Tracy G

REVIEW: Dio – Live In London – Hammersmith Apollo 1993 (2014)

DIO – Live In London – Hammersmith Apollo 1993 (2014 Eagle)

The only good thing that came from Ronnie Dio’s death is the number of reissues and live albums we’ve gotten since.  One of the more overlooked eras of Dio was the “Tracy G” era, Strange Highways and Angry Machines.  Dio had just reunited in the middle of the grunge movement.  Tracy G (ex-WWIII) was not to everybody’s taste.  While he could indeed shred, he also utilized shrill noise and harmonics in his guitar work which isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.  He could, however, lend Dio a heavier edge necessary in 1993.  Add in bassist Jeff Pilson from Dokken and veteran drummer Vinnie Appice and you have one hell of a lineup.

Dio assembled a setlist with his best material, but ignoring a couple albums.  Lock Up the Wolves and Dream Evil were considered disappointments when they were new.  Even Sacred Heart is skipped over on this live album, in favour of old classics and a healthy serving of new songs.  Sabbath and Rainbow only get a song a piece.

The sound is bloody perfect, as if they meant to release a double live album all along.  Having Pilson on bass lends a heavy, low grumble and immaculate backing vocals.  Tracy G might be an acquired taste on guitar but there’s no question he could do the job.  He gets an extended solo on “Pain” that displays shredding, noise and musicality.  Vinnie Appice gets a long solo too, as part of a “Heaven and Hell” / “Man on the Silver Mountain” medley.  Eventually the band returns and they pound out a machine gun riff with monstrous Pilson bass licks.  Incidentally, it’s Jeff Pilson that captures that old Black Sabbath/Geezer Butler groove better than any other bassist Dio has had.

This is a phenomenal live album.  Sure, you can buy live Dio with better known lineups and songs.  You can get live stuff with Vivian Campbell or Craig Goldy.  This setlist is considerably different from those, and the sound is heavy as hell!

4.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Dio – Strange Highways (1994)

Scan_20151011DIO – Strange Highways (1994 Reprise)

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,
Wear clothes!”

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.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Dio – Angry Machines (1996)

DIO – Angry Machines (1996 Spitfire)

I have never liked Angry Machines.  Right from the moment it came out, to today, I do not like Angry Machines.   It’s not because I don’t like this Dio lineup.  I’m quite fond of the Strange Highways record, which features the same band (Jeff Pillson – bass, Vinny Appice – drums, Tracy G – guitars).  Given my fondness for that previous record, and the awesome cover art emblazoned upon Angry Machines, I was looking forward to this album.  Now, all these years later, even cranked to max volume it has failed to grow on me and remains my least favourite Dio album by a fair margin.

When Dio gets his hands on a treacherously slow heavy metal song, he can sometimes wring great things from it.  Angry Machines, however, is bogged down with many agonizingly slow, soundalike trudgy songs.  The opener “Institutional Man” almost resembles Born Again-era Sabbath at times for sheer slow chug, but it lacks any sort of hooks.  Ronnie is bellowing as incredibly as he always has, but he’s grasping for a melody to hang his powerful voice on.  The saving grace is a razor sharp guitar solo by Tracy G.

Thankfully “Don’t Tell the Kids” is a speed metal rocker.  I didn’t expect Ronnie to take it to Motorhead tempo, and that’s cool.  Lack of hooks is the problem again, so you’re left with little but the smoking instruments to carry you through.  MVP: Vinny Appice who has never sounded so lively!

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The disc gets stuck in the mud after “Don’t Tell the Kids”.  The atonal “Black” doesn’t do anything for me, although I do admire the stripped-back production (by Ronnie and engineer Wyn Davis).  I dig Jeff Pilson’s bass hook on “Hunter of the Heart”, and the chorus is pretty good, but the song is mostly forgettable.  Then is the slow and boring “Stay Out of My Mind”, a real snooze.  A 7-minute snooze with an extended keyboard segue!  Continuing with the mind control theme, “Big Sister” isn’t much to write home about either, except in terms of Vinny’s relentless sticks.

“Double Monday” has cool acoustic segment, very unlike typical Dio.  Unfortunately this one section does not save the song which is otherwise dreary and grating.  Up next, I enjoy the vintage groove of “Golden Rules” but again there’s not much of a song here.  Same goes for the penultimate track “Dying in America”.

You may already be familiar with the best song on Angry Machines, a piano ballad called “This is Your Life”, that was re-released on the 2014 tribute album of the same title. When I reviewed that excellent CD, I had this to say of “This is Your Life”:

Fittingly, the album ends on a ballad: Dio’s own somber “This Is Your Life”, performed by the man himself in 1996. I did not like the Angry Machines album, but if there was one song I would have picked as a highlight it would be “This Is Your Life”. Performed only by Dio and Scott Warren on piano, it is unlike anything else in Dio’s canon. The lyrics speak of mortality:  “This is your life, This is your time, What if the flame won’t last forever? This is your here, This is your now, Let it be magical.”

The always lucky Japanese fans received a bonus track with the cool title of “God Hates Heavy Metal”.  Although I am intrigued I have not been motivated enough to search it out.

2/5 stars

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