Part 10 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays
I have to admit to something – when I think of the band Black Sabbath, my mind’s eye instantly conjures up visions of Ozzy Osbourne. Perhaps playing into the whole “Sabbath IS Ozzy” game, yes – but it’s true. When I was first discovering older heavy metal bands, Black Sabbath was the first band that I really got into. Each of their records with Ozzy gave me something to enjoy (yes, even Technical Ecstasy). I moved on to Ozzy’s solo career, read blurbs about how Black Sabbath were never the same after he left, and considered it a case closed – nothing left to explore.
Around the same time as this (late 80’s) I picked up two cassettes by a band called DIO – Holy Diver and Lock Up the Wolves. I loved both of these albums, metal but strong melodies – crazy imagery with stories of mystical wonders. I am almost ashamed to admit it – but it was not until years later that I learned about the Ronnie James Dio version of Black Sabbath. I got into a long-winded conversation with a colleague one day, and the topic of Black Sabbath came up. Of course, I proclaimed my love for several of the Ozzy fronted albums and his response absolutely changed my life. He said “You know, I actually prefer the 3 albums Sabbath did with Ronnie James Dio”. I pressed him for more details and purchased all 3 albums that weekend (Heaven and Hell, The Mob Rules, Dehumanizer….the band would also reunite under the moniker Heaven and Hell and issue The Devil You Know in 2009)
I have to say, as much as I love the Ozzy albums – all 4 of the albums issued with Ronnie James Dio (and the 3 new tracks issued on the Rules of Hell box-set) are some of the greatest heavy metal albums ever issued. On any given day, my favorite could change, but since Heaven and Hell was my first introduction to this phase of Black Sabbath it is the record I’ve decided to discuss for this column.
Opener “Neon Knights” showcases a leaner, meaner Black Sabbath. The tempo is at least double the rate of the Sabbath we were accustomed to with Ozzy Osbourne. Perhaps the Judas Priests and Def Leppards of the world were rubbing off on Sabbath (no laughing matter about Def Leppard, their 1st two records are as fine a slab of heavy metal as I’ve ever heard). Lyrics weren’t quite as demonic as the 70’s records, but even more mystical. Guitar solos are timeless. Key lyrics “Circles and rings, dragons and kings / Weaving a charm and a spell / Blessed by the night, holy and bright / Called by the toll of the bell / Bloodied angels fast descending / Moving on a never-bending light / Phantom figures free forever
Out of shadows, shining ever-bright / Neon Knights! / Neon Knights! all right!”
“Children of the Sea” starts out with beautiful acoustic guitar, before RJD’s vocals come in “In the misty morning, on the edge of time / We’ve lost the rising sun, a final sign / As the misty morning rolls away to die / Reaching for the stars, we blind the sky” The band kicks into high gear, the feel is a modern heavy metal song (as opposed to the sludgy sound of the 70’s Sabbath). Ronnie is singing his heart out on this tune (as he does throughout the record) “Yes they say that it’s over / We’re lost children of the sea”. Well timed guitar solos, the band firing on all cylinders. A perfect song on a record full of them. The band fades away and we are left with acoustic guitar and Ronnie singing the beginning refrain over again, this time with even more emotion. Perfection.
“Lady Evil” killer bass to start the tune out, guitar interplay over it after a few seconds. The band locks into a groove and Dio’s voice sounds positively evil “There’s a place just south of Witches’ Valley / Where they say the wind won’t blow / And they only speak in whispers of her name / There’s a lady they say who feeds the darkness / It eats right from her hand / With a crying shout she’ll search you out / And freeze you where you stand / Lady Evil, evil / She’s a magical, mystical woman / Lady Evil, evil in my mind / She’s queen of the night / All right!” This song is overlooked sometimes, but it shouldn’t be – it is simply stunning.
“Heaven and Hell” – If there is such thing as an “iconic guitar riff” it belongs to this song. If there is such thing as an “iconic bass riff” it belongs this song. If there is a defining vocal of heavy metal, it belongs to this song. This song is simply a song I can play over and over without ever getting sick of it. Operatic vocals, a pulsating bass refrain, a guitar line that’ll get stuck in your head all day. This isn’t just my favorite Black Sabbath song – it’s my favorite heavy metal song, period. “Sing me a song, you’re a singer / Do me a wrong, you’re a bringer of evil / The Devil is never a maker / The less that you give, you’re a taker / So it’s on and on and on, it’s Heaven and Hell, oh well”
“Wishing Well” offers up a more straightforward sound compared to the preceding songs. A very enjoyable slab of early 80’s metal, I’d consider this one of the deeper album cuts. Key lyrics “Throw me a penny and I’ll make you a dream / You find that life’s not always what it seems, no no / Then think of a rainbow and I’ll make it come real”
“Die Young” has a strange little synth piece to start off the song (foreshadowing the Tony Martin years a bit), beautiful guitars come in over top of the melodic background. Guitars come raging through my speakers, thrashy. Ronnie James Dio alternately shouts and sings his vocals. A perfect jam song…until the music slows down and we are left with the beautiful voice of Ronnie pleading “Die young, die young / Can’t you see the writing on the wall? / Die young, gonna die young / Someone stopped the fall”. The jam starts all over again (reminding me of mid 70’s Genesis with this proggy interlude).
“Walk Away” has more of a mainstream Rock n Roll feel to it. Another deep album cut, provides some relief after the intense song that preceded it. Seems to be about avoiding a woman who has baby fever (seriously). Key lyrics: “Lord she’s handsome as she flows across the floor / Nothing I’ve seen in my life has ever pleased me more / She’s got the look of freedom, and it makes you think she’s wild / But I can see right through it all, it’s the way to have a child”
“Lonely is the Word” Opening guitar refrain will give you shivers up your spine – it’s really that great. Another modern sounding Sabbath masterpiece. The music builds towards the masterful chorus where Dio sings in operatic tones “Yeah, Lonely is the word / Got to be the saddest song I ever heard / Yeah, Lonely is the name / Maybe life’s a losing game”. The song features an almost bluesy guitar solo. The combined effect of the music with touching lyrics is just mind blowing. The song really moves into an amazing jam session about 3 minutes in, followed by emotional wailing by Ronnie. A perfect way to end the album.
If you are curious about the Ronnie James Dio era of Black Sabbath, I’d start with this one. You won’t want to stop there, as all 4 albums offer something unique and different. In fact, before Ronnie was diagnosed with cancer (he passed away in 2010), he was really on a roll – his last album with the boys, The Devil You Know is a fine slab of heavy metal that rocks harder than bands half the ages of Black Sabbath (though it was released as Heaven and Hell due to a legal agreement). I’m eagerly anticipating the new Black Sabbath record in 2012 / 2013 with Ozzy Osbourne on vocals (poor Tony Martin gets no respect, and he sang on FIVE records with Black Sabbath). There is some confusion and high emotions over the exclusion of Bill Ward from the proceedings, but I’d offer up a suggestion – have Vinny Appice drum for the band, which essentially makes it Heaven and Hell with Ozzy on vox. And while we are at it – if every other singer of Black Sabbath has sung the famous Ozzy songs, can’t Ozzy sing the famous DIO songs on tour? Please?
Join me next week as I discuss Kraftwerk’s The Man Machine