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After the much heralded "reunion" of Ronnie James Dio (RJD) with Black Sabbath lasted only one album, RJD once again reformed his band Dio and released the angriest, hardest metal album of his career. This was soon after the Dio-lead Black Sabbath had released one of their heaviest albums, "Dehumanizer". In many ways "Strange Highways" is an attempt to one-up that Sabbath album and it's good but not "Dehumanizer ll" . "Strange Highways" is the forgotten Dio album released when metal was about to be knocked into a coma. This last album under his Reprise contract came and went in a hurry but, just as Mr Dio had predicted in an interview from 1994, this album has slowly been rediscovered and seems to be appreciated more than his best known work.
These were "angry" times. In interviews Dio indicated he was truly angry and that this was the prevailing mood of the day so it was a conscious effort to move away from the Dungeons & Dragons fantasy lyrics of yore into something more "progressive". He would take that further with the rare misfire "Angry Machines" two years later.
For the third album in a row the Dio band features a different guitarist. Craig Goldy took over Vivian Campbell on "Dream Evil", the amazing Rowan Robertson shredded mightily on "Lock Up The Wolves" and now Tracy G brings the doom sound to the mix. Though fan opinions are mixed on Tracy he is certainly closer in tone to Black Sabbath's Tony Iommi than any other guitarist RJD worked with. His lead work is darker, eccentric, with unpredictable harmonics, whammy bar effects and lots of blues-inspired soloing.
These are not the typically melodic melodies of the previous five LPs. There in lies the problem for me. The arrangements feature too many stops/starts and unpredictable bridges that just feel forced. Mostly down-tune, midpaced, atmospheric sounds, which resembles Sabbath more than "Holy Diver". Dio sings these songs harder/harsher with plenty of scorn in his voice. Right from the crushing opener, "Jesus, Mary & The Holy Ghost" it's obvious RJD is consciously going for heavy x3.
In the past RJD was "off to see the witch" but now, on the title cut of "Strange Highways", he's leaving this "crazy world" we live in "for another institution" and he's going to "ride the wind on strange highways". The theme of questioning current institutions recurs throughout the LP. The movie industry gets blasted in "Hollywood Black" for example. One of the more interesting cuts is "Give Her The Gun". Here Dio rages against child and/or human abuse by demanding the victims be armed to fight back!
Dio had the right idea releasing this type of record at the time but it didn't have much impact, only managing #142 on the Billboard albums chart. Like many veteran metal artists he was caught between being the "old" and the "new" of which Ronnie really didn't fit. His next album as Dio, "Angry Machines", made that crystal clear. Unsurprisingly, he experienced a resurgence when he return to his roots for 1999's "Magica".