It might finally be time to stop thinking about Holy Diver as a guilty pleasure.
Just about four years ago, in a coffee shop in suburban Kansas, I overheard one of the worst music conversations in history. It took place, as terrible music conversations do, between a young, disinterested female barista and an older male customer trying to chat her up. “Have you heard the singer Ronnie James Dio?” the man asked, apropos of nothing. “He’s this heavy metal guy from the ‘80s… he totally sucks.”
Putting aside the merits of ‘80s metal as a conversation starter with age-inappropriate women (I don’t recommend it), there were a few reasons why this assault on Ronnie’s honor made me want to drop my latte and leap to the diminutive singer’s defense. There was, of course, the fact that his passing hadn’t seemed so long ago (it had actually been almost four years, but in the moment it felt much fresher). More importantly, however, there was also the sense that R.J.D. had spent enough time being dissed by much more credible critical voices; he didn’t need some random nobody kicking him when he was, quite literally, already down.
Dio’s unabashed theatricality and commitment to the hoariest of heavy metal clichés have unquestionably made him an easy target. When someone speaks disparagingly of “Dungeons & Dragons metal,” they almost certainly have the video for “Holy Diver” in mind; even the more appreciative recollections of Dio in recent pop culture—Tenacious D, “South Park,” etc.—carry a patina of parody. But in an era that has seen all manner of pop detritus, from disco to superhero comics to actual Dungeons & Dragons, reclaimed for the very qualities that once made them unfashionable, Dio—and particularly his eponymous band’s first album, 1983’s Holy Diver—deserves a second look.
This, by the way, is not to say that there’s anything especially surprising about Holy Diver; on the contrary, it is exactly what one would expect upon first viewing the cover art, the band logo, or the crucifix-and-leather-vest-dominated wardrobe sported by Mr. Dio himself. The album has two moods: frantic headbanging (e.g., side one/track one “Stand Up and Shout,” which sounds both structurally and thematically like it was written to open stadium shows) and slower, more contemplative headbanging. In the title track’s opening minute and a half, beneath the wind-blowing sound effects and ponderous keyboards, you can practically hear the dry ice; same goes for the beginning of “Don’t Talk to Strangers,” the Gothic proto-thrash epic in which Dio debuts his proclivity for kicking a song into high gear with a single, shouted word (“Don’t dream of women/ Cause they only bring you DOOOOOWWWN!”).
But if Holy Diver looks and sounds straight out of heavy metal central casting, it has good reason to: Dio, both on this album and in his previous stint with Black Sabbath, played a major role in perfecting those clichés, giving them the polish and definition they needed to become clichés in the first place. While not all of the songs on Holy Diver are as immediately recognizable as the title track or synth-driven follow-up single “Rainbow in the Dark,” nearly all of them had the potential to be: tracks like “Caught in the Middle” and “Straight Through the Heart” demonstrate a razor-sharp melodic sensibility without skimping on the powerhouse riffs.
Of course, there’s also the matter of Dio’s lyrics, which remain among the most hilariously portentous and un-self-aware to be scribbled in the margins of a composition book. Lyrics like the title track’s “Beneath the velvet lies/ There’s a truth that’s hard as steel” make even the most accurate Tenacious D-style parody superfluous; they are metal self-parody par excellence, resplendent in their silliness. The fact that Dio belted these purple-prosed axioms in the voice of a goblin angel makes them even more remarkable: after decades of conditioning with Gen-X irony, the sheer earnestness of his delivery can’t help but feel a little bit miraculous.
Now, as we approach the 35th anniversary of its release, it might finally be time to stop thinking about Holy Diver as a guilty pleasure or a pop-culture punchline and start thinking about it as what it is: a platonic ideal of “classic” heavy metal, before the genre was overwhelmed by dozens of hyper-specific niches. So many of the hierarchies of taste that made Dio seem like a joke in years past have been toppled or simply made irrelevant; today’s music criticism is more heterogeneous and less doctrinaire than ever before. Here’s hoping that the next time I hear Dio’s name come up in a coffee shop, it’s for the right reason: because he totally rules.