Angels, Sparks, Flashdance: Frank DiMino Returns With 'Old Habits Die Hard'
The voice of Angel, Frank DiMino, offers first solo release, reflects on the power of song.
Frank DiMino has one of the most recognizable voices in the history of hard rock, one that comes to the fore on the former Angel vocalist's recent album, Old Habits Die Hard. Released under the name DiMino, the LP finds the singer joined by a core band that includes keyboardist Justin Avery, bassist Danny Miranda and drummer John Miceli. Guitarists Oz Fox (Stryper) and Paul Crook (Meat Loaf) join in alongside a cast of impressive guest players.
Musically, the Old Habits runs the gamut from classic hard rock ("Never Again") to progressive power metal ("The Quest") and melodic rock ("Even Now"). DiMino says that the idea from the start was to make an album that aimed the spotlight at his writing. The record came about in part at the insistence of his good friend Ken Ciancimino, who would regularly ask about a DiMino solo release. The vocalist was initially reluctant. He'd been part of bands for most of his life and being the sole person to call the shots wasn't something he was initially keen on.
"The more I started to think about it," he says, speaking from his home in Las Vegas, "the more I thought it would free me up a little bit to write without worrying about it being for a band." He discussed the idea with Ciancimino and soon the pair were in touch with Italian imprint Frontiers. DiMino only had one song, "Even Now", which he'd penned with former Angel member Barry Brandt, but it was enough for the label to greenlight the project.
It turns out that getting the deal was, in some ways, the easiest part of the process. Though Crook initially committed to producing, commitments with Meat Loaf took him away from the project. Meat Loaf alum Pat Thrall was slated to take over but Thrall, who has worked with a number of high profile pop artists including Demi Lovato and Rihanna, had to bow out due to have commitments. By then Crook was free and able to sit in the producer's chair, allowing the project to finally take flight.
The result of the whole project is a heavy but diverse recording, informed by a simple mantra: Song, not style. "Since I didn't have to worry about a band, I didn't have to worry about a direction," DiMino recalls. "I said, 'Let's just write and see what comes out.'" The only other rule was that the rhythm section had to remain the same throughout. "I didn't want it sound like a bunch of different bands," he adds.
The one place there was room for revolving doors to swing was in the guitar department. Twisted Sister's Eddie Ojeda delivers a walloping solo during "Tonight's The Night", Armored Saint's Jeff Duncan contributes to "Mad As Hell", and Thrall unleashes a solo worthy of his storied reputation on "Stones By The River". The opening track, "Never Again", shines the light on the ever-fluid playing of Angel's Punky Meadows.
His appearance, DiMino says, was inevitable. "Oz and I were writing the tune and I was thinking of it as Angel song," the vocalist recalls. "Oz said, 'Wouldn't it be great if we could get Punky to play the solo on this?'" Meadows, it turned out, was only too happy to do so. His appearance coincided with renewed interest in a reunion of Angel's classic lineup.
Though it has been told before, it almost always bears repeating. The Angel story remains one of the greatest under-told sagas in the history of rock. Signed to Casablanca Records in the mid-'70s at the urging of Kiss's Gene Simmons, the group released a series of influential but under-heard albums between 1975 and 1980. Clad in all white, the outfit was said to the be the anti-Kiss. If the greasepaint wearing foursome was the sound of darkness, Angel would be the sound of light. Legend goes that someone in the Kiss camp soon laid down the law: the two bands would never share the same stage.
The light/dark comparison doesn't entirely fit: Angel may have worn white but the music could travel a full spectrum of emotions. Moreover, the musicianship was of a different caliber than in Kiss. There was a good reason that Simmons and Co. didn't want to split bills, no matter that it would have given fans more than enough bang for the buck. Angel gigs incorporated literal and musical magic even if record sales never reflected the enthusiasm that listeners would proclaim for the band. There were traces of progressive rock, doses of pop and metal, and hooks that sunk in fast and deep.
With Casablanca's empire crumbling at the dawn of the '80s, Angel became one of the first casualties. DiMino and Meadows split and keyboardist Gregg Giuffria jumped ship soon after. He was probably the most visible member in the decade following the split. His Foreigner-esque group Giuffria flirted with mainstream success and its successor, House of Lords (signed to Gene Simmons's Simmons Records) burned up the charts with a cover of Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home". DiMino and drummer Barry Brandt issued a 1999 reunion album which Meadows also appeared on though he mostly spent time tending to a tanning salon business in Virginia. (He was also the inspiration for Frank Zappa's "Punky's Whips", sung by a young Terry Bozzio.)
DiMino remained in the industry, thanks in part to super producer Giorgio Moroder. The two met while Angel was wrapping up commitments to the Scott Baio/Jodi Foster vehicle Foxes. Angel appeared in the film and contributed two songs, while Moroder, then signed to Casablanca as well, provided the score.
"Gregg and I wrote '20th Century Foxes' and recorded it at the Record Plant in New York while we were on the road. I stayed on to work out the vocals and to make sure that the mixing was OK after Gregg left," DiMino recalls. The camaraderie resulted in a number of sessions for DiMino, including a spot singing backing vocals on the Sparks album Terminal Jive which featured production from Moroder and Harold Faltermeyer.
