Friday, April 8, 2011

Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell (1980)

In 1979, trouble was brewing in the ranks of Black Sabbath. For about a decade the band was known as one of the most important founders of the entire heavy metal movement - but they had fallen on hard times. Their previous two albums, "Technical Ecstasy" and "Never Say Die!" had a lukewarm reception, and tensions were running high between most of the band and long-time singer Ozzy Osbourne. The band started work on a new album, and Ozzy - who was already starting work on his solo project "Blizzard of Ozz" attempted to record vocals, but it was clearly not working out.

At the suggestion Sharon Arden (daughter of Black Sabbath's manager Don Arden, and future wife of Ozzy Osbourne) convinced the group to sit down with former Rainbow lead vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Dio had a radically different approach to singing and songwriting when compared to Ozzy Osbourne, and an intense work ethic that had a profound effect on the entire band. It was official, Dio would replace Ozzy as lead vocalist for Black Sabbath, and work immediately commenced on their ninth studio album - to be titled "Heaven and Hell" - an album that would redefine the legendary band, and leave a lasting mark on the heavy metal movement.

The band was going thorough several changes when writing for the album commenced. Geezer Butler, who was Sabbath's bass player since they first formed, was going through a divorce and left the band- at least temporarily. He was not around for most of the writing  sessions, and the band took on Geoff Nicholls, formerly with the band Quartz, was brought on board as a possible replacement. Former Rainbow and Elf bassist Craig Gruber was also involved at some point, but it is unclear how long, or how extensive his role was. When the majority of the songwriting for "Heaven and Hell" was complete, Geezer Butler rejoined the band, and Geoff Nicholls stepped aside, assuming the role of "unofficial" fifth member on keyboards (and sometimes rhythm guitar for live shows). Geoff Nicholls would stay with the band for many years in an "unofficial" capacity, but was almost always placed off-stage, and usually not given any writing credits.

Long time drummer Bill Ward was involved throughout the writing and recording of the album. His longstanding problems with alcoholism began to catch up with him, and he had to bow out in the middle of the album's tour- to be replaced by Vinny Appice (who appeared on several of John Lennon's recordings, and also performed with Rick Derringer). Vinny Appice quickly became close with Ronnie James Dio- and stayed with him for most of Dio's solo career.

Of course, it is not possible to discuss anything about Black Sabbath without mentioning the one member that remained constant through every lineup change the group has ever been through- guitarist Tony Iommi. Iommi is considered by many to be the original heavy metal guitarist. Many modern guitarists both in and out of the heavy metal scene consider him to be a major influence. Tony Iommi was the first rock guitarist to "detune" his guitar on a regular basis - in part to gain a darker, heavier sound, and in part to help compensate for the discomfort he experienced after losing the tips of two fingers on his fretting hand in an industrial accident at the age of 17. Iommi has always been known as prolific riff writer, and an incendiary soloist. On the "Heaven and Hell" album, he continued this tradition, although he adopted a relatively cleaner sound than in the early Sabbath albums, and incorporated more acoustic elements as well.

The first song on the album is "Neon Nights" - it sets the tone for the whole album, and makes a strong first impression. The song is based on a pulse-pounding, up-tempo riff that never lets up. Dio's operatic vocals run counterpoint to the guitar, and let the listener know that this is a new and revitalized Black Sabbath. By today's standards, the song, and the entire album, seem almost a conventional 80s metal album. The difference here is that the album came out in 1980- so was one of the albums that actually set the tone for the decade.

Two songs are real standouts- "Children of the Sea," and the title track "Heaven and Hell." Children of the Sea was built around material from the very first writing/jam session between Dio and Iommi. The mood of the song alternates between moods. The verses feature a calm clean guitar part with the bass running a counter-melody with a smooth flowing vocal above them. The chorus is a more pounding, insistent riff with a harder edged vocal. The bridge section features a vocal-like keyboard part with vocal improvisation by Dio, and a tragic sounding guitar solo. The lyrics speak about how progress often outstrips wisdom- putting ourselves and our world in jeopardy- with lines such as /We'd glide above the ground before we learned to run, run/Now it seems our world has come undone/.


The song "Heaven and Hell" is the longest on the album at nearly 7 minutes in length. Ronnie James Dio has stated on numerous occasions, that it is his favorite song from his entire career- the song he is most proud of. The lyrics throughout the song are juxstapositions of images of good and evil. Dio has also stated in VH1's "Heavy: The Story of Metal" that the song is about how everyone has heaven and hell inside of them, and that they have to choose between good and evil. The song features sparse guitar solos trading phrases with the vocals, tied together by a galloping bass line. The second half of the song is up-tempo, building intensity to the ending, which switches gears abruptly into an acoustic guitar solo with a medieval feel that slowly fades out.

