It could be argued that Ronnie James Dio is the quintessential heavy metal solo artist. He could’ve ridden the coattails of his Rainbow and Black Sabbath days upon his initial exit from the latter in 1982, but he chose to forge his own path instead. Dio’s backing bands were often a who’s who of experienced and developing talent, but unlike his rival Ozzy, he didn’t lean on them to look good. Styles shifted over the years and lineups may have changed, but Dio altered these elements to better suit his formula rather than the other way around. To put it simply, Ronnie James Dio always knew what he wanted.
In respect for the eighth anniversary of the man’s passing and the 35th anniversary of the illustrious Holy Diver, I would like to look at Dio’s ten studio albums to see how they stack up with one another. Whether Dio was flirting with hard rock, power metal, doom, or something in between, you could always tell that it was him. He had his share of favorite tropes and could be frankly formulaic at times, but that was arguably what made him so damned charming.
10) Sacred Heart
Sacred Heart is basically Dio on autopilot. The weird, reverb heavy production and emphasized keyboards may suggest a cross over to the mid-80s pop metal world, but the unchanged formula reveals these elements as mere window dressing for stagnant songwriting. A title like “Just Another Day” and obvious fillers like “Shoot Shoot” only exacerbate how fatigued the musicians were at the time. But with that said, Dio filler can still be catchy and songs like the title track and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Children” are fun staples. The soundtrack to the original Dio lineup’s collapse is such loveable 80s cheese.
Final Grade: B-
9) Angry Machines
It’s easy to see why Angry Machines is often seen as Dio’s worst album. The post-Dehumanizer doom groove of Strange Highways takes on industrial influence as songs take on more dissonant effects and off-the-cuff structures in lieu of traditional catchiness. It’s a jarring listen, but one that I find compelling at times. Songs like “Black” and “Stay out of My Mind” are packed with haunting riffs and vocal lines, and it has been nice to see the piano ballad “This Is Your Life” become more prominent following Dio’s passing. It remains a tough but interesting listen.
Final Grade: B-
8) Strange Highways
Released after Dio’s second exit from Black Sabbath in the early 90s, Strange Highways picks up where Dehumanizer left off. The tempos are slow, guitarist Tracy G delivers plenty of plodding grooves, and the vocals consist entirely of angry snarls. The songs themselves can be rather stilted and run together at times, but there are some incredible gems on here. The title track and “Give Her the Gun” are the most Sabbath-like songs that Dio ever recorded under his own name, and “Here’s to You” provides the album’s sole glimpse at upbeat fun. I’d recommend Dehumanizer over this one, but it’s an interesting style that I’d love to see more people explore.
Final Grade: B
7) Master of the Moon
It’s a shame that 2004’s Master of the Moon would prove to be the last Dio album. The band clearly had more to accomplish, and this album is a rather underwhelming swan song when compared to the prospect of a fully realized Magica trilogy. Thankfully there are some excellent tracks despite the rather plain presentation, as “One More for the Road” is one of their best openers, “Shivers” is a strong chugger, “The Man Who Would Be King” is a great mid-tempo chug, and “The Eyes” is a surprisingly effective mid-90s style grinder. It’s overshadowed by past accomplishments and what could’ve been, but remains a solid album all the time.
Final Grade: B
6) The Last in Line
While The Last in Line is a beloved classic, it is also widely seen as a repeat of the Holy Diver formula. Plenty of albums get this accusation, but this album is one of the few where it seems completely intentional. The track listing has a nearly identical flow, as song styles seem to match songs on the predecessor beat by beat with only a few minor fluctuations. This would make the album seem lazy, and there are a couple obvious filler songs, but the band shows enough chemistry to avoid serious accusations. The tone is a bit brighter, though, and I honestly think the rhythm section’s performances are better here than Holy Diver. It may not the most essential Dio album but if you’re looking for a good entry point, this and Dio’s debut make for an excellent double album.
Final Grade: B+
5) Dream Evil
Like Sacred Heart before it, Dream Evil features a rather wet production job and prominent keyboards. However, it sets itself apart by using these tools to create a more ominous sound in comparison. “All the Fools Sailed Away” is one of the band’s most bombastic anthems while somehow avoiding past cheese, while “Naked in the Rain” is a surprisingly stirring mid-tempo track. Guitarist Craig Goldy also brings some Ritchie Blackmore with him on his debut Dio appearance, resulting in classic Rainbow tinges on the title track and “Overlove.” The choruses offer a lot of one-liner redundancy, but the atmosphere and musicianship elevate this to classic status.
Final Grade: A-
Magica may be Dio’s sole concept album but it sums up everything that the band stands for. It isn’t an all-out return to the Holy Diver style, but it’s doomy without a trace of groove to be found and the lyrics fully embrace the infamous D&D themes that they’d been avoiding for nearly a decade. The robot voices that periodically chime in can be rather repetitive, but the album’s story never comes at the expense of the songs. “Challis” would’ve been a hit if it’d come out in the 80s, “As Long as It’s Not About Love” is an ominous power ballad, and “Losing My Insanity” features a jig that takes it to folk metal territory. Another moment of silence for the uncompleted trilogy.
Final Grade: A-
3) Lock Up the Wolves
Dio’s first album of the 90s was a clean slate. The 80s-riffic production of its two predecessors was scraped and a completely new lineup was assembled that featured previously unknown guitarist Rowan Robertson and bassist Teddy Cook alongside AC/DC drummer Simon Wright and Ronnie himself. The results are grounded, as the performances feel more organic and the writing less formulaic. There’s even a bit of blues influence on “Between Two Hearts” and the underrated as hell “Evil on Queen Street.” As much as I understand Dio’s return to Sabbath a year later and love the album that came out of it, the way that this lineup was left high and dry is downright criminal. As strongly recommended as it is unfairly overlooked.
Final Grade: A-
2) Holy Diver
Very few debut albums are as confident as Holy Diver. Dio himself may have been experienced by this time, but guitarist Vivian Campbell’s techniques are an equal contender, Vinny Appice’s drums let loose after his somewhat pedestrian stint in Sabbath, and Jimmy Bain boasts one of the most recognizable bass tones in classic metal. There’s a chemistry not unlike that of the Blizzard of Ozz, but there’s no power behind the throne or codependency here. The title track and “Rainbow in the Dark” deserve their mainstream recognition, even if I get irked by the jokey aspects of said recognition (SHORT MAN WITH SWORD FUNNY), but deep cuts like “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and “Shame on the Night” have proven to be just as influential in power metal and doom as the hits. It’s a little more dated than some of the other top albums of 1983, but it remains an essential listen all the same.
Final Grade: A
1) Killing the Dragon
Killing the Dragon is a clear throwback to Dio’s early 80s materia,l but somehow ends up being better than what it emulates. Much of that could be attributed to the electrifying performance of future Whitesnake guitarist Doug Aldrich, as his energy makes the speedy tracks even stronger and the riffs on the slower songs even more impactful. Dio’s songwriting has also never been this focused; every track has an effective hook and there aren’t any attempts at commercial pandering beyond the weird Tenacious D cameo in the music video for “Push.” If the album ended with the absolute tearjerker that is “Throwaway Children,” I would hold it in the regard as monoliths like Rising and Heaven and Hell. I am not kidding.
Final Grade: A