Black Sabbath had a very acrimonious split with Ronnie James Dio in 1993. Sabbath were asked to open for Ozzy Osbourne at his “farewell” concerts in Costa Mesa. At the end there was to be an original Sabbath mini-reunion. Ronnie James Dio outright refused to perform and left the band immediately afterwards. Sabbath were forced to get Rob Halford, not so far away in Pheonix, to fill in (the first of two times he would have to do so in Black Sabbath, the second time due to an Ozzy illness). Halford did so admirably under the circumstances. After the show, drummer Vinnie Appice joined Ronnie in a new version of Dio.
The new Dio lineup was a four-piece for the first time since album #1. On bass, Jeff Pilson (ex-Dokken), also helping out with keyboards and backing vocals. Pilson was always capable of singing the high parts in Dokken songs, and with Dio he adds a little bit of melodic accent by harmonizing with Ronnie. On guitar, controversially so, was Tracy G (Griljalva) from the band WWIII, which had also included Appice at one point. Dio described his mood as “pissed off” during this period and it certainly came out in the heaviest Dio album yet.
The thing with Tracy G was that he had an abrasive, atonal drony guitar sound, although certainly fitting to the new angry Dio sound. It was very different from the slick neo-classical bent that guys such as Vivian Campbell added to their solos. It was a brutally heavy and edgy change that should have earned Ronnie some credit rather than criticism. “Jesus, Mary & the Holy Ghost” opens the album on a speed metal approach, showing off the new guitar player. Tracy G was like the mad man’s scientist heavy metal guitar player crossed with Steve Stevens from Billy Idol’s band. If you want to check out what Tracy G did within Dio, just crank up “Jesus, Mary & the Holy Ghost”.
Admittedly, a whole album of Tracy G’s razor blade guitars can make one weary, but fortunately Dio albums are usually varied in song tempo and style. “Firehead”, the second track is a slow metal groove that suits Dio well. Arguably, the Dio lineup with Pilson on bass is more adept at this Sabbathy path than any other. Pilson has always been one for the low end, and his bass has an elastic thud that is similar, but different from ex-Dio bassist Jimmy Bain. Slower and heavier still is the title track “Strange Highways”. Ronnie has always stated that he liked to hear the space between the instruments, and that’s “Strange Highways”. This really was a great lineup for the band.
“Hollywood Black” is based on a lyric that Ronnie wrote for the sessions of Black Sabbath’s Dehumanizer album. Maybe it’s even the same melody; the original has never been leaked. This is a strong mid-tempo slog; the most mainstream Dio song yet in this collection. Side closer “Evilution” (love that title) is even better; nastier and snippy.
I have a funny story about this song. I bought the cassette while out on a road trip with my buddy Peter, who was always a much bigger Ozzy fan than Dio. We put the tape in the car deck. The words at the end of the song baffled us both, but it was a case of mis-heard lyrics! On Peter’s overdriven, bass-heavy car system, we heard the closing words as:
“Hello, good night, it’s me,
I’m open again,
Come back, come in, goodbye,
The actual final line is “We’re closed.” If you play the song and pay attention…you can hear it too, can’t you? “WEAR CLOTHES!” Misheard lyrics…or hidden message?
As if there was any question from the first side of the album that Ronnie was in a bad mood lately, then “Pain” should settle. “Take the water and wash your face with pain!” Or, “Take the hammer and pound yourself with pain!” My favourite, “Bury my bones on the moon, if they ever should find me it would be too soon.” It was hard to find Ronnie’s usual positivity in some of these words. But listen to that one floor tom hit at 2:00 in! Holy drums, Batman! I love that one hit, it’s my favourite part of the song, which is actually pretty good.
“One Foot in the Grave” is a lot more upbeat than you’d expect by the title and it too is pretty decent. Notice these songs are not “great” — they are just shy of whatever quality makes a song great. Then “Give Her the Gun” is the Dio power ballad, but thematically it too stark and real for some tastes. Child abuse, gun rights? In a Dio song? All power to the man for speaking his mind, but even the most ardent supporter must concede that this is an unusually blunt song for him.
Onto “Blood From a Stone”, back to metaphors once again, and back to blazing hot Tracy G shreddery. Back to insuppressible Pilson bass. There are some 80’s-isms in some of the guitar licks, but blink and you’ll miss ’em. Then, rock out to “Here’s to You”, which sounds like a blazing hot celebration of the rock, or the “masters of the universe”, or something. But according to Ronnie, “The wheel goes ’round, so here’s to you!” Sounds like by this point in the record, Ronnie has worked out whatever bitterness he had left seething in his system. Finally “Bring Down the Rain” ends the album on a very Dio note, with all the majesty and power he can inject into a closing song. It’s just heavier than before. “Put out the flame”, sings Ronnie, his leathery lungs never more impassioned nor powered.
Perhaps Dio still had much anger left in him after all, since the next album was the aptly-titled Angry Machines. But that’s another review.
Strange Highways in a good album bordering on great — but not quite.