Friday, February 15, 2013

Evil or Divine?

After a huge success with “Holy Diver”, Ronnie James Dio and his newly formed solo band had to find a way to match that success and that came into the form of “The Last in Line.” While a strong album in its own right, this album is just a step below the legendary debut. “The Last in Line”, along with the aforementioned “Holy Diver”, and “Sacred Heart” have recently been released as deluxe editions with improvements in sound and loaded with extra content. “The Last in Line” comes with some live b-sides as well as a concert from the Pinkpop Festival in 1984.

“The Last in Line” mainly draws upon the formula from the debut. “We Rock” could be seen as a brother to “Stand Up and Shout” with its empowering lyrics and up-tempo joys. “Eat Your Heart Out” is the child of “Straight to the Heart” and “Egypt (The Chains Are On)” invokes a familiar atmosphere and ends the album on a brooding note like “Shame to the Night” did. Last, but certainly not the least, there is the epic title track slotted as song two.

The main problem with these comparisons is that the “Holy Diver” tracks are superior. That’s not to diminish the merits of these songs because “We Rock” is a sterling opener is a top Dio track and I actually find the song “The Last in Line” better than “Holy Diver.” The lyrics in the chorus are some of the greatest examples of Dio’s writing ability and his use of metaphors is truly impressive.

“Mystery” is the most commercial song and one of the singles off this album. The song remains one of my favorite DIO songs because of the enchanting keyboards provided by Claude Schnell and has one of Dio’s best lyrics with “Is the wise man always right? No, he can play the fool.” The accompanying music video is also worth a look too. Dio gets to fight with a sword again and he makes awesome gestures with his hands.

Rounding out the territory is “I Speed at Night” complete with attitude and some resounding guitar work from Vivian Campbell. Thanks to the improvements in the sound, the jumping notes of Jimmy Bain can be clearly heard as well. “Breathless” stays on the mid-tempo, but floats in the generic realm and “One Night in the City” has a cool riff to keep attention while Dio tells a story about a couple young kids.

The extras piled onto this deluxe edition are live b-sides of “Eat Your Heart Out”, “Don’t Talk to Strangers”, “Holy Diver”, and “Rainbow in the Dark.” All are solid listens that don’t deviate much from the studio versions and it is nice to have a live version of a song that is not talked too much about in “Eat Your Heart Out.”

However, the meat of the extra content is the concert from the Pinkpop Festival. It is an excellent set list, but unfortunately this concert seems to be a bootleg and there is this buzzing, static noise that permeates the sound. It is a big distraction, but if the ambitious listener can look past that then there is a load to latch on to. Dio’s stage banter is in full effect and not cut out and there is a rousing version of “Heaven and Hell” that is over 13 minutes long. The band is in tight form and it is easy to surmise that they are enjoying themselves. A live version “One Night in the City” is on here and that song is not heard much on the live stage and it’s never a bad thing hearing “Man on the Silver Mountain.”

As with all the other deluxe editions, there are extensive linear notes on the development of the album as well as some neat photos of artwork and the band. The sound upgrade along with the bonuses should provide enough nourishment for a DIO fanatic, and while the sound of the extra concert is disappointing, this is still an entertaining deluxe edition. I suggest you don’t be the last in line for a purchase.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Worthy of Classic Status

Ronnie James Dio has a way of making a first impression. He dazzled listeners when he joined up with Richie Blackmore in Rainbow and then rejuvenated Black Sabbath’s career with “Heaven and Hell.” The man had a lot to live up to when going solo and he did not disappoint with “Holy Diver.” The album is widely regarded as a classic and must have for any metal head and for good reason. This album, along with “The Last in Line” and “Sacred Heart” has recently undergone the deluxe treatment from the Universal Music Group and is loaded with some nice extras. Along with the original album, “Holy Diver” includes some live b-sides and also a live concert from the King Biscuit Flower Hour.

The main upgrade from the original release and as well as the 2005 re-release is the improvement in the sound department. Listening to this deluxe version almost felt as if hearing the album for the first time again. The instruments have a strong clarity and Dio’s voice shines like a bright ray of sun. Vivian Campbell’s riffs have an extra burst and the bass provided by Jimmy Bain have the edges rounded on and is clearly established within in the songs. The classic, iconic songs like the title track and “Rainbow in the Dark” sound just as fresh as they did in 1983.

As for the other tracks, there is not much more to say then what has already been said. Dio has a way of making the listener feeling empowered with his lyrics. No song embodies that more than the opener, “Stand Up and Shout.” Filled with a rich, up-tempo riff, this song is the essence of making even the most pessimistic fellow to rejoice and raise your fist in the air.

The deeper cuts are also done very well as “Straight Through the Heart” shows Dio at his most demanding with a mean riff that slices to the bone. The final track, “Shame on the Night” has some doom qualities and ends the album on a much darker note.

There is only one tune that does not live up to the billing at that one is “Gypsy.” It is the least inspired and has by far the weakest vocal line and guitar playing. After the one-two punch of “Stand Up and Shout” and “Holy Diver”, “Gypsy” drops the bar down.

