Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Last in Line's 'Heavy Crown' - Album Review

Dio, led by the legendary metal singer Ronnie James Dio, were one of the seminal metal acts of the 1980s. After successful stints in both Rainbow and Black Sabbath, Dio struck out on his own and fronted a band of ever-changing musicians until his sad death from cancer in 2010. While Dio's musical influence and fantasy-inspired lyrics always drove the sound of his self-titled band, he relied on those musicians around him to help with the songwriting and performance of the band. Part-solo project and part-bona fide band, Dio is always one of those bands that is considered very important in the ever-changing development of heavy metal music. Dio's first two albums are true classics of the genre. 1983's Holy Diver and 1984's The Last in Line are seminal albums, and still played regularly by metal fans around the world today. While Dio's huge voice and inspiring lyrics dominate, it is the performance of three other musicians that, when fused with Dio's personality and vocals, really make those albums tick. Guitarist Vivian Campbell (Sweet Savage; Dio; Whitesnake; Shadow King; Def Leppard; Thin Lizzy), bassist Jimmy Bain (Rainbow; Wild Horses; Dio), and drummer Vinny Appice (Black Sabbath; Dio; Heaven & Hell; Kill Devil Hill) made up the core of those two albums alongside Dio, and had a huge hand in the songwriting process. While Bain and Appice would play with Dio on and off throughout the years, Campbell and Dio developed a fraught relationship that was never patched up. This is why it was surprising when Campbell decided to work with Bain and Appice again to play some of those old Dio songs live. Unfortunately, I have never seen the band live, but footage I have seen online makes the shows the band have performed sound excellent! Frontman Andrew Freeman (Hurricane; Lynch Mob) was brought in, and did a great job live with the band. I am not sure if the decision to record a studio album was there from the off, but last month the long-awaited Heavy Crown was released. It marks the first time that Campbell, Bain, and Appice have played on album together since Dio's Sacred Heart album (released in 1985), so this reunion has been long-overdue. Classic-era Dio keyboardist Claude Schnell was also involved in the new band, but was seemingly unceremoniously removed from the band last year without much of an explanation, which is a real shame. Use of keyboards on the album are minimal however, with producer Jeff Pilson (Dokken; McAuley Schenker Group; Dio; Foreigner), himself a Dio alumnus, handling those duties. Unfortunately, the release of this album has been marred by the tragic death of Bain in January of this year, which has put the future of Last in Line in question. He can be proud of his final studio recording however, as Heavy Crown is an enjoyable piece of work that grows with each listen.

A simple, yet striking, riff opens the album and lead single Devil in Me in fine headbanging style. Heavy Crown, like much of Dio's work, is a largely mid-paced affair, based around big riffing and prominent vocal melodies. From the off, it is clear that Freeman does not really sound much like Dio, which actually works in Last in Line's favour. Hiring a Dio clone would have been a mistake, and Freeman does a great job throughout. He belts out the songs with his strong voice, and the chorus here showcases his smooth tone and subtle power. Campbell, who is fairly restrained when playing with Def Leppard, solos well throughout the album, and the building melodic phrasing on this song is different from his day job. Martyr is one of the few faster songs on Heavy Crown, and races out of the blocks with a buzzing, bass-heavy riff and some loose Appice drumming. He is one of those drummers who has an instantly recognisable style, and his heavy-handed approach was key to the Dio sound. This is a short song, but Campbell finds time for a fairly lengthy shredded solo, and Freeman's chorus, with plenty of subtle harmony vocals, is memorable. Starmaker, which is my favourite song on the album, is the song that probably comes closest to the spirit of the original Dio band. The mysticism that surrounds this part-ballad part-rock anthem is tangible, helped by subtle keyboards and Bain's lumbering basslines.  The verses are quite sparse, with the rhythm section leading the way, while Campbell adds some bluesy licks here and there. The chorus picks up however, with a commanding vocal delivery, slide guitar swells, and Appice's hard-hitting drumming. Campbell solos again, and this one has a very 1970s feel to it, with lots of repeated patterns. Burn This House Down is another solid mid-paced rocker, but the groovy riff is a real winner. Appice drives the verses with his unique drumming style, while Campbell and Bain accent his beats perfectly. The song generally has a fairly staccato vibe throughout. Appice's stop-start drumming makes this the case, and even the guitar solo has a slightly stutter to it, that works well within the context. Like Martyr, I am Revolution is a fast song that grabs you from the off. Bain dominates this song, with his melodic bass growl providing the majority of the verses' musical backing. It is another shortish number, but it has one of the most instantly memorable choruses on the album. The gang vocals work well with Freeman's melodic lead, and I can see this song being great live if the band ever have the chance to tour properly. The lengthy Blame it on Me seems to take influence from Dio and Appice's time in Black Sabbath, and sees Campbell channelling Tony Iommi with some great doomy riffs. Pilson's keyboard work stands out in the strange mid-section as Freeman, with some effects on his vocals, sings the tortured vocal lines. The riffing throughout this song is excellent, with lots of memorable and inventive moments.

After the slower previous number, Already Dead (which has possibly the most in-your-face riff on the album) hits you between the eyes and demands attention. This is the sort of riff that Campbell originally made his name writing, and for that the song also has that classic Dio feeling to it. It slows down part way through however, with Freeman's wails backed by subtle guitar, before the songs builds back up again around a crazy guitar solo from Campbell with plenty of effects on his playing. Curse the Day has the feeling of a ballad. Campbell's gentle clean guitar patterns and Freeman's restrained vocals give this initial illusion, but the song builds up around Appice's pounding drums into a soaring chorus which Freeman dominates with simple lyrics. This works perfectly however, and would prove to be an excellent sing along number live. It is a really powerful number, and one of the highlight of the album's second half. Orange Glow has another excellent riff, one of the album's best, but the song fails to live up to it slightly. Instead of roaring on with a great up-tempo rocker, it instead descends into a bass-heavy crawl that fails to capitalise on the riff's energy. The chorus and guitar solo section are both quite strong and memorable, but the verses sap all of that energy away, leaving behind a rather average song - which is a shame. Heavy Crown's title track actually has a pretty modern vibe to it, and sounds a little like Alter Bridge to me. Freeman showcases his vocal versatility throughout, hitting some quite high notes, and also showing his emotional mid-range. The verses are strong, with bass flourishes and Campbell's guitar arpeggios. The song begins to rock during the pre-chorus, and this continues through the chorus with some huge vocal lines. Campbell also really impresses on the song's fast guitar solo, this is one of the best on the album. It is great to hear him shredding like it is 1983 again, as it is not something he gets to do often with Def Leppard! The album comes to a close with The Sickness which is another strong number, and a perfect one to close the album with. The riff is another winner, and the pacey verses hold that classic Dio feeling once again. The choruses here are slower, with Freeman's emotionally-charged vocals driving things perfectly. Campbell really rips it up here during the song's solo section, and this is easily the most impressionable solo on the album. There are fast sections, slow sections, and effects-drenched sections; showing that he is a versatile player with a lot of talent. Overall, Heavy Crown is a really enjoyable piece of work from some real veterans of the rock and metal world. Is it as good as those classic Dio albums? Absolutely not, but it was never meant to be. While a meatier production would have definitely improved the overall listening experience, Heavy Crown contains plenty of memorable songs.

The album was released on 19th February 2016 via Frontiers Records. Below is the band's promotional video for Starmaker.

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