Fade to Black: R.I.P. Ronnie James Dio

I spent Saturday night watching an all-ages Mastadon show. Little did I know, the concert turned out to be an inadvertent tribute to Ronnie James Dio.

If all Ronnie James Dio did was replace Ozzy Osbourne as the lead singer of Black Sabbath, memorials and tributes would still be pouring in via blogs, Twitters and Facebook updates. But Dio’s influence and yes, artistic credibility are reasons many-a-metal fan are mourning his loss.

In today’s music climate, if a metal band wants to do a concept album involving a group of time traveling math theorists assembled to destroy medieval beast that is determined to drain humanity’s knowledge of hieroglyphics, most people will give an indifferent shrug. Thanks not only to Mastadon, but cultural staples like Glee and The Big Bang Theory, these types of geekish leanings are socially acceptable (at least in pop culture, being a geek in most high schools still sucks, I imagine). In today’s climate, you would see the nerds in Saved by the Bell take center stage and have the Zachs, Slaters and Kapowskis of the world regulated to the background only to be trotted out for a punchline delivery.

However, back in the ’80s, this was not the case. And Dio’s brand of hard rock, technically pristine with heavy “good vs. evil” and fantasy themes, was the stuff of punchlines. But in the ’80s, when the appetite for pop metal was so ravenous that even Alice Cooper found himself enjoying a resurgence thanks to Desmond Child, Dio stayed stubbornly true to what he knew best. No power ballads. Not even a turn to a heavier Metallica-like sound ala Judas Priest’s Painkiller, Dio instead kept releasing material that refused to cater to fair-weather fans or even music critics.

For an artist known for heading one of Black Sabbath’s finest hours (Heaven and Hell), it’s unfortunate that Dio’s music continues to be referenced more as a humorous nod to heavy metal culture (albeit a loving nod) than the genuine seriousness bestowed upon some of Black Sabbath’s work. Still, being the class act that he was, Dio managed to turn that humor to his advantage, amassing new fans as he appeared in Tenacious D’s video for “Push” as well as in their movie The Pick of Destiny.

Jokes eventually lose their luster, however. And as more people stopped laughing at the mythology in Dio’s music, more people eventually started to listen. The result, at least partially, is a new breed of metal unafraid to embrace elements of fantasy in their albums. Dio’s fearlessness to fly metal’s freak flag high in the age of hair bands and power ballads in the ’80s is one reason metal is enjoying such an artistic resurgence today. In a genre where many artists wound up sacrificing their integrity for sales, Dio in his unassuming ways, continued to do what he did best. And metal is infinitely for the better because of it.

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