BLACK SABBATH: HEAVEN AND HELL (1980)
1) Neon Knights; 2) Children Of The Sea; 3) Lady Evil; 4) Heaven And Hell; 5) Wishing Well; 6) Die Young; 7) Walk Away; 8) Lonely Is The Word.
So, is Black Sabbath without Ozzy Osbourne still Black Sabbath? Or is it really «Heaven & Hell», as this new incarnation of the band, with Ronnie James Dio on vocals, would actually start calling itself twenty-six years later? This is certainly a more difficult question than a similar one about, say, AC/DC — who, incidentally, were another great heavy rock band to reinvent themselves with a different singer the very same year. But where Brian Johnson, taking over the late Bon Scott, simply contributed to a slight change in the band's aesthetics (a little less irony, a little more working-class crudeness), the arrival of Dio seems to have revitalized Black Sabbath at the cost of completely shifting its ambitions in a different direction.
The difference between Ozzy and Ronnie is, of course, «heaven & hell» incarnated. Not only is Dio, technically, a genuine «singer» rather than just «vocalist» (albeit with a somewhat limited vocal range), but he was also a visionary — obsessed with escapist images of fantasy worlds, medievalistic values, and all sorts of dark romanticism. In addition to that, he was a really strong, charismatic personality who tended to eclipse everybody else: it is, in fact, amazing that he managed to survive with Ritchie Blackmore in the same band (Rainbow) for a mind-boggling four years (twice as long as his first stint with Sabbath). The idea to invite him over to Sabbath upon Ozzy's departure was a very weird whim: perhaps Tony and Geezer thought that a singer is, after all, only a singer, and can be molded into whatever the composers wish him to be molded into. As it happened, it was Dio who transformed Sabbath according to his masterplan, and not vice versa — and all the other band members could do was sit back and watch.
From the opening chuggy notes of ʽNeon Knightsʼ and right down to the epic fade-out of ʽLonely Is The Wordʼ, it is clear that the old Black Sabbath is gone for good. Of course, the band did go through a series of experimental transformations with Ozzy, but somehow, Heaven & Hell is an album that produces an immediate clear impression — finally, they have found a comfortable «genrist» niche in which they are going to stay (and indeed, this is where they ended up staying even after Ronnie was gone), and it's all because of Ronnie. Now, at last, with Tony Iommi being a far friendlier and milder chap than that Blackmore guy, Ronnie could find someone to make all his fantasies come alive — little wonder that he'd end up remembering the Heaven & Hell sessions as some of the most perfect moments of his life.
Musically, Heaven & Hell walks a line somewhere in between «doom metal», «art metal», and «power metal» — dark, heavy music that takes itself seriously and is also oriented at «retro» ideals (medieval, Gothic, romantic, whatever). Now that I think of it — although subsequent decades have seen zillions of albums in those genres, as late as mid-1980, did music such as recorded here even exist? Some of it sounds like Accept (who were only just starting), some of it sounds like Iron Maiden (who were in the process of working out their sound), some of it sounds like Opeth (who would not form for another decade), the point being that Heaven & Hell is sort of a milestone, though certainly not a milestone that would be impressive for fans of «classic» Sabbath. Because this is where, in a way, the «classic rock»-era Sabbath ceases to exist, and what we are left with is «heavy metal»-era Black Sabbath, and I mean «heavy metal» as a narrowly defined genre that suits certain restricted conventions. An era which can produce its fair share of excellent songs, but has no space for ʽPlanet Caravanʼ, or ʽChangesʼ, or ʽSupertzarʼ, or any other such deviation.