The second disc of the deluxe edition is where things become interesting. There is an alternative version of “Evil Eyes”, which would appear on the next album, as well as some live b-sides. However, the extras to sink your teeth into are the concert from the King Biscuit Flower Hour.

This concert is the Dio band in its truest form. They are young, hungry, with Dio trying to establish himself as a solo artist. “Shame on the Night” sounds just as devilish as the studio version and serves as a calming effect after an energetic opener with “Stand Up and Shout.” As the band was still in its fledlging stages, Dio dived into his past ventures with “Children of the Sea” and “Man on the Silver Mountain.” The latter stands out because the band breaks into “Starstruck” in the middle and features impressive drumming by Vinny Appice. “Children of the Sea” is my favorite Dio-fronted Black Sabbath track and Campbell does a stellar job capturing the somber spirit with his guitar work.

Besides the concert are the song “Evil Eyes” and two live b-sides in “Stand Up and Shout and “Straight Through the Heart.” With “Evil Eyes”, there is not much difference in the version that would appear on “The Last in Line.” There is a little more run time with the riffing on this take, but overall there is not much being missed. The live tracks are steady versions with “Straight Through the Heart” retaining its nastiness and “Stand Up and Shout” is similar to what is heard from the concert provided here. This is luckily such a great song that it is not an annoyance hearing this song twice on the same disc.

This is the definitive version of an iconic album and is certainly deserving of having a deluxe edition. The advancement in the sound and the live concert are enough reasons to warrant a purchase. “Holy Diver” is a classic for a reason and this edition is the perfect opportunity to re-experience this great album.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Eternally Eighties

“The Eternal Idol” is a funny album. Going into the recording for Black Sabbath’s 13th album, the unlucky number foreshadowed what was about to happen to the group’s ranks. It started out with Tony Iommi on guitar as always along with Ray Gillen donning the microphone with Eric Singer and Dave Spitz on the drums and bass respectively. By the time the Idol was finished, Spitz and Gillen were out and the reliable Bob Daisley and little known Tony Martin would wrap up the recording sessions. With the sudden line-up changes, Iommi still managed to make a cohesive record with heavier guitars than “Seventh Star.” There are some elements of glam thrown in as well, letting it be known this is indeed came out in the eighties. The 2010 deluxe edition comes with two b-sides as well as the demos with Gillen before he departed.

The most notable aspect is the new comer behind the microphone with Martin. He is blessed with the powers to resemble Ronnie James Dio at times and nail all the high notes. His ominous tone in the title track can send shutters down your spine and the grandmaster Iommi provides the necessary tools in “Ancient Warrior” to let Martin’s voice shine.

“The Shining” opens with an acoustic part that bursts into electric gravity with a riff easy to headbang along with complimented by solid vocal lines and chorus. The aforementioned “Ancient Warrior” is a standout track because Martin’s voice travels with the rhythm wonderfully and the synth effects provided by Geoff Nicholls are a nice touch.

The idol loses its luster with “Hard Life to Love.” This song would not sound out of place on a Dokken record. Dokken rocks, but a band like Black Sabbath should not be hopping the glam train. The offense would be committed twice more with “Lost Forever” and “Born to Lose.” The latter always makes me think of Motorhead because of the title and this song receives a pass because it is hard not to appreciate the riff and Eric Singer’s drumming stands out.

If the hardened listener is gawking for true Black Sabbath from the Ozzy Osbourne days then “Scarlet Pimpernel” and the title track may provide the answer. The former is a little acoustic number with Iommi putting some light notes together and it serves as a change of pace and a breather for what is ahead. The title track has the gloom and doom that provides a sense of despair that permeates the atmosphere. It’s a startling ending to an album that is pretty upbeat throughout.

There are two extra songs on the first disc in “Black Moon” and “Some Kind of Woman.” “Black Moon” would reappear on “Headless Cross”, but the single version is different as there are no added vocals near the end of the song and not as much put into the lead guitar from Iommi. It still is an enjoyable tune and the verses give Martin room to deliver his message. “Some Kind of Woman” seems like an answer to Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” with some blistering guitar effects and theatrics and fast paced singing. It is not that great a song though and ultimately forgettable.

Disc two has the Gillen sessions and the one thought that prevailed was that was his album. “The Eternal Idol” suited Gillen’s strengths and he sings effortlessly and flawlessly. It is a shame that he did not stick around long enough to have his voice on the record. This is by no means an affront to Martin because he does a great job on here and he is to be commended for coming in on short notice, but Gillen has more the glam image to him and lyrics about love and women seem more believable with him singing than an ugly dude like Martin. If there was any doubt that Gillen could not conceive demons in his voice than look no further than to the title track to dispel any doubt. His voice soars in “Glory Ride” and the chorus lines seem so natural to him.

If you are going to purchase this album, then this is the way to go. The deluxe edition is more expensive, but it is hard to deny the extras. On the other hand, if you already own this then its best to decide the worth of wanting the Gillen demos and the two b-sides. As for the album itself, I point to what Alex Milas wrote in the linear notes as he basically states this no classic, but is a mark of a band trying to survive and hang on to its legacy. That sums the album up perfectly.