The Holy Diver album was released on 25 May 1983 as the first studio album by the British-American heavy metal band Dio, was ranked fifth in the Kerrang 1983 end of year list, and represented a fresh start for the main creative impetus behind the project, American vocalist Ronnie James Dio.
Ronnie James Dio – a short biography
Dio was born Ronald James Padavona on 10 July 1942 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. A classical trumpet player in his youth, a number of high school bands ultimately evolved into The Electric Elves, soon shortened to Elf. Elf played a brand of hard rock/blue rock and recorded three albums. Padavona adopted the professional name of Ronnie James Dio at around this time.
Elf toured extensively, opening for Deep Purple. During 1973-74, Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with life in the band and discovered that he and Dio shared a common interest in medieval music as well as hard rock – which they explored with the formation of Rainbow in 1975. They went on to record three studio and one official live album together, but underwent a high turnover of personnel – with Blackmore and Dio being the only constant members and the core creative partnership of the band.
Following the end of the band’s 1978 world tour, Blackmore decided to abandon the ‘sword and sorcery’ image that Dio had done so much to maintain in favour of a more commercial sound. He hoped in particular to crack the US market which Rainbow had achieved limited success in. These efforts ultimately bore fruit with the Down To Earth album which spawned the singles All Night Long and Since You Been Gone – both staples of hard rock radio and CD compilations ever since. However Dio quit the band in disagreement with the new musical direction, and vocal duties on Down To Earth were handled by Graham Bonnet.
Coincidentally, at around this time, English heavy metal pioneers Black Sabbath fired vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. Through a combination of circumstances, Dio was chosen as Osbourne’s replacement and the new line-up released Heaven And Hell in 1980, Mob Rules in 1981 and their first official live album Live Evil in 1982. Dio’s arrival did much to boost Sabbath, who were toiling under substance abuse and tension between the band members by the time of Osbourne’s departure.
Tensions in the band broke through during the mixing of Live Evil; guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler accused Dio of unauthorised night-time studio visits to boost his vocals in the mix. Hearsay and suspicion took hold and before the album was released, Dio had quit the band. Sabbath spent much of the rest of the eighties with ever-changing line-ups and improbable lead singers including former Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan for a year.
Going solo: the formation of Dio
Tony Iommi noted in his memoirs that the breakup of Black Sabbath had actually begun during recording of the Mob Rules album. “After [Heaven and Hell] became such a great success, Warner Brothers… [offered] Ronnie a solo deal. That felt a bit odd to us, because we were a band and we didn’t want to separate anybody”.
Taking Sabbath drummer Vinnie Appice with him and reuniting with bassist Jimmy Bain from his Rainbow days, Dio set about assembling a new project. He completed the line-up with Vivian Campbell, a young Northern Irish guitarist from the band Sweet Savage.
The name of the new band left little doubt as to who was in charge: Dio had significant creative contributions to both Rainbow and Black Sabbath, but now he truly was the band leader, in charge of everything. As the sleeve of Holy Diver prominently notes: “All lyrics and melodies by Ronnie James Dio”.
Holy Diver: track-by-track analysis
One retrospective criticism of Mob Rules is that it followed a template set by Heaven and Hell very closely: a loose, fast-paced opener followed by a moody, mid-paced epic. Holy Diver perpetuates this structure with Stand Up And Shout.
The first few seconds of the album define its best qualities: a series of naked opening chords from Campbell interspersed with four beats from Appice before the full band kicks in. Although Dio had established a reputation for fantasy lyrics, his repertoire extended to other topics, of which individualism and being yourself was one. Stand Up And Shout address this squarely; the song concerning expressing oneself and not caring what others might think:
“You are the driver You own the road You are the fire Go on explode!”
Dio observed in the liner notes to a 2003 compilation of his work that the frustration and anger over the breakup of Black Sabbath had much to do with it: “I had to do something – I wasn’t about to quit rock ‘n’ roll and become a plumber.” The musical interplay between the band members is tight, driven by Campbell’s guitar work and the melodic hooks of Dio’s music. The track as a whole embodies the sense that the individual can effect meaningful change in their life through their own initiative.
