Rainbow: Rainbow Rising (1976)
My introduction to the so-called progressive metal scene came in 1998, shortly after Symphony X released their wonderful The Divine Wings of Tragedy album. Sure, I had heard bands like Queensryche and Dream Theater before. Though these bands posited great singers and stellar musicianship, I didn’t really fall in love with the genre until first hearing Symphony X. I had two simultaneous initial reactions to that band. The first was that they were heavy as hell and that they wiped me out after the first couple of listens. The second was that they sounded familiar. Russell Allen had a voice that strongly echoed that of the great Ronnie James Dio. Guitarist Michael Romeo had that neo-classical style of heavy metal guitar playing that was practically invented by Ritchie Blackmore more than two decades before. Keyboard player Michael Pinella may have sounded a bit like Kevin Moore from Dream Theater, but his busy flights of fancy trying to keep up with Blackmore reminded me of Tony Carey. Though stylistically worlds apart from the late Cozy Powell, drummer Jason Rullo was very much high in the mix as was Powell once was years before. Yes, I was very much reminded of Rainbow.
Further investigation into the back catalog of Symphony X as well as discovering bands such as Rhapsody, Stratovarius and Nightwish further confirmed to me that Rainbow was a major influence on many a progressive metal band, especially the bands based in Europe. But when I learned more about these groups, to my surprise, outside of Symphony X, none of these bands listed Rainbow as an influence. Instead, they counted Yngwie Malmsteen, a Ritchie Blackmore sound-alike, as a major influence on their styles of electric guitar playing. This is supremely strange and to make an analogy to the progressive rock genre, it would be a bit like a band listing IQ as an influence with an apparent lack of awareness of Genesis!! Perhaps, it has something to do with an age gap as most of these bands’ members were not born until the mid to late 1970’s.
With my long drawn out introduction out of the way, it is time to delve into Rainbow Rising, a classic album from 1976, which is a classic of The Past, Present and Future. Though I personally prefer Rainbow’s Long Live Rock and Roll album from 1978, Rainbow Rising came first and had many of the stylistic patterns of what would much later become known as progressive metal. Rainbow Rising may not have sold millions of copies like Deep Purple’s Machine Head, but it is just as seminal an album in its own way.
Rainbow rose out of the ashes of a Ritchie Blackmore solo project. Dismayed over the new direction his band Deep Purple was taking-“funky soul music” as the man himself put it-Blackmore vented his frustration by recording a solo album in early 1975. Eventually titled Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, the personnel evolved around members of the defunct American boogie rock band Elf. Fronted by Ronnie James Dio, Blackmore’s solo project is a solid and at times great effort. Containing early classics such as "Man on the Silver Mountain", "Catch the Rainbow" and "Still I’m Sad", it formed the basis for Rainbow’s live shows during most of the 1970’s. But these songs worked much better in a live context as the On Stage album would soon show. It is also supremely ironic that given Blackmore’s dislike of funky music, he decided to record a very funky version of the Quartermass classic "Black Sheep of the Family". This track could have very easily been included on Deep Purple’s much-maligned Stormbringeralbum.
Happy with the results of his album, which was a critical and commercial success-it reached number 30 in the US charts and number 11 in the UK-Ritchie Blackmore decided to leave Deep Purple once and for all. Retaining Dio for his new band, but sacking all the rest of the players from Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow (starting a trend of ever evolving lineups that would confuse all but diehards) Blackmore recruited three new players that would all play crucial roles on Rainbow Rising. Veteran drummer Cozy Powell and relative newcomers Tony Carey and Jimmy Bain were hired for the recording of the new album as well as the upcoming tour.
Recording commenced in February of 1976 in a studio in Munich, Germany. Comprised of six tracks and barely lasting more than a half an hour, the results were stunning. "Tarot Woman" opens the CD with a swooping Moog synthesizer introduction by Tony Carey. Already, we are far removed from Deep Purple or Elf. Instead, one may think he or she is listening to the beginning of a Rick Wakeman solo album! But Blackmore’s insistent, simple guitar refrain creeps out of nowhere and then the rest of the band crashes in with Cozy Powell’s powerful sound off. As Dio begins the first verse, there’s no mistaking where we are. This folks, is the genesis of progressive metal. Though telling the tale of an evil woman, it is all done so with metaphors that recall medieval times, rife with swords and sorcery.
