Gimme Five: Replacement metal vocalists who worked, from Ronnie James Dio to Bruce Dickinson

Recent discussions about the current Queensryche debacle have me thinking about what happens when bands implode, tempers flare and members are either fired or take their ball and go home. True, not many happen in the spectacular fashion that Queensryche’s has, with two bands now trying to claim the name and releasing new albums (though it has happened before). Usually, the band replaces the guy that’s out and goes on, often to the grumbling of fans.

But does it ever work? Sure. More often if it’s one of the musicians instead of the singer. Hardcore fans might grouse about missing a guitarist, drummer or bassist, and in some cases, it can change the sound of the band just as much. But for most fans, the singer is the most recognizable piece of a band’s sound, and therefore, much more difficult to replace — especially if you go with someone that’s drastically different from the original guy.

Motley Crue caught hell from fans when they replaced Vince Neil’s nasal tones with John Corabi, even though Corabi was the better singer and that 1994 album was a pretty good one. It was too much of a shift in sound for most to accept. On the other hand, going with a guy that sounds like a carbon copy of the original singer often comes off as a cheap imitation and leaves people wondering why they didn’t just make up with the guy and move on.

Will Todd La Torre end up being a slam dunk for Queensryche or a bust? Time will tell. But here are five times when a replacement singer upped a metal band’s game …

No. 5: TIM “RIPPER” OWENS (JUDAS PRIEST/ICED EARTH): I can hear the groans from the Priest fans already, but the truth is Jugulator was a really good record. No, it wasn’t Rob Halford, and yes, the band’s sound changed on the album, but Priest’s sound has changed several times over the course of the band’s history. And Owens absolutely killed on the classic material live, too. Sure, Demolition was a stinker, but that had more to do with the material that he had to work with than Owens’ performance. Of course, I don’t think there was ever any question in anyone’s mind, not even Owens, that Rob Halford and Judas Priest would reunite at some point. It had to happen. But I don’t think the guy deserves the hate that often gets thrown his way from Priest fans.

Likewise, Owens was great in Iced Earth. The Glorious Burden is a fantastic record, one of the best in the band’s catalog, and though I always liked Matt Barlow (a replacement singer himself), I thought Owens took the band’s sound over the top. Grousing fans pretty much ended that, too, as Barlow came back for a one-off. Though he is one of my favorite vocalists, Owens has his problems. He seems content to be a career replacement singer, fronting Yngwie Malmsteen’s band and Dio Disciples since, and his songwriting on his lone solo album was lacking. There’s another Beyond Fear album in the works, maybe that will be the one.

No. 4: ZACHARY STEVENS (SAVATAGE): The reason this one isn’t higher on my list is because of the unique circumstances. Rarely has a replacement singer been embraced the way that Savatage fans embraced Stevens. Granted there are fans who prefer Jon Oliva’s vocals. I’m one of them. But Stevens never got the hate that most replacements have to deal with. Part of that was the fact that Oliva was still very much involved in the band during Stevens’ tenure. He just wasn’t singing. Though he’s credited only as co-producer and additional keyboards in the liner notes, 1994’s Handful of Rain, was pretty much a complete Oliva project, his way of dealing with the death of his brother, Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva. The sound did evolve over Stevens’ years, but more gradually and in an arc that it was already headed before he came in. That, I think, helped Stevens get over with fans. That, and of course, he has a great voice. Though very different from Oliva, his performances on songs like “Edge of Thorns,” “Chance” and “Alone You Breathe” are classics in my mind.

No. 3: JOHN BUSH (ANTHRAX): You knew this one was coming. To me, the hallmark of a great replacement singer is the ability to transform a band into something better than it was. I love the Anthrax albums of the 1980s. Among the Living is one of my favorites of the decade. But when Bush brought his lion’s roar to the band, they became something better. The often-cartoonish sound of their 1980s material disappeared. Oh, they still had a little fun here and there, but this was a heavier, darker sound. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t like Sound of White Noise at first. It hit at a time when a lot of my favorite thrash bands were shifting gears. These days, though, I can’t hear “Only” and not crank the volume. Bush won me over through the course of his work with the band, and We’ve Come for You All remains on par with Among the Living for me in the band’s catalog. To appease the fans of Joey Belladonna (who replaced Neil Turbin for the band’s second album), I will admit that I was wrong about Worship Music, and it was a worthy successor to We’ve Come for You All, though there were a few songs I would have preferred to hear Bush sing. But there’s a new Armored Saint album in the works, where I get to hear more Bush, so I guess it’s a win-win.

No. 2: RONNIE JAMES DIO (BLACK SABBATH): Did I mention that a great replacement singer should transform a band? What Ronnie James Dio did when he came into Black Sabbath was nothing short of amazing. His presence alone completely changed the entire sound and style of Black Sabbath. Those first six albums with Ozzy are metal classics. No one can deny that. Hell, they’re the font from which all metal flows, but Heaven and Hell can stand toe to toe with any of them. There’s a much more mystical and epic feel to the Dio albums. There’s more complexity, more layers. They’re great records, just in a different way than the Ozzy albums. I don’t understand those people who argue vehemently between Ozzy and Dio. I’m just as happy to rock Sabotage or Heaven and Hell as loud as I can crank them. Both versions of the band were incredible.

