Little devil

There's a new book out called "Sound of the Beast" (HarperCollins) with a subtitle that insists it's "The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal." In reality, the book -- penned by Ian Christe, a usually dependable metal scribe -- is little more than an unauthorized biography of Metallica that basically positions every other metal act as necessary predecessor to or inevitable imitation of a band that the author obviously worships. Sentences like "Metallica soared above the fray, as their phenomenal success eclipsed musical trends" -- in reference to the "Black Album" era band, no less -- go a long way to show where Christe's prejudices lie. The rest of the book is sadly tilted toward presenting the entire heavy-metal landscape as a scrabbling mass of idealistic rebels who could only hope to be as effective as Metallica.

Granted, Christe does a somewhat acceptable job of documenting the marginalized metal underground, putting the various subclasses of the genre into a historical context. But even there, he tends to give too much credence to the acts that he managed to talk to -- interviews with Katon DePena mean Hirax is held up as a thrash-metal landmark, while an apparent inability to speak Swedish means the groundbreaking "Gothenburg sound" of In Flames is reduced to a line in a paragraph. Sure, it's nice to have any sort of formal presentation of metal's storied history, and any attempt to cram the last 25 years (and who knows how many thousands of bands) of metal's heyday into a few hundred pages is bound to have some flaws.

That said, despite a preponderance of quotes from the likes of DePena and various drummers of long-forgotten power-metal bands, Christe did manage to snag some choice interviews for the book, and for that, he should be praised. King Diamond (Mercyful Fate), Dave Mustaine (Megadeth), Tom Warrior (Hellhammer, Celtic Frost) and Brian Slagel (Metal Blade Records) all chime in on the relevance of one of rock's most misunderstood mutations.

The best interviews, however, are from Rob Halford and Ronnie James Dio. Both men easily personify the appeal of metal: The former is a gay leather fetishist, while the latter is a short Italian from New York with a serious geek streak. Both are full-fledged outcast material, both are possessed of enormous charisma and freakishly powerful voices, and both are indisputable metal gods. Halford's current, eponymous band is a mightily potent and incredibly forward-looking metal force, evincing little of the nostalgia that drives most 30-year rock veterans. Dio, on the other hand, is still rocking like he's a sword-wielding dragon slayer, writing songs about crystal balls and witches and magic monsters.

And that's cool, but only because Dio's been doing it since the '70s. Two recent compilations -- "Stand Up and Shout: The Dio Anthology" (Rhino) and "Catch the Rainbow: The Anthology" (Polydor/Chronicles) -- easily provide proof that even a diminutive nerd can keep metal audiences enthralled and that a "healthy fantasy life" is exactly what's kept the genre relevant for so long. The Rhino set collects 29 songs on two discs; the first disc is dedicated to Dio's early band pursuits (Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath), while the second features solo classics like "Holy Diver," "We Rock" and "The Last in Line." Every song is brimming with Dio's fascination with gothic drama and medieval imagery, and it's clear that his influence on egomaniacal guitar gods like Rainbow's Ritchie Blackmore and Sabbath's Tony Iommi was much stronger than their effect on him. His songwriting drove the epic magnificence of tracks like Rainbow's "Man on the Silver Mountain" and Sabbath's "Heaven and Hell," and the stylistic link between his earliest work and later solo songs like "Strange Highways" is consistent.

Though "The Dio Anthology" is probably all the Dio you'll ever need, a listen to the Rainbow collection further proves his strength as a lyricist and songwriter (and it includes the awesome "Tarot Woman," absent from the Rhino set). His work with Blackmore was the group's best, and the entire first disc, dedicated to his three studio albums with the band, is consistently amazing. The second disc -- with lame-o "hard rock" vocalists like Graham Bonnet and Joe Lynn Turner -- is a much weaker affair, with cuts like "Since You've Been Gone" and "Stone Cold" making the group sound like Foreigner-lite (if that's possible).

With dragons and wizards and a theatrical sense of "evil" adorning his melodic heaviness, Dio was quite out of step with the brazen toughness of Metallica, but he was just as "real," in that he was (and is) utterly dedicated to the metal lifestyle. His importance is easy to discount 20 years later, but he was certainly an integral part of the heavy-metal canon, providing the dreamy imagery that got most heshers through yet another afternoon in detention.