[28 August 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Released in early 2004, Black Sabbath’s Black Box ranks as one of the finest box sets ever released. Arguably the last smart move by Sharon Osbourne, the lavishly packaged set delivered what fans of heavy metal’s progenitors had been craving for years: the first six albums from 1970 to 1978 (Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master of Reality, Volume 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, Sabotage, Technical Ecstasy, and Never Say Die, for those keeping score) were presented fully repackaged, and most importantly, completely remastered. The frills were all nice, from the hard-bound lyrics book to the digipaks that replicated the old record sleeves, but sonically it was revelatory, especially on the early albums; the crisp, punchy new version packed a wallop that the previous CD re-releases by Warner and Sanctuary failed to deliver. The set was so great that as soon as we were finished relishing the music, we were instantly thinking, “Bring on the Dio Years box set!”
After Sabbath’s messy break-up with original singer Ozzy Osbourne in 1978, the trio of guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward found themselves having to start from scratch. Faced with the unenviable task of replacing one of the most distinct, not to mention charismatic lead singers in rock ‘n’ roll history, the band found a kindred spirit in the flamboyant Ronnie James Dio, who in a serendipitous moment had split from the great Rainbow right around the same time. Although diminutive in stature, Dio’s voice was anything but, an authoritative growl that in concert could captivate the punters in the cheap seats. It was (and still is) metal’s definitive voice, and combined with Dio’s own predilection towards fantasy themes in his own lyrics, his presence was the kind of distinct change the members of Sabbath so sorely needed. He was the anti-Ozzy, and he fit Sabbath like a glove.
As always happens when you squeeze several strong personalities in the same room for any amount of time, it wasn’t long before egos clashed, but while Dio’s three-year sojourn with Sabbath was mercurial, it completely transformed and re-energized the band, considered a has-been during the late ‘70s, yielding two highly successful studio albums that are regarded as metal classics, as well as the band’s very first double live album, 1982’s sprawling Live Evil.
Dio, Iommi, and Butler reunited in 1992 for the Dehumanizer album, but it was 2007’s Heaven and Hell project that got the wheels turning in earnest, as the band, respectfully renamed to avoid any legal repercussions from the contentious Osbournes, launched a very successful world tour and released the solid The Best of Black Sabbath: The Dio Years compilation (complete with three new songs), followed by the excellent Live at Hammersmith Odeon CD and Live at Radio City Music Hall CD/DVD. With a new studio album officially in the works, it’s great to see the old boys setting their sights on the future once again, but to their credit, they’ve acknowledged the past one more time on the four-disc The Rules of Hell.
Of the four albums that comprise The Rules of Hell, 1980’s landmark Heaven and Hell is the one that benefits most significantly from the remastering. The boldest, most ferocious Sabbath album since 1976’s Sabotage, Heaven and Hell was a bold mission statement by a band determined to prove its worth. Produced by Martin Birch, who had previously worked on albums by Deep Purple and Rainbow, and would soon find enormous success with a little British band called Iron Maiden, the album is quick and to the point, Iommi’s riffs towering, deuling with Dio’s grandiose howls about circles, rings, dragons, and kings. “Neon Knights” and “Die Young” brought a new element to the normally lugubrious Sabbath sound: speed, as Ward’s thundering backbeats propel each track with the energy of a new wave of British Heavy Metal youngsters. “Lady Evil” and “Walk Away” are more groove-oriented, mainstream-friendly fare, perfect showcases for Dio’s range, while “Children of the Sea” and the somber “Lonely Is the Word” revert back to the classic Sabbath sound, each sounding comfortable with the band’s new voice.
It’s on the epic, classic title track, however, that the band firmly establishes that it is indeed reborn. Constructed around one of Iommi’s absolute greatest riffs, and supported by a surprisingly minimal and admittedly effective rhythm section (interestingly, the bass was performed by Geoff Nicholls, not Butler, who later admitted to hating the bassline’s simplicity), the instrumental arrangements set the stage for a spellbinding performance by Dio, who sings his memorable musings of the light and darkness that dominates each of our lives: “Well if it seems to be real, it’s illusion / For every moment of truth, there’s confusion in life.” To this day, “Heaven and Hell” remains Dio’s calling card, and the new remastering greatly enhances that and the seven other tracks, the volume increased (but not overly so, like today’s current releases), the mix more crisp, and best of all, the basslines sounding more prominent than ever before.
