To many music fans, the near-extinction of concept records is cause for celebration, because this phrase has come to be synonymous with unintentional comedic masterpieces, such as Styx's Kilroy Was Here. (See, there's this robot, and he rules the world, and he's outlawed rock and roll, and there's this band of rebels and ... never mind). But take heart, all fantasy-minded fans who long for rock that could serve as a soundtrack for a grueling game of Dungeons & Dragons: Ronnie James Dio has returned to save your souls.
Dio's new album, Magica, depicts (as anybody familiar with his style of metal might guess) an epic war between the forces of good and the armies of evil. However, Dio offers a unique twist on this clash, documenting the battle from the perspective of the bad guys.
"I wanted it to be something serious," Dio says. "Not some fantasy nonsense. Shadowcaster, the evil guy, must feel like a hero to his evil hordes. No one ever thinks about the bad guy as a hero. I think that's really what it's all about. We can't all be Mother Teresa. Some of us have to be Hannibal Lecter."
Dio says his inspiration came from such authors as Walter Scott (author of Ivanhoe) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan, John Carter of Mars series). He also used the mother of all story-based rock as his model. "I wanted to write something as good as [The Who's] Tommy," Dio says, "which I couldn't. No one could ever top that."
Some purists might be aghast to see the two albums in the same sentence. Then again, only someone who could sit through Tommy's exhausting instrumental "Underture" would be interested in another conceptual relic Dio has resurrected on Magica: the self-indulgent song that will not stop.
Located at the end of the album, "Magica's Story" is an eighteen-and-a-half-minute track featuring nothing but a mild synth backdrop and Dio's inimitable voice recounting the full story of Magica and Shadowcaster, in case the listener wasn't able to piece it together from album cuts such as "Lord of the Last Day," "Chalis (Marry the Devil's Daughter)" and "Losing My Insanity."
Doubtless, some cynical rock fans have laughed out loud by this point, but Dio says that this is the most fun he's ever had while making an album and that several of his fans have told him it's one of his best. And even if Magica doesn't stand the test of time, Dio's place in rock history is ensured. He is a fixture on the defiantly old-school Internet metal station KNAC.com, he ranked pretty high on VH-1's list of the Top 40 Bad Asses of Rock, and he has personally been told he influenced such artists as Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich.
Dio's own influences include The Beatles, '60s R&B, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. He hooked up with one of his idols early in his career when Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore joined Dio's group Elf, hastening its transformation into Rainbow. This band, which combined gothic, minor-key notes with blues-based rock, released several successful albums in the '70s, but Dio was forced out of the band after he and Blackmore got into a fistfight.
However, Dio bounced back, and in 1979 he became the new frontman for metal titan Black Sabbath, whose members had just kicked out Ozzy Osbourne. Though Ozzy loyalists might claim the Dio period represents a nadir in that mighty group's history, albums such as Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules were considered commercial comebacks for a band that was starting to slump. Then things went wrong again.
"I didn't want to do something that they wanted to do, which was open for Ozzy in Los Angeles," Dio explains. "I refused. We were playing arenas anyway. I thought it'd be an announcement of a reunion. So they got (former Judas Priest lead singer) Rob Halford to do the shows. And what do you know? They announced a reunion."
Dio persevered, eventually forming his self-titled band and scoring hits with classic-rock-radio staples "Holy Diver" and "Dream Evil." The group's makeup has changed substantially over the years, but Dio considers the current crew to be his finest: Craig Goody on guitar, longtime drummer Simon Wright and former Rainbow bassist Jimmy Bain.
Still, for all his accomplishments, Dio is known to many young fans as that weird old guy who played "Holy Diver" again and again at Kyle, Stan, Kenny and Cartman's school dance in a memorable episode of South Park -- which is just fine with him.
"I thought [South Park] did a great job," he says. "They were a lot nicer to me than they were to some people. I'm not that thin-skinned. I'm on South Park. I'm an American icon."