I don’t have any regrets in life. Well, maybe one. I never saw Ronnie James Dio perform before his untimely death in 2010. I had my chances, most notably on Aug. 8, 2009 in Seattle when Heaven and Hell played with goddamn Neurosis in support of the fan-fucking-tastic The Devil You Know. It was one of Dio’s final performances.
Dio’s voice is heavy metal. Along with the Scorps’ Klaus Meine, he ranks high on my list of all-time metal vocalists. “DIO” was one of the most scrawled logos in my textbooks in junior high, next to Metallica, AC/DC and Slayer. Strangely (or not) I heard Dio’s solo records before I knew he’d been involved with Elf, Rainbow or Sabbath. I was reared on the first two records Holy Diver and Last In Line, as infatuated with the album covers as I was the music (if you’re of a certain age you’ll recall trying to find the word “devil” within the Dio logo). Those two records alone would be enough to cement Dio’s legend.
Years later I finally got hip to his work with Rainbow on Rising and Long Live Rock ’n’ Roll and with Sabbath on Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, but until just recently I hadn’t dug into Dio’s later solo material. Rhino released A Decade of Dio: 1983-1993 in July, which includes all six of the late vocalist’s solo records.
I was particularly interested to hear Dio’s ’90s output—1990’s Lock Up the Wolves and 1993’s Strange Highways—records I’d completely ignored back in the day while we all took a detour through Alternative Nation. Needless to say they’re fucking incredible, containing some of Dio’s most menacing and intense vocal performances, particularly on Strange Highways (“Jesus, Mary & the Holy Ghost” and the doomy title track are especially evil). No doubt his work on Sabbath’s 1992 album Dehumanizer carried over onto this record. These albums also featured guitarists Rowan Robertson (Lock Up the Wolves) and Tracy Grijalva, who played on Strange Highways and 1996’s Angry Machines, both of whom have gone on to relative obscurity.
This box set is a good refresher course on Ronnie James Dio’s sometimes overlooked, latter-day solo career. It also illustrates how Dio stayed true and always worked even as metal fell out of vogue. Of course, I’m also kicking myself even harder for never getting to see Dio prowl the stage.
Hammers Of Misfortune – Dead Revolution (Metal Blade)
Can I just talk about John Cobbett for a second, guitarist for Hammers of Misfortune and VHÖL, and formerly of Ludicra, The Lord Weird Slough Feg and Unholy Cadaver? If you asked me on the right day why metal still exists, I might say, “Because John Cobbett is writing riffs that kill, and continuing the proud tradition of mëisters like Tony Iommi, James Hetfield and John Christ (never forget).”
I’ve been a fan for years, but VHÖL’s fantastic Deeper Than Sky and the latest from his long-running band Hammers Of Misfortune have me truly bowing before the Throne of Cobbett. Dead Revolution is another collection of classic thrash and prog that owes a lot to classic metal, but pushes the genre forward. Guitarist Lela Abdul-Rauf deserves credit for her fantastic riffing as well, especially on “The Velvet Inquisition” and “Sea of Heroes”—easily one of the great guitar tandems in modern metal; and Dead Revolution is one of best metal records of 2016.
Castle – Welcome to the Graveyard (Ván Records)
This record caught me by surprise, pulled me in, and hasn’t let go of me (seriously, Castle, that’s a little tight). While bands of the bluesy, witchy black-light variety can be lazy these days, Castle has upped the riffage on their fourth record, Welcome to the Graveyard. This record shows the Bay Area trio putting the work on this taut eight-song collection. You see? Shawls and denim vests doth not a heavy metal band make, but killer riffs and hooks. Although I do like shawls and denim vests.
Vemod – Venter På Stormene (Prophecy Productions)
Scandinavia continues to produce some of the best psychedelic metal on Earth, and I don’t mean bands that smoke weed and steal Sabbath riffs. Finland’s Oranssi Pazuzu, for one. Vemod come straight outta Norway, and take a similar space rock approach to black metal. The band released their debut Venter På Stormene in 2012, and it’s getting a wider re-release this year on Prophecy Productions. This is an engulfing black hole of psychotic, psychedelic black metal, and I’m getting lost in it as I type this…uh, where am I?
Inter Arma – Paradise Gallows (Relapse)
Talk about a growth spurt. Inter Arma have outdone themselves on their latest 71-minute beast, Paradise Gallows. The record doesn’t stray too far from their elegant black metal and sludge gruel, but it feels more direct and confident. “The Summer Drones” and “An Archer in the Emptiness” take unknown paths, but end up leading you right where you want to be. The five members are masters at their craft, and the way they pull so many elements together you’d think this was the work of Dios.
Willie Nelson – Red Headed Stranger (1975)
U2 – Zooropa (1993)
Onslaught – The Force (1986)
Dio – Strange Highways (1993)
Alice Cooper – Killer (1971)
Mark Lore wears a shawl, but only on Twitter.