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Elf...Rainbow....Black Sabbath....now Dio. "Holy Diver" proved Ronnie James Dio could now succeed without the Rainbow or Black Sabbath banner. In fact, it was the best album of his career. With his own band, Dio basically combined the epic, medieval imagery of Rainbow with the heavy doom of Sabbath to forge his "own" sound. Could he follow it up with something on par with the standard he set for himself? A bad second album is often the death knoll for a "new" band.
Well, the answer is a resounding "yes". There was no "sophomore slump" for Dio on his second outing under his own name. Dio fans seem to rate "Holy Diver" over "The Last In Line" as the best Dio album but I consider them nearly equal when it comes to the LPs as a whole. The only real difference is "Last" has a few B+ grade tracks ("Breathless", "Eat Your Heart Out") while "Diver" was straight A's.
"The Last In Line" is in many ways a clone of "Holy Diver". The line up is the same (Dio, Campbell, Bain, Appice), only with the addition of keyboardist Claude Schnell, who brings a different, if somewhat dated, synth to several tracks. It was Dio's first step towards the pop metal (not to be confused with 'hair metal') of it's followup "Sacred Heart". Just like "Holy Diver's" leading number "Stand Up And Shout", the first cut on "Line" is "We Rock", another fast fist-pumping headbanger. It even eclipses "Shout" in sheer force. That's no easy task. It's one of those universal anthems Dio writes to connect with the audience. In concert he used this to it's max. The "we" is everybody. WE all rock. It's our lifestyle. It's our identity. (One could contrast that to Queen's "We Will Rock You", which is more about the band Queen rocking you. Campbell has some of the fastest fingers in the business as evidenced by the ferocious, breakneck guitar hook, let alone his requisite solo. This cut became a staple of Dio's live gigs for the rest of his life).
The title track is definitely one of his absolute best tracks. It opens with a slow melodic intro but the hammer comes slamming down.. Dio roars in full chest voice followed by the lumbering bass & guitar riffs. The greatness of Dio's voice was his Freddie Mercury-like ability to hit his high register in full chest voice instead of going nasal, shrieking or slipping into falsetto.
One of many standouts is "One Night In The City", a midtempo number that briefly tells the tale of a "dark child" named Johnny and a "princess" named Sally. The lyrics are typically cryptic but it seems to "recommend" living for the moment or perhaps getting lost in the moment. This was 1984. It didn't sound so daft back then. It's the midpaced, doomy numbers like this or "Shame On The Night" from the preceding LP that really brought out the "horns" in Dio.
Just like "Holy Diver" the imagery is pure Final Fantasy or D&D fiction. Still, "Line" doesn't feel quite as cohesive as "Diver" thanks to a decent but out-of-place "breakup song" ("Eat Your Heart Out") and the lyrics of the aforementioned "One Night In The City". Even the radio-friendly "Rainbow In The Dark"-clone "Mystery" doesn't fit seamlessly like "Dark" did on "Holy Diver".
Now, in retrospect, some would say this is a positive as songs about rainbows, dragons, witches, demons and what have you made Dio a self-parody in time in the minds of some. Dio was hip to the joke as his retro-2002 album "Killing The Dragon" was a conscious throwback. His lyrics and use of medieval imagery to talk about the struggle of life issues was still fresh at the time. Over the years he's been asked several times why he continued to write in that style. To paraphrase, Ronnie usually said "I like to give people some fantasy instead of just writing songs about love stinks or the world is going to sh**".
While Dio was often a fine lyricist the more important thing about this and the preceding LP is the musicianship. Hungry, aggressive playing by a group like themselves and each other (for awhile). Tight, clean production but hard, heavy with the two elements that separates one band from another. Not to lesson the important of a bassist and drummer to the band but, in metal, there's two things that stand out most and make it or break it with the average non-musician record buyer: A great vocalist (Ronnie James Dio) and a hot metal guitarist (Vivian Campbell). The Dio band had two of the highest caliber. Nevertheless, in order for the album itself to rise to the level of greatness, it has to have the songs.
It's been 28 years since this album was released and it has aged extremely well. Just this week I purchased a 24-Karat Gold remaster while earlier in the year European markets were treated with a Deluxe Edition of "The Last In Line", which included a bonus disc containing live B-Sides to the singles "Mystery" & "We Rock" plus a set of Live At The Pink Pop Festival recorded in 1984.