Metal howler Ronnie James Dio’s champagne moment at last year‘s L.A. Weekly Music Awards (where he and Mike Watt co-presented the Hard Rock LAWMA to Backbiter) arrived when he got to meet an old hero, guitarist Dick Dale. According to Dio (gabbing recently on the phone), the vet twanger admitted it was kind of odd to find himself still chasing the music-biz jackelope after some 40 years. ”All I wanted to do,“ Dio reports Dale saying, ”was surf.“
Yeah? Well, who glued the Strat to Dale’s clavicle, then — the devil? If anyone can testify to the forces that make a body continue shunning the widget factory decades after restless youth has flown, Dio and Dale (both adoptive Californians born not very recently in New England) are surely two. Such careers always retrack their old footprints, and Dio is doing that right now with his new CD, Magica. At the same time, another metal megalith, ACDC, is completing its own cycle with Stiff Upper Lip. Raise your fist, if arthritis permits, because we are about to rock.
For a few years, Dio has been simmering a not-yet-realized project with his old barrelhouse-rock band, Elf — which toured with Deep Purple in the early ‘70s, was produced by Purp’s Roger Glover and Ian Paice, and formed the foundation for Ritchie Blackmore‘s post-Purple group, Rainbow. Dio’s nostalgia quotient must have clicked up a notch last September when he belted a couple of tunes with Deep Purple (minus Blackmore and plus Steve Morse on guitar for several years now) on In Concert With the London Symphony Orchestra (just released on Spitfire along with stringently remastered reissues of the first three D.P. slabs). He also got a shock of historical perspective when the orchestra‘s conductor, Paul Mann, told Dio his autograph was the first Mann ever solicited (at age 11!).
Coupled with fans’ pleas for another ”classic“ Dio album, all this must‘ve sounded to Ronnie like the voice of fate calling him away from the 1994-to-1998 Dio band anchored by slogzilla drummer Vinny Appice and brain-spinning guitarist Tracy G. — a group almost jazzlike in its determination to plumb the extremities of alienation and metallicism. So RJD called up bassist Jimmy Bain (long ago of Rainbow) and guitarist-keyboardist Craig Goldy, last heard together on Dio’s 1987 Dream Evil, and added drummer Simon Wright, who‘d done stints with both himself and ACDC. And they did it. They made the ”classic“ album. If the pleaders aren’t happy now, they never will be.
Kicking off with a keyboardy instrumental that sounds like Procol Harum buggering Elton John, Magica proclaims from the gate that rock fans of all generations will be served here. You like Black Sabbath? ”Lord of the Last Day“ is right there with a memorable sludge riff and Gregorian chanting, okay? How about Led Zeppelin? ”Challis“ is a cut-loose terror with Goldy getting dag-nasty on slide a la Jimmy Page or Robin Trower. Rainbow? With its acoustic-guitar arpeggios, flutish synth and jig-metal madness, ”Losing My Insanity“ is nearly as Elizabethan as Blackmore himself has ever gotten. Thanks to the blistering tenor vocals, of course, it all sounds like Dio, aespecially the ”Holy Diver“–style gallop of ”Fever Dreams“ and ”Turn to Stone,“ and the bent metal riff of ”Eriel“ (let us now praise Tony Iommi and Tracy G.). But don‘t overlook the heart-shredding ballad ”As Long as It’s Not About Love,“ with its anguished Goldy solo, just because you‘ve never heard the like.
The individual cuts follow the plot of a typically extravagant good-and-evil, youth-and-age Dio allegory, and this is one of the few times in myth-metal history that the narrative isn’t an excuse for half-assed music — story and songs reinforce each other. Flash: Dio says this is the first installment of a trilogy. And he‘s currently proclaiming his admiration for the Three Tenors on top of previously acknowledged icons like Little Richard and Tina Turner. Maybe it was inevitable that rock opera would keep getting more and more . . . operatic.
Meanwhile, Australia’s ACDC is casting a glance backward, too — 20 years back to 1980, when guitarist Angus Young and gang came Back in Black with singer Brian Johnson after Bon Scott drank himself to death, and over a quarter-century back to their first recordings, produced by Easybeats members Harry Vanda and George Young (the latter older bro to the group‘s Angus and Malcolm). George makes a rare return behind the glass (compare 1988’s Blow Up Your Video), and AC DC sounds the same as always. Again. And that means good.
These yobs exemplify the Platonic form of bandness. They‘ve shown no sign of begrudging Dio the services of Simon Wright on the skins since the 1995 return of original member Phil Rudd for the exemplary Rick Rubin–produced Ballbreaker: Rudd and bassist Cliff Williams (a sta-ple since 1978) aren’t a groove machine, they‘re a groove entity, throbbing and thumping together like one enormous beast. If you want more emotional range and songwriting variety, you must be some kind of fairy.
Stiff Upper Lip is a blues album, Clyde, a real throwback to the early ’70s. And at its best — the two-string pluck of the title cut and ”Hold Me Back“; the slithering, menacing riff of ”Can‘t Stop Rock ’n‘ Roll“; the inexplicably catchy ”Satellite Blues“ — the beat impales you like an iron spike as Malcolm Young yanks his strings on rock’s most primitive solos. (Dig that squonky lead on ”House of Jazz“; must‘ve cranked up an old Fender Twin tube amp . . . put down that fucking book, you idiot.)
Best plan: Don’t listen to it at all, just put it on and party. Johnson, after yelling ”Give it up“ and other encouragements-to-rave about 50 times at the end, finally stops and croaks, ”Am I making myself clear?“ You are, sir.
Dio plays House of Blues on Wednesday, March 29.