When Ronnie James Dio passed away from stomach cancer in May 2010, heavy metal lost one of its most distinctive and respected voices. From Dio’s beginnings with rockers Ronnie and the Prophets and Elf, through to his celebrated work with Rainbow and Black Sabbath, and his long solo career, he was renowned by and large for the consistent quality of his music and his powerful, authoritative singing. Dio was a consummate frontman, generous with his time, and an insightful, intelligent interviewee. His place in the pantheon of iconic metal vocalists is assured.
This latest compilation of his work, The Very Beast of Dio Vol. 2, serves as a direct, albeit delayed, follow-up to 2000’s The Very Beast of Dio. That album included material from 1983 to 1994, collecting songs from Dio’s peak period of commercial popularity, including tracks from classic albums such as 1983’s Holy Diver and 1984’s Last in Line.
Vol. 2 was compiled by Niji Entertainment, run by Dio’s widow Wendy Dio. The label had already released a phenomenal double live set, Dio at Donington UK: Live 1983 & 1987 in 2010. Vol. 2 gathers songs from Dio’s less commercially successful years, 1996 to 2010, when his days of gold and platinum albums and arena tours were well behind him. The album features material from Angry Machines, Magica, Killing the Dragon, Master of the Moon, and a live track from Inferno: Last in Line. Also included are a number of rarities, notably: “Electra”, Dio’s last recording, bound for his projected Magica II album, and “Metal Will Never Die”, a song Dio sang for his cousin David Feinstein’s 2010 album, Bitten by the Beast.
The theatrical, dragon-slaying stage shows and fortune-reaping heights of Dio’s career were derailed by critical and commercial disfavor during the years that Vol. 2 encompasses, although Dio continued to produce excellent, if underrated, work. (A late career burst with a reconfigured Black Sabbath under the Heaven and Hell banner was highly applauded.) With his major label days ending with 1994’s Strange Highways, Dio shifted through independent labels, as did many established metal bands who were cut down in the popularity ranks at the time. Changing personnel in Dio’s band only added to a certain sense of instability. Still, as much as Dio’s later years made for a bumpy ride, his band was never less than stellar–with seasoned metal veterans such as Craig Goldy, Jimmy Bain, Jeff Pilson, Rudy Sarzo, Doug Aldrich and others ensuring Dio’s albums always sounded masterful and confident.
Vol. 2 doesn’t contain the same energy as Dio’s definitive era, although that’s to be expected. The ’90s and early ’00s made for a tough and dispiriting climate for many bands that had previously been giants of the traditional metal world. Dio, like many others, tweaked the dynamics of his sound for a brief time, most notably on 1996’s Angry Machines, in an effort to keep up with the pack as extreme metal overran the traditional, and the grunge and alt-rock lent a certain passé quality to his work. For fans, however, there was never anything remotely antiquated about Dio’s exuberant suites.
Dio’s fussing about the edges was over quickly, and all the tracks collected on Vol. 2 certainly prove that while Dio was advancing in years (his voice crackles with pathos on “Electra” and “Metal Will Never Die”) the strength of his songwriting and his commitment to producing rock-solid melodic metal had not waned in the slightest.
Punchy tracks such “Push”, “Along Came a Spider”, “Killing the Dragon”, “Lord of the Last Day” and “One More for the Road” showcase Dio’s finesse in combining the thwack and crunch of traditional metal with a soaring, melodious heart. Poignant balladry appears on the beautifully reflective, piano-led “This is Your Life”. Dio’s segue into sci-fi turns up on “Feed My Head”, and live track “Hunter of the Heart” is a great reminder–as if we needed one–of the powerhouse, accomplished performances Dio and his band always produced.
With tracks scattered throughout the album in non-chronological order, the quality and craftsmanship that Dio sustained over his long career is amplified. While it would be a touch misleading to suggest that all of Dio’s post golden-era work was first-class, Vol. 2 highlights the fact that his ambition remained undiminished. It contains the full range of his later work, from the grungy and aggressive, to the conceptual, contemplative and rousingly epic. Although Dio slipped off the commercial radar, his reputation never suffered, and Vol. 2 reaffirms the simple, old-school joy of his bombastic tunes, fantastical lyrics, and the prowess of his voice.
It would be easy to misjudge Vol. 2 as a cash grab and to liken it to any other compilation of a legendary artist’s less commercially successful years. However, far from being a haphazard or cynically calculated release, Vol. 2 has been carefully and respectfully complied to draw attention to an underrated, but no less passionate or commanding, period from Dio’s long career. Vol. 2 may not cover Dio’s most fashionable years, but it is a magnificent reminder of his legacy.