As strong as Heaven and Hell is, 1981’s Mob Rules is nearly its equal. With a year of touring behind them, pummeling percussionist Vinny Appice replacing the tired Ward behind the kit, and renewed confidence after the previous album’s success, Sabbath, with Birch again at the helm, sound even tighter. The upbeat “Turn Up the Night” hints at the direction Dio would take with his solo project two years later, “Voodoo”‘s strut is enhanced immensely by the presence of the powerhouse Appice, and “The Mob Rules” ranks as one of the most viscerally potent songs in the massive Sabbath discography. Best of all, the murkily melodramatic “The Sign of the Southern Cross” and the multifaceted “Falling Off the Edge of the World” continue right where “Heaven and Hell” left off, all four members playing to their strengths, remaining true to the Sabbath sound, but still showing a willingness to progress further. Sadly, though, after “Over and Over”‘s graceful fade-out, that would be all she wrote for Black Sabbath Mk. III.
Released in 1982, the two-CD Live Evil is a mixed bag at best. The quality of the recording is good, as is the remastering, but no recording locations have ever been disclosed, and most of the performances sorely lack chemistry. That said, the album gets off to a strong start, the band launching into “Neon Knights” (a sloppy Dio muffing a line at one point), a surprisingly good rendition of Black Sabbath‘s “N.I.B.”, and deliciously bombastic run-throughs of “Children of the Sea” and “Voodoo”. Dio clearly relishes putting his own stamp on the six Ozzy-era tracks, but too often he goes too far, over-singing to the point of coming off as comical. It’s not until late in the second disc that the album starts to redeem itself, as Dio leads the charge through a thrilling, 20-minute medley of “Heaven and Hell” and “The Sign of the Southern Cross”.
After Dio and Appice left the band during the mixing of Live Evil, Sabbath underwent a decline far swifter than its Technical Ecstasy/Never Say Die period. While Dio and Ozzy both enjoyed massively successful solo runs for the rest of the decade, Sabbath went in a completely opposite direction. 1983’s Born Again, with Deep Purple singer Ian Gillain at the mic, while very good, not to mention astonishingly heavy, was critically reviled, and for the rest of the decade, the band was reduced to little more than a Tony Iommi vanity project, with more than a dozen musicians filling various positions.
Although the years with Tony Martin as the singer came close to restoring some of the band’s credibility, the brief reunion of the Mk. III lineup and the recording of 1992’s Dehumanizer got the metal world talking about Black Sabbath again. And for the most part, the album holds up nicely. While the middle of the album tends to get bogged down by lackluster tracks like “Time Machine” and “Sins of the Father”, the half dozen highlights are exceptional, led by the throttling “TV Crimes” and the decidedly Sabbatherian trifecta of “Computer God”, “After All (The Dead)”, and the brilliant, swaggering “I”. Of all the albums in The Rules of Hell, this is the one that’s least affected by the remastering process, as these tracks, already slickly recorded, needed only a minimal spit and polish.
Those hoping for extra features, though, are plum out of luck, and while the no-frills approach wisely focuses on the albums themselves and not any unnecessary, extraneous bells and whistles, it’s a shame that Live at Hammersmith Odeon hasn’t been included, as it’s come to be the definitive live document of this particular incarnation of Black Sabbath. The 1981 performance is positively scorching, in which we actually sense the chemistry between Dio, Iommi, Butler, and Appice, but fans are stuck hunting down that release on their own. Nevertheless, Ronnie James Dio’s tenure with Sabbath remains one of the most intriguing collaborations in metal history, and as their current tour as Heaven and Hell (now in year two) attests, the magic is still there. At long last, that crucial part of the band’s catalog has gotten its due.
Now bring on the overhauled edition of Born Again!
Adrien Begrand has been writing for PopMatters since 2002, and has been writing his monthly metal column Blood & Thunder since 2005. His writing has also appeared in Metal Edge, Sick Sounds, Metallian, graphic novelist Joel Orff's Strum and Drang: Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll, Knoxville Voice, The Kerouac Quarterly, JackMagazine.com, StylusMagazine.com, and StaticMultimedia.com. A contributing writer for Decibel, Terrorizer, and Dominion magazines and senior writer for Hellbound, he resides, blogs, and does the Twitter thing in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.