This week brings one of heavy metal’s all-time classic albums. There’s a bit of a celebration in order for it as the album was just certified double platinum in the US. But shiny things on walls don’t really matter when we’re talking about one of heavy metal’s greatest statements.
Dio – Holy Diver
Released May 25, 1983 via Warner Records
My Favorite Tracks – Holy Diver, Gypsy, Rainbow In The Dark
The debut effort from Ronnie James Dio’s newly-formed band was a big deal from the word go. Dio had made his mark with turns in Rainbow and Black Sabbath and was stepping out on his own to take control after arguments over live album mixes and such. Dio would secure the services of former bandmates from both groups – Jimmy Bain from Rainbow on bass and drummer Vinny Appice from Black Sabbath. Rounding out the group was a younger hand, guitarist Vivian Campbell.
Holy Diver entered a landscape in 1983 where heavy metal was growing to become a major force in the music world. Hair metal was well on its way to taking over the decade, thrash was emerging from either US coast and even the beginnings of extreme metal were showing up. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal had already launched its most successful bands and the foundation for power metal was laid down.
Dio would enter the landscape along those lines, with a melodic-driven, classic approach to metal. It wasn’t a massive departure from work done in Rainbow and Sabbath and it brought the older form of metal into the new age. The music would also offer elements of fantasy in theme and lyrics, something that stood a bit apart from the subject matter of hair metal or thrash.
While the album is a heavy metal monolith, it’s also an easy piece to get into at 9 tracks in 41 minutes. Let’s have at it.
Stand Up And Shout
It’s an up-tempo offering to open the proceedings. While the song’s main riff would be at home on a Scorpions album, the song is given an extra bit of kick by the rest of the band. The song offers a positive, uplifting message – it’s one of many motivating tunes that would come from Dio and became one of his calling cards. And Vivian Campbell offers the first of many electric solos he would perform in his time with the band.
There is a bit of an intro here that serves a bit of an anticipation-builder for the album’s title track and its signature song. Then the band launches into a mid-tempo ass kicker while Ronnie sings about some messiah figure on another planet or some such shit.
There isn’t a lot I really need to say – Holy Diver is one of heavy metal’s best songs. This is the top of the mountain, in 1983 or any other year really. It is every bit the masterpiece it is made out to be.
A high-flying number with Vivian going off from the word go, the song goes on about that kind of bad girl you just can’t help getting tied up with. The song has been a bit under the radar compared to other Dio standards but it’s always been a favorite of mine.
Caught In The Middle
The pace keeps going with another song about conquering inner doubt and rising up. For all of the talk about negative theme and energy in heavy metal and music in general, Dio always provided a fair amount of “self-help” type of stuff that always got left out of those conversations. Songs like this were at the forefront of heavy metal’s motivating power.
Don’t Talk To Strangers
Often highlighted as a personal favorite by many, we get a slow-builder to change things up a bit. After a quieter first verse, the band launches back into the heaviness and pace. Vivian is really putting on a show here without any hint of wankery, it’s some very solid guitar work all over the song. Ronnie has said the song is about his distrust of people after his Sabbath experience but the track is really about not taking candy or rides from strangers, which we 80’s kids were brought up to avoid.
Straight Through The Heart
This stomping number turns the heaviness up to 11 and lives up to its title. Ronnie apparently wrote the song about the woeful love life of their recording engineer. Suffering always makes for the best art, even better when it’s someone else’s suffering. Learning the easy way is great.
This haunting tune delves into the issue of feeling lost to the world. Even in dealing with the tough issues of confusion and trauma, Dio still manages to impart an uplifting conclusion to the proceedings. And it’s more brilliant shredding from Vivian, something not in short supply through the album.
Rainbow In The Dark
The album’s second single has become one of Dio’s signature anthems alongside the title track. It’s another song Ronnie wrote after his acrimonious split with Black Sabbath and the darkness of that time period led to one of his greatest triumphs. Everything on the track works like magic, even that synth line that stands out like a sore thumb.
Shame On The Night
We close the record with a slow burner that uses the day and night as symbolism for life and death, light and dark. Again Dio offers triumph over the evil and darkness. The music provides a bit of atmosphere to contrast from the general heavy attack but still also stomps its way through the track.
That wraps up Holy Diver and one of heavy metal’s finest moments. Dio would go on to establish a legacy nearly three decades long before his death in 2010. The band on the debut would not hold, led by the acrimonious departure of Vivian Campbell in 1986.
But nothing can diminish the legacy of Holy Diver. The album is a cornerstone in the foundation of heavy metal and its influence is felt to this day. The album got its first US platinum certification in 1989 and just recently received its second certification. And no matter the sales, it is always at the forefront of heavy metal discussion. When someone new to metal asks for a list of recommended albums to explore the genre, Holy Diver is always toward the top of that list.