Ronnie James Dio's tenure in Black Sabbath was brief, but it resulted in some of the greatest songs in heavy metal history.
Even more remarkable than Ozzy Osbourne's stunning 1980 comeback with the release of Blizzard of Ozz was the return to form by his former band the same year. When Black Sabbath fired Osbourne in 1979, the band was completely washed up, having lost its identity amidst a swirl of drug abuse and internal strife and was rendered irrelevant by a new generation of young metal bands that were coming up with sounds as daring as the genre-defining opening riff of "Black Sabbath". After 1975's brilliantly vitriolic Sabotage, Sabbath's next two albums (1976's Technical Ecstasy and 1978's Never Say Die) faltered badly, and it seemed clear that the band had nothing left in its tank, and a break-up was not only inevitable, but necessary. With the help of young guitarist Randy Rhoads, Osbourne found new life as a solo artist, but Sabbath, on the other hand, turned to a seasoned veteran vocalist, resulting in a triumphant two-year run that yielded the last great creative burst by the heavy metal progenitors.
Having made a name for himself first with the band Elf, and then the hugely popular Rainbow in the late 1970s, Ronnie James Dio might have seemed an odd choice to replace Osbourne at the time: whereas the vocally limited Osbourne relied primarily on his charisma, Dio possessed That Voice, that menacing growl, that high-octave scream that belied his diminutive stature. He might not look like much in person (a famous photo of him with Sabbath has him standing on a box to make himself level with the other guys), but on record, the man is larger than life: powerful, flamboyant, spine-tingling, classic heavy metal incarnate. Dio's presence would light a creative fire under Black Sabbath on three separate occasions, and his output with the band has been neatly compiled on the excellent new collection The Dio Years, and while the majority of listeners consider Ozzy to be the definitive voice of Sabbath, this 16-track CD makes a mighty strong case for Ronnie.
Recorded with producer Martin Birch, 1980's Heaven and Hell remains one of Sabbath's all-time bestsellers, and for good reason, showing a more aggressive, bold side of the band. Five songs are present, each holding up extremely well, from the chugging "Neon Knights" to the blues-drenched "Lonely is the Word". "Die Young" is a thrilling blend of progressive rock and uptempo metal, Tony Iommi's trilling guitar fills interweaving with ambient synths before exploding at a tempo previously unfathomable to Sabbath fans, while the majestic epic "Heaven and Hell" is the defining moment of Dio's career, as he projects a commanding presence in front of Iommi's memorable central riff. 1981's Mob Rules is actually a slightly more rewarding record, the band tightened by the addition of young drummer Vinny Appice, the production possessing more bite (Birch had recorded Iron Maiden's classic Killers prior to working on this album), the arrangements sounding inspired by the exploding British metal scene. The title track blazes, "Turn Up the Night" is arguably the most pop-oriented Sabbath song ever (and is also a precursor to Dio's subsequent solo work), "Voodoo" carries itself with a confident strut that Ozzy could never pull off, and "Falling off the Edge of the World" builds on the structure of "Heaven and Hell", creating something more complex, and just as majestic. The performance of "Children of the Sea", culled form 1982's double live opus Live Evil, is a perfect selection, showing neophytes just how potent Dio and Sabbath sounded in concert.
After a decade apart, during which Black Sabbath became little more than an Iommi vanity project and Dio became an even bigger star as a solo artist, the Mob Rules lineup reunited in 1992, resulting in the uneven, but spirited Dehumanizer, represented here by the massive, dirge-like "After All (The Dead)", the raw thrasher "TV Crimes", and the woefully underrated "I".
As strong as the old tracks are, the real draw for longtime Sabbath fans are the three new songs, the first new Sabbath tracks since the dreadful "Psycho Man" and "Selling My Soul", from 1998's Ozzy-led live disc Reunion. It's clear Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler were feeling creatively stifled riding the reunion train with the teleprompter-toting Osbourne, playing the same standards over and over again, as all three of the new tunes sound remarkable, completely worthy of being on such a compilation. "Shadow of the Wind" is simply monstrous, Iommi's typically dark, down-tuned chords anchored by Appice, whose disciplined, yet piledriving beats show us why he is still one of the great minimalist drummers in rock. "Ear in the Wall" is the catchiest song Dio has recorded in years, a propulsive rocker that bears a strong resemblance to his recent solo work. The real keeper, though, is the triumphant "The Devil Cried", which embodies everything that we love about Dio-led Sabbath: Iommi and Butler lock themselves into a churning groove as Dio goes into full-on storyteller mode, the 60-something Leather Lungs sounding just as robust as he did 27 years ago.
As with any best-of compilation, there are the usual beefs regarding the tracklisting; some will lament the inclusion of the borderline corny "Lady Evil" over the sincere gem "Country Girl", and the exclusion of "Sign of the Southern Cross" is just plain blasphemous to many (including yours truly), but overall, there's nary a weak spot on the album. A much better idea would have been to put out Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules, and Dehumanizer together as a remastered box set in the vein of 2004's stunning Black Box , but as it stands, The Dio Years has enough to please the oldsters, edify the newbies, and remind us all that there's a hell of a lot more to Black Sabbath than their first six albums.