The name Ronnie James Dio will mean many things to his fans. He was the first (and arguably best) frontman with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow; he was the man who gave Black Sabbath an almighty kick up the arse when he replaced Ozzy Osbourne; he was one of the most recognisable voices in hard rock and heavy metal, but for all those fans, regardless of which band he happened to be fronting, Dio was the man who gave 100% every time.
Never was this attitude more obvious than on ‘Holy Diver’, released in May 1983. Having left Black Sabbath following high tensions a few months previously, Dio was not about to take things laying down: his new eponymously named band – featuring his Black Sabbath mate Vinny Appice, Vivian Campbell and an old Rainbow bandmate, Jimmy Bain – rocked as hard (if not harder) than any outfit Dio had previously been associated with.
Stripped of the lengthy, pompous guitar solos which dominated early Rainbow, but retaining the heavy crunch of Sabbath, this debut by Dio (the band) turns things up a notch. The opening number ‘Stand Up and Shout’ comes full throttle, embracing the energy of the then recent New Wave of British Heavy Metal – faster than anything Rainbow or Sabbath could muster even in their wildest dreams – and instantly commands attention. Vivian Campell’s guitar work is fantastic and has a real edge; in many ways, his work throughout this album represents him at a career best, even though he was an eighteen year old not far into a long musical journey. Of course, despite the sharp musical edges, it’s Dio who remains the true star – his huge soaring voice careening above the extremely tight band. Always a master of knowing his vocal strengths, Dio accentuates lots of the two syllable words throughout the song, making excellent showmanship of “desire”, “fire” etcetera. When his performance is combined with his on-form musicians, ‘Stand Up and Shout’ becomes a fantastic opener.
Things slow down to a menacing stomp for the title cut. Viv Campbell’s guitar riff tips the hat to Ronnie’s tenure with Sabbath, yet his playing has the lighter tone which Tony Iommi’s approach often lacks. Appice provides fantastic accompaniment on the drums, his pounding approach counterbalanced by some subtle hi-hat work. The vocal performance brings out all the best elements in RJD’s performance – the stressed ‘ah’s are used to fantastic effect – and his delivery is so effortless, as a listener you’re totally sucked in by his enthusiasm and self-belief it’s easy to ignore the ridiculousness of many of the lyrics. ‘Straight Through The Heart’ may not have as much energy as some of ‘Holy Diver’s more upbeat moments, but it has just as much power. Driven by Appice’s solid drumming, Dio turns in a masterful performance with a suitable amount of gusto; Campbell’s guitar work here cannot pass without comment either: here he offers one of the album’s sludgiest riffs, replete with squealy horse noises (technical term).
‘Don’t Talk To Strangers’, another of the album’s undisputed high points begins gently before breaking into a classic hard rock riff; it’s Ronnie’s lyrics that give the track it’s long-lasting charm, though – full of paranoia, we are warned not to dance in darkness and that heaven and hell are closer together than you might think; Ronnie in turn plays the part “of master, of darkness, of pain”. Vocally he’s at the top of his game, his delivery loaded with over-pronounced words, adding weight to the slightly sinister air. Similarly, ‘Invisible’ has a very dark vibe; Ronnie’s lyrics are total flights of fancy here – a lesser vocalist would make it all sound more than a bit silly – but as always, his total dedication and faultless delivery mean it’s nothing short of superb. Viv Campbell’s mid paced guitar riff stands as one of the album’s heaviest. In short, it’s a timeless piece of leather bound metal – as heavy as the heaviest moments of Black Sabbath’s ‘Heaven and Hell’, but Campbell’s sharp guitar sound is far superior to Tony Iommi’s stylistic muddiness. (As great as ‘Heaven and Hell’ is, try playing it straight after ‘Holy Diver’, and the difference between the two guitarists’ styles is astounding. ‘Heaven and Hell’ may be of the Sabs’ best albums, but it’s severely lacking in any real punch when compared to ‘Holy Diver’.)
‘Holy Diver’ also offers a couple of slightly lighter moments in ‘Gypsy’, ‘Caught In The Middle’ and ‘Rainbow In The Dark’. The sound of ‘Rainbow In The Dark’ in particular looked forward to the stadium rock which dominated the 80’s. Ronnie’s rudimentary keyboard work during the intro (and the sections which bridge the verses) ages the song a little and could be seen as the album’s only weak point. Despite that, it remains an excellent chorus driven single.
‘Shame On The Night’ has a superbly menacing quality and here it’s Jimmy Bain’s pulsing bass work which drives the piece, but yet again, no matter how punchy the arrangement, it’s Dio’s vocal prowess which remains its defining element. His voice here is pushed to even more extremes, but at no point does he ever sound like it was a struggle. Viv Campbell’s guitar work focuses largely around an intimidating riff (particularly evident during the track’s closing moments), and in all, this track presents the Dio band at their most outright angry. It’s an effective closing statement – one which undoubtedly leaves the listeners wanting more.
‘Holy Diver’ is Dio’s greatest post-Rainbow release – it may even be the greatest release featuring Ronnie on vocals. It’s a genre classic; and for anyone who has ever heard it and subsequently fallen in love with it, the magic never fades. The years may pass, but Ronnie James’s commanding performance retains every bit of its bombastic brilliance. His vocal talent remains unsurpassed. A man loved by his many peers and fans, he will never be forgotten and ‘Holy Diver’ stands at the peak of his musical legacy.
(Ronnie James Dio 10.07.42 – 16.05.10)