[18 July 2013]
One interesting thing that is all too often missed about Ronnie James Dio (who died in May of 2010 at age 67) is that he was much more of a music industry veteran than most people would believe. His eponymous and groundbreaking heavy metal band Dio hit the charts with their debut Holy Diver in 1982 and many music fans are well aware that he was the first post-Ozzy Osbourne lead singer of Black Sabbath (starting in 1979) and fronted Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow (from 1975) before that. However, Ronnie was already a music veteran before either Rainbow or Sabbath, having his first professional singles with his first (major) band Ronnie & The Red Caps in the year of 1958.
Yes, 1980s metal icon Ronnie James Dio was professionally releasing singles a full 10 years before Black Sabbath was even formed, over 20 years before he joined Black Sabbath and almost 25 years before the band Dio came to be. With such a long history in the music industry, one might expect a bit more diversity in Dio’s catalogue, but even their ambitious eighth album Magica (originally released in 2000), Dio seems firmly set in the vibe of the metal and hard rock of the early 1980s.
Naturally, this is an excellent thing for fans of Dio. Who wants to say their favorite band has either sold out or forgot who they were? At the time of its initial release, “nu metal” was all the rage and Dio avoided all semblance of rap-metal or other nu influences and poured his heart (and operatic voice) into making the best album possible. Magica is a true treat for fans and an interesting, story-based concept album. Dio had planned this to be the first epic in a trilogy of concept albums to tell the full tale that Magica postulated. Although new songs for the second project were planned and some even recorded, Ronnie’s 2010 demise marked the end of this three-part project, both canceling the fruition of Magica and warranting the 2013, two-disc Deluxe Edition.
Magica carries all the highlights of big time, near over-the-top 1980s heavy metal concept albums (although it was recorded and released a decade after the 1980s ended). Dio adds in huge keyboards and epic-sounding string arrangements over the clean guitar leads and loud guitars, all accompanying Ronnie’s own dynamic and operatic voice. Continuing the resurgence of the 1980s vibe, guitarist Craig Goldy made his Dio return with Magica after having performed on Dream Evil and Master of the Moon. Goldy’s picking here is firmly set in the ‘80s metal genre and is a suitable treat for the ears on each track. The fifth song, “To Turn to Stone” showcases an excellent solo performance by Goldy as its intro, showing his perfect fit with the 2000 version of the band.
The Magica story itself is part Seventh Son of a Seventh Son, part Kilroy was Here and part over-the-top metallic unintentional comedy in the vein of This Is Spinal Tap. A robotic voice from the future kicks off the opening track Discovery and describes the capture of a manuscript of a futuristic kind of bible (also called Magica), which will be the centerpiece for the entirety of the first disc.
What follows is a technically proficient and interesting metal opus (produced by Ronnie James Dio himself) that is easy to take as a series of individual songs, as opposed to an over-arching story. When one attempts to decipher the story itself, it can be occasionally awe-inspiring and occasionally humorous in its interplanetary sci-fi meets Tolkien sword-and-sorcery, especially when Dio (who is capable as a vocalist and as a producer) delivers each line with unquenchable, unwavering sanctimony and seriousness.
Speaking of which, the spoken-word piece “The Magica Story” previously ended the album and now kicks off the second disc. This eighteen-plus minute narrative both exposes the complexity of Dio’s story and adds a little more to the over-the-top nature of the concept album. Characters like “Shadowcast”, “Challis”, and “Ariel” involved in political intrigue, alien prisons, guards and inhuman creatures all form an epic story that may also be a bit too esoteric for its own good. However, the key is still in the execution here and Dio’s sincere, smooth and interesting voice demands that the listener pay attention without prejudice and believe as much as the singer himself does, even when the symbolism (a futuristic torture device in the form of a cross, for example) gets a little heavy-handed. The last words “But that is another story…” leave this promising story open for a sequel.
The remains of disc two feature alternate takes of songs on disc one as well as unique tracks like “Annica 1” and Dio’s final single before his death, “Electra”. These remain the final samples of what were to be Magica II and Magica III. The strain shows in Dio’s voice on “Electra”, which adds both pathos to the song and the reality that this is his final release.
For fans of (or curious listeners to) Dio and 1980s-style operatic metal in general, Magica‘s Deluxe Edition is not simply a revisitation of a throwback to a bygone musical style. Magica (and Dio as a man and a band) eschewed current rock and roll trends to create the best album possible. The results feel less too late than they do timeless. Magica is a standout among albums of its kind and a great listen for fans of artistic metal. With no less than 52 years in the music industry, it’s impossible to choose a masterpiece among Ronnie James Dio’s releases. That said, Magica is much more than for completists only.