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Celebrate DIO's Legacy With This Round-up Of 12 Of His Greatest Songs

Posted by on May 15, 2015 at 1:44 pm

This Saturday marks the fifth anniversary of Ronnie James Dio’s death due to stomach cancer. Dio, born Ronald James Padavona, was undoubtedly one of the driving forces behind heavy metal’s early development in the 70s and 80s. You can hear echoes of his gravely tenor in the voices of Blind Guardian’s Hansi Kürsch and Manowar’s Eric Adams. His vocal range wasn’t as varied as his contemporaries Rob Halford or Bruce Dickenson, but what he lacked in octave range he made up for in power and personality. It’s impossible to mistake Dio’s voice for anyone else’s.

In addition to his unique vocal style, Dio also popularized the Devil Horns gesture which is a major addition to heavy metal culture on its own. He’s also largely responsible for introducing swords and sorcery themes into metal. Whenever you hear a singer wailing about unicorns and wizards battling dragons, remember that you’ve got Ronnie James Dio to thank. But, as Brad Sanders pointed out in a recent article for AVClub.com, the diminutive metal god rarely receives the accolades he deserves. If you’re reading this, it’s safe to say you know who Dio is and are likely to be familiar with his more popular songs like “Holy Diver” and “We Rock.” But have you ever dove into his work with Black Sabbath or Rainbow? What about his later work with Dio after the band’s massive one-two punch of Holy Diver and The Last in Line? It’s true he was never able to top his 1980-84 heyday with Black Sabbath and Dio, but the man is still responsible for a mountain of great music.

In remembrance of Ronnie James Dio’s impressive legacy, here’s a round-up of his best music from many of the albums he performed on throughout his career. These selections are presented in chronological order instead of ranked by what I consider “The Best.”  You may very well be familiar with much of this music, but it never hurts to reacquaint yourself. If you’re new to Dio’s catalog, I envy you for the discovery you’re about to make.

Elf – "Hoochie Koochie Lady"

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Before he was a metal god, Ronnie James Dio sang in a number or traditional rock ‘n’ roll bands. Elf was the most successful of these groups. The band’s 1972 self-titled debut was a fairly straight-forward rock album, but you could already hear the beginnings of Dio’s expressive, operatic style. “Hoochie Koochie Lady,” the opening track of the album, features bluesy guitar and boogie woogie piano accompanying his vocal performance which sounds suitably skeevy given the lyrical subject matter.

Rainbow – "Stargazer"

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During the early 70s, Elf became a frequent opening band for Deep Purple. When Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore left the band to form Rainbow, he brought several members of Elf into the studio to record with him and Elf consequently disbanded. One of the members Blackmore chose to work with was Ronnie James Dio. Rainbow’s music was heavier and more melodramatic than Elf and Dio’s vocal performances became more theatrical to match the tone of the band. He also began introducing fantasy and science fiction elements into his lyrics during his time in Rainbow. “Stargazer,” from 1976’s Rise, is one of the best showcases of his song writing and vocal performances from his tenure in Rainbow. It’s an eight and a half minute psychedelic journey featuring Dio’s soaring voice and somewhat nonsensical lyrics about castles and space wizards…or something.

Black Sabbath – "Neon Knights"

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By the late 70s the once-mighty Black Sabbath was in shambles. Substance abuse and Ozzy Osbourne’s increasing interest in pursuing other musical ventures eventually led to his departure from the band in 1979. Around that time Dio had also left Rainbow due to creative conflicts with Ritchie Blackmore. After a chance encounter with Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi in Los Angeles, Dio signed on as the band’s new vocalist. The band soon began recording and the resulting album, titled Heaven and Hell, was released in April of 1980. It was apparent immediately that Dio’s presence revitalized the band. The album-opening “Neon Knights” was a breath of fresh air following the tired sound of Sabbath’s two previous albums. Iommi’s signature guitar playing was still present but the entire album sounds much more contemporary than either “Never Say Die” or “Technical Ecstacy.” Dio would go one to record one more album with Black Sabbath, 1981’s Mob Rules, before he and drummer Vinnie Appice left the band over creative differences.

Dio – "Rainbow in the Dark"

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After Dio left Black Sabbath he formed a band of his own with Appice. The duo recruited Vivian Campbell on guitar and former Rainbow member Jimmy Bain on bass. The quartet released Holy Diver in 1983 and it stands as arguably the best album in Ronnie James Dio’s entire body of work. “Holy Diver” seems like the obvious choice to represent this album; it’s the one Dio song that most people are familiar with, after all. But “Rainbow in the Dark” is the better choice. It fuses his arcane lyrics and melodramatic vocal delivery with crisp production and NWOBHM-influenced guitars. And you know you secretly love that keyboard tone.

Dio – "We Rock"

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The follow up to Holy Diver was 1984’s The Last in Line. The album was a worthy successor to Holy Diver and the opening song “We Rock” is peak Dio. The song’s galloping bass and staccato guitar riffing is reminiscent of Iron Maiden but it never sounds derivative. Dio’s vocals are some of the most powerful and commanding of his career as well. This is a straight up heavy metal anthem for the ages. If you ever find yourself riding into battle atop a mighty steed, “We Rock” is what should be playing in your head.

