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There had been a musical recession going on here in the states, MegaDeth had completly fallen off the map, Metallica deemed it no longer fashionable to be a metal band (not that they were much of one at any point in the 90s) and most of the airwarves was flooded with poser Nu-metal. You could say that my attitude, anything different would get a 100% out of me, but being a veteran of the Dio sound in my own rite (I've followed Ronnie since the early 90s after hearing Dehumanizer and subsequently bought every album to his name before the release of Angry Machines).
Magica marks a return to a standard that had not been achieved since the glory days of metal in the late 80s, but with some newer twists that merit attention. A far-cry from the muddy mess that was Angry Machines, there is definately a cohesive formula at play here. Never before has Dio dabbled in the area of concept albums, something made popular by the likes of Pink Floyd, The Who, and brought to the metal arena by Queensryche. And they hold their own with the best of them, meshing together a plethora of old and new influences that merit full attention. Let us now turn to the specifics of the work itself.
Production - The balance of instruments is as clean as can be without sounding processed, there is no clashing of guitars with synths, no overly muddy bass tracks, the drums have enough reverb and don't sound like my 3 year old nephew's toy set (my description of the drum recordings of most bands of the late 90s), and the vocals don't drown everything else out. There are some nice innovations with orchestral timbres and synths that I'll get into a bit more in my description of the individual tracks.
Songwriting - Structured around a very obvious concept story, the lyrics are very well concieved, dancing back and forth between descriptive verses about the scenery of the planet of Blessing (the setting of the story) and very vivid images of the desecration to both it and those whom live in it. The song structures are not quite as complex as the 7-8 minute epics that most prog. metal bands put forth, but they also do well to avoid being redundent. Overall, it's a good balance of flash and simplicity.
Guitarwork - On the whole, the return of Craig Goldie gave me high expectations, I was a huge fan of the work he did on Dream Evil and I knew it would be tough to create riffs and solos that would measure up to the classic Dio standard. My expectations were far surpassed, I have never heard Craig play like this before. An intricant blend of classic rock/blues riffs giving way to some really impressive shredding that can challenge the likes of Van Halen and Randy Rhoads. For too long guitar solos were either something to be avoided as unneccesary or meant nearly as a break for the singer to catch his breath, on Magica they function as they should, an independent voice that speaks in ways that a vocalist can't.
Now for a look at the individual tracks on this masterpiece. Every one gets a 10 for variour reasons, so I won't bother with the individual scores.
Discovery - The story begins with the lone voice of an alien speaking in a haunting monotone while the sounds of futuristic computers and machinery can be heard in the background. Very effective intro that serves as a gateway into another world, beckoning the listener to stay until the end of the album.
Magica Theme - Brief but moving instrumental overture that draws the listener further into the alternate world of this elaborate sci-fi fantasy story. Driving guitar power chords, tight bass and drum work, and a colorful canvass of synth strings build the foundation of this brief prelude. But the true magic is the introduction of Craig's lead work, setting a clear tone of both melodic and technical flair that will dominate the rest of the album.
Lord of the Last Day - Our story begins with a grand celebration of the people of the Planet Blessing. This hedonistic affair is realized through the very slow, simple, and virtually drunken nature of the main riff of the song. The lyrics paint a more vivid picture still, speaking of universal tolerance of all relative truths, which can be related to the fall of every great empire and perhaps foreshadows the fate of these free people. Guitar work is simple and effective, drawing from such influences as Ritchie Blackmore and Toni Iommi. Also noteworthy is the ending which contains church chants that take me back to the music of De Machaut and Dufay.
Fever Dreams - A single note drone from a handful of orchestral instruments give way to a classic Dio vain guitar riff, reminding me of such classics as Dream Evil and Man on the Silver Mountain. Here we are introduced to the hero of the story Eriel, who is being attacked in his dreams by the villian Shadowcast. Take note of Craigs guitar solo, which rips across the fret board like a bolt of white lightning.
Turn to Stone - Ruin has fallen the land of Blessing as Shadowcast and his otherworld minions ravage the cities and destroy the spirits of their victims. This is spearheaded by the erie guitar intro that plays between a blues improvisation and a dissonant stir of screams. Ronnie's vocals are the main point of interest, utilizing his voice to clue the listener in on the horror of what is taking place. One particular noteworthy part is when distortion is placed on his voice for the word "Die", which left me with chills in my spine. Stellar guitar work throughout, followed by a fadeout with low vocal drones similar to past Dio closings such as One Night in the City and Sunset Superman.
Feed my Head - This song starts off with a return of the aliens that made the discovery of this now dead planet. A strong theme of anti-individualism is inherent in the words of the alien as he praises the methods of Otherworld for the sake of a true collectivist society. Back in the past, after his attempt to rescue the lost people of blessing, Eriel is turned to stone and finds himself a prisoner in the hellish realm of Otherworld, the home of his enemies. Here the synths turn from beautiful to disturbing as a distorted synth bangs out a two note tri-tone drone that grates on the ears and the soul, while the other instruments serve up another classic main riff in the dio vain. This song fits nicely with the story, making changes from evil sounding sections describing the strife of the dead people of blessing, to the more serene section that finds Eriel contemplating life beyond the hell he has been exiled to.
