Album review: Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell

Album review: Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
The death and transfiguration of Black Sabbath.

Genre: Heavy metal
Country: United Kingdom
Release date: April 25, 1980
Label: Warner Bros.
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: BSK 3372
Personnel:
Ronnie James Dio – vocals
Tony Iommi – guitars
Terence “Geezer” Butler – bass
Bill Ward – drums
with
Geoff Nichols – keyboards

1.

Neon Knights

3:53

2.

Children of the Sea 

5:35

3.

Lady Evil

4:23

4.

Heaven and Hell 

6:56

5.

Wishing Well

4:08

6.

Die Young 

4:45

7.

Walk Away

4:25

8.

Lonely is the Word 

5:46

Total running time:

39:51

“Is Black Sabbath without Ozzy Osbourne really Black Sabbath?” is a rather subjective question, but one thing for certain is that it is different. If their self-titled album, recorded in 1969 and released in 1970, is Black Sabbath inventing heavy metal, then Heaven and Hell, recorded in 1979 and recorded in 1980, is heavy metal re-inventing Black Sabbath. If they didn’t hire Ronnie James Dio, they would have had to hire someone like him anyway. The old Black Sabbath was eclectic and exploratory, sometimes to its benefit, sometimes to its detriment, but the new metal bands were primarily interested in one thing—more. Black Sabbath played riffs some of the time, so the new bands would therefore play them all the time, and the new crop of belting tenors simply had the voices best suited to singing over this sort of music. Having taken on heavy metal’s aesthetics and heavy metal’s priorities, the new all-metal-all-the-time Sabbath Mark II would inevitably get a belter of their own.

And, as befitting the former rock ‘n’ roll band that would be godfathers of heavy metal, their belter was himself an ex-rocker turned metal singer to rule them all, Ronnie James Dio. He was competent as a sensitive-guy doo-wop crooner in the ‘50s and ‘60s and slightly less competent as a white boy bluesman in the early ‘70s, but in his previous gig with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, he found the role he was born to inhabit. Ozzy Osbourne was, for all his celebrity aura in later life, a shy and mousy singer in the days when he was still a singer and not a public spectacle, writing his vocal lines around the riff and riding whatever vibe the band generated. Dio, on the other hand, boasted a naturally powerful, resonant, robust voice, and saw Tony Iommi’s riffs less like a force of nature to be worked around than a challenge, a mountain to climb on top of and a platform for his expansive, dramatic, sometimes ostentatiously difficult melodies.

So in one of the universe’s great ironies, Black Sabbath decentered the metal riff in the process of becoming more metal. It’s true; there are fewer big stomping catchy riffs here, and even if there were, Dio would have just out-sung them anyway. Rather than wowing you with the stratospheric heights of his vocal range like many of his rivals, Dio’s style emphasized his mid-range power, and a quite vicious rasp that can blend seamlessly into his extremely warm and rich natural voice, or flash in and out like lightning. At times, especially in “Die Young” and “Wishing Well”, he can exhibit an almost delicate tenderness, but never for long; how can he, when to linger in such a mood is to invite back in the vulnerabilities that many listeners approach metal to escape or trasncend, and to shoo out the guitar distortion that makes metal, well, metal? Therein lies the Achilles heel of Dio-Sabbath, and metal more generally—it requires from both performers and audience total commitment to the make-believe to work, and the presence of irony and self-consciousness annihilates metal’s magic like antimatter.

There was always something winking and performative about the original Black Sabbath, much like the midcentury horror movies that inspired it, a constant awareness in the background that in the end it’s all just show business. Suddenly, the fans of this Black Sabbath were confronted by a new Black Sabbath whose music was a magic ritual to create a space where “show business” as such does not exist. Instead of gawking at the conjured magical realm from the outside, you’re asked to project yourself into it and pretend to believe in it, and their audience found it alienating. At one concert in Milwaukee, in October 1980, the crowd even rioted, and Black Sabbath didn’t so much win back their fans as get a new set of fans, metal fans, with their own Diocentric perspectives and their own discourse about Black Sabbath’s career, a countervailing, heretical interpretation of Black Sabbath’s art and cultural meaning.


The benefit of being the frontman: you can stand way out front in the band photo and hopefully nobody will notice you’re 5’3” unless they look closely.

