Two decades ago, Tony Iommi was about as washed-up a rock star as one could get. The guitarist was the lone original member carrying on the Black Sabbath name. This forced him into employing the services of countless supporting musicians and lead singers, (okay, more like a dozen in a few years, but that’s still a ridiculous number). The resulting heavy metal temp agency putt out a string of inconsistent albums, and played to nearly-empty arenas. Even worse, they were often getting blown away by whatever band happened to be opening.
Even when the legendary riffmeister mended fences with Ozzy and Sharon in the late-90s, though the man sounded as solid as ever, the once-mighty Sabbath had been reduced to strictly a retro act. They seemed fated to be following Ozzy’s tired lead of trotting out the same old standards over and over, OzzFest after OzzFest: “Iron Man”, “War Pigs”, “Paranoid”…yada, yada, yada. Pleasing for we fans, no question, but we had to wonder if there was any passion left in Sabbath anymore.
All it took was another reunion to give the metal progenitors a swift kick in the pants. The Mk. III lineup of Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, singer Ronnie James Dio, and drummer Vinny Appice banded together under the moniker Heaven and Hell, (politely side-stepping the wrath of the Osbournes), for a year of touring in support of the excellent Rhino compilation The Best of Black Sabbath: The Dio Years. In the first couple weeks of the tour, as it trekked across Canada, word quickly spread about just how inspired the foursome was. The lost intensity that was last heard on such albums as 1981’s Mob Rules and 1992’s Dehumanizer, sounded fresh again.
By the time they hit the stage at Radio City Music Hall in late March, (see Adam Williams’s review of the show), the old dudes sounded their most well-oiled in ages. They must have known well in advance that they were on to something good, as this show was set up to be filmed well before the tour started. A mere five months later, (an incredibly short time frame for a live DVD), we have a fabulous document of what was arguably the most pleasantly surprising band reunion of 2007.
Sabbath’s output with Dio as the captain at the helm has always been appreciated by fans, (1980’s Heaven and Hell is one of Sabbath’s all-time best-sellers), but among casual listeners, his tenure has been rather underrated. Though many justifiably cling to the notion that Ozzy is the definitive voice of Black Sabbath, one cannot overlook the merits of the Dio albums. The greatest heavy metal singer of all time, Dio is also one of the most charismatic frontmen in history. The second he takes the mic with Sabbath, even today, old Leather Lungs infuses the band with an entirely new level of musical energy; Ozzy has always relied on his own inimitable stage presence, but what Dio gives us is sheer power, which his three bandmates feed off of, and as listeners and viewers, do we ever feel it on Live at Radio City Music Hall. This isn’t a bunch of greybeards faithfully delivering rote renditions of classics. What we have on this famous stage is pure musical alchemy.
The two hour, 15 song set, not surprisingly, is centered on the three Dio albums. They toss out such overlooked nuggets as “I”, “Voodoo”, “Falling off the Edge of the World”, and the endearingly goofy “Lady Evil”, but equally impressive is just how well the new material holds up. Recorded for the Dio Years compilation, both “The Devil Cried” and “Shadow of the Wind” have the band sounding reinvigorated, with Iommi unleashing his most doom-ridden riffs since 1983’s Born Again. Classic singles like “The Mob Rules”, “Die Young”, and the barnstorming “Neon Knights” sound fantastic, but the two showstoppers are the two epic tracks from Mob Rules and Heaven and Hell. “The Sign of the Southern Cross” is a marvel, as Appice, the master of the slow, crushing minimalist beat, downshifts to a crawl, as Iommi lets that distinctly ominous, yet warm tone of his Gibson SG mesh seductively with Butler’s wah-wah enhanced bass notes. “Heaven and Hell”, meanwhile, is transformed into a 15 minute opus; the perfect showcase for Dio (the song is his calling card), he puts in a dominating performance, aided brilliantly by some simple yet clever lighting effects.
For something that seems so hastily assembled, the DVD is extremely well put together. The concert is beautifully shot, giving us many different camera angles, from superb close-ups, to balcony shots, to views from down in the audience, yet there is nary a cameraman in full sight during the entire show, a testament to director Milton Lage. The editing is tasteful, allowing the cameras to dwell on the musicians, giving us good close-ups of Iommi’s famous prosthetic fingertips shredding away on the fretboard. And the extras deliver as well, as we get a 20 minute documentary of the band on the road, interviews with fans on the street, and a cool behind the scenes glimpse at Radio City Music Hall with the theater’s rather smug manager.
For music that is, in the minds of some, incredibly dour, it’s amazing how plentiful the smiles are on this DVD, from the fans, to each member of the band. The guys are either approaching 60 or past 60, (Appice is the youngster of the group at 50), but watching them interact onstage and hearing them rediscover the magic that made Black Sabbath so great from 1969 to 1983 is a feel-good story we hope won’t end anytime soon.