Long before he became a metal master, Ronnie James Dio fronted a blues-based band called the Elves that cranked out traditional rock with a hint of folksy acoustic jams and prog-rock tendencies.

The Elves (later shortened to Elf) were formed in Cortland, New York in 1967. 'And Before Elf…There Were Elves' captures Dio & Co. at the peak of the pre-stardom game with an eclectic mix of sounds and styles amid a hodgepodge of both studio and live cuts.

The first thing you notice about the record is that unmistakable Dio voice, calling out to you from four decades ago. Unlike other singers whose voices either mature or degenerate with age, Dio's vocal chords remained remarkably consistent throughout his career. Whether he's offering up the sweet song of a siren or the throaty wail of a future arena commander, this man practically emerged from the womb ready to rock!

'And Before Elf…' opens with a foursome of tunes ('You Shook Me,' 'Stay With Me,' 'Four Day Creep' and 'Buckingham Blues') in the Led Zeppelin vein of heavy blues-based rock. But if that's all the Elves had to offer, this record wouldn't be particularly noteworthy, especially in light of Dio's later success with Rainbow, Black Sabbath and his own eponymous band.

Fortunately, Dio was delivering dynamic and nuanced performances from very early on in his career. By the time you get to 'Wakeup Sunshine' midway through the album, Elf begin to reveal what a unique animal they truly are.

One of the disc's standout tracks, 'Wakeup Sunshine,' is miles away from Dio's trademark metal sounds. The piano-based mid-tempo number has strong lead and backing vocals and an insistent tear-jerking refrain that -- almost unbelievably -- suggest shades of Motown.

Other left-of-center moments come with the progressive, epic songwriting of 'Driftin,' ' with its hints of Dio's emerging Dungeons and Dragons lyric style, and the folksy acoustic number 'Smile for Me Lady' that's built on delicate finger-picking and a wistful melody.

Among the most 'metal' moments is 'Drown Me in the River,' a song that marries a Bonnie and Clyde-style narrative about two young lovers on the run with bludgeoning power chords for a mammoth, swaggering sound.

Three members of the Elves -- Dio, keyboardist Mickey Lee Soule, drummer Gary Driscoll -- would later go on to form the core of Rainbow with ex-Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore. The Elves' other guitarist, David Feinstein, later formed the Rods. Thankfully, 'And Before Elf…' serves to remind us of a unique moment in time before rock stardom beckoned for Dio and some of his early peers.



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