The song has been frequently cited as one of the best metal songs of all time. It is clearly the work of a group of talented musicians at their peak, and represents and idea that most metal fans can easily relate to. When it was performed live, the middle section of the song was extended to give Dio an opportunity to improvise and lead audience participation moments. The song quickly became the centerpiece of the live show as well.

The tour supporting the "Heaven and Hell" album was where Dio first began using the now familiar "devil horns" salute. This gesture, also sometimes referred to as "the fist of metal," has become synonymous with heavy metal worldwide. Dio was not the first person to use it, but he certainly played a major role in popularizing it. The sign is based on the old Italian "malocchio" or "evil eye"- in Italian folklore, the sign can be used to put a curse on someone, or ward off a curse- fitting with Dio's love of things that combine the dual nature of good and evil.  

The rest of the album contains a great deal of variety- blazing shred-guitar solos on "Wishing Well" - a infectious hook of the main riff on "Walk Away," A mid-tempo cautionary tale in "Lady Evil" - the more gloomy "Die Young" - and the tragic dirge of "Lonely is the Word" (which features a long guitar solo that reminds of of David Gilmour's solos from "Momentary Lapse of Reason" (albeit with an added dose of darkness and attitude) round out the album.

Tony Iommi lightened up his guitar sound considerably for this album (it does, however remain VERY heavy, it is just a long distance from the dark, sludgy tones of his early work with Ozzy). Iommi's background in the blues is less to the forefront than in his early work, but is still plainly evident in his solos. In the band's old days, the bass and guitar would stay in unison for long periods of time- while that idea has not been completely abandoned, the bass typically runs counter-melodic to the guitar most of the time. Also, in the Ozzy days, Osbourne would typically sing vocal melodies that followed the guitar parts closely, while Dio had a completely different approach. Dio's melodies would frequently run in counterpoint to the bass and guitar- resulting a very layered soundscape. The album clearly represents a major change in style and attitude, while retaining some of the band's trademark heavy sound that they nearly abandoned on their two previous albums.

Dio's lyrics retained much of the fantasy inspired subject matter and images that were his trademark in his Rainbow days. This is especially evident in the song "Neon Knights" - /circles and rings, dragons and kings/weaving a charm and a spell/, and in "Lady Evil" - /lady evil, evil/she's a magical mystical woman/.

With Geezer Butler out of the picture for most of the songwriting, the band called upon very different influences for their writing that appears to have injected a new vitality into the band, and new songwriting approaches. The band took these ideas to heart, even through the lineup changes, continuing to run with the ideas first explored here on their next album "Mob Rules." This renewed outlook would not last long though, in 1982, during the mixing sessions for their upcoming live album "Live Evil" - tensions ran high between Dio and Appice on one side, and Iommi and Butler on the other, and the group split in half, with Dio and Appice moving on to form the band "Dio". The lineup would reunite again in 1992 for the album "Dehumanizer" but the bad blood from 1982 was still present, and they parted ways again.


The "Heaven and Hell" / "Mob Rules" version of Black Sabbath would have one last hurrah- in 2007 a compilation of Dio-era Black Sabbath songs was released, and naturally, there was talk of a supporting tour. Iommi, Butler, Dio, and Appice set aside whatever lingering differences they had, and came together to produce a new single for the compilation, then planned to tour together. They set aside the "Black Sabbath" name however, and took the name "Heaven and Hell" to avoid confusion with the Ozzy-era lineup who was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. As "Heaven and Hell" they enjoyed considerable success, releasing a boxed set of remastered older material, and finally an original album in 2009 titled "The Devil You Know." After a successful tour in support of the new album, the band went on hiatus while everyone pursued their own projects, but would not reunite- while making preliminary plans for another tour, and another possible album, Ronnie James Dio took ill, and after a long battle that he appeared to be winning, was finally silenced by stomach cancer in may of 2010.

I first heard the "Heaven and Hell" album in college in 1988 - I became friends with the guys in the next dorm room, and after one night of "youthful celebration" they noticed I had a copy of Sabbath's old live album "Live After Death" in my collection, and started asking about it. After I admitted that I'd never heard the Dio-era albums they basically sat me down and said "you have to listen to this," put on "Heaven and Hell," and turned it up to about 11. I was hooked. I listened to Sabbath casually before that, but "Heaven and Hell" had a powerful effect on me. While Sabbath is one of the pioneers of the heavy metal genre, there is always something about them that sets them apart from mainstream metal. The ever-present blues influence, the "heavier than heavy" sound of the earlier albums, the lyrics, all worked together in a way that set them apart. The band, for obvious reasons, were frequently labeled as "satanic" - however, if you really look at what they say in their songs, there is remarkably little to lend credence to this in most of the earlier Ozzy-era work, and especially in the Dio-era songs.  The band's subject matter has always been wide ranging for me- sometimes psychedelic, sometimes political, often capturing the same kind of scare quality of a horror film. The band has simply had an enormous influence on the world of heavy metal- "Heaven and Hell" being one of the albums often cited as a standout. It is a must-have for any serious metal fan.

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