Stepping Stone: Dio’s Dream Evil

If the purpose of Stepping Stone is to shine a spotlight on the bands and artists which started us on our way to metal, then Ronnie James Dio is one of the biggest stones in our path. Whether just by listening to his music at an early age or being influenced by his vocal style, the number of artists who have owe a debt to Dio is immeasurable. He is one of the largest names in a scene obsessed with the cult of personality, with plenty of drama and lore to back that figure (Ozzy vs. Dio, the “horns” and more). But I’d like to focus on a different story for this Stepping Stone, on mine rather than on the grandiose depiction of grand narratives within our scene and community. I’d like to take you back to the days when I was jut discovering metal and the power it had and what that power meant for the teenage version of Eden.

Being a teenager is rough on pretty much everybody. In that, I was no different; the swirl of emotions, the new needs of social acceptance among my friends, the burgeoning ability of self expression, still unchecked by embarrassment or shame, all of these created a boy/man that was basically a dynamo, hungry for emotional and intellectual stimulation. That’s why I started playing video games and pen and paper roleplaying games and why I was drawn to metal. You couldn’t get much more emotional and over the top than metal. Combined with the individualistic and fantastic themes metal often draws from, metal speared straight in the heart and I was hooked, listening to the same 10-15 CDs over and over again (Linkin Park, Dream Theater, Iron Maiden, Megadeth and Blind Guardian, in case you care).

One of those CDs was Dio’s Dream Evil, acquired on impulse on a trip to Tel Aviv, Israel’s biggest city. I lived in a much smaller place and there were no record stores there (to my knowledge, at least); in a sense, that kind of distance from the center was what originally drove me to love this album and many others like it. They offered me a bigger world, populated with beings, places and stories that were far larger than my life. I would walk the streets of my town, to see friends or to carry out the regular tasks of living, and scream their lyrics at the top of my lungs, imagining I was anywhere but there. Dream Evil is especially good for that, with its massive choruses and vocal-first approach to production and composition.

Beyond their technical execution, the content of the lyrics themselves also lent itself to this form of early escapism. I still get chills when I listen to the opening of “All the Fools Sailed Away” or to its explosive chorus. In general, this has to be one of the finest metal tracks ever written; from the impossibly melancholic combination of Dio’s voice with the opening guitars, through the cheesy yet fitting string effects and all the way to the massive guitar leads of the middle parts of the track, “All the Fools Sailed Away” is one of the quintessential heavy metal tracks. It still holds water today, striking the same chords of stirring emotion and expression.

Like all early loves, Dream Evil is not without its flaws. Especially discordant today is the closing track, filled with the kind of “casual” sexism that often infects heavy metal, masquerading as chivalry or supposed care for women. So too have the intonations of “Sunset Superman” aged badly, sounding trite and hollow to my ears today. But plenty other segments on the album, like the amazing opening track or the heart wrenching “I Could Have Been a Dreamer”, still hit hard and accomplish what this album sets out to do which is move the listener to often absurd heights of emotion. Thus does Dream Evil, released in 1987, capture much of what metal has been trying to do ever since and represents an important waypoint in the history of the growth of the genre. A stepping stone, if you will.

Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.