Dio - Strange Highways
On October 25, 1993, "Strange Highways", Dio's sixth studio album, was released.
This is probably Dio's heaviest and darkest album, whose style is closer to "Black Sabbath" than to Dio's first albums. An album that many of the metal lovers and even Dio's fans probably skipped. It was released at a time when metal was getting a knockout from the grunge and the alternative genres and at a time when metal dinosaurs were considered archaic and less relevant. We're here to tell you that this is a good album, if it was just released at another time in Ronnie James Dio's career, probably would have gotten more attention than the one he got at the time.
The story of this album begins a few months after the release of Black Sabbath's excellent album Dehumanizer.
Ronnie James Dio's renewed and short affair with "Black Sabbath" came to a screeching halt in November 1992, just five months after the album Dehumanizer was launched. Dio left the band with a door slam, after his band mates ask him to go on a joint tour with Ozzy Osbourne and serve as his warm-up show. The plan was that during the show, Ozzy would go on stage and perform 4 songs with the band, but that was too much for Dio's ego, who simply abandoned the tour while in progress.
Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinnie Appice, who left "Sabbath" with him, began reuniting "Dio" band, since the lineup that accompanied the album "Lock up the Wolves" from 1990 disbanded. Dio turns to his longtime friend, bassist Jimmy Bain, but in the end he choose Jeff Pilson, who is known, among other things, for his membership in "Dokken". For the X-Men position, Dio chooses guitarist Tracy Grijalva, known as Tracy G, a fairly anonymous guitarist until then. Tracy will have a significant impact on the sound and style of the album. This is the first Dio's lineup since the first album, that does not have 5 members and which does not include a keyboardist. This fact alone proves the radical musical line change. True, Jeff Pilson gets credit for playing keyboards, but these are minor "ornaments" that don't really impact the final outcome. By the way, Pilson did not got credit for singing on this album, but he "helps" Dio with background vocals, as he did in his previous band "Dokken". This can be best heard in the song "Hollywood Black" from the album, the second song in the video here:
So as we mentioned above, this album is probably the heaviest and darkest of Dio's albums and it competes against the band's next album - "Angry Machines" for this title.
In terms of the music, this album is much closer to the musical line of Dehumanizer, than a sequel to the band's previous album "Lock Up the Wolves". Dio noted that he was angry and furious at the time and this is certainly was reflected on the final product. The riffs are heavier, slower, gloomier, sometimes even "grungier". The solos are more bluesy and Tracy G's playing is at times reminiscent of Tony Iommi. Jeff Pilson's formidable bass is also closer to Geezer Butler's playing than Jimmy Bain's who accompanied the band's first four albums. Listen to him in the song "Jesus, Mary & the Holy Ghost" for example and understand what we are talking about.
But most of all, the change is reflected in Dio's singing. It is less reminiscent of his first albums. It's nervous, aggressive, angry, threatening and sometimes scary, just like it was on Black's Sabbath's Dehumanizer album.
Even the lyrics got a twist on this album. Dio abandons the worlds of fantasy, magic and dragons and moves on to discuss more mature and personal issues.
The album opens with "Jesus, Mary & the Holy Ghost" with Tracy G's guitar howl leading us to one of the more special riffs we've heard on Dio's albums. And the bass, what a tremendous and powerful bass ... and how beautiful is the melodic transition section in the middle of the song that uses the children's prayer before bed: "Now I lay me down to sleep ...." And Tracy's solo here proves that he is not a bad guitarist at all, Both in terms of the sounds he produces from the guitar and in terms of his brilliant performance.
Immediately after that comes "Firehead" which opens with Tracy Vs. Vinnie's guitar-drum fight, moves to a slow, groovy and heavy riff and then, suddenly out of nowhere, surprises us at 2:18 with doubling the tempo after Tracy's brilliant solo, only to return to the heavy half a minute later.
The theme song "Strange Highways" opens with Tracy's arpeggio's and Dio's soft and melodic vocals that remind us of his first albums, but make no mistake, it was a brief flicker that creates a stark contrast to the album's "Doomy" style. That fact explodes in our faces with the gloomy and slow riff with and the heavy and thunderous drumming that comes just a minute into the song, while at 3:30 comes the beautiful and melodic transition section that connects to Tracy's brilliant solo.
The fourth track "Hollywood Black" is a song that began on the Black" Sabbath's sessions for the album Dehumanizer, perhaps the closest to Dio's first albums, in terms of melody and vocals, minus the transition part.
The first side of the album ends with "Evilution" with Philson's amazing bass work and Dio's vicious singing that sends chills through our bones.
The other side of the vinyl opens with "Pain" one of our favorite songs on the album. Dio sounds just plain angry and intimidating, the riff is ragged and heavy and the drumming is powerful and cruel.
The album continues with "One Foot in the Grave" which does increase the tempo a bit compared to its predecessor, but it's maybe the weakest on the album.
Immediately after that comes the album's ballad in the form of "Give Her the Gun", a dark song about sexual abuse that includes a lot of contrasts both in terms of melody and in terms of lyrics that in some do not match a ballad. And notice this, we think this is the first time we've heard the word "I Love You" in a Dio song.
From there we move on to "Blood from a Stone" and Tracy's amazing shredding with Pilson's brilliant bass playing.
Before the end comes "Here's to You", the fastest song on the album on the verge of speed metal, and it seems to us that Dio decided to leave the anger behind towards the end of the album, and raise a glass with us before the storm of "Bring Down the Rain".