Ronnie James Dio was one of the most iconic singers in rock history. His soaring, almost operatic vocals were always distinctive, be it with his early band Elf, his stints fronting Black Sabbath and Rainbow, or leading his own band, Dio. Now his friends, fans, and disciples — well, the ones who play music professionally, anyway — are honoring the man and his music with the tribute album Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life (CD, digital, vinyl). And while it’s a mixed bag at best, it was clearly made with love and respect.
Now, because sales of this album…
will benefit the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up And Shout Cancer Fund, it’s a bit weird to criticize it the way I would, say, a for-profit tribute album. So don’t think of this review as a way to figure out whether or not you should buy Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life, but whether you should buy it or just donate to the fund directly. Which you can do right here. And probably should. Sorry.
The thing about Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life is that while these songs were clearly made with love and respect, they were clearly not all made by people who understand that a truly great cover tune is one that sounds like an original song by the band doing the cover, not the band that recorded the song in the first place. Think “All Along The Watchtower” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, or “You Really Got Me” by Van Halen or “You Shook Me” by Led Zeppelin. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear those were original songs, not covers of tunes by Bob Dylan, The Kinks, and Willie Dixon, respectfully.
Then there’s Anthrax’s version of Black Sabbath’s “Neon Knights,” which kicks off Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life. While these guys have done great covers before, making such songs as Joe Jackson’s “Got The Time” and Trust’s “Antisocial” their own, this version of “Neon Knights” is a bit too straight-forward and reverential.
The same can also be said for Adrenaline Mob’s version of Black Sabbath’s “The Mob Rules” (which even has a note-for-note version of the guitar solo), as well as for Killswitch Engine’s version of “Holy Diver,” though there are times in that latter track when they can’t help but be themselves. It’s just too bad they didn’t do that for the whole song.
On the flipside of this is Tenacious D’s take on Dio’s “The Last In Line,” which adds a chorus of background vocals and some really terrible flute that does make it sound like a Tenacious D song, but not a good one.
What’s interesting is that two of the best tracks on Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life are the ones recorded by female vocalists. Halestorm, who are fronted by Izzy Hale, really takes possession of Dio’s “Straight Through The Heart,” as does Doro with Dio’s “Egypt (The Chains Are On).” Granted, hearing those songs with a woman’s voice instead of a man’s certainly makes a difference, but it’s a welcome one not found on many of this album’s covers.
Another example of a cover done right…
comes in the cover of Rainbow’s “Starstruck” by Mötorhead with Saxon’s Biff Byford on vocals. Granted, it is a little slick for my tastes, but since Mötorhead can’t play anything that isn’t Mötorhead-ish, and Byford has a voice that’s almost as distinctive as Ronnie James Dio’s, it ends up working out.
Similarly, The Scorpions also do a good job with Rainbow’s “The Temple Of The King,” as it sounds like something they might’ve written in the ’80s. And I say that as someone who has never liked The Scorpions.
Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life also features a number of tracks done by ad hoc supergroups. Slipknot/Stone Sour frontman Corey Taylor is backed by his sometime Stone Sour mates Roy Mayorga and Christian Martucci on Dio’s “Rainbow In The Dark”; Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes and ex-Dio mates Simon Wright, Craig Goldy, Rudy Sarzo, and Scott Warren do Rainbow’s “Catch The Rainbow”; while Lynch Mob’s Oni Logan, Dio’s Rowan Robertson, and others stumble through Dio’s “I.” But, again, both just sound more like someone doing bad Dio karaoke than an original song.
The only one of these supergroup songs that works is when Judas Priest’s Rob Halford joins ex-Dio mates Vinny Appice, Doug Aldrich, Jeff Pilson, and Scott Warren for Rainbow’s “Man On The Silver Mountain.” As with the songs by Halestrom, Doro, and the law firm of Mötorhead & Byford, this cover works well because Halford has such a distinctive voice and is clearly not trying to do his best Dio impression, while the rest of the band are following the same ethos as well.
Then there’s Metallica’s contribution,
“Ronnie Rising Medley,” which has them tearing through the Rainbow songs “A Light In The Black,” “Tarot Woman,” “Stargazer,” and “Kill The King” in nine minutes. Though unlike their previous medleys — like one they did of Mercyful Fate songs for their Garage Inc. album, during which they play snippets of five songs — “Ronnie Rising Medley” is actually them playing a bit of “A Light In The Black” before launching into “Tarot Woman,” and then pausing a second before ripping from “Stargazer” to “Kill The King,” which makes this more like what they did with Black Sabbath’s “Sabbra Cadabra” and “A National Acrobat” on Garage Inc. Which is why — well, along with my love of Metallica — that this track ranks as the album’s highlight.
While Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life does a good job of honoring the man, it’s also not hard to imagine what could’ve been if the people behind this had been a bit more adventurous. Dio’s influence went well beyond hard rock and heavy metal, but that’s not represented here. I’m not suggest Katy Perry do a Dio song or Harry Connick, Jr. tackles Rainbow, but nine inch nails’ Trent Reznor and 1000 Homo DJs did a great job with the original Sabbath’s “Supernaut,” I’m sure Reznor and n.i.n. could do justice to “Heaven And Hell” or “Sign Of The Southern Cross.”
It also would’ve been cool if they had gotten Black Sabbath to do a song. Hearing Ozzy Osbourne sing a track from the band’s Dio era would’ve really been something. It’s also sad they couldn’t get his former Rainbow bandmate Ritchie Blackmore on here somewhere or, given Ronnie James Dio’s operatic tone, a song sung by a real opera singer.
Oh, and someone should’ve done an Elf song.
What this does have, however,
is the man himself, who closes Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life with the song “This Is Your Life” from his 1996 album Angry Machines. A simple piano and vocal track, this haunting tune is a fitting end to this loving tribute. It’s just too bad that all of the songs on this album aren’t as good.