"Run with the Wolf" slows down a bit on the intensity and has a great groove. Ritchie Blackmore’s distinguished guitar style and Cozy’s crashing drums dominate the song, as Tony Carey’s keyboards-particular the clavinet-are buried somewhat in the mix. Continuing with themes of the fantastic with lyrical passages such as “there’s a hole in the sky/something evil’s passing by” we certainly get a great preview of the style of writing Dio would continue on with until the present day.
"Starstruck" is the song from Rainbow Rising that should have been a hit single. It’s an uptempo rocker, again about an evil female predator (what is it about Dio and women?!). Again, steeped in fantasy, this song could be interpreted as being about an obsessive groupie and her harassment of a rock star. The dark lyrics are offset somewhat by the irresistible tune.
"Do You Close Your Eyes" closes side 1 of the original release and is definitely out of place with the rest of the material present. It’s a boogie rock number typified by Bachman Turner Overdrive or even Dio’s former group Elf. Musically, it’s just a bit wrong for the rest of the album. Evidently, I’m in the minority here as it was frequently the centerpiece of the encores during Rainbow’s live concerts.
Side two consists of just two lengthy tracks. At over 8 minutes each, these songs pick up where "Tarot Woman" left off. For anyone who still doubts Rainbow’s importance as progenitors of the prog-metal genre, please fast forward your CD player to track 5. Featuring the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, "Stargazer" is the definitive progressive metal masterpiece. Lyrically the most fantastical track on the CD and musically perhaps the most adventurous, "Stargazer" is in many ways Rainbow’s crowning achievement. The great refrain featuring the orchestra is mesmerizing as is Dio’s ad-lib vocals as the track fades out. "Stargazer" was an integral feature to Rainbow’s stage show, but unlike other songs in their back catalog, it never quite came together as it did on the Rainbow Rising album.
"A Light in the Black" closes out the CD in grand style. Structurally, it is a very interesting piece of music. It harkens back to Blackmore’s days in Deep Purple, when Lord and Blackmore would each take a solo between Ian Gillan’s choruses ala "Highway Star". But "A Light in the Black" would also be a glimpse into the future of prog-metal as many an artist would use the same technique. This frequently occurs in the works of Symphony X and Stratovarius. Tony Carey takes his solo first and he sounds like he is beating the hell out of his mini Moog. After Dio takes a turn with a verse, Ritchie Blackmore gives us a superlative solo before all too briefly dueling leads with Tony Carey. This is truly great listening. Just 34 minutes after it begins, Rainbow Rising comes to its conclusion.
Released in May of 1976, Rainbow Rising only made it to number 40 in the US and 11 in the UK. It deserved to do much better. Perhaps it was too far ahead of its time. At any rate, it was all too good to last. The lineup of Blackmore/Dio/Powell/Carey/Bain was much too powerful for itself. Five volatile personalities meant many clashes in the studio and on the road. Gradually this lineup would dissolve and see Rainbow taking a much more commercial approach at the dawn of the 1980’s. Rumors ran rampant that the classic Rainbow of 1976 would reform in the late 1990’s. Sadly, this was not to be as Cozy Powell was killed in a car accident on April 5, 1998.
All the musicians involved would have much success after their stints in Rainbow. Ronnie James Dio still features some of their songs in his live set. Jimmy Bain is also currently the bassist in his band. But there’s just something magical about Rainbow in 1976. Under appreciated during their time and not given proper credit today, it is time for those who think that progressive metal began with Fates Warning should most certainly have a listen to Rainbow Rising. Also recommended is Roy Davies’ recent book called "Rainbow Rising". Though the biography itself is rather short, the discography is outstanding. But there’s a great chapter that lets the reader know what each musician that has ever been associated with Rainbow is up to nowadays. It also gives RJ Dio’s birth year as 1940! Depending on the source, Dio was born between 1940 and 1947. But age doesn’t matter when one is discussing something as ageless as Rainbow Rising.