Deep Cuts: “Strange Highways” by Dio

In 1993, Ronnie James Dio was once again a free agent in the rock world, opting to depart his second stint with Black Sabbath after the band had positioned itself for an ill-conceived reunion with Ozzy Osbourne.

This stretch with Sabbath was far shorter than his first (1980-1982), yielding just one album – 1992’s Dehumanizer – and one tour in support of it.

Though the Sabbath reunion resulted in a similar ending as the first go-round, it registered a landmark shift in Dio’s lyrical style, pushing him away from the dungeons and dragons fantasy stuff, and more into a progressive, futuristic form of storytelling.

Though Dehumanizer barely registered on the charts (peaking at #44 on the U.S. Top 200), it became a cult favorite of Sabbath and Dio fans alike. The progressively dark content was something that Dio would carry over to 1993, when he revived his solo band, Dio, which had been on indefinite hiatus.

Once again, it would be Dio and drummer Vinnie Appice, who had left Sabbath after the conclusion of the Dehumanizer tour, looking for new bandmates to carry on with. The band would fall together quickly with guitarist Tracy “G” Grijalva and bassist/keyboardist Jeff Pilson completing the new incarnation of Dio.

The resulting album upon this new union, Strange Highways, was a pretty big departure from the last Dio release, 1990’s Lock Up The Wolves, but – again – seemed like a continuation of the Sabbath classic he had just recorded in ’92.

Starting off with the sinister “Jesus, Mary & The Holy Ghost,” the album immediately strikes the vein of Dio’s real-world cynicism. The music is noticeably heavier throughout, and it doesn’t provide much in the way of light.

You can almost hear the disdain in Dio’s voice as he charges on through an album many label as Dio’s heaviest and darkest.

You have to remember that, at this point, the rock scene in America was saturated with grunge like Nirvana, Alice In Chains, Soundgarden, and Pearl Jam (not to mention their endless off-shoot bands), and alternative rock that was beginning to take hold of the key demographic that heavy metal had, for so long, owned.

Had Dehumanizer been released in 2002 instead of 1992, it would have exploded on the charts. Same thing with Strange Highways: it’s an album ahead of its time, finding its audience a decade or so after its release. Despite its lack of chart success, this album deserves your attention.

On top of the lead track, songs like “Hollywood Black,” “Evilution,” “Firehead,” and “One Foot in the Grave” are titanic tunes that showcase the band’s gloriously heavy unity as they fire away on cylinders.

The album takes a brief break from the brutality at the beginning of “Give Her The Gun,” though the quiet doesn’t last long as the album turns into one of the heavier, more varied monsters the album features.

For a guy who recorded music professionally from the late 1950’s until his death in 2010, it’s quite a statement to label one, entire record as that person’s most underrated. But that’s where I stand. It doesn’t have the cult following that Dehumanizer does, and it’s largely loved by those who own it or have heard it.

Its greatness isn’t contested by, really, anyone. Other Dio releases outside of his first three are either loved or hated, but Dio really did a fine job creating an album that satisfied so many die-hard metalheads’ checklists.

I know a lot of people who know and respect Dio’s music and talent, but always hit me up with the whole “I just don’t like the whole fantasy thing he does.”

That’s fine, we all have our flavors. But I always reference Dehumanizer and Strange Highways for those fans who can’t seem to settle on the side of Dio they prefer. Luckily, I love everything he did.

Strange Highways is a bright spot in a trouble decade for Dio. His next release, 1996’s Angry Machines, wasn’t nearly up to par with his previous work, and he refrained from anymore studio outings until 2000’s Magica, a long-awaited Dio concept album.

After that, Dio would post only two more solo studio albums – 2002’s Killing The Dragon (a PHENOMENAL album) and 2005’s Master of the Moon before he would reunite with his Sabbath cohorts for a reunion that would last until his untimely death in May 2010.

Though Dio is no longer with us, creating incredible new music, his five-decades of Rock ‘N Roll majesty are well-documented and more than enough to keep fans, new and old alike, busy for ages. So grab this record. Do it now.

Strange Highways is available for streaming on Spotify, for download on iTunes, and for physical purchase at all digital outlets.

Joel Roza
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Joel Roza

Assuming the role of Editor-in-Chief for the Spring 2015 semester, Joel is a journalism major, due to graduate with honors from JJC with an Associates in Arts in the Spring. Joel served seven years in the U.S. Coast Guard (2005-2012) and wrote sports columns for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in Texas from April 2009 to October 2014.