The metal world was shaken as it lost the legendary Ronnie James “Dio” Padavona passed away from lung cancer in 2010. His iconic, gritty voice and fantastical lyricism continues to inspire and enthrall legions of metal fans should they chance upon his resting place deep within the castle halls of metal’s past.
Near the end of his life, Dio reunited with past band mates Vivian Campbell, Jimmy Bain and Vinny Appice. In 2012, the trio formed a new band with singer Andrew Freeman. They dubbed themselves the Last in Line in tribute to the Holy Diver himself.
I was thrilled to find Last in Line and even more so upon discovering they already had two albums
With a namesake lifted from Dio’s second solo album, I fully expected the band to be a focused tribute of Dio’s style. Last in Line had to differentiate themselves from Dio otherwise they’d risk existing as a pale imitation of his metal legacy.
There’s an air of formality surrounding Last in Line. They are obligated to sacrifice a few of their own ideas in order to justify the Last in Line title. Sadly, I would’ve preferred a full-blown Dio pander-fest more than what they churned out, but at least they tried.
Generally, there’s something lost in the music of II. As a longtime Dio fan, it lacks much of what I enjoy about this bend of metal. It trades in the castle rock and classical metal with generic power rock riffs and vocals that are loud and powerful but lack real tenacity.
There’s a hardness and vocal grit that Dio offered that was absolutely key to making this approach to metal not sound like your dime-a-dozen power-metal and modern radio rock band. Freeman has a strong voice but sounds too undifferentiated from the status quo.
Their first release, Heavy Crown, completed shortly before Bain’s passing away in 2016, was more noticeably a Dio tribute. The Heavy Crown title invokes a sense of carrying the crown of the metal king but Last in Line’s second album II is where they grew into their own flavor, for better or worse.
To locate it on the Dio compass, the II album is thematically dark and focused on the present, like Dio’s Strange Highways, but lacks the venomous vocals and cynicism of that album.
II‘s tracks like “Black Out the Sun” and “Gods and Tyrants” are the successful expressions of the album’s themes, but much of the record tiptoes around current political issue. Many of the songs attempt to make pointed statements about our modern disposition. Most of these attempts fall short as the lyrics are too vague to leave any lasting impressions.
“Black out your dreams and wake up to reality,” Freeman sang in “Black Out the Sun”, “They’re coming for your children and counting on your apathy.”
The band wisely chose “Black Out the Sun” to open the album. Musically it’s a lovechild of Dio’s “Shame on the Night and “Lock Up the Wolves” which should keep old fans in familiar waters.
The track features sturdy and steady guitars and drums that focus the attention on Freeman’s vocals. Freeman sprinkles in a touch of Dio’s classical literature and medieval symbolism throughout the lyrics — circuses, fire, fools, and dreams.
The album mixes in homages to Dio’s word-choice and riffs sparingly. Fans of Rainbow’s “Stargazer” (another Dio-sung track) will easily pick up on the borrowed riff in II‘s “The Unknown” and catch the possible nod to the Strange Highway Dio track “Blood from a Stone” early in the song. “The Unknown” also deploys a Dio-era Black Sabbath “Heaven and Hell”-style “On and on and on” before its final chorus.
There’s no shortage of allusions to Dio on the album but “The Unknown” is the strongest contender for successfully mixing the old with the new.
Much of the album sounds like a faster version of the 2004 Dio release Master of the Moon. Sonically, it leaves behind the slow-chugging doom rock but takes the heaviness and the riff-structure along for the ride to good effect.
For all its efforts, the album is an above-average modern hard rock venture with no shortage of tasty solos but people who like to really dive into lyrics or song interpretations may be left stranded.
In Loudersound’s track-by-track rundown of II they quote Campbell as having said that emulating Ronnie was not the goal and that he believes Freeman’s style is more appropriate these days.
“That would be ridiculous to emulate Ronnie,” Campbell said. “He doesn’t remind me of Ronnie in any way and he’s a much more energetic and aggressive front man than Ronnie was… which suits the nature of the times.”
The lack of the Dio-style flourishes leaves most of the songs without thematic nuance. The band tries to discuss modern issues but they’re afraid of stirring the pot. While Dio’s Strange Highways was cynical toward corporatism, MTV’s affects on the music industry, and institutions of authority, Last in Line’s II lacks a solid target for its criticisms.
The track “Year of the Gun” is an attempt at social commentary about the semi-recent mass shootings, but it feels lyrically empty — an incomplete thought. The band still faced some backlash and accusations of being partisan, but Campbell decried the allegations.
“Some people have incorrectly interpreted this song as taking a stand on the gun debate,” Campbell said. “It’s simply an artistic reflection on the times that we live in. It’s always been the artist’s role to hold up a mirror to the real world.”
If you’re looking for a solid rock album then Last in Line II should satisfy, but hardcore Dio fans will either be apathetic to the new vocals or yearn for instrumentation and lyrics that are more than window dressing and occasional lip service to the big man himself.
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