All the way back in 1993, the DIO band, which was spearheaded by legendary and much-missed vocalist Ronnie James Dio, released an utterly raw, gut-punching record entitled Strange Highways. The album was notable for its dark and somewhat dystopian tone, and it marked a new sound and style that was anything but commercial or easy to absorb. Following Ronnie’s stint with Black Sabbath (the 1992 Dehumanizer album and tour), the singer was once again on his own and decided to get the DIO band back together. Joining him were the amazing Vinny Appice (drums), the rock-solid Jeff Pilson (bass), and the inventive guitarist Tracy G (real name: Gri Jalva). Strange Highways re-defined the DIO band in many ways; the lyrics although riddled with metaphors and various analogies were far removed from the fantasy-inspired lyrics of old and instead we were served thought-provoking and reflective words dealing with social criticism, social issues, and the likes. Crushing, crunchy, and heavy as hell, the disc still sounds as sharp as a razor nowadays; it simply has not dated one iota, and it comes across as an inspired, vigorous band-effort.
The fiery opening track ‘Jesus, Mary & the Holy Ghost‘ and the ferocious ‘Blood from a Stone‘ will inevitably melt either your face or your brain, and the title track is so goddamn massive and strangely eerie that it is capable of moving mountains AND haunt your dreams. The heartfelt power ballad ‘Give Her the Gun’ is also a standout as is the vicious ‘Evilution‘.
An interesting thing about the fourth track on the album, more specifically ‘Hollywood Black’, is that the title derives from the Black Sabbath Dehumanizer rehearsals and writing sessions that took place in 1991-1992. Musically, the Sabbath demo track was probably an entirely different thing to what ended up on the Strange Highways album. Dio most likely only kept the title and then set new music to it. Still, it is cool that there is reference and a nod to the Black Sabbath days on the aforementioned album. Should you be intrigued by or interested in listening to the Dehumanizer rehearsals, they are floating around on YouTube.
I distinctly recall the first time I ever listened to Strange Highways back in June 2003. It was something else entirely and it took me a while to get used to it and even warm to it, but the more I listened, the more I loved it. It was truly compelling and almost claustrophobic at times. It is perhaps the heaviest and angriest album of Dio’s career, and it still holds up to this day. Unfortunately, not that many people know of it and it had very little commercial success when it was released. One can only hope that it will enjoy a renaissance of sorts and that more fans and listeners will pick up on it. Many of the songs worked really well in a live setting, which is evidenced by the superb Live in London: Hammersmith Apollo 1993 live recording that was released just a few years ago. The band totally slays, and Tracy G’s inventive and unorthodox shredding-style breathes new life into all the Sabbath, Rainbow, and DIO classics.
Quite a while ago there was an interview with the aforementioned six-string wizard Tracy G conducted by a Ronnie James Dio message board and there were a couple of interesting bits there relating to the writing sessions for Strange Highways. Ronnie would take the musical ideas and riffs and so on home with him following rehearsals and then bring lyrics around the next day to present them to the band:
We would record it with Vinny’s little tape deck. Ronnie would take it home and the next day he would sing to us what he wrote to it, and always whatever he came up with to me was amazing. To record the CD, he hired an outside producer named Mike Fraser. He just worked on the new AC/DC CD. I loved him, he just let us do what we do. He did not make any changes, he just captured what we were and how we played. Awesome to me; that’s the way a great CD should be written and recorded. Just do it and let the musicians be themselves and it will flow better, I think.
Bassist Jeff Pilson (Foreigner) also remembers his time with the DIO band fondly and said that
. . . we were a great band. And then the other side was the camaraderie, ’cause Vinny Appice [drums] is a very dear friend of mine. Tracy G [guitar] was a great friend. Scott Warren was a good friend, who was playing keys at the time, and Ronnie was a dear friend. So there was a lot of camaraderie, and we were a great band. It doesn’t get better than that.
In summing up, Strange Highways deserves the tag ‘modern classic’ and the next time you find yourself craving for hard, pulverizing heavy metal with a delightfully sinister twist to it, you really need not look any further than this stellar output.
Vinny Appice – drums
Ronnie James Dio – vocals
Tracy G – guitars
Jeff Pilson – bass and keyboards
Recorded at Rumbo Recorders, Los Angeles, California.
Produced, mixed, and engineered by Mike Fraser.