Out of Shadows, Shining Ever-Bright
After catching the reunited '80s-era, Ronnie James Dio-helmed Black Sabbath on tour in Canada, Begrand looks back on an oft-neglected period in the metal titans' career.
Trust Tony Iommi to make an appropriately god-like entrance in concert. It's the night of the fourth show of Heaven and Hell's eagerly anticipated reunion tour, featuring the reunited early-'80s incarnation of Black Sabbath (which had singer Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinny Appice joining original members Iommi and Geezer Butler), and the near-capacity arena in Regina, Saskatchewan is abuzz with excitement. The lights dim, the curtain lowers, revealing a tastefully lavish set made to resemble a castle, complete with archways, lanterns, cast iron grates, and three "windows" which display projected images. The notes of the instrumental "E5150" from 1981's Mob Rules set in, the stage darkens save for a single empty spotlight on stage left, and as he plays the opening notes of the stately dirge "After All (The Dead)" on his black Gibson SG, Iommi slowly walks into the light, appearing from out of the blackness like an apparition. The crowd goes nuts, the full band kicks into gear, and we're off on a two-hour trek through some of the finest classic metal of all time, a good portion of which has not been performed in years.
The '70s-era Black Sabbath has been canonized over the years, from the classic rock radio ubiquity of "Paranoid" and "Iron Man" to the band's induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. The attention is indeed warranted (after all, this is the band that practically spawned an entire genre with the first three chords on the first track of its debut album), but the pair of triumphant albums from Sabbath's early '80s Dio era are sometimes forgotten by the mainstream media, while those in the metal community are fully aware of the impact of those records. While the increasingly doddering Osbourne has dragged his Sabbath mates on annual OzzFest runs since the late '90s, churning out the same setlists every time, Dio continued to soldier on with his respectable solo career, metal warrior that he is. It was clear Iommi and Butler were feeling stifled performing the same standards night after night, and with Dio willing and able to participate, the timing of a Mk. III reunion was perfect. And looking back, it's not the first time Black Sabbath benefited from some perfect timing.
In fact, Black Sabbath's 1979 break-up made for of the most serendipitous moments in metal -- hell, in rock 'n' roll history, in which four different factions benefited immensely. Sabbath was in a shambles; the classic 1975 album Sabotage was the last inspired effort by the band, and the two subsequent releases, Technical Ecstasy (1976) and Never Say Die (1978), had the foursome running on fumes creatively, drug abuse taking its toll on each member. In a laughable case of three pots calling one kettle black, Osbourne was fired, the equally-fried band citing his drug abuse as the primary reason.
Meanwhile, the band Rainbow, led by former Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore and former Elf vocalist Ronnie James Dio, was at a creative crossroads. One of the key bands from heavy metal's second wave in the mid-'70s (alongside Judas Priest and the Scorpions), Rainbow had quickly assembled a mightily impressive catalog, highlighted by 1976's groundbreaking, classically-inspired Rising and 1978's very popular Long Live Rock 'n' Roll. Blackmore, noticing the positive response to the album's somewhat banal rave-up title track, wanted to head in an even more commercially friendly direction, but the idea did not sit well with Dio, who has always been fixated on such lofty topics as fantasy and the conflict between good and evil (though this wouldn't prevent him from recording some cheesy rock anthems of his own as a solo artist in the mid-'80s, but I digress), so he decided to leave the band in 1979.
Blood Tsunami, Thrash Metal (Candlelight)
Bolstered by the presence of former Emperor drummer Faust, Blood Tsunami's debut is a faithful exercise in '80s German thrash, with no shortage of melodic guitar lines and the odd hook here and there. If you found the last Haunted album disappointing, you'll dig this, especially the Slayer-meets-Destruction fun of "Torn Apart" and the terrific old-school instrumental "Godbeater".
Cruachan, The Morrigan's Call (Candlelight)
The Irish band's combination of pagan/black metal and Celtic jigs seems awkward at first, but it settles down nicely, achieving as skillful a balance between folk and extreme as Finntroll and Korpiklaani. Check out the rousing "The Brown Bull of Cooley" and the mournful "The Great Hunger", both highlighted by the vocal work of singer Karen Gilligan.
Obituary, Frozen Alive (MVD)
Filmed in death metal-mad Poland, the Floridian death metal legends tear through a superb, career-spanning set, including multiple selections from such seminal classics as Slowly We Rot and Cause of Death. Very well-shot, with a solid 5.1 surround mix and tons of fan-pleasing extras, it's proof as to just how powerful good old-school death metal can be in a live setting.
Profugus Mortis, So It Begins (Caustic Rhythms)
A spellbinding cross between melodic black metal, the manic energy of Children of Bodom, and the eccentricity of Unexpect, the Montreal sextet exhibits extraordinary discipline on this taut, half-hour album, violin and keyboards adding a neo-classical touch over a furiously grim backdrop. Excellent, confident, and often gorgeous, it's easily one of the most promising debuts of 2007 so far.