Dio – "Sacred Heart"

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While 1985’s Sacred Heart was certainly not a flop, it wasn’t on the same level as Holy Diver of The Last in Line. In retrospect, it seems like Ronnie James Dio’s theatricality and penchant for writing semi-coherent, fantastical lyrics was beginning to push the music into the dreaded realm of cheese. There are a few flat-out missteps here like the decidedly over-the-top pop metal song “Hungry for Heaven,” but the good still outweighs the bad. One of the better offerings from the album is “Sacred Heart,” a down-tempo track that wouldn't sound out of place as background music during a session of Dungeons & Dragons. Also, during performances of the song on the band’s 1986 Sacred Hearts Tour, Dio battled a giant mechanical dragon while wielding a laser sword. So that’s another reason to love this song.

Dio – "Dream Evil"

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By 1987 Dio the band was still a major force in heavy metal, but they weren't pushing any boundaries and their sound had become formulaic. One of the causes of the band’s creative slump was almost certainly the absence of Vivian Campbell who was fired during the Sacred Heart tour. The songs on Dream Evil are somewhat interchangeable with new guitarist Craig Goldy’s fusion of 70s rock and NWOBHM influence acting as a foil to Ronnie James Dio’s sinister croon. Much of the music on Dream Evil veers too far into pop metal territory for my taste but the title track is solid. It demonstrated that this new band line-up was still capable of writing metal that was catchy while still being decidedly heavy.

Black Sabbath – "Time Machine"

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The 90s were not a good time for Ronnie James Dio’s namesake band. A constantly rotating line-up and poorly conceived stylistic changes led to a trio of forgettable Dio albums – 1990’s Lock Up the Wolves, 1994’s Strange Highways, and 1996’s Angry Machines. But Dio’s brief, one-off reunion with Black Sabbath in 1992 proved that he still had some magic up his baggy wizard sleeves.  Dehumanizer wasn't as good as Dio’s work with Black Sabbath in the 80s, but he still sounds much more vibrant and passionate on this record than on any of Dio the band’s 90s material. “Time Machine” comes close to recapturing his 1980s glory days, and the song’s inclusion on the soundtrack to the blockbuster movie Wayne’s World introduced a whole new generation to his work.

Dio – "Fever Dreams"

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It’s not perfect, but 2000’s Magica was a refreshing return to form for Dio after the band’s disappointing 90s output. The concept album displays some of Ronnie James Dio’s best vocal work in years, and although the music is way over the top, it’s also really fun. “Fever Dream” is a great mid-tempo track that demonstrates Dio the man hadn’t lost as step talent-wise going into the 21st century. Originally Magica was supposed to be the first entry in a trilogy of concept albums, but Dio passed away before he could begin working on the other two albums.

Dio – "Killing the Dragon"

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Dio quickly followed up Magica with Killing the Dragon in 2002. Killing the Dragon wasn't as good as the previous album but it still has enough propulsive rockers in its ten song track list to keep the attention of listeners. The title track is the strongest song on the album with its mixture of galloping bass, expressive guitar solos, and Dio’s signature voice. According to Ronnie James Dio, the dragon in song’s title refers to technology and the lyrics are metaphors for how technology is slowly encroaching on society and threatening it.

Dio – "End of the World

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There was no way to know at the time, but 2004’s Master of the Moon would be Dio’s tenth and final album. As far as post-millennial Dio albums go, it’s on par with Killing the Dragon but not as good as Magica. It’s not the best material the band produced but it’s still much better than the previous decade’s releases. In retrospect, “End of the World” serves as a fitting eulogy for a band that soldiered through twenty years of musical fads and changing tastes without seriously compromising their style. When Ronnie asks, “Whatever happen to the rock ‘n’ roll song” it’s easy to see where he’s coming from in a year where some of the highest selling albums were from Avril Lavigne and Eminem. Likewise, his line, “They say you never hear the bullet that kills, and I don’t hear a sound” is depressingly prophetic given his impending cancer diagnosis and death that would follow in a few years.

Heaven & Hell – "Bible Black"

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The last album Ronnie James Dio would ever record would be The Devil You Know by Heaven & Hell. Heaven & Hell was essentially a Dio-era Black Sabbath reunion with a different name because Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler were also involved with the Ozzy-led version of Black Sabbath at the time. The Devil You Know was a critical and commercial success, peaking in the top 10 of 4 different Billboard categories including number 1 on the Top Rock Albums chart and number 8 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. It’s also much better than 13, the Ozzy-led Sabbath album that would come out 4 years later. The Devil You Know isn’t as good as Heaven and Hell, but “Bible Black” stands as one of the best tracks Dio ever recorded with Iommi and Butler. It manages to skirt the line between contemporary heavy metal and the more nerdy side of the genre that Dio helped popularize and still sound relevant. It’s sad that this would be the man’s last album, but it’s a suitable final entry into the Book of Dio.

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