Last in Line may have only released their debut album Heavy Crown this month, but the band’s members have a history together that spans three decades. Guitarist Vivian Campbell, bassist Jimmy Bain and Vinny Appice all played together on the timeless first three Dio albums: Holy Diver (1983), The Last in Line (1984) and Sacred Heart (1985). Bad blood between Ronnie James Dio and Campbell ended their relationship and led to an ongoing feud. Dio lost his battle against stomach cancer in 2010, ending any chance of a full reunion. In 2012 the three surviving members began working together again. Former Lynch Mob vocalist Andrew Freeman was brought in to complete the line-up. Campbell is a prodigiously talented guitarist. Since 1992 he’s played in Def Leppard. Def Lep were once a great band but most would agree the band lost their way in the 1990s, and have since chased a pop sound that left many older fans unhappy. Campbell really lets loose on Heavy Crown, and his playing hasn’t sounded this fiery in years. The guitarist had the following to say about the genesis of the project:
“It kind of started in early 2011 when I did my little Thin Lizzy stunt guitar tour in Europe. Going back and playing those Lizzy songs that I grew up playing that helped shape me as a guitar player, it kind of lit this fire under my ass again to wanna play. And it was as a result of that that I got together with Jimmy and Vinny and started jamming with them. And that’s what led to the Last in Line project, and that’s what’s led us to here.”
Bain tragically died of undiagnosed lung cancer last month while on Def Leppard’s Hysteria on the High Seas cruise. His passing occurred just a day before a scheduled Last in Line performance on the cruise. The band intend to honour a handful of booked dates with a replacement bassist. Campbell has made it quite clear though that the group is done, so Heavy Crown will be the band’s epitaph.
Strong line-up produces strong performances
Thankfully, the album absolutely rocks. Campbell, Bain and Appice are three of the finest rock and roll players ever to grace the stage, and their original chemistry is here in spades. The album is quite similar to the early Dio material, which is just what the doctor ordered. There are some modern touches here and there, and obviously the vocalist is different, but the DNA of the classic material is very present.
Campbell lead proceedings on Heavy Crown
Campbell is the star of the show here. His riffs and leads drive the songs throughout the album, and his playing is very extroverted. Bain and Appice are experienced enough to provide a rock-solid rhythm section which allows plenty of space for Campbell to do his thing. The big chords that open first single Devil In Me immediately bring to mind the catchy hard rock anthems of Holy Diver. Campbell tones down the intensity for the verse before unleashing some thunderous chords in the chorus. He adds tasty licks here and there throughout before laying down a signature shred in the bridge. Don’t confuse shred with mindless noodling though. Just like on Holy Diver, his lead playing here is all class, with no superfluous notes finding their way into the meticulously crafted solos.
Sadly Bain has been somewhat mixed out of his final album. The mix definitely would have benefitted from more bass guitar. Some songs do feature his lines more prominently though, so it’s not all bad. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the Bain’s playing. It’s powerful and groovy, and for a man whose resume features Rainbow, Thin Lizzy and Gary Moore, you wouldn’t expect anything less. He lays down a thick, rumbling bassline in the sparse verse of Starmaker and gets wild on the high tempo track I Am Revolution. He adds tasteful fills to the hard-hitting slower number Already Dead.
Appice has sat the drum throne for countless bands, including a number of years in Black Sabbath alongside Dio. He’s a seasoned player and it shows on Heavy Crown. He’s mostly content to lay down a groove and push the song subtlety forward. Starmaker shows his ability to sit in the pocket before bringing down the thunder when the song calls for it. He lays out some deft fills on Curse The Day and adds dense, powerful percussion to The Sickness. The drum production is spot-on and the drums sound massive, wide open and powerful. The production has a modern edge but Appice (or his producer) had enough sense to retain the big, timeless sound Appice is known for on his classic performances.
Freeman learns from Dio
Freeman’s vocals are bold and dynamic. He definitely has the pipes to carry the material on Heavy Crown. His lyrics aren’t quite in the same ballpark unfortunately. Dio’s lyrics were silly at times but he had a talent for writing songs which were both instantly memorable and heartfelt. Freeman can’t match him in this regard. The album has some clever turns of phrase and catchy choruses, but the frontman resorts to clichés too often. His finest moments on the record are where he channels classic Dio, which he does quite convincingly. Devil In Me is one of the tracks that borrows heavily from Dio’s style.
Last in Line hit the mark
Last in Line have released one hell of a debut with Heavy Crown. It will probably go down as one of the best straight-up rock releases of the year. It’s an album packed with flawless performances and carefully crafted songs. It’s not an instant classic but it holds its own well enough in comparison to what has gone before. Campbell is, in my opinion, one of the greats of rock guitar. It’s a blast to hear him firing all cylinders again after so many years of working in a radio-friendly format.