Psyopus, Our Puzzling Encounters Considered (Metal Blade)
Christopher Arp's jazz fusion/grindcore guitar work on Psyopus's second album is so stunning, you almost forget about the rather one-dimensional lead vocals. Sure, songs like "Play Some Skynyrd" and "Whore Meet Liar" are clever, but instrumentals like "Siobhan's Song" and "Imogen's Puzzle Part II" are phenomenal to the point where Arp clearly deserves to be the focal point. (Band loses a ratings point for the most "annoying" bonus track I have ever heard.)
The game of metal musical chairs that resulted was an unusual one, but the results were overwhelmingly positive for everyone involved. Rainbow went on to enjoy substantial success with singer Graham Bonnet on 1979's Down to Earth (the band's biggest charting album), and then for three more albums with Bonnet's replacement, Joe Lynn Turner. Ozzy Osbourne teamed with former Rainbow bassist Bob Daisley and a young Los Angeles guitar phenom named Randy Rhoads on a pair of astonishing albums, setting in motion a solo career that, while artistically uneven after 1982, continues to rake in profits today. And in the most fascinating move, the ambitious Dio joined the tired Black Sabbath and injected new life into a band many had written off as being well past its prime.
You hear the change immediately on side one, track one on 1980's Heaven and Hell. Is this the same band that limped across the finish line with "Swinging the Chain" 18 months earlier? Iommi's guitar tone is there, as is the monolithic rhythm section of Butler and drummer Bill Ward, but with Dio at the helm, the other three members sound reborn. With a voice like old Leather Lungs guiding the way, it's impossible not to feel re-energized, and although several of the album's eight songs were apparently written before he joined, Dio brings a sense of power and melody that Osbourne could never attain. Osbourne is one of rock's great frontmen, but it was his charisma, both on record and onstage, that has always won us over; Dio, on the other hand, has always been about force, about reaching that one audience member in the back row, about making oneself larger than life with a voice that belied his diminutive stature. In other words, Dio is the walking definition of heavy metal. And that towering presence sets in instantly during the chugging "Neon Knights" and refuses to let up, as Dio carries on about circles, rings, dragons, and kings, unusual subject matter for Black Sabbath, but sung convincingly by the little dude in the flared satin pants.
Produced by Martin Birch, who had previously worked with Deep Purple and Rainbow and was about to begin a decade-long partnership with budding UK stars Iron Maiden, Heaven and Hell is a massive improvement sonically, possessing a crisp mix and muscular bottom end, yet imbued with a sense of intimacy, making for an appealing, dare I say warm, listen. The grandiose, blues-drenched "Children of the Sea" continues where the progressive leanings of 1975's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath left off, deftly shifting from its tender acoustic verses to Iommi's trademark riffage to the cinematic scope of the solo break. The ballad "Lonely Is the Word" is somewhat rote in its structure and arrangement, but Dio sells it brilliantly with his soaring vocals, while the fiery, emotionally charged "Die Young" is Sabbath at its most daring and invigorating, ingeniously integrating keyboards without compromising its relentlessly heavy sound (some might say that this set the template for Dio's solo career).
Seeing that the band ushered in the previous decade with the groundbreaking "Black Sabbath" in February 1970, it was fitting that Sabbath did the same with "Heaven and Hell" in April 1980. There were plenty of other young bands that had surpassed Sabbath by then, but the old masters ordered them all to step aside for seven minutes, the title track serving as the overture to what would be an unprecedented wave of heavy music that would last well past the 1980s. The song itself is so simple, yet carries itself with the kind of mournful dignity we expect, gracefully winding its way through multiple passages. Iommi's central riff ascends and descends beautifully as Dio sings the lyrics that would become his calling card: "Sing me a song, you're a singer / Do me a wrong, you're a bringer of evil / The devil is never a maker / The less that you give, you're a taker", and by the time we get to the final uptempo flourish, we're amazed that only five minutes have passed. The very embodiment of the word "epic", it's quintessential Sabbath, and one of the finest metal songs ever written.
Top-heavy with five masterpieces, folks tend to gloss over the fact that Heaven and Hell's other three tracks rank just above filler quality, but while "Lady Evil" has Ronnie coasting in the lyrics department, and both "Wishing Well" and "Walk Away" sound disturbingly happy, it's still a sharp, concise record, the result of the kind of creative synergy most veteran bands can only dream of attaining. And Sabbath's renewed energy carries over onto Mob Rules, which was hammered out a year later to cash in on the band's resurgence in popularity.
Heaven and Hell will always be commonly viewed as the superior disc. Mob Rules, although it doesn't have songs on the same level as "Heaven and Hell", "Neon Knights", and "Die Young", brings a lot more variation, making for a more rewarding listen. Battling drugs and alcohol, and saddled with a death in the family, Ward left the band shortly after the release of Heaven and Hell, and his replacement, Vinny Appice (younger brother of famous drummer Carmine), continued the infusion of new energy into the Sabbath sound, his muscular, yet spacious style propelling album opener "Turn Up the Night". Iommi's guitar work is as glimmering as on "Walk Away", but it works better here, and includes one of the most melodic solos he's ever recorded.