A step away from the melodic art rock that Ron and Russell Mael had crafted on earlier albums, the album remains notable for the inclusion of the highly successful single "When I'm With You". But DiMino's studio work with the Mael brothers was not his first encounter with them.
"Angel opened for Sparks on a few shows," he recalls. "I thought it was an odd bill but I loved Sparks. I had Kimono My House and a couple other records. I loved Ron's writing and after I sang with them I had some interesting conversations with him."
There was, too, DiMino's unexpected contribution to the 1983 soundtrack to the film Flashdance via the song "Seduce Me Tonight". Written by Moroder and Keith Forsey and credited to Cycle V, the song was a last-minute addition to the 1983 picture. DiMino recalls that the intention was to have "Brown Sugar" by the Rolling Stones in the film instead. The trouble was that no one was sure about Flashdance. It had a largely unknown cast and was due to go up against a movie with real star power, the Sylvester Stallone-helmed sequel to Saturday Night Fever, Stayin' Alive.
"We kept seeing the rushes and saying, 'Wow! That's pretty cool!'" DiMino says of Flashdance. "But nobody thought that movie would do anything. But it came out and was everywhere and the next thing I knew, I was on a Grammy-nominated album," he adds.
Angel, though, was often in the distance, and in 2015 the group began reemerging in unexpected ways. Meadows began giving a few interviews, appearing on Eddie Trunk's Sirius XM show with former bandmate Felix Robinson. There was chatter about the Angel mystique, some of it the result of fate, some of it by design. Very little visual evidence of the band's gigs exists, heightening a sense that younger fans had missed something; albums such as Helluva Band and White Hot were there for anyone who wanted to find them and tunes from those and other releases received some play on various radio shows. For a moment it seemed as though the band might break through and do a date here or date there, though bankrolling the production would be an issue.
In 2016, the five remaining members of Angel (original bassist Mickie Jones died in 2009) gathered in Las Vegas to receive the Glam Rock Legends Award at the Vegas Rocks! Hair Metal Awards. It was the first time in more than 35 years that the quintet had been together and soon after Trunk tapped them for a group interview. The members swapped stories, detailed how the group came to its final, quiet end and discussed their various endeavors. Talk once more turned to a reunion but that seems unlikely, especially since DiMino quashed a late summer story that a reunion was imminent, pointing out that an enthusiastic journalist ran with a fairly innocent hint the singer issued about an Angel-related story. (Meadows appearing in a DiMino video.)
That said, by all accounts the five surviving members remain friendly. Giuffria, it turns out, was scheduled to guest on Old Habits Die Hard via "The Quest". Though the keyboardist was responsive to the idea he ultimately demurred, leaving room for Avery to work a little extra black and white magic on the tune. It also helps that it's a well-crafted piece of music, perhaps unsurprising given DiMino's personal dedication to songwriting and the song, not style direction dictated for the album.
"I started writing very early," he says, momentarily reflecting on his early days in Boston. "When you're in bands at a young age, that's part of what you do; you want to carve your own thing." He adds that even after all these years the beginning of a piece can be the hardest part. "I have to convince myself to sit down and write and once I've started I have to work at it to keep going. Sometimes pressure will get you started, which is what happened with Old Habits Die Hard."
He spent his early days in Boston, where he attended Berklee College of Music. In the late '60s and early '70s, the college was still mostly the stomping grounds of jazz players. "It was a heavy, heavy jazz school when I was there," DiMino recalls. "I was one of the few rock guys." The few sympathetic souls he found were quick to throw their interests in the radical music together in order to pay the bills. "At one point there was a band of about 10 of us, we took Billboard's Top 40, learned all 40 of the songs and just played them in clubs for a couple of months," he says.
While studying arranging and composition his instrument of focus was the piano, an instrument he still uses in writing to this day. He also uses it frequently as a teacher. Since landing in Las Vegas in the early '00s he's been giving voice lessons to students, something he says has helped keep his own voice in shape.
"What happens is that you start to remember all the things you forgot. You say, 'Well if that's how I'm teaching them to do this, I have to be doing the same thing,'" he says. Even a cursory listen to Old Habits Dies Hard reveals a singer who can still compete, quite remarkably, with his younger self. The care he's come to take with his own pipes is the care he hopes to instill in his students.
"Sometimes, with younger kids, it's a little bit easier because they haven't developed so many bad habits. It's easier to get some ideas through to them. It's like a football player going through reps, you have to do it so many times that you don't think about it. You gotta practice it enough so that you don't think about it when you're singing or you're on stage," he says. "All the work has to be done before you get out there and not just 20 minutes before you get out there. Twenty minutes before you get out there is just to loosen up."
The stage is clearly a place DiMino holds close to his heart and his voice brightens when discussing the prospect of live gigs. He's performed with the Las Vegas band Sin City Sinners from time to time and in the group Vinyl Tattoo with Oz Fox. Still, he sounds eager to get back on the stage, performing material from Old Habits. "We'll have to see," he says, "I'd love to do something like that but the offers have to be there."
With that, he says goodbye and no doubt turns his attention to other matters, matters, it seems of song over style.