It’s been a tough decade for heavy metal.
No one knows that better than Ronnie James Dio, the onetime lead singer of Black Sabbath now turned solo artist.
Dio’s dark, quasi-operatic vocalizing helped Black Sabbath chart two hit albums in 1980 and 1981 in its waning, post-Ozzy Osbourne years. Starting in 1983, he delivered several well-received albums with his band, Dio.
The ‘90s have been less kind. Warner Bros., his high-powered record label for more than 15 years, dropped him. His latest album, “Angry Machines,” was released by the small, independent Mayhem Records.
Nevertheless, the loquacious San Fernando Valley resident, who leads his latest band Thursday at the Coach House, doesn’t sound down about the rise and fall of mainstream heavy metal.
“The musical style ate itself because of lack of experimentation,” he said matter-of-factly during a lengthy phone conversation. “People kept making the same album over and over again, thinking that it was going to last forever. At the time that this form of music became incredibly popular, it was the vehicle that MTV used to sell itself. When you saw it every day in the video situation, I think it gave a lot of people the false idea that this [level of popularity] would never end.”
Dio conceded that, musically, he too sometimes played it safe during the halcyon ‘80s. After making his debut with his own band with the melodic but combustive “Holy Diver” album in 1983, Dio tended to repeat himself. Still, “The Last in Line” (1984) and “Sacred Heart” (1985) were Top 30 albums.
Today, Dio says he and his band (which includes guitarist Tracy G., bassist Jeff Pilson and longtime bandmate and drummer Vinnie Appice) aren’t afraid to play in unusual time signatures. Dio said he is trying to create music that is fresh and topical while retaining the metal thunder that is the root of his rock-till-you-drop philosophy.
Dio also has shifted the focus of his lyrics. In place of the witches, warlocks, dungeons and dragons and other characters from the nether world that used to inhabit his songs, Dio is now far more apt to write about social issues and human relationships.
“Angry Machines” contains one song, “Don’t Tell the Children,” about how the opinions of children are often undervalued in families where the parents are struggling to get along.
“I realized that purity is what we need,” he explained. “People who are unassuming, who haven’t been taught to be devious, will tell you the truth. That’s what kids do.”
While he extols the passion and commitment his new label has for the new album, Dio, 47, clearly misses having the distribution clout of a major record company behind him. He says there are times when his fans simply can’t find “Angry Machines.”
Still, he’s grateful to be able to create albums that convey his lyrical and musical vision.
“Most people have careers that last from three to five years, especially in metal,” he said. “When you’ve had this good a run, you certainly don’t complain. . . . I just look forward to the next recording and hope it’s going to be as good as some of the other things I’ve been involved with.”
Dio was born and raised in upstate New York, where his primary passion as a boy was baseball. He says he’d still prefer to be playing for the Yankees. At his parents’ insistence, he started playing the trumpet at age 5 and was so adept that later he was offered a scholarship to the Juilliard School.
But the thought of leading a rock band was far more enticing than being one of eight trumpeters in an orchestra. At 17, he turned in his trumpet to concentrate on singing. From the time Dio was young, the combination of his diminutive stature and soaring voice had caused jaws to drop.
In 1975, Dio joined Rainbow, a new group headed by former Deep Purple guitar ace Ritchie Blackmore. In 1979, he replaced Osbourne in Black Sabbath. Dio left the legendary British metal band after a three-year stay because of personality differences.
But so creatively rewarding was his tenure with Sabbath that he briefly rejoined the group in 1991. That reunion came to a screeching halt when guitarist Tony Iommi insisted that the band open for Osbourne at two 1992 shows at the Pacific Amphitheatre in Costa Mesa billed as Osbourne’s farewell to touring.
Dio immediately quit the group because, he said, it compromised the integrity of the existing Sabbath lineup. (Osbourne played four songs with the other three original Black Sabbath members at his second Costa Mesa show, but a rumored reunion tour never materialized.)
Dio’s abrupt departures from Black Sabbath contributed to perceptions of him that he says are unjustified.
“Because I’ve been in and out of [a number of bands], people think I’m difficult,” he said. “That [probably] comes about because I’m very intense about what I do. I have a really high standard, and I expect people around me to reach that standard as well. That’s probably unfair.”
“But I don’t really care what people say about me,” he added, “because I know who I am. The only thing that has ever been important to me is knowing that I’ve pleased myself.”
* Dio appears with Spirit Tree and World Affairs on Thursday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $25. (714) 496-8930.