Aside from Dio, the core lineup is exactly the same as the classic 1970s era. Heaven and Hell was Bill Ward’s last studio performance with Black Sabbath; constantly drunk and half-insane, Ward did not even remember recording for the album, and soon thereafter flaked out and left the band mid-tour, prompting his replacement with Vinny Appice, who would be Dio’s go-to drummer for most of his career. However, his unsound, intoxicated mental state did not get in the way of his performance (either that, or the recording engineers had truly superhuman amounts of both skill and patience), as he absolutely kills it on every track on this album. Of all the musicians on Heaven and Hell, his style changes the least in the transition from old classic rock Sabbath to new heavy metal Sabbath, keeping his loose, jazzy sense of time instead of nailing himself down to the beat and hitting really really hard like his successor Appice would, and his relatively relaxed performance provides a refreshing bit of yin to all the metallic yang flying out from Iommi’s strings and Dio’s throat. His musical chemistry with Geezer Butler is also in full force here, making neo-Sabbath a metal band that can still groove like a rock ‘n’ roll band.

Another holdover from the ‘70s is the production style and overall sound, glossy yet still organic, bright but not obnoxiously so, letting Dio’s voice come through loud (very loud) and clear but not drown out the rest of the band in doing so. It is a very objective and unadorned mix that trusts in the guitar riffs and song structures themselves to provide all the required feelings of heaviness without dolling them up in layers of overdubs or complex effects rigs. I like it much better than the muddy one-dimensional bass-frequency assault of the other major Dio-Sabbath album, 1981’s Mob Rules, though it might be a bit too light-footed to satisfy people whose metal faith is more unbending than mine. I have heard several editions of this album and my favorite is still the original US vinyl pressing (the UK edition on Vertigo is probably better still, but will likely be much more expensive). Martin Birch (yes, the Iron Maiden guy) got it pretty much right the first time around and the various remasters do little except to make it louder and less subtle.

The Judas Priest-like double-time opening riff of “Neon Knights” is an immediate warning to any new listener that this isn’t the Sabbath of old, putting all of the changes to the band’s sound forward at once. Dio uses his quasi-operatic clean voice almost exclusively here, with hardly a snarl or a shout to be heard, and puts on a veritable clinic with the highest-pitched, loudest, most demanding vocal lines on the album. The lyrics too, are completely foreign to old-Sabbath, a stream of heroic fantasy/phantasmagoria, full of imagery of dragons, knights, kings and queens, and Catholic/Crusader imagery. Personally I find these lyrics a little uncomfortable, since in a conflict between neon knights and kings and the “jackals of the street”, I’m more inclined to take my cues from another, earlier, better song with Dio on it—”Kill the King” (from Rainbow’s Long Live Rock and Roll, 1977).

“Children of the Sea” is a fan favorite and for good reason, with probably the best classic Sabbath riff on the album playing under the verses and a wistful, gentle intro that shows off some of Geezer Butler’s melodic bass chops (the way he bends his notes, you could almost believe his bass was fretless). That riff had actually been written in 1978, after the Never Say Die sessions, but Ozzy repeatedly failed to make a decent song, so after he was fired, Dio was invited, and the song—and Black Sabbath’s new sound—was realized within a couple of hours. Rather than bellowing and wailing his way through the whole thing like on “Neon Knights”, Dio goes for a more diverse and dynamic approach here, blending snarling and clean singing both loud and soft. What the song sounded like with Ozzy—and how much of it was even written before Dio came and they finished it—only Black Sabbath themselves really know; Tony Iommi has the only tape and he doesn’t seem interested in sharing.

The other classic Sabbath stomper on the album is “Heaven and Hell”, whose opening riff is one of the most famous in all of heavy metal and triggers mass singalongs when anyone plays it at a concert—and many people have; it’s one of the most covered songs in all of metal too. It’s also got a more traditional Sabbath structure too, starting slow and switching gears midway through to a double-time rhythm, but never going back. Were it not for the fact that the verse arrangements are very sparse (mostly just a droning, galloping bass line) and Ozzy would be left completely exposed and have nothing to work with melodically (Dio, of course, manages the heavy lifting himself quite adequately), I could easily imagine this song slotting into a post-reunion setlist. Even the lyrics, while bearing some of Dio’s trademark images and tropes—like Jon Anderson of Yes, Dio seemed to pull his lyrics from some sort of internal fantasy world with many recurring themes, though his imagery is more relatable and less adventurous—put a distinctly occult spin on the Dioisms and even ladle in some (very tame) social commentary in the fast section. I particularly like how Dio opens this part, with “They say that life’s a carousel / Spinning fast, you gotta ride it well / The world is full of kings and queens / Who blind your eyes and steal your dreams / It’s heaven and hell”, especially since Dio seems to race through that entire in a single breath without faltering—how did such huge lungs fit in that tiny body? My only complaint is the acoustic guitar noodling at the end of the song, after the fast bit has died down and the song could already be over; it’s about a full minute of dead air.

