Somehow, after I'd listened through this entire album which generously comprises almost an hour of music, I found that I'd thoroughly enjoyed it even if I'm still not sold on its basic concept. I'm not sure how those two views can sit comfortably together, but there it is. Just in case the cover leaves you in any doubt, this is a covers album, with each of the dozen songs on offer known for its vocals by the inestimable Ronnie James Dio. That means not just songs by his solo band, Dio, but earlier ones from Rainbow and Black Sabbath. Interestingly, they're evenly divided: four songs from each of those three bands.
Of course, songs suggest vocals and these are legendary songs with legendary vocals from Dio. I'd suggest that there are easily a dozen more to populate a sequel album, should Gilbert want to go there, with only one of these feeling like a deep cut, that being Country Girl, from Black Sabbath's Mob Rules album. It's an inspired choice though, giving Paul Gilbert much more opportunity than on the previous track, Dio's Stand Up and Shout. I'm sure that's why he chose it over Voodoo, The Sign of the Southern Cross or The Mob Rules, all iconic Dio/Sabbath collaborations.
And by opportunity, I need to explain. You see, while we know that, when Kill the King begins with a sample from a live gig with the audience calling "Dio! Dio! Dio!", he isn't going to step up to the mike—it seems surreal to suggest that he's been gone for thirteen years now—what's important here is that nobody else does either. These are instrumental takes on the man's discography, a wise choice perhaps given that few vocalists could fairly step into his shoes. However, Paul Gilbert thinks he can, with his guitar, so he delivers all of Ronnie's lines with his guitar and that's hardly a typical approach.
Of course, he also handles the actual guitarwork, so he's not just Dio here, he's Ritchie Blackmore and Tony Iommi and Vivian Campbell. I think what makes the album work is that he handles these two very different tasks in very different ways. It never feels like he's moving between a vocal line and a guitar line. He's wearing two hats and doing two different jobs in two different ways. Just to mess with that thought, he also plays the bass and keyboards, so he's really being the majority of these iconic bands, hardly a minor challenge. The only instrument he doesn't play here is drums. I presume this multi-instrumentalist didn't feel confident enough to do that too, so brought in Bill Ray to sit behind the kit.
None of this should work. Sure, we listen to these classics to hear the iconic guitarwork of legends of the genre, but we also listen to them to hear Dio deliver those timeless lyrics and that doesn't happen here. What I found that I interpreted these as karaoke songs.
Gilbert, who's been a stellar guitarist for forty years now, in bands like Racer X, Mr. Big and more, does a fine enough job as a Blackmore/Iommi substitute to make these versions very listenable, a prerequisite I think for us continuing to listen. This is a very clean album, almost clinical compared to the originals, but that works because, while we're listening to these versions, we're playing the original ones in our heads anyway. On Heaven and Hell, I was listening to Gilbert but just as surely hearing Dio and Blackmore in my head. If Gilbert didn't do the job here, it would just sound wrong and I'd switch off.
And so, when he puts on his Dio hat and plays the vocal lines on his guitar, we take that as a guide for us to take over as the singer ourself. In essence that guitar becomes a little bouncing ball that keeps us untrained heathens in time as we attempt the impossible and belt out these songs in our offices, cars or bedrooms or wherever we happen to be. And it isn't just the obvious signature bits on Heaven and Hell or Don't Talk to Strangers, which must be the best redux here; it's the entire album. This really isn't Gilbert being Dio, as much of a tribute as he's paying the legend. This is us being Dio, right down to every "ooh", "yeah yeah" and "jump, jump" on Holy Diver.
Thus I'm still not sold on this concept but it works. It sounds great, it gives us a clear opportunity to exercise our lungs and it prompts us to go back to some of the best rock albums ever recorded. I had to resist the urge to spend the rest of the day immersing myself in Dio's albums for Rainbow, strong candidates for the best three rock albums every made. Thanks, Paul.