BLACK SABBATH: LIVE EVIL (1982)
1) E5150; 2) Neon Knights; 3) N.I.B.; 4) Children Of The Sea; 5) Voodoo; 6) Black Sabbath; 7) War Pigs; 8) Iron Man; 9) The Mob Rules; 10) Heaven And Hell; 11) Sign Of The Southern Cross/Heaven And Hell (cont.); 12) Paranoid; 13) Children Of The Grave; 14) Fluff.
Two strange things, both marked with the tags «Black Sabbath» and «live», happened prior to the release of Live Evil. The first was Live At Last, a compilation of old live recordings with Ozzy from 1973, released in 1980 without the band's consent by their former manager Patrick Meehan. The recordings were all right, actually, but since the band originally decided not to use them, Tony was understandably pissed off about the incident. Second, in early 1982 Ozzy, going through his batshit-and-doveshit crazy stage, decided to release a solo live album that consisted of nothing but Sabbath songs, and Tony was understandably pissed off about that Brad Gillis guy trampling on his classic riffs.
So, operating in vengeful mode, Tony gave the green light to the release of Black Sabbath's first «proper» / «officially sanctioned» live album — one on which Ronnie James Dio would have the right to not only sing new material, but the old classics as well. Naturally, this would have to be a double album (what with the band's impressive backlog and all), and naturally, it would have to prove, once and for all, who was the real master of his domain. Unfortunately, the album polarized the audience in a way that Heaven And Hell could not — up to this day, the debate about whether or not Ronnie should or should not have put his mark on Ozzy-era classics is still raging like there was no tomorrow. Then again, it is always pleasant to see just how much Black Sabbath still lives on in the hearts of the old and the young alike.
One thing that Live Evil does show, quite obviously, is that Ronnie was no Ozzy when it came to establishing the share of one's presence in the band. Ozzy, when on stage, always seemed a little (or a lot) stoned, seriously enthusiastic about the music, but also mindful of the fact that he was only one out of four — a fact that was all too easy to be mindful of since those four guys started off together as equals. Ronnie, on the other hand, clearly viewed the stage — just as it was in the old Rainbow days — as a battlefield, where the winner took it all. And subsequently, Live Evil is all about Ronnie James Dio. The stage banter. The singing, so loud it occasionally drowns out Tony's metal guitar (!). The incessant ad-libbing and posturing, often performed on top of Tony's classic riffs, so that anybody who has the misfortune of choosing this album for an introduction to the Sabbath sound will know the band as «the one with that Valhalla guy» rather than the world's most amazing riff machine provider.
But you know what? I don't care, and you shouldn't either. I find Ronnie's big ego, so amusing to behold in such a tiny body, at worst hilarious, and at best awesomely overpowering. Yes, every once in a while you get the urge to strangle the little guy, especially when he is wailing right on top of the ʽBlack Sabbathʼ tritones. Yet he seems so sincere, passionate, and ferocious in his stage attitude that anything can be forgiven. Of course, the difference between Ronnie and Ozzy is heaven and earth (heaven and hell?), but there is at least one additional justification for Ronnie's almost grotesque «oversinging» on the classics — to tell the truth, all those early Geezer lyrics are so atrocious that you either have to be Ozzy to sing them in an appropriately stoned manner, or, if you are Ronnie, you just have to add a twist and a flourish to each word so that the listener be overwhelmed by the twists and flourishes rather than be stumped by the idiocy of it all.
To that end, Ronnie delves into ʽN.I.B.ʼ with such abandon as if he really were Lucifer, or at least that werecat creature that Michael Jackson turns into in the ʽThrillerʼ video. The performance is so over the top that it is frighteningly hilarious one minute, and then hilariously frightening in the next one — he's really ripping the throats out of those words. When we get to ʽBlack Sabbathʼ, instead of Ozzy's paranoid madman we see a genuinely possessed spirit, somebody who's sold his soul to the devil not one hour ago. And who but Ronnie could growl the "I AM IRON MAN" bit without the special metal effect on the vocals and it would still come out ironish? Just to experience that guy sweat it out is... quite an experience, and I see no reason whatsoever to stand firmly on any one side of the debate. Of course, those are interpretations, and one has no more reason to listen to Ronnie sing ʽWar Pigsʼ or ʽChildren Of The Graveʼ than to, say, Ray Charles sing ʽYesterdayʼ or Paul McCartney sing ʽWords Of Loveʼ — but in all these cases, a certain reason does exist, and what Dio does to these Ozzy songs looks perfectly legit to me.
Probably the only grave misfire is ʽParanoidʼ, a song that Black Sabbath Mark II still felt obliged to perform before the expecting fans but also one which, with its speedy melody and personal lyrics, simply could not yield to a Dio reinterpretation. He simply does not know what to do with the song, whose tempo gives him no time to properly savor any of the syllables, and delivers it in the usual devilish growl, well fit for every other tune but not for ʽParanoidʼ. Then again, it's just three minutes, and you really can't call yourself Black Sabbath and not do ʽParanoidʼ in a Black Sabbath live show, Ronnie or no Ronnie, so we will just have to live with that.
As to what concerns the new material from Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules, it is usually done in close accordance with the originals — ʽHeaven And Hellʼ being the big exception, as it was restructured in order to spotlight Tony's numerous soloing exercises. He plays lots of alternately «brutal» and «melodic» passages, none of which defy imagination, but he's got enough craftsmanship and he never sticks around one particular key for too long to induce boredom, so I guess that ʽHeaven And Hellʼ, with its leisurely pace and adaptable structure, is indeed the best choice to «feature Mr. Tony Iommi». The rest mostly feature Mr. Ronnie James Dio, always eager to prove that it is his apocalyptic vision, and nobody else's, that is now the dominant force in this band. Oh, for the record, ʽN.I.B.ʼ does not feature the introductory solo by Mr. Geezer Butler (so much for the «Geezer Butler!» introduction from Ronnie), but ʽWar Pigsʼ does feature an unnecessary drum solo from Mr. Vinny Appice, Bill Ward's replacement and a somewhat weak link in this show, but not so much because of poor playing (the playing's ok) as rather because of a fairly tinny sound to the drums, so that it is hard to take them seriously.
Speaking of which, the album itself allegedly went through a whole series of transformations, not the least of which was the infamous rumor that Dio was secretly tweaking the final mixes in order to bring his voice even more to the front — a rumor that he violently denied but which I personally have no trouble believing, and which added to the ongoing rift between him and Iommi. Later on, the album was released on CD in abridged form, then reinstated, then remixed with either more or less audience interaction (I don't remember which), then reinstated again, but I guess that, one way or the other, I am listening to the «real thing» in the end, whatever «real» might be. In any case, Live Evil certainly deserves a thumbs up, despite the mucking-up of ʽParanoidʼ, the tin drums, and the abysmal front cover which, if I am correct, actually tries to depict the protagonists of Black Sabbath songs — I'm sure I recognize the war pigs, but is that an Iron Man or a Neon Knight in front? Or an amalgam of both? Whatever. Gimme a Bill Ward in tights and an Ozzy in platform shoes over this cartoonishness any time of day.