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LOOK OUT II: Rainbows Rising and Stars Aligning - 97%

TheExodusAttack, May 16th, 2011

Considering that the genre didn’t really become solidified until the early 1980s, heavy metal music of the 70s is often somewhat overlooked and considered lacking in areas of songwriting and production. For the most part, all that are well-recognized are Black Sabbath’s first six releases, as well as some Judas Priest and Motorhead albums, which were gaining popularity by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, bands like Rush and Scorpions often lacked recognition until they found greater success in less metallic styles of rock in the 80s, while American groups like Sir Lord Baltimore and Legend lamented in obscurity. But one of the greatest metal albums of that era (perhaps of all time) was Rainbow’s Rising, a record which more or less brings together everything great about the year 1976. Ritchie Blackmore’s engrossing lead playing, Ronnie James Dio’s unique and powerful voice, and Cozy Powell’s intense and involved drumming help turn this into the second best album of the 1970s. This sophomore release displays Blackmore’s seasoned songwriting talents delivering strong, focused tracks, one of which remains one of the best metal songs to date.

Opening with one of Rainbow’s strongest songs, the infectious catchy “Tarot Woman” demonstrates the sound of Deep Purple taken to its logical conclusion. Beginning with an almost “spacey” keyboard passage, the song explodes into a hammering, staggered riff which bounces along at a happy pace, supported by Dio’s energetic vocals and a mystical-sounding chorus. Make no bones about it, this song is the power metal that Deep Purple had always hinted at, years before Diamond Head or Black Sabbath cemented the genre. Also notable is the fantastic 8 minute closer “A Light in the Black,” which is surprisingly fast due to Powell’s uncompromising double bass pattern and the incredible dueling leads between Tony Corey’s keys and Blackmore’s guitar. They even play a few harmonized melodies near the end which makes you wonder why Iron Maiden never recruited a keyboardist. Overall it’s very fast, epic and intense stuff for 1976, which rivals and outstrips similar proto-speed metal such as “Highway Star,” “Paranoid” and “Tyrant.”

Tracks 2, 3 and 4 are all rather similar: short 3-4 minute rock-ish songs that make it very clear that this is 1976, not 1984. Yet the quality is still high, as “Run With the Wolf” switches between a slower, methodical riff and an exciting, carefree chorus with much aplomb and memorability. “Starstruck” is comparable, featuring a more upbeat tempo and funny lyrics about a cat-and-mouse chase between a woman and the recipient of her unwanted attention. Very catchy (“she’s nothin’ but back luck!”) and immediately accessible, it’s my top pick for these three traditionally-minded tracks. “Do You Close Your Eyes” goes a bit overboard in this department, being the shortest song here which doesn’t hint at what Rainbow is really capable of: it’s the one reminder of the mediocrity that occasionally showed up in Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, but the riffs still deliver despite its goofiness. Even the lyrics are a bit cringe-worthy: “Do you close your eyes when you’re making love, yeah, yeah/Makin’ sweet love to ME, yeah!” Quite hilarious, really.

But however great all of the songs on Rising are, the album really comes down to one track. One single song that defies all conventions, one song during which the planets align (no matter the time of year) and the hand of a goddamn deity leads Rainbow into the most orgasmic 8 minutes and 27 seconds of music the 70s ever produced. This song is “Stargazer,” and it will be the greatest song you ever hear, whether you realize it or not. “Stargazer” is the reason why Dio is revered. “Stargazer” is the reason why Ritchie Blackmore remains worshipped by guitarists even after he abandoned rock music and refused to even play “Smoke on the Water,” of all things. “Stargazer” is the quintessential metal epic: a true tour de force of heavy music.

“Stargazer” is why we listen to heavy metal.

Beginning with an intense drum fill by Cozy Powell (easily my favorite drum intro ever), “Stargazer” soon settles into a majestic, heavier-than-Jesus main riff which sets the tone of the entire song. It’s a simple, three-note affair, but never before and never again has so much been accomplish with straightforward “dun-DUN-DUN-da, dun-DUN-DUN-da” riffing. Dio’s vocals completely steal the show, however, reaching an emotional performance that even rivals his work with Black Sabbath. During the chorus, the listener is introduced to the fact that “Stargazer” features the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, and they (rather unbelievably) don’t sound out of place whatsoever. Despite Blackmore’s classical training, I couldn’t help but be skeptical of the inclusion of an orchestra here, but it truly works wonders: I have no qualms saying that this single song triumphs over all other attempts to merge heavy metal and symphonic music.

Not even halfway through the song, Blackmore belts out an immortal guitar solo: completely out of this world in terms of composition, emotion and tension. Perhaps it’s not as over-the-top or demented as his playing on “Child in Time,” but the reserved nature of the solo offers all of the power of that song with added breadth and a warped, almost trance-like atmosphere. By the time the lead finishes, “Stargazer” has gone through all of the differing sections it has to offer, yet it keeps getting greater and greater. The remainder of the song goes through one more verse, and 3 minutes of excellent vamp and improvisation by Dio over the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra and the echoing strains of the guitar chords. The final piece of “Stargazer” is like a whole new song unto itself: the finale must be heard firsthand to understand how the pure energy and atmosphere could make something which was already heard before in the song even better. Oh, and the lyrics are about an evil wizard that enslaves humanity and forces the construction of a tower that pierces the sky, so he can reach the stars he so fondly gazes at. Yes, this song has it all.

Rising is Rainbow’s finest hour. Here, the band is focused and cohesive in all aspects: a noticeable step up from the band’s slightly muddled debut. It comes as no surprise that every extraneous band member on Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow was replaced for this album. Songs like “Tarot Woman, “Starstruck” and “A Light in the Dark” are amongst the best offered in metal by 1976, weaving a power/speed metal tapestry before anybody really understood heavy metal would become. Every time “Stargazer” comes on, time stands still and rapture begins. Even today, Rising is powerful and musically relevant, as it will always stay.