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Thirty-Five Years Later: Dio – Holy Diver

One can’t overstate the dominant role that Ronnie James Dio played in his tenures with Rainbow and Black Sabbath. He may have been on equal footing with legendary control freaks like Tony Iommi and Ritchie Blackmore, but they were clearly accommodating their writing styles to match his instead of the other way around. Guys like Ian Gillan and Ozzy Osbourne seemed content with weaving their vocal lines around long-winded jams, but Ronnie was the kind of singer to demand that the riffs be played around him.

Thus, it isn’t too surprising that Dio’s debut album is such a streamlined affair. Songs like the title track and “Don’t Talk to Strangers” avoid running verse-chorus structures into the ground, but their arrangements still adhere to the vocal lines. There’s very little wiggle room for the musicians to meander about beyond brief but flashy solo sections and climactic codas that are only extended when Dio is either ad libbing or, in the case of the outro on “Shame on the Night,” has already finished saying what he wants to say.

Thankfully Dio surrounded himself with some extraordinarily talented musicians to keep this formula from reaching critical masses of self-indulgence. Bassist Jimmy Bain and drummer Vinnie Appice were reliable in their respective stints with Rainbow and Sabbath, and they both prove to be just as talented here. Appice puts more muscle here than he did on The Mob Rules and I swear Bain’s tone is one of the most recognizable in 80s metal.

Guitarist Vivian Campbell proved to be the group’s wild card. Plucked from Sweet Savage and now criminally underused in the likes of Def Leppard, his tone gives the riffs on “Stand Up and Shout” a razor-sharp bite, while his acrobatic leads give songs like “Invisible” a great deal of character. His performance is just as hungry as that of his mentor, but his contributions are tasteful enough to avoid stepping on anybody else’s toes.

Through all this early 80s bravado, the band was smart enough to remember that the songwriting matters above all else. There may not be anything as epic as the likes of “Heaven and Hell” or “Gates of Babylon,” but songs like the title track were clearly composed in the same spirit. “Rainbow in the Dark” is a classic in all its cheesy, keyboard drenched glory, and even the straightforward rockers like “Gypsy” and “Caught in the Middle” deserve attention.

Holy Diver could’ve easily been the power trip of a vocally gifted egomaniac, and it honestly may very well be one, but Dio’s delivery is based more on confidence than outright self-indulgence. The performances are all worthy of note and there is a slew of timeless classics throughout, even if the presentation can be rather dated at times. Bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica were the real trailblazers of 1983, but I don’t need to tell you that this is still mandatory listening.

“Stand Up and Shout”
“Holy Diver”
“Don’t Talk to Strangers”
“Rainbow in the Dark”

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