i hate the sound of guitars

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2010 week 20

24 May 2010 · No Comments

artist of the week: Dio

In my metal days, I followed guitar players from band to band, not singers. It was a plus, for instance, that Graham Bonnet sang with Alcatrazz, coz I knew him from Rainbow and the Michael Schenker Group, but Graham Bonnet wasn’t the reason I bought Alcatrazz albums; the reason (as embarrassing as this is to admit) was guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, who could, at the time, go wheedly-wheedly-wheedly-woo faster than anybody. (And Steve Vai was a reason to pay attention after Malmsteen left, but that’s another story.)

The exception to this rule was Ronnie James Dio.* I bought Holy Diver not because I thought Vivian Campbell was a hot guitar picker — he was okay, but not interesting enough for me to follow to other bands. I bought Holy Diver because of Dio’s work with Rainbow and Black Sabbath. And coz “Rainbow in the Dark” was the freakin’ bomb. And what made “Rainbow in the Dark” the bomb wasn’t Campbell’s de rigeur pinch harmonics and pro forma hammer-on/pull-offs, it was the cheap faux trumpet keyboard flourish, those almighty stomps on the one and three, and how Dio almost-but-not-quite rolls the “r” in rainbow and loses it in “dahk.” What strikes me most after a week reviewing Dio’s catalogue (with Black Sabbath. Rainbow, and his own band) contrasted with some of his contemporaries, is that Ronnie James Dio wrote honest-to-god songs, not just platforms for guitar licks and wheedly-wheedly-woo solos.

The next thing that hits me is the calibre of Dio’s performances. There’s his sheer conviction, which sells lines like “we’re the throw before the toss,” and makes them sound meaningful, if not actually profound. And there’s the tonal quality of his singing. Metal vocals fall on a continuum from castrati operatic wailing to the almost literally monotonous bark that characterizes a lot of extreme metal. Dio is right in the middle — harsh enough to convey aggression, but actually carrying a tune and hitting notes. It’s the quintessential metal voice — for my money, only Metallica’s Hetfield comes anywhere close.

Dio is still probably the most famous musician I ever spoke with in person, after a 1985 CMJ panel on “crossover,” the then-nascent music-marketing niche that, depending on who you asked, was either hardcore punk with prominent guitar solos or socially-conscious speed metal. Dio in no uncertain terms disapproved of the form. Metal, he said (and I’m pretty sure I have this quote exactly right, nearly a quarter-century later) “should be about magic, and gods, and demons,” not politics. At the time it struck me as kinda hidebound, even a little goofy,** when contrasted with content like “Reaganomics killing me, Reaganomics killing you.”

But here’s a thing about Dio’s lyrics: if they’re a little Dungeons & Dragonish, if he maybe sang the words “rainbow” and “dark” a bit too often, they’re also nearly free of metal’s least likable lyric tropes. There are handful of Lilith or Morgan Le Fey-type evil women in his oeuvre, but Dio hardly ever succumbs to metal’s reflexive misogyny or virigin/whore dichotomies. And sometimes he jumped farther out of the D&D manual than he got credit for; Holy Diver’s “Inviisble” has a sympathetic portrayal of an adolescent struggling with sexual identity issues. It wasn’t just an extraordinary thing for a mainstream metal artist to tackle in 1983***, it was positively brave.

R.I.P., R.J.D.

At least we still have your music.

*Technically I guess Ozzy should count, too, but I was first a fan of those two Randy Rhoads’-enhanced solo records, and only went back to Ozzy-era Sabbath later.

**I had a graveyard crossover radio show at the time, basically an excuse to play D.R.I., Hüsker Dü’s “59 times the Pain,” and Straw Dogs’ “Young Fast Iranians” over and over again, so I took it kinda personally, although not personally enough to stop me from seeking him out after the panel for some oldschool fanboy gush.

***Metal once had a leather-clad hold on the title “most homophobic music genre,” although gangsta rap probably loosened it.

Tags: heavy metal · weekly top

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