The next cut is the album’s title track which begins with nearly a minute of keyboard intro, setting the theme for a bleak, windswept landscape and an epic tale of good versus evil. Dio explained the somewhat cryptic lyrics as being the story of a Christ-like figure on another world who sacrifices himself in the same way the Bible describes Christ as doing: “It was meant to show just how selfish humanity is”.
Gypsy is perhaps one of the more accessible cuts on Holy Diver for those new to Dio and his music. It’s a straightforward eighties rocker with a simple lyric describing the pitfalls of relationships and betrayals, but confronting the occasional unpleasant options life presents us:
“I heard a voice Sayin’ you got a choice The hammer or the nail”
Campbell’s guitar work is fiery and accomplished, but from a personal view it’s a bit… plain. I personally prefer the mystical fantasy compositions Dio is best known for.
Caught In The Middle is another track I feel is one of the weaker ones on the album – it features a great opening riff but the lyrics just seem a bit nondescript to me as they don’t seem to have any subtle implications, unlike other tracks on the album. Both this and Gypsy maybe also suffer from their placing in the album’s sequence.
This is particularly so, given the number that closes off side A – Don’t Talk To Strangers. This starts of as a gentle, almost acoustic, ballad but with lyrics that ooze spite, paranoia and negativity as series of commands to the listener.
This is a device similar to that of Sign Of The Southern Cross from Mob Rules, except here we are warned of the consequences of various actions.
Dio explained that these arose from the breakup of Black Sabbath and feeling that only his closest friends and family could be trusted. The ballad section of the piece ends abruptly as Dio’s vocals suddenly become much harsher:
“Don’t dream of women Cause they’ll only bring you DOWN!!”
The music takes its cue to become far heavier and Campbell’s blistering solo in this track is one of THE reasons the album is successful.
Side B starts with Straight Through The Heart; a track I also find a little underwhelming. Again it’s not a bad track, but to me falls short of the high standards of those around it. A biographical piece about the romantic exploits of Dio’s recording engineer, it has its moments as Bain’s bass pounds out the rhythm and Campbell distorts the melody on his guitar, but I find it too straightforward and slightly unimaginative.
Next up is another personal favourite: Invisible. The first two verses describe a victim of child abuse and a young man struggling with his sexuality, who both find the solution to their personal problems through invisibility – used as a metaphor for self-reliance and the final verse could well be intended as another commentary on the Black Sabbath fiasco:
“It was a single word that I just heard From the two that came before The only way to really stay Is to walk right out the door!”
Whilst some of the rhyming couplets are a bit forced, the musicianship makes the track with Bain’s bass acting like an AC/DC-style rhythm guitar whilst Campbell carries the melody backed up by Appice’s drumming.
Rainbow In The Dark was always a concert favourite but the album version is let down by Dio’s slightly clumsy keyboard work. The clever lyrics allude to the futility of labouring in vain without adequate support: “You’ve been left on your own/Like a rainbow in the dark” – very possibly a further commentary on Black Sabbath.
The album closes with Shame On The Night. This employs the metaphor of the night to represent ‘evil’ defeating ‘good’ (“You’ve stolen the day/Snatched it away”) with added wolf howls for atmosphere. Very sparse instrumentation with Campbell’s guitar doing the bare minimum to describe the melody bring Dio’s snarling vocals to the forefront. It finishes with a ‘Paul is dead’ backwards lyric: “We are all crucified” – a fine way to finish off a great album.
After Holy Diver
Dio’s problem for the rest of his career was that he never quite scaled the heights of Holy Diver again.
A Black Sabbath reunion in 1991 produced another album and tour, but broke up again when Dio refused to open for Osbourne when both were touring the USA. With Holy Diver Live, Dio joined in on the trend of playing classic albums live in their entirety before reuniting with Black Sabbath again for Heaven and Hell. Towards the end of a US tour in mid-2009, Dio was diagnosed with stomach cancer and the disease claimed his life on 16 May 2010.
Holy Diver remains as a fine testament to his life and music – if you’re new to a man still topping polls as the greatest heavy metal vocalist of all time 13 years after his death, I highly recommend it as a place to start.
Song lyrics © Niji Music/Lite Dusting Music/Vinnie Appice Music 1983, used for critical discussion and review under fair use.