In retrospect, this disc, with its stylistic variation and youthful enthusiasm, sounds hugely inspired by the exploding New Wave of British Heavy Metal movement, a prime example being "The Mob Rules", which gallops along at a brisk, almost Maiden-like pace (Martin Birch had produced Iron Maiden's Killers just prior to this one). "Voodoo" remains one of the great underrated Sabbath cuts, driven by Geezer's grooving bass line and Iommi's slicing chords as Dio offers more of his life lessons, delivered in his typically flamboyant style: "So if a stranger sees you / Don't look in his eyes / 'Cause he's voodoo!" Structurally speaking, "The Sign of the Southern Cross" is a carbon copy of "Children of the Sea", but the former is the superior song, with more dynamic elements put to use, such as keyboards and sudden guitar flourishes that punctuate Dio's verses. Just as thrilling is the majestic "Falling off the Edge of the World"; again, a song with a predictable format (mellow, to doom-ridden, to uptempo), but aided tremendously by Appice's massive yet minimal beats (his genius is that he never overdoes it), Birch's spirited mix, and more soulful soloing by Iommi. Meanwhile, "Country Girl"'s sincerity trounces "Lady Evil"'s heavy-handedness, the weirdly funky "Slipping Away", the turgid "Over and Over", and the surprisingly effective instrumental "E5150" (light years better than such radium as "Fluff") bringing plenty of variety to an album brimming with ideas.
Sadly, it would all blow up in their faces, as trite squabbles over the mix of 1982's excellent double live extravaganza Live Evil would see Dio and Appice leaving to form the very popular, eponymously-named band Dio with former Rainbow bandmate Jimmy Bain and young Irish guitar ace Vivian Campbell. After the bizarre yet engaging collaboration with Deep Purple's Ian Gillan on the underrated 1983 album Born Again, Sabbath began its downward spiral into self-parody, dwindling to little more than a Tony Iommi vanity project for the rest of the '80s, and it wasn't until 1992 that the classic '80s lineup mended fences and recorded again, resulting in the uneven, but spirited Dehumanizer.
Now, life is just peachy for the Sabbath boys, who have chosen to work under the moniker Heaven and Hell out of respect for the original Black Sabbath lineup (though one has to wonder if the litigation-mad Osbournes might have something to do with the pre-emptive name change). There's a solid single-disc Dio years compilation just released earlier this month, including three excellent new tracks (though no "Southern Cross", which is tantamount to blasphemy), a 1981 live recording of the band's London show, as well as a live CD and DVD of the band's March 2007 performance at Radio City Music Hall in New York coming later in the year.
On this night in Regina, though, it's less about the marketing and more about the chemistry between the old guys, as the two-hour set doesn't falter one bit. "The Mob Rules" ignites both the crowd and the band. Dehumanizer tracks "I" and "Computer God" hold up well alongside the older standards, as do two exceptional new compositions, the ultra-heavy "The Devil Cried" and "Shadow of the Wind". "Die Young" and encore number "Neon Knights" are as triumphant as expected, while slower tunes like "Sign of the Southern Cross", "Children of the Sea", and "Falling off the Edge of the World" translate perfectly in a live setting, embodying what has made Black Sabbath so great for nearly four decades now. Between songs, smiles from all four guys; Dio is clearly appreciative of the overwhelming response the Canadian tour is getting, Butler and Iommi obviously glad they don't have to play the same Ozzy setlist for the umpteenth time. So chummy is the atmosphere that at one point Dio spontaneously hands the mic to a surprised Iommi, who stammers out a convivial hello to the punters.
It all builds to a jaw-dropping climax during the show-stopping "Heaven and Hell". As it did on Live Evil, the band stretches out the song to well over ten minutes with additional verses by Dio, extended solos by Iommi, and elaborate moments of theatrics, highlighted by a gloriously schizophrenic performance by Dio, who plays up the whole "good vs. evil" dilemma, angelically bathed in a white spotlight from above one second, and suddenly lit in demonic red from below the next. At the core of it all, that central riff, the chord progression that Dio implores us to sing along to, projecting the kind of grim majesty that is matched only by "Black Sabbath" and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", the song funereal, philosophical, and life-affirming all at the same time, and most importantly, huge. While the OzzFest version of Black Sabbath seemed businesslike in its catering to sentimental fans, the Dio-fronted version still has that spark that made them immortal for a brief period a quarter century ago, and although they politely sidestep the Black Sabbath name and despite Sharon's declarations to the contrary, we all know which lineup has remained true to the spirit of the band. May Heaven and Hell milk this reunion for all it's worth.