The second side dials back the metalness a bit and brings in some more rock influences, but these sound more like Deep Purple’s rock influences than classic Sabbath, too bright and bouncy to be in any way “acid”. “Walk Away” even manages to sound halfway like Rush during the bridge, with its chirpy major-key melody and flashy bass lines, but I much prefer “Wishing Well”, which does much the same things but with catchier melodies, even flashier bass, a scorcher of a solo from Iommi, and much better lyrics—an unrequited-love song that conveys genuine affection and a refreshing lack of entitled business. “Walk Away”, on the other hand, is a rather gross little number lyrically, portraying women who want children as secret harridans who will burden the poor, poor men down with responsibility, so they must be avoided. Perhaps that’s pretty typical of late ‘70s/early ‘80s rock lyrics, but it leaves a nasty taste in my mouth nonetheless.

But on the other hand, there’s “Die Young” with its oscillation between airy, proggy synthscapes with similarly airy singing from Dio and a bulldozer of a quick-time main riff that is all the more intense for dropping seemingly out of nowhere after a soft intro and returning after each synth interlude with similarly brutal suddenness (a shame Dio never really did straight-up screams like Halford and Dickinson, because there are a couple of spots where one could have made the sudden switch back to heavy mode all the more exhilarating). After being almost or completely inaudible for the whole album, Geoff Nichols finally gets to be on a more equal footing with the full-time band members—not equal enough to get a solo or play leads, but his analog synth sounds are indispensable to its atmosphere.

The absolute best, though, is saved for last. “Lonely is the Word” is the bluesiest song on the album by far, but is much more concerned with the spirit of blues than the forms—Dio is no George Thorogood and thankfully, doesn’t even try to yarl his way through some twelve- or sixteen-bar snowclone of a blues song, instead interpreting the feeling of the blues through his classic doo-wopera crooning/wailing and despondent lyrics, which eschew all the fantasy and address alienation and loneliness directly and frankly. The chorus especially can get under my skin, though your mileage may vary with your tolerance for metal tenors. The ending, though, throws a surprise twist, where for the last couple of minutes Sabbath play…jazz? No, not quite, Sabbath’s musical experience doesn’t seem to go far beyond rock music, but within their limited musical range they manage to improvise as if to the jazzy manner born, never repeating themselves or landing on sour notes, riding on Geezer Butler’s meandering, rambling bass groove where every repetition has something changed and the succession of changes never gets jarring, Bill Ward drumming with a sensitivity and flow that Appice could never even approach, and Iommi…well, frankly, I think Iommi’s solos mostly sound alike, being mostly basic blues scales and licks, but this one, while stylistically unremarkable, doesn’t get old despite going on for around two minutes straight. All three of them are doing something different, yet all three communicate with each other musically and their disparate parts never cease to meld into a broader musical picture, with a great deal of subtlety and taste in a genre that so often involves the willful refusal of both.

Heaven and Hell marked a transfiguration of Black Sabbath, a new dish made from most of the old Sabbath’s ingredients, but with a distinctly different texture and flavor. This change was permanent—every later Sabbath album up until 13, with or without Dio, resembled this on far more than any of its predecessors, and I consider 13 far more of a creation of the record industry than Black Sabbath—it superficially resembled Black Sabbath Mark I, but the soul clearly wasn’t there; it was nothing but a retread. All of the later Sabbath work of actual artistic value (however marginal that may be in the case of Tyr or Forbidden), were cast in Heaven and Hell’s mold, and that thread continued even after the reunion when the Mob Rules lineup reconvened as a band called Heaven and Hell, which ran in parallel to the original Black Sabbath up until Dio’s death in 2010 (how is Ozzy still alive after all those drugs, whores, reality shows, and public mental breakdowns while Dio, who lived a much saner and healthier lifestyle, is dead?). Heaven and Hell is a pillar of heavy metal history, for a reason, and even the critics who once panned it have since vindicated it many times over. If you love the more melodic side of metal, take a listen to any of those albums, and you’ll find influences from Heaven and Hell in there somewhere. For a band to alienate nearly its entire audience and survive is a miracle; for a band to do so, get an entire new audience, and go down in history as musical immortals twice, in two different spheres? That’s a triumph the likes of which will never be seen again in guitar music. If you like heavy guitar music at all and have not heard Heaven and Hell, it’s absolutely an essential addition to your collection, and if Dio’s schtick works for you, it will surely have you raising the late singer’s other gift to the music world—the horns.

Rating: 95%

2 Comments

  • Great review.
    I love this album. I proudly call Heaven and Hell my favourite Sabbath album. Often to the absolute shock and disbelief of ‘true’ Sabbath fans.

  • sounds like Black Sabbath. If you were to play Black Sabbath for me – and I’m a huge Sabbath freako – and then with Father Dio over there, I’d be going, ‘Oh, cool, what band is this? This is good stuff.’ I mean, the songs don’t even sound Black Sabbath-y. I mean, ‘Neon Knights’, could you picture Ozzy singing over that song?” Regardless of what Ozzy loyalists thought, Sabbath was back, with Mick Wall noting in his book

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