No. 1: BRUCE DICKINSON (IRON MAIDEN): So maybe I’m cheating a little with this one, as most people consider Dickinson THE singer for Iron Maiden. But he didn’t come aboard until the band’s third album, The Number of the Beast, replacing Paul Di’Anno, who sang on Maiden’s self-titled debut and Killers. That makes him a replacement singer, and I don’t believe that anyone can argue that there’s ever been a better or more successful replacement singer in the history of metal. Granted, Maiden didn’t reach the height of their popularity until after Dickinson joined, and he certainly had something to do with that. Still, he’s not immune to replacement singer syndrome, either. It’s not often, but every now and then I’ll come across someone that grumbles they miss Di’Anno. I guess it just proves it’s impossible to please everyone.

[amazon_enhanced asin="B000063CP6" container="" container_class="" price="All" background_color="FFFFFF" link_color="000000" text_color="0000FF" /] [amazon_enhanced asin="B001EOOQEM" container="" container_class="" price="All" background_color="FFFFFF" link_color="000000" text_color="0000FF" /] [amazon_enhanced asin="B000001FTD" container="" container_class="" price="All" background_color="FFFFFF" link_color="000000" text_color="0000FF" /] [amazon_enhanced asin="B005RALTBM" container="" container_class="" price="All" background_color="FFFFFF" link_color="000000" text_color="0000FF" /] [amazon_enhanced asin="B000024W5I" container="" container_class="" price="All" background_color="FFFFFF" link_color="000000" text_color="0000FF" /]

Those, I believe, are the best. Here are a few others I like, a couple of which will get me angry glares from fans of those bands, and at least one that will get the inevitable, “why didn’t he make your top 5?”: Mike Patton (Faith No More), James Labrie (Dream Theater), John Corabi (Motley Crue), Rob Dukes (Exodus), Anette Olzon (Nightwish), Angela Gossow (Arch Enemy), and Brian Johnson (AC/DC).

Fred Phillips

Fred Phillips is a veteran entertainment writer with a love of hard rock and heavy metal. He has written music reviews, columns and feature stories for several newspapers, Web sites and a national wire service, while running a stand-alone site called Hall of the Mountain King in various places and incarnations since 1997. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.

Latest posts by Fred Phillips (see all)

  • Fred Phillips

    Having been smacked down by a fellow Tim Owens fan on Twitter, I have to make an addendum about his other band Charred Walls of the Damned, which is really good, particularly their debut album. They somehow managed to slip my mind while I was writing this. Sorry. I’ll do my penance and it will never happen again … until next time. ;)

  • JC Mosquito

    Well, since they were contemporaries of Black Sabbath, does Deep Purple qualify as a metal band as well? Then Ian Gillan replacing Rod Evans has to be a career defining change.

    • Louis

      I think of Deep Purple as primarily a hard rock band but not metal. I’ve seen quite a few interviews where Ian Gillan has said the same. Their first three albums with Rod Evans moved from a lot of covers to a prog/classical influence and the third and self-titled album is a rather unknown masterpiece covrring a lot of ground with classical (April – that has several movements b4 ending more Purple-like all the way to the scorching pyrotechnics of Ritchie Blackmore on “The Painter) a really cooking piece of hard rock.

      Then Gillan and Glover joined and the band then became a more pure hard rock band (but in my view a thinking man’s hard rock) keeping other influences like prog, jazz, and the ever present classical mostly from Jon Lord.

      There current incarnation with Steve Morse on guitar and Don Airey on organ remains a versatile band with influences ranging from jazz, to country (thanks to Steve Morse) to some prog while at the same time being that thinking man’s hard rock band.

      The proto-typical “heavy metal” to me is Black Sabbath and their offshoots. Just my opinion, for what it’s worth, and with the realization that music appreciation is so subjective and does not lend itself very well to lists be it top 10 guitarists or best this or that. It really is just R&R!

  • Fred Phillips

    For some reason, I never really think of Deep Purple as a metal band, of course it could be argued that Faith No More and AC/DC aren’t “metal” bands either. That’s a really good one that I didn’t think of.

  • Tracy

    Cool article! Another band worth menitoning on this topic is Helloween. From Kai Hansen, to Michael Kiske, to Andi Deris… all great in their own way.

    Accept’s last 2 albums are great too, basically a re-birth of the band with Mark Tornillo on vocals.

    Stu Block stepping into Iced Earth has been an interesting shift. Despite Iced Earth being a revolving door for all positions except Jon’s, they’re still one of my favorite bands. 5 vocalists over a span of 10 studio albums though… really? But i like them all… except maybe the 1st guy (Gene Adam).

  • Fred Phillips

    Thanks.

    I agree Tornillo has done a great job with Accept. In fact, “Blood of the Nations” might be my favorite album of theirs, certainly top three. I sometimes found Udo’s vocals to be a little annoying, but Tornillo’s never hit that little nerve. Should have definitely included him in my honorable mentions.

    I have mixed feelings on Stu Block. I liked his work with Into Eternity, but I often think his vocals with Iced Earth are a little too effects-laden. The near-painful electronic assisted high note at the end of “Anthem,” for example, which is otherwise among my favorite songs by the band. The songs on Dystopia that I like, I really like, but it’s only about half the album.

    Schaffer lost me a little bit with the shift back to Barlow for the second Something Wicked album. Admittedly, I preferred Tim Owens’ vocals, but I also loved all of the stuff with Barlow (except maybe Horror Show, which I always thought was a mixed bag, too). I just thought the shift ruined the continuity of the project. It was pretty obvious that a lot of the songs on that second album had been written with Owens’ vocals in mind, and they’re two very different guys. I’m carrying around a little disappointment from that whole situation that it will probably take Schaffer a little while to break through. That said, I will be picking up Plagues of Babylon on its release day. Too much good stuff in the catalog to ignore a new IE record.