The Album That Changed My Life: Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
As a bumfluff-faced teenager flicking through Sky’s meagre selection of rock channels in search of Metallica, Green Day or any of the nu metal hangers-on that had offered me a gateway into the genre at the turn of the millennium, it was impossible to ignore the larger-than-life charisma and endearing daftness of one Mr John Michael Osbourne, once my channel-hopping habit had settled in favour of a reluctant glimpse of MTV.
Whether Ozzy was treading barefoot in cold Chihuahua turds or whacked off his tits on nitrous oxide at the dental surgery, The Osbournes made for excellent and absurd viewing – all you could ever want from reality television. But the flipside is that the Prince of Darkness seemed less like the legendary frontman of the greatest heavy metal band of all time and more like a washed-up caricature of a rock star long relieved of his talents. So perhaps 13-year-old me could be forgiven for not being sold on Black Sabbath straight away – instead returning to my bedroom to switch on the PS2 and play air guitar to Enter Sandman.
Of course, I did eventually fall in love with Black Sabbath five or six years later – albeit via the Ozz-free route, and no thanks to MTV. But before then, I had several pitiful high-school bands to form, a paper round to help fund my burgeoning Megadeth, Pantera (ew, Phil Anselmo) and Rage Against The Machine CD collections, and the entire shelf life of the emo-scene kid trends to contend with, as I largely failed to convince my mates that Led Zeppelin and Queen had more artistic merit than My Chemical Romance. It was towards the end of my teens when my dad introduced me to Rainbow’s 1976 LP Rising that I experienced the astonishing voice of the frontman who quickly became – and is still to this day – my favourite singer: Ronnie James Dio.
Dio was a true storyteller whose works were steeped in folklore and mythological nuance – perfect thematic frameworks for the band’s newfound progressive direction.
Following Ozzy’s firing from Black Sabbath for escalating drug and alcohol addictions in April 1979, the band’s remaining members – Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward – found themselves at a career crossroads. 1976’s Technical Ecstasy and 78’s Never Say Die! had failed to hit the creative and commercial heights of the band’s first six albums, while progress on new material was scant – Iommi later remarked that the only options were to either fire the troubled singer or dissolve the band completely. Osbourne’s future wife, Sharon – daughter of Sabbath’s then manager, Don Arden – recommended the American Ronnie James Dio as Ozzy’s replacement, who had recently