Saturday, May 16, 2015

Ronnie James Dio: 5 Years Later

Today marks 5 years since the shocking passing of Ronnie James Dio, and wallowing in melancholy I find myself writing an ode to him. The greatness of Ronnie James Dio is nearly impossible to describe in hyperbole, as much of his importance simply comes down to facts. The facts are these:

Born in 1942, Ronnie James Paladona (stories differ on how the name “Dio” came about, suffice to say it means “God” and the name is appropriate)  was first a trumpet player before being a singer. In a 1997 interview he claimed that he never once took a formal vocal lesson, employing merely the correct breathing techniques he’d learned playing the instrument. (Speaking as a friend of a number of formally trained singers, I doubt the story is facetious.) He fronted a number of unremarkable rock bands throughout his early career.

Often noted for his age after fame, Dio’s singles with early rock bands were met with only regional success, and he spent his 20’s in obscurity. He wasn’t even featured on a commercially released LP until Elf’s debut in 1972, when he was already 30. (According to wikipedia, his earlier band had made an album for Atlantic records, I can find no proof it actually exists.) Suffice to say, Dio peaked late, regardless of when one thinks Dio peaked.

That brings out the next astounding fact about Dio: not only did he record his most celebrated material at an age when some singers have already severely injured their voice, but in the process became one of the most celebrated frontmen in the history of metal.

In Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, we first see Dio’s fascination with fantasy imagery. Some bands had toyed with these motifs before, but Dio made them his own. In adopting such a style he also thoughtlessly adopted some of the casual racism of 20th-century fantasy, such as on “Voodoo” from The Mob Rules or a song from his Holy Diver album titled after the well-known slur for the Romani people. These are some of his weaker lyrics, such that their titles end up being more offensive than the content contained within, but the archaic and outdated must be noted along with the innovation.

That fantasy imagery (when used responsibly) combined with an early musical experiment in what would later be noted as speed metal, “Kill The King” represents arguably the first example of what would become power metal in the late-80’s and 90’s. The song has become something of a metal staple, being covered by the thrash band Heathen, and power metal bands Primal Fear, and Stratovarius.

The vocal styles employed by power metal bands can be credited almost singularly to Ronnie James Dio. Surely noted singers like Rob Halford, Ian Gillian, or even Robert Plant sang high, but there timbre was still obviously deep within the realm of rock’s down-south blues influences. Dio’s style was based in a classicism and melo-dramatism that he pioneered and mastered within metal. Power metal masters like Hansi Kursch, in their adoption of dramatic affectation, borrow much more greatly from Dio than from any other great metal vocalist aside from maybe Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson, who it should be noted wasn’t even recorded until 1980, and didn’t rise to prominence until almost a full decade after Dio. (As well, though Priest’s early material is now held in high regard, Halford wasn’t nearly the level of household name until around the same time.)

Presumably believing that fronting one of the most important metal bands of all time was simply insufficient, Dio left Rainbow when Ritchie Blackmore announced his intention to commercialize the band’s direction, and happened to run into Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi on the sunset strip in 1979 after the latter band had recently split with Ozzy Osbourne. The chemistry between the group and their new singer was so instantaneous that they released Heaven and Hell within the next year, reinventing their sound in the process. It and it’s follow-up, The Mob Rules are such immensely strong albums that it is to this day a serious question whether Sabbath fans prefer the Osbourne or Dio albums. (For most of my teenage years, Mob Rules was actually my favorite Sabbath album.) Dio first left Sabbath in 1982, after a rather silly argument over the mixing of their Live Evil album. Dio, a notorious egotist, had supposedly been tampering with the mix to make his voice louder, though despite his reputation that accusation is dubious at best.

Though Sabbath’s early days laid down the foundations of heavy metal and the downtrodden pace of what would become doom metal, I would say that tracks like “Heaven and Hell” or The Mob Rules“Sign of the Southern Cross” are probably the foundational basis for what would become classic doom metal in the late-80’s and early-90’s. Listen to Candlemass’ Epicus Doomicus Metallicus or Solitude Aeternus’ Beyond the Crimson Horizon and notice the combination of mid or low tempo riffs, but also notice the insistent melodicisim and the vocal approach of Johann Lanquist (or his successor, Messiah Marcolin) or Robert Lowe. I’d argue the approach bears a much stronger resemblance to Sabbath’s early-80’s material than their early-70’s, and those singers owe much more a debt to Dio than to Osbourne.

Presumably fed up with being a hired gun for established performers, Dio decided to make the show his and form a band under his own name following his departure from Sabbath. While not as musically important as either of his previous acts, Dio found his greatest commercial success with legendary singles like “Holy Diver” and “We Rock,” and gave some of his great all-time performances as a singer. “Rainbow in The Dark” in particular remains a favorite of mine, an immense display of Dio’s often-derided talents as a lyricist.

I cry out for magic
I feel it dancing in the light
It was cold,
Lost my hold
To the shadows of the night

Dio’s best lyrics are filled with evocative images like these, and though sometimes the intent of his metaphors are lost in confusing jumbles, the power of his stronger lyrics certainly makes one forgive his many attempts to capture a similar magic. It was on songs like this where the power of Dio’s voice was uplifting by pure strength alone, a source of genuine inspiration for my younger self, mired in suicidal depression. Connecting with his voice and his words showed me a side of metal that could empowering, not just defeatist. And while I identify with the pessimism of metal, it is songs, voices, and stories like Dio’s that help me carry on in spite of doubt. I may be left on my own like a rainbow in the dark, but that makes me the rainbow, doesn’t it?

Even when his words weren’t powerful, his voice always was. Even as he aged, Dio was still giving shocking, thunderous vocal performances, as we can hear on 2000’s Magica or my personal favorite, on Heaven and Hell’s The Devil You Know, which turned out to be his final album. Listen to his control of volume and his ability to choose when to unleash the grit and growl of his voice on “Bible Black.” Dio was sixty-six when he recorded this!

The modern age begets cynicism and skepticism in needless quantities, and I’ve seen more than a few wonder if Dio’s performance on this album was the result of studio magic. I had the privilege of seeing Dio on his last US tour to support the album. It is still the most impressive vocal performance I’ve ever seen, and he hit every single note of his youth. Perhaps not with ease, but surely with command.

Fame came late and death came early for Ronnie James Dio, who died from metastasized stomach cancer on May 16, 2010 at the much too young age of 68, who earlier in the year was still looking forward to playing summer tour dates with the reunited Heaven and Hell lineup, who didn’t even cancel their dates until it became apparent how serious his illness was. Dio was still determined to live, and to sing. It has been five years since and I still cannot describe the shock at learning that even gods can die.

Austin C. Howe, Seattle, WA, 2015

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