It's always interesting to go back to a classic album -- whether out of personal nostalgia or just observing its legendary status -- and see how it holds up years later. Ronnie James Dio is quite a frequent topic of discussion in this regard since he was involved in numerous acclaimed records in his heyday, recording with acts such as Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and of course his own band simply known as Dio. Dio's first record Holy Diver seems to be considered by many to be the crowning achievement in the singer's entire career, hailed as a cornerstone in the heavy metal genre as a whole (and especially influential to future power metal acts). So wow, this must be absolutely astounding; a real classic, right? Well, unfortunately I can't bring myself to even come close to a conclusion like that.
Let's start with the good, though. First of all, Dio's voice was absolutely great here; he hits some very high notes and changes his vocal style well with whatever atmosphere/sound he's working with. Album highlight "Stand Up and Shout" is a great example of the man's vocal prowess, setting his frenzied howls and screams against a flurry of Iron Maiden-esque speed metal riffing; awesome stuff. Going back to the variety in his vocal style, he switches things up very well when the acoustic intro to "Don't Talk to Strangers" comes around and he gets to use a softer approach. The song eventually builds and the vocals evolve into more powerful shouts and cleans, but it's really nice to hear that intro and let it set the mood for the track. The other "plus" that this album has it at least has a concise vision. It never sounds aimless or scatterbrained, so props to Dio for that. Unfortunately, those factors aren't enough to save the record as a whole.
While Holy Diver isn't terrible per se, the entire experience (with some exceptions) feels dull and uninspired. Most of this music is very typical 80's hard rock/metal that never really gets off the ground, but instead plods and plods and plods. Take the title track for example; after a cheesy (and overly long) synthesizer opening, we get a decent C-minor riff that sounds like a cross between Black Sabbath's "Heaven and Hell" and Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger." The guitar and bass are locked together in unison as a mid-tempo drumbeat gives extra support. This song definitely places emphasis on Dio's vocals, and he certainly does sound invested in what he sings about. The problem? The song runs out of ideas rather quickly; around the last minute in particular, the same riff and variations of earlier lyrics are repeated over and over, and the same plodding rhythm just trudges on in an extremely repetitive manner. Even the solo in the middle isn't anything really engaging or exceptional by any means; it doesn't exactly switch things up all that much with each rhythm-section modulation and, in the end, just sounds like it was meant to fill up the song's runtime. Unfortunately, many of these criticisms can be extended to the entire record as well. The beginning of "Caught in the Middle" sounds like a normal Dokken-style 80s hard rock opening, although it does include some nifty rapid guitar strumming. However, this song represents exactly what the biggest problem with the record is: wasted potential.
A lot of the album's overall mediocrity and poor quality comes from the songwriting, and that's because Dio doesn't let these songs work off the proverbial ground he's built them from. Going back to "Caught in the Middle," that beginning riff could have set the stage so well for a really solid metal number, but instead resorts to boring verses and uninteresting modulations that any generic local band could be using. Particularly around the 3-minute mark, there's an ascending guitar/bass section; drummer Vinny Appice slows things down and Dio sounds like he's trying to make this the climax of the piece. Still, this portion sounds incredibly uninspired and especially awkward, the latter being due to the fact that the same generic harmonized chorus comes right after this change of pace comes around. Most of the songs on this album follow an extremely similar structure to one another, and sooner or later a change in pace will be desired. However, even with two semi-ballads ("Don't Talk to Strangers," "Invisible,") the songs start to run together after a while. In fact that's actually one of the reasons that "Rainbow in the Dark" is a highlight; yeah, it has a concise and traditional rock sound to it, but sounds much more anthemic and has those fun keyboard lines to back it up. The last thing to bring up is the lyrical content. It's pretty much your standard fantasy/folklore material; lots of mythology, lots of Lord of the Rings, lots of Dungeons and Dragons, etc. It's not really my thing, but different strokes for different folks, I guess.
That's about it really. Holy Diver really did have a lot of potential, but it's way too bogged down by a failure to successfully build some great songs from solid foundations. Dio himself had a great voice and the other band members are very good at what they do, but the weak compositions are really where this album suffers. The lyrics aren't exactly the most inspired or well-written, either. Ronnie James Dio was on some amazing albums, but this is sadly lacking. However, considering its classic status, it obviously struck a chord with many others. If you're one of those people, rock on. For me, it's a "pass."