When Ronnie James Dio tragically passed away in 2010, he was hands down the most significant artist (*) that the heavy metal community had lost in its nearly 40 year history (the more recent passing of Lemmy pretty much ties the score, to say the least). That's not to take anything away from the importance of other luminaries lost prematurely over the years – Chuck Schuldiner, Randy Rhoads, Cliff Burton… the list goes on – but instead just emphasizes RJD's god-like role within the genre. Having done time in Elf, Rainbow and a short-but-historically-significant stint replacing Ozzy in Black Sabbath, this new commemorative box set picks up with the first decade of the man's solo career, a time period which saw the man shedding his image as "hired gun" and forging a band of his own that, if anything, only served to exceed the influence of his prior contributions.
Dio's first coup was taking Sab drummer Vinnie Appice with him when he left (a process Appice recently elaborated on in an episode of "The Silk and Steel Power Hour") recruiting Jimmy Bain (bass/keyboards) and Vivian Campbell (guitar) to round out his eponymous ensemble (Claude Schnell took over keys from Bain after one album). This group recorded the three albums that to this day are the backbone of the Dio legacy: Holy Diver (1983), The Last in Line (1984), and Sacred Heart (1985), a three-year run on par with any hat trick ever recorded by a metal band. Even by the late 1980's music videos culled from this trio – "Holy Diver", "Rainbow in the Dark", "Last in Line" – were still permanent mainstays on MTV's Headbanger's Ball, proof to both their longevity as well as their lasting contemporary influence.
Vivian Campbell and RJD had a notorious falling out after years of acrimony, with Campbell being fired on his way to briefly joining Whitesnake at the peak of their success, followed by a permanent tenure in Def Leppard. As much as Campbell brought to the table, his replacement, Craig Goldy, proved a capable replacement, immediately contributing dividends to the songwriting on Dio's hands down most most underrated album, Dream Evil. While the singles from this album haven't necessarily enjoyed the unanimous accolades of "Mystery" or "Rainbow in the Dark", tracks like "I Could Have Been a Dreamer" and "All the Fools Sailed Away" have proven as durable as anything the band ever did, the sophistication and pathos providing a way forward from the more visceral thrills of Dio's early material.
It was at this point that Dio as a band splintered, becoming more of a crack pick up group spearheaded by RJD and the best of who else happened to be available. Goldy, Appice and Bain all hit the road, leaving RJD fronting a rhythm section of Simon Wright (drums, AC/DC) and the relative unknowns Rowan Robertson (guitar) and Teddy Cook (bass). 1990's Lock Up the Wolves is hardly a disaster, but it's the first Dio album that seems positively ordinary. Aside from the raucous album opener "Wild One", it's doubtful any but the most ardent fans can instantly recall many other tracks from this album.
One might say the same about 1993's Strange Highways, but at least that record seemed less built for singles and was more of a total package. Featuring the return of Vinny Appice along with the addition of Jeff Pilson (bass, Dokken) and the newly discovered Tracy G on guitar, what Strange Highways lacked in singles appeal it made up for in consistency and ambition. The title track and "Jesus, Mary & the Holy Ghost" rate favorably amidst the last gasp of an increasingly desperate group. Stymied not only by personnel churn but also finding himself relegated to smaller labels unable to give him the support he'd been accustomed to, Dio's later albums are nowhere near the tossed off disasters contemporary criticism often painted them as (2000's Magica being particularly underrated), but there was no doubt that the shine had worn off to some degree.
Whether legitimate homage or cynical cash grab – depending on who you ask – Ronnie James Dio's role as incubator of talent lives on in two tribute bands made up of his former disciples, the Goldy/Wright-led Dio Disciples and the classic Campbell/Bain/Appice trip operating under the familiar name Last in Line. First and foremost, though, there's the music itself, and while not a comprehensive retrospective A Decade of Dio provides more than a cursory introduction, offering rather all the Dio most fans will need.
(*) I have no quibbles with anyone that wants to throw Bon Scott or John Bonham in the mix, I just recognize that not everyone considers AC/DC or Led Zeppelin heavy metal, proper. RIP either way, ye noble, indefatigable gods.
[ed. note: a previous version of this story neglected to mention the fact that these albums are remastered. As is often the case these days, we were provided with digital files encoded at a low bitrate. Not feeling comfortable speaking to the quality of the CDs and vinyl as a result this review focuses instead on the strength of the music included. We're sure the lossless versions sound great!]