Few names conjure up the plethora of reactions and thoughts as Ronnie James Dio. He started out as a young singer in a blues-rock band called Elf. His career took a dramatic step forward when he met Ritchie Blackmoore at Hollywood’s famous Rainbow bar. When Ritchie split from Deep Purple, Dio was his first choice for vocalist of his solo project, titled Rainbow after the bar.
After a falling out with Ritchie (two men with egos like theirs can’t work together for long), Dio had a stint with Black Sabbath before going solo. His self-named solo work is often regarded as his most influential. Though known to be notoriously difficult to work with, his songwriting, stage presence, and emotionally faceted voice have kept legions of fans buying his albums and attending his concerts for years.
Holy Diver was the debut effort in Dio’s solo career, and it debuted with quite a blast. Even the dramatic cover art raised clear expectations of what within as the ubiquitous, brawny demon (affectionately named Murray) waved the Sign of the Horns, representing the forces of darkness in the struggle between good and evil that defines most of Dio’s lyrics.
The music was a unique blend. For a rhythm section he recruited Vinnie Appice, formerly of Black Sabbath, on drums and bassist Jimmy Bain whom he had performed with in Rainbow. For the guitar, he picked up a young unknown from Ireland known as Vivian Campbell. Once the line-up was solidified in 1983, the quartet immediately began work on the debut album.
Holy Diver would ultimately become highly influential in the formation of the genre of power metal, and it’s easy to see why. The whole thing is pervaded by a deep sense of melodrama, and everything is emotionally magnified to make it seem larger than life both lyrically and musically.
The album opens with the staccato riffs of Stand Up and Shout, Dio’s roof-raising anthem of self-empowerment. The sound is at once gritty and polished, an interesting balance struck up in the production. Vivian demonstrates his ability as the archetypal NWOBHM speed demon on lead.
Second is the title track, a groovier song with some curious metaphors and imagery. A slower tempo and a long, atmospheric intro lead into this prime example of Dio’s style. Repetition of several metaphors gives them a weight despite their ambiguity, and the solo is so much more than a flurry of notes, with restraint shown in just the right places.
Leading into that is one of my favorites, Gypsy. This hard rocking song has been criticized by some for it’s over-the-top nature (“She could crack your brain/With magic pain"), but then again this is a predecessor to power metal. You wouldn’t listen to death metal without the growls would you? That said, it has a great melody, some wonderful solos, and a real sing-along vibe.
Caught In the Middle has a distinctly 80’s sound to it, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It wouldn’t surprise me if Dio intended this to be the single off the album as it has a more laid-back sound than the other songs so far, and Dio takes some of the snarl out of his voice for more of a crooning sound with lots of “oohs" and “ohoos". It has a catchy main riff and another sing-along chorus that would later become a hallmark of many power metal bands.
Sixth track on the album is Don’t Talk to Strangers. This is a much darker track that’s been heard previous. It starts out soft with Dio sounding almost vulnerable as he croons out cryptic warnings behind Vivian’s guitar arpeggios, which are soon joined by subtle drumming and basslines. With startling abruptness, the music turns much heavier and urgent. Dio’s snarl is back in full force and his warnings turn to accusations. The solo on this one isn’t my favorite, but it’s not bad by any means.
Straight Through the Heart is probably my least favorite track on the album, but like the solo in Don’t Talk to Strangers, that’s not to say it’s bad. This song is more reflective of Dio’s hard rock roots with crunchy riffs, pulsing bassline, and some of Vinnie’s best drumming on the album.
Invisible is also another track I tend to skip, but the lyrics are quite intriguing. Again, another sing-along chorus which hints to us the coming of the conventions of power metal songwriting. Dio does have a penchant for relating human issues to his strange metaphors, and on this one seems to be taking a rather snide shot at the decay of family life in modern times.
Rainbow in the Dark is the masterpiece of this album. The band has been playing this in concerts from the beginning. Vivian really hits his stride as a guitarist here. The song really only has two riffs, but they’re so constructed that they beautifully carry the whole song. The blazing solo is easily one of his best as well. Remember all the references I made to sing-along choruses? This one is the top of the heap. Dio himself also played a synth riff in this song, proving once again it is perfectly acceptable for a metal band to use an instrument other than the standard R&B guitar, bass, drums combo.
The album closes with the low-tempo Shame on the Night. A darkly sinister, groovy number in which Dio is practically condemning the very sources of his inspiration. This goes back to my earlier reference in that a large part of his music and lyrics revolve around an abstract struggle between good and evil. With Shame on the Night, the listener is left wondering who the true victor of this first round really was.
All together, Holy Diver is an essential metal album. Much like Iron Maiden’s early works, this proved to be essential in the progression of metal. Though Dio has never made an album that garnered quite the same level of commercial success and has gone through band members faster than MTV goes through one-hit wonders, he has given us this classic album if nothing else that metalheads of today are still discovering more than a generation after its release.