Eriel - The song named after the main character is probably the most elaborate work of any Dio opus. An intro that sounds almost like an up tempo hommage to a Bruckner symphony, highlighting both an organ drone and a series of loud Brass scale runs. Then it all comes together with a loud thud of the drums and the entrance of a very dissonant guitar line that is rhythmically reminiscent of Holy Diver, though slower and not as melodic. The guitar solo is brilliantly done, reminding me ever more of the work Ronnie did with Iommi. Also noteworthy is the outro of this song which gives both a set of loud Brass thuds and a haunting string melody and vocal section that is both beautiful and vile. Once all has faded out, Goldie ups the ante with a fade in to a final fit of lead guitar genius. I believe that the abrupt nature of this ending is done to articulate the rebellion that is about to be incited by Challis, a youth from Blessing who becomes a pivotal character in the story.
Challis - An anthem to the wildness of youth, this metal song functions as both a classic rock hommage that would make Chuck Berry proud, and an aggressive effort that the likes of Ted Nugent can appreciate. The lyrics are fraught with angst that is typical of young rebels, particularly ones that are fighting against jailers like the ones of Otherworld. Kudos to Ronnie and Craig for using a varied formula to tell a complext story.
Annica - The song dedicated to the love interest of Eriel, Annica was at one time only available as a bonus track for the Japan release of this album, but I see it as a neccesary part of the story. This is the first song released by Dio that is 100% instrumental. This underscores my arguement that the guitar solo should function as an independent voice, and what better way to articulate that truth of the metal genre than by devoting an entire song just to the guitar. This effort is in a class all by itself, drawing possible comparisons in scale to the likes of Satriani, Malmsteen, and Vai. There is a clear melody that is immediately memorable and comes back again later, but the main drive of this piece is the technical prowess of Craig Goldie, a musician's musician.
As long as it's not about love - This is by far my favorite Dio song to date, it's difficult to put into words but I will do my best. The first thing to note is the return of the alien voice, whom in his collectivist brain cannot comprehend the word love. This parallels a very deep held belief in my own personal life. No collective, no government, no society can create love. It is something that can only come by the selfish longing of the individual for the company of one exclusive other. This events of song are both the tragic result of how the demands of all societies destroy love, and also the truth that only love (the selfish love of 2 people) can give the model of peace. This is highlighted by the closing line of the song "If the magic comes between us, and we never meet again, take a part of me away, because maybe it's all about love." On the song itself: the guitar work is very complex, incorporating a barage of arpeggiated chords and blues' like licks. Also 2 very brilliant guitar solos that shred with the best of them. The structure of this song is very original, dancing between a verse part, a chorus part, and a third theme that has nothing to do with the other 2. I also give kudos to Simon Wright for his drum work on this particular song. I will admit to crying during my first listening to this song. There was just too much truth in it for me to handle, and since then I have often had to fight back the tears while listening to it. Sometimes you love something enough that it can both make and break you emotionally, and that something can only be found through self-discovery and self-actualization.
Losing my Insanity - Introduced with a guitar riff that could pass for a medieval lute drone and a series of orchestral instruments sections, this song paints a very complex picture of the process by which Challis comes of age. With the death of Eriel, the task of liberating the survivors of blessing before all is lost. Dio has come a long way since it's early days, and this song is probably the best example of how they have grown musically. Guitar work is in top order, and the lyrics fit both song and story to a fault.
Otherworld - With the triumph of the people of Blessing and the defeat of Shadowcast, this song represents the fate of the antagonists. Slow in tempo, this song is a series of evil guitar riffs that remind me somewhat of the music found on Strange Highways. A nice contrast to the 2 balladish epics that preceded it, this song is the final full length song in the album, and for good reason to. Evil never dies, it endures and it longs for new ways to spread into the realm of creation. There is more to tell, and one day soon the story will continue.
Magica Reprise - The overture returns with vocals to replace the lead guitar work that dominated it's predecesor. The words are clearly the main focus, hinting on how complacency leads to destruction and that evil can only thrive when good people stand by and let it happen. Probably the most descriptive line of how the song sums it up is as follows "No one gets to heaven, till they've lived a while in hell, and even then it's rare, that you'll be going there".
Lord of the Last Day Reprise - A hint of a return to conflict in the distant future, the old hedonistic ways of the people of blessing return with the reprise of the musical theme of their lust for debachery. A shorter version of the former, Dio has elected to be pragmatic, which is to be expected since we already know the nature of the celebration.
Magic the Story - An 18 minute narration by Ronnie Dio of the detailed story that the songs preceding it tell. It reminds me of those books on tape that I used to use before I started actually reading books again, only there is very good music going on behind it. Often I noticed that the music in the background fit the events in the story to a tee. I once again give kudos to Ronnie and Craig for knowing how to make music serve a purpose beyond the mere game of notes that many bands limit it to.
In Conclusion, a must have for any hard core Dio fan, buy it and love it. I would also recommend this album to any one who thinks deeply and longs for something more in their music than the dribble that dominates the radio nowadays. I bought this album for $16 on advance order at my local FYE, and I wouldn't sell it for twice that much.