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DIO: Strange Highways review

–DIO: Strange Highways (1994)

“You always seem to find the light
But this time, the light is a fire”

When considering an album to review and pay further homage to the late, great Ronnie James Dio, there are many terrific choices. There’s Rising from the Rainbow-Dio era, Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules by Black Sabbath, and of course Holy Diver and The Last In Line, among many others, by the Dio band. But for my first album review in many months I’ve decided to go with the gut and eschew some more commercially popular and critically-acclaimed albums. I will surely review more of these Dio classics in the future, and I encourage everyone to crank them all as much as possible. Today this space is devoted to the beloved underdog, Strange Highways.

To me, Dio’s Strange Highways is a criminally-underappreciated, incendiary masterpiece that deserves much more attention and respect. The 1994 release was as much an artistic reinvention as it was a musical continuation for Dio. Ronnie’s previous release with Dio, 1990’s Lock Up The Wolves, was mostly in the straight-forward and uplifting traditional metal style of Dio’s ‘80s classics, albeit with some lethargic blues-based riffing that detracted from some of the songs. Strange Highways, standing in stark contrast, is dark, crushing, moody and modern in approach, yet it still retains Dio’s uncanny sense of melody and dynamics. In many ways, the disc sounds like a natural progression from Dio’s preceding work, Black Sabbath’s Dehumanizer (1992), which was as brutal and mechanical as it was catchy and infectious. Strange Highways could be considered Dehumanizer Part II, and that lends it automatic credibility in my book. As an aside, Black Sabbath also released the brilliant Cross Purposes, with the great Tony Martin on vocals, in that generally-bleak metal year of ‘94.

Indeed, two of the ‘92 Sabbath members are present here (Dio and longtime drummer Vinny Appice), joined by ex-Dokken bassist Jeff Pilson and the unique guitarwork of new axe-meister Tracy G. Later a controversial figure among Dio faithful for his live deviations from the original versions on the older songs, back in 1994 G.’s unique lead and rhythm style delivered Dio (the band) a powerful shot to the groin. Throughout Strange Highways, G’s downtuned riffs are crisp, crunchy and always catchy even with the preponderance of slow-to-mid-tempo tunes. His lead work is quirky, to say the least, loaded with tons of interesting harmonics, zany whammy bar effects and lots of wild, blues-inspired soloing. Even through all the eccentricities of his personal style, G never loses sight of the almighty melody.

That’s an important thread for this album, for as consistently dark and heavy as it is Strange Highways never fails to deliver a catchy guitar riff or soaring vocal hook in the choruses. The songs are the most important element, obviously, and Dio gave us 11 goodies here that are very much as “Dio” as Holy Diver was. Unlike its much blander and robotic follow-up, 1996’s Angry Machines, Strange Highways retains Dio’s trademark sense of dynamics in the arrangements, and Ronnie’s majestic operatic vocals are on fine display once again. Lyrically, Ronnie decided to forsake his usual rainbow and fantasy metaphors in favor of more modern, socially relevant topics. That’s not to say that the lyrics here are simple or banal, as Ronnie still inspires and teaches us not to follow the crowd or trust false idols in “Blood from a Stone.”

“Oh, you’ve been surprised again/Pulled like a leaf to the waterfall/Everybody’s just pretending/ I thought that you’d learn by now/Ooh, think about it one more time/What have you got when the god is gone/Clouds don’t have a silver lining/And all you ever get is rain.”

As for highlights? How about the glorious opening triumvirate of the roller-coasting, “Jesus, Mary & The Holy Ghost,” the crushing “Firehead,” and the hauntingly slow pummeling of the title track. “Pain” and “One Foot In The Grave” are mid-tempo ‘bangers with their fair share of hooks, “Give Her The Gun” is the gorgeously somber power ballad, “Blood From a Stone” is a rollicking cruncher of a palm-muted good time, and “Here’s To You” is a legitimate speed metal romp.

But closer “Bring Down The Rain” is nothing short of magnificent. The mid-tempo anthem features some of G’s most tasty lead licks, while Ronnie mystifies with some of his greatest lyrics and vocal lines of all time. It’s one of my favorite Dio songs, and that alone is more than enough reason to make Strange Highways one of my favorite Dio records. Rest in peace, King Ronnie.–Jonathan Kollnot

–Tracklisting: 1.) Jesus, Mary & The Holy Ghost 2.) Firehead 3.) Strange Highways 4.) Hollywood Black 5.) Evilution 6.) Pain 7.) One Foot in the Grave 8.) Give Her The Gun 9.) Blood From A Stone 10.) Here’s to You 11.) Bring Down the Rain

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~ by jonnyboyrocker on June 4, 2010.

3 Responses to “DIO: Strange Highways review”

  1. The great Tracy G saved Dio’s ass in the 90s! Tracy G is the world’s second best after Tony Iommi!

  2. This album was my introduction to Dio’s work back in ’94, and still remains as relevant today as it was then. Great record!

    • Hi Alex! Yeah, I always felt Strange Highways deserved way more attention than it received back at the time. Like you, it was one of the first Dio albums I heard other than Holy Diver and Last in Line. It’s always meant a lot to me as “Jesus, Mary & The Holy Ghost” was the first Dio song I ever heard live. Thanks for reading and commenting, and hope all is well out in good ol’ Denver!=)

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