I guess this was inevitable. When I originally conceived of this column, there was a lot of details I wanted to get into. Vocalists who started as screamers and turned into great clean singers. Vocalists who pioneered new styles. Vocalists who simply have unique voices. But before we get into all of that, I feel as though we have to establish some of the basics of metal singing. Back in the 70s, metal singers were simply rock singers with a louder band behind them. There weren’t distinctive styles. However, as metal became more and more separate from hard rock, the playing styles of each instrument involved in making metal developed their own identity and distinct style. In opera and classical singing, teachers and singers refer to voice types as “fachs”. The fach system was developed by the Germans to make casting operas easier. As we talk about the emerging styles of metal singing, I will be using this term. Arguably, the first metal fach was the Dio-fach. So, to establish these metal basics, I will be doing an overview of Ronnie James Dio’s voice, his career, and how he established this fach. To keep things official, I’ve embedded a Spotify playlist of all the tracks I talk about so you can listen along.
While Black Sabbath certainly takes the cake for being the first metal band, Ozzy Osbourne didn’t have a very “metal” voice. Sure, his style was influential but his voice is rather plain with a small range of notes and dynamics. He’s really more of a personality than he is a vocal performer. The next proto-metal band with a great frontman would be Deep Purple, but again, Ian Gillan, while an absolutely thrilling singer, wasn’t really distinctly metal. When Dio began with Rainbow, he brought something new to the table.
In a way, it’s strange that Dio stuck out so much during in this era. After all, he was spawned out of the seemingly never-dry pool of 70’s hard rock and wasn’t really changing the game technically speaking. He doesn’t really employ any real new technique or style. The new sound Dio brought was really just him letting his voice loose. The first thing, then, to understand about Dio, is that, like Pavarotti, much of his fame and ability comes from simply having an amazing instrument. He was born with pipes of steel and knew exactly what to do with them to match the music.
His three albums with Rainbow showcase his voice at its bluesiest and most flexible. Tracks like “Man on The Silver Mountain” and “Long Live Rock and Roll” are driven forward by his signature improvisatory growl that maintains all its masculinity and strength despite lying firmly in the high tenor range, a feat that many rock and metal frontmen couldn’t pull off at the time. I’ve talked about this sort of “grit” that some metal singers employ before. It’s difficult to get this sort of sound in higher registers and that’s why Dio’s voice is often described as “powerful” or “full”. Listen to “Stargazer” and how he maintains this sort of distortion in his voice on the highest notes of the phrases. One way he does this is through vowel modification. Most of his high notes tend toward the vowels [a], [i], and [e] in IPA or “ah”, “eeee”, and “eh”. Listen to some of these phrases and exactly how he pronounces the vowels:
“I’m the man on the SEELver mountEHn”
“Where is your stAHHHHHH? Is it fAHHHH?”
Or on his other classics:
“Straight through the HAAAAAAAAHt”
“We’re the last in LAAAAAAAAAAHn”
This is what opera singers do to achieve maximum vibrato and freedom in their voices. Dio is even making them a bit more nasal, like French vowels, in order to bring them more forward and into his nose. If other singers at this time were adding a metaphorical fuzz pedal to their voice, then Dio was adding a Boss HM-2.
Another prominent feature of Dio’s voice is his ability to convey real, tender emotion. He showed us this side of voice in the Rainbow days but I believe the best demonstration of this is on the track, “Children of The Sea”, a soft ballad during his time with Black Sabbath. Dio shows real restraint in the opening bars and progressively gets more and more powerful as the song unfolds. Appropriately, the power Dio adds to his voice still leaves room for vulnerability. While Dio always relied on the natural beauty of his instrument, he always had instinctual sensitivity unlike most frontmen. The music was always first for Dio.
As Dio aged into his 30s and 40s, his voice became grittier and he relied more and more on this throatier sound. Tracks like “Straight Through the Heart” and “We Rock” demonstrate this sound perfectly. He sounds like a roaring lion. This was his classic sound from Holy Diver to Lock Up The Wolves. Then, as metal changed, Dio tried to chase it. Tracks like “Jesus, Mary, & The Holy Ghost” show Dio’s viciousness on a fairly modern sounding instrumental, an interesting juxtaposition that still works. By the way, there’s really not a bad Dio album. Though not on Spotify, Magica, Killing The Dragon and Master of the Moon, are just as righteous and classic as his more famous albums. As he entered his 50s and 60s, his voice maintained the vast majority of its brilliance, though he did lose a few notes off the top. This darker and lower tone is utilized perfectly on his final album with the members of Black Sabbath, The Devil You Know. Tracks like “Bible Black” tap into the darkness of Black Sabbath’s first few albums but with Dio’s voice on top, the music takes on a new brilliance. He sang beautiful until his final days and that’s something very few singers can achieve.
So there’s Dio in a nutshell. The man was all about power, vibrato, grit, and emotion. Though gone now, his influence still makes waves in metal today. This is why I say Dio made the first real metal fach. Metal singers quickly took to mimicking him and now we have a whole army of Dio-esque vocalists who totally owe their utilization of strong vibrato and gritty singing to the original horn-slinger himself. This list includes but is not limited to: Jorn Lande, Russell Allen, Jon Oliva, David Wayne, Mark Boals, Joe Amore, and Tim Aymar. I’ve added some tracks of these guys to the playlist so you can hear the similarities.
Next week, we’ll unfold the next metal fach: the Halford fach.