring to it), the prime of his solo career is worth a second look. And longtime Dio artist Marc Sasso even created a new work featuring band mascot Murray/Muralsee for the cover!
HOLY DIVER (1983)
Dio’s first solo effort brings together the lineup of ex-Sabbath bandmate Vinny Appice (drums), Jimmy Bain (bass/keyboards) and Vivian Campbell (guitar). Opener “Stand Up and Shout” makes a firm, screaming statement of the band’s arrival and became an anthem. The album also features canon fodder like the title track, “Straight Through the Heart” and “Rainbow In the Dark.” The last tune’s memorable stinging keyboards, and a video that was in constant early MTV rotation, made it Dio’s most recognizable tune. “Caught In the Middle” is a lost gem, while “Invisible” is borderline balladry pablum. Dio is not yet into their heavy sword-and-sorcery lyrical phase, but introduces the lyrical theme of asking listeners to look at themselves and their actions.
THE LAST IN LINE (1984)
For me, this is Dio’s masterpiece. The songs have a heft Holy Diver sometimes lacked, and gave us two of the group’s most expansive epic songs, on a favorite theme of the oppressed (the title track and “Egypt [The Chains are On].” It also features some of Campbell’s best solos; Appice’s drums are thunderous, without the sometimes tinny sound heard on Holy Diver. It’s also boasts a couple of underrated deeper tracks — “I Speed at Night” and “Evil Eyes” — both perfect for atmospheric high-speed drives or roller-coaster soundtracks. It also features the addition of Claude Schnell on keyboards to the lineup. And while Dio frequently chose record opener “We Rock” to actually close his shows, it’s a bit too self-referential and simplistic.
SACRED HEART (1985)
Dio drops his mystical crystal ball on this half-hearted effort. He rarely strays from his favorite themes of the Power of Rock (and rockers…and rock music…and people who rock), Medieval storybook lovers and wily women. But it all seems tepid. Only “Hungry for Heaven” (with its echoes of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley”) and “Just Another Day” pack any punch. The album is probably best known for contributing “Rock ‘N’ Roll Children” and the title track to the Dio canon, but it’s faint praise.
DREAM EVIL (1987)
An underrated effort. For while it contained Dio’s most clear stab at a Top 40 hit in the halcyon days of hair metal (“I Could Have Been a Dreamer”), there’s a lot of good stuff here. “Night People,” “Sunset Superman” and “When a Woman Cries” are forces of sonic nature, while the title track plumbs the nightmarish theme of the record. It also contains Dio’s best epic ballad in “All the Fools Sailed Away,” sung in his softer tone. There are a couple of clunkers, though (“Overlove,” “Faces in the Window”). Throughout, Dio sings with confidence, and the rhythm section of Jimmy Bain and Vinny Appice shines throughout.
LOCK UP THE WOLVES (1990)
By this effort, the entire original Dio backing band had dissipated, and now included 18-year-old guitarist Rowan Robertson and former AC/DC drummer Simon Wright. But overall this is a lackluster effort, the weakest of the box set. The tempos are slowed way down, and the blueprint is generic hard rock; Dio’s lyrics and melodies are short on creativity and inspiration. Only the title track, opener “Wild One,” and “Walk on Water” show some of the fire of yore.
STRANGE HIGHWAYS (1994)
Another completely new band is on board for this one, including ex-Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson, guitarist Tracy G. and the return of drummer Vinny Appice. It’s also the first album since Dio’s short-lived return as the front man for Black Sabbath and their 1992 reunion effort Dehumanizer. It’s a return to better days and the classic Dio sound with the chaotic “Firebrand” and ultra-heavy title track. Things sound re-energized for sure, and there’s a grit and menace to Dio’s voice, as in “Evilution” and “Bring Down the Rain.” And his tune decrying child abuse — “Give Her the Gun” — is deep and powerful.
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