Released via BMG with full support and collaboration of Wendy Dio and Niji Entertainment Group Inc. the ‘The Studio Album Collection 1996 -2004’ presents expanded editions of Dio’s ‘Angry Machines’ (1996), ‘Magica’ (2000), ‘Killing The Dragon’ (2002), and ‘Master Of The Moon’ (2004) with each album remastered (by Wyn Davis) and presented in 2CD deluxe versions showcased in mediabook packaging and containing loads of rare and unleased bonus material.

For the Dio fan who prefers their music on old school vinyl each title also comes pressed on 180gram black vinyl with just the original track listing (so none of the bonus tracks I’m about to go into) but for collectors the first run does also include LP-sized lenticular album art prints. Plus, as a special bonus, the ‘Magica’ double LP also contains a bonus 7” single featuring the track ‘Electra’, the only known completed track from the planned ‘Magica 2’ album.

So, lets take a trip back to 1996 and a time when metal was all about downtuning and being nu and Ronnie James Dio was looking to follow up his much maligned (well by much of the music press anyway) ‘Strange Highways’ album with his seventh studio album ‘Angry Machines’ the first (and only album) to feature Tracy G on guitar alongside drummer Vinny Appice, bassist Jeff Pilson and long-time keyboard player Scott Warren. This is a record that almost a quarter of a century on that (the up-tempo ‘Don’t Tell The Kids’ aside) pretty much sounds like a doom-laden template for what Dio would go on to do when reuniting with his old Sabbath bandmates Iommi, Butler and Appice just under a decade later under the Heaven & Hell banner, albeit the tunes are still tinged with some influences from the by then fast fading grunge movement (I mean ‘Black’ could very easily be an Alice In Chains track).

With an additional twelve track bonus live CD recorded in 1997 on the Angry Machines tour, it’s interesting to see that only two tracks from the studio album make the set list (the broody ‘Hunter Of The Heart’ and the punchy ‘Double Monday’) the other ten songs captured relying very much on the rich Dio back catalogue and of course its always great to hear the likes of ‘Heaven & Hell’ and ‘Holy Diver’ played with RJD’s heart very much on his trademark cheesecloth shirt sleeve, making this perhaps the hidden gem within these reissues.

Moving into the new century and 2000’s ‘Magica’ and this was the first in what was originally intended to be a trio of concept albums (telling the tale of a fantasy netherworld called Blessing which  is invaded by dark forces that vapourise people into pure, evil energy) and sees the return of bassist Jimmy Bain and guitarist Craig Goldy to the Dio band alongside ex AC/DC drummer Simon Wright taking up his position behind the kit. This is an album very much viewed as a return to form by many long term Dio fans and I can imagine why they would be excited by the likes of ‘Fever Dreams’ and ‘Turn To Stone’, for me however listening to these songs in 2020 they really do lack that extra spark that burned so brightly on those early classic Dio albums. It’s good stuff, it’s just not that remarkable. Something that is sadly also reinforced by the second CD which contains an eight song live selection from the ‘Magica’ album recorded during 2001 and here they sound like a band simply going through the motions, not unlike Judas Priest did on the ‘Nostradamus’ tour a few years later. The aforementioned additional studio track ‘Electra’ and an eighteen minute spoken word ‘Magica Story’ finish off this expanded version of ‘Magica’, and as I said previously whilst many rave about this record its one I won’t be rushing back to any time soon.

Much more what I would call a proper return to form is 2002’s ‘Killing The Dragon’, an album that sees Doug Aldrich picking up the guitar duties from Goldy and joining the remaining ‘Magica’ line up members and in the process seemingly making the band sound enthused and youthful once more. The opening one-two of ‘Killing The Dragon’ and ‘Along Comes A Spider’ are thunderous slabs of dungeons and dragons metal that have a bluesy undercurrent thanks to Aldrich’s playing.  Of the four albums I’m reviewing here, this is easily my favourite simply because the band sound like they are enjoying themselves playing rock ‘n’ roll once again, which is kind of ironic really as the track going by that title on ‘Killing The Dragon’ is perhaps the most un-rock ‘n’ roll you’ll ever hear.

The second CD adds a six track live set recorded during the 2002/3 on the Killing The Dragon tour which is well worth delving into just for the exhilarating four to the floor rendition of ‘I Speed At Night’.

For Dio’s final studio album ‘Master Of The Moon’ released in 2004 we see the return of bassist Jeff Pilson and guitarist Craig Goldy and thankfully a continuation of the more upbeat straight ahead brand of songwriting the band had adopted for its predecessor. Opener ‘One More For The Road’ sounds oddly prophetic given the personal circumstances the singer would face in the years to come whilst the likes of ‘Shiver’ and the majestic ‘The Eyes’ proved that the Dio brand of metal still had a bunch of cool new musical ideas to offer the world. Which is something they took out on the road during 2004/5 and is captured here via a four song live set on the additional CD which also boasts the previously Japanese only bonus studio track ‘Prisoner Of Paradise’.

If the whispers within metal circles are to be believed then this is just the beginning of a more extensive Dio reissue campaign that BMG and Niji Entertainment Group Inc. have in store for us, and of course I’m sure just like me you’ll be looking forward to seeing those early classics in expanded form sometime soon, for now though these four albums are well worth investigating for a multitude of different reasons, not least the small fact that some of them you may not have heard for some time or if you’re a younger headbanger this might be the closest you’ll ever get to experiencing the legend that was Ronnie James Dio live.

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Author: Johnny Hayward