Fortunately, even though the overall tone of the album is so monotonous, Ronnie's arrival at least refreshed the atmosphere and infused a new hope — and, riding on that new hope, the band came out with a solid, consistent set of songs. One thing that you are going to notice, though, is that Tony's riffs, which once used to be the begin-all-end-all substance of Black Sabbath, no longer are so. It's not even that there aren't any riffs — it's simply that they are much less prominent. Sometimes they only arrive at the time of the chorus (ʽChildren Of The Seaʼ), and Ronnie, singing across them, is stealing most of the attention for himself. Sometimes they only make brief appearances in between verses (title track). Most of the times, they are simply not too memorable, and work more as tough, brutal pedestals for R.J.D. to get on top of them and shower the audience with his medieval metal opera arias. Rather convenient, given R.J.D.'s short stature.
But I would not count this as a big problem. We are here presented with a radically new ideology for the band, and for the time being, this ideology works — many of Ronnie's vocal melodies are quite catchy, and the man's passionate conviction for what he is doing is undeniable. Of all the pathos-drenched, pretentious, pseudo-operatic metal singers, Ronnie James Dio has always held my highest respect for one single, simple reason: he's actually got the right pipes to justify all that. Apart from sheer technique and audacious pomp, there is such a strong strain of animal viciousness in the man that even when he is spouting forth lyrical nonsense about "circles and rings, dragons and kings", the words are convincing and infectious. And as for Iommi, even though his playing here might not yield a lot of memorable melodies, it is tighter, more energetic and, in a way, more melodic than ever before.
The title track, which would quickly become the signature song for the Dio-led version of the band, is an obvious highlight — doom-laden, multi-part, music and lyrics all suggestive of an inescapable fate, and a «begin slow, end fast» principle that seems to suggest they were consciously or subconsciously trying to repeat the formula of ʽBlack Sabbathʼ, i. e. really start a new musical life. Okay, the words may be even clumsier than Geezer used to make them ("the devil is never a maker, the less that you give you're a taker"?), but only R.J.D. can bring the chorus down on the word "hell" with such a gloriously evil pharyngealized thud, and that prancing bass line goes so much better with Ronnie's delivery than in its original incarnation (ʽMainline Ridersʼ by Quartz, whose former member Geoff Nicholls brought it over with him once he was hired by Sabbath as a bass, and then a keyboard player).
Other than that, I am quite partial to the entire first side — the fast-and-furious opening with ʽNeon Knightsʼ; the slow-paced ʽChildren Of The Seaʼ, a song that began life with Ozzy still in the band but now seems thoroughly associated with Dio and his awesome "LOOK OUT! LOOK OUT!" coda; and even ʽLady Evilʼ, which is clearly the silliest tune of the lot but whose grinning, gleefully corny «evilness» I simply cannot resist — Tony, too, gets caught up in the game and comes up with all sorts of «nightmarish» wah-wah effects. The important thing is to learn not to have to take these songs too seriously — this is all part of a highly professional phantasmagoria; but there is some real grit to the singing and playing that makes it believable, like the high quality writing and erudition of J. R. R. Tolkien helps make at least some of The Lord Of The Rings believable. I mean, nobody is demanding you to shed tears over the tragedy of the lost ʽChildren Of The Seaʼ, but shouldn't we at least tip our hats to the way that tragedy is brought to its final apocalyptic conclusion?
The second side is not nearly as impressive, since it largely rehashes the ideas of Side A (ʽDie Youngʼ = ʽNeon Knights Vol. 2ʼ; ʽWalk Awayʼ = a poppier take on ʽLady Evilʼ, both songs being upbeat rants about evil bitches; ʽLonely Is The Wordʼ is yet another slow-moving epic ballad in the same vein as ʽChildrenʼ, etc.), but then the actual melodies are still different, and if you are okay with the overall style, you'll be okay with the second side as well. Heaven & Hell is not a «song-based» album, it is a «sound-based» album, and the Iommi/Dio sound is the sound of two metal titans at work. You can pigeonhole it, label it, jeer and sneer at it, but there is no getting around the fact that Heaven & Hell kicks the Devil's ass, and is right up there with Back In Black as one of the year's greatest heavy rock triumphs. Thumbs up (there should probably be some sort of pun here on Dio's «metal horns» gesture, but I'm sure I wouldn't be the first one, so it is perhaps more prudent to abstain).