As the son of a conservative Baptist preacher, imagine my surprise when I unwrapped a CD copy of ‘Holy Diver’ on Christmas 1987. A gift from Grandma, who had bought me the first two Iron Maiden records for Easter half a year earlier, it reinforced both a bizarre connection between heavy metal and religious holidays and fortified my burgeoning discipleship of the genre. From the depiction of a priest in chains drowning at the behest of a demon and the “Devil” in the upside down Dio logo, to the Dungeons & Dragons lyrics and catchy, hard-as-nails songs, the ‘Holy Diver’ LP quickly became and continues to remain a personal favorite.
Fast forwarding 30 some odd years to the present, the late great Ronnie James Dio’s legacy has been permanently etched into heavy metal history. ‘Holy Diver’ remains a stalwart of the overarching metal genre, and the core remaining members from Dio’s band for that seminal record and its two successors are to set to unleash ‘Last in Line II.’ The follow-up to their debut, the record marks the band’s first release following the tragic passing of Jimmy Bain, who notably served as a creative foil for RJD in both Rainbow and Dio. The post-Bain lineup is rounded out by vocalist Andrew Freeman (Thirty Stones, Lynch Mob) and bassist Phil Soussan (Ozzy, Dio).[metalwani_content_ad]
After an unremarkable and requisite retro-80’s keyboard intro that would have benefited from the involvement of the notoriously absent Claude Schnell, “Black Out the Sun” begins things in earnest. The stuttering riff of the intro leads into the open chords of a verse where Freeman’s bluesy wail takes center stage, before the stomp of the stuttering riff returns for the chorus. Freeman, whose voice falls closer to Chris Cornell than RJD, is the odd man out in the band’s lineup. Many would’ve expected the band to tap a more proficient singer and/or known commodity, but as anyone who has heard Last in Line’s music can attest, this would have been a giant misstep. Freeman, who is certainly no slouch, delivers the goods with a skill and conviction that elevates these tunes, albeit with more of a modern hard-rock edge.
On a record that is darker and more progressive than its predecessor, standout track “Landslide,” with its punchy bittersweet verses and catchy, minor-key, half-time chorus highlights the groups songwriting chops, and steers the record into darker waters. While there are plenty of bands that still operate in a more song-oriented, melodic hard-rock/metal space, there are very few that do so with this level of instrumental proficiency
“Gods and Tyrants,” with its bouncy twist of a riff, adds some progressive elements to an otherwise moody hard-rocker. Featuring a spectacular lead break that really highlights Vivian Campbell’s unmistakable and melodically shred-tastic technique, it’s a welcome reminder of how great he is, and how underutilized he is in his full-time gig with Def Leppard.
Elsewhere, ‘Year of the Gun’ and ‘Electrified’ exemplify the kind of straight-ahead classic metal tunes that Vinny Appice and Campbell can crank out in their sleep. While Bain’s punchy bass and overall presence are missed, Soussan’s time spent playing with masters of the genre have clearly payed off, and he locks in tight with Appice’s excellent, powerhouse drumming. Spiritual successors to those early Dio records, these songs feature tight, energized riffs and syncopated arpeggios that rub shoulders with A+ choruses and spectacular lead breaks. These songs in-particular benefit from the breathing room provided by Dokken’s Jeff Pilson’s spare, uncomplicated, and retro-minded production.[metalwani_content_ad]
The sci-fi tinged anthem, “The Unknown,” doubles down on the record’s focus on progressive and darker elements, to deliver what is perhaps its best song on the LP. Featuring one of the more unusual arrangements on the record, the song serves as a vehicle for the band to stretch their creative muscles. When Freeman sings “on a plane of digital debris in the burnout glow of LED,” over an irresistible minor-key arpeggiated riff, not only is he delivering one of the set’s most memorable lines, but he does so in an under-utilized dulcet Beatlesque croon. The lyrics of the refrain “the space between God and machine,” can be aptly applied to the compelling direction of the tune, which focuses on the “spaces” between the standard verse, chorus, bridge structure of traditional metal arrangements. A more focused dive into this kind of tangled, dark, song-focused prog could lead into fascinating territory.
When freed of any legacy expectations, ‘Last in Line II’ is a stronger and more varied record than its predecessor and serves as an unforgettable reminder of what Vivian Campbell and Vinny Appice can do within the context of classic heavy metal. Operating in the shadow of the great Ronnie James Dio is a tough gig, but the band does an admirable job of building something unique on the building blocks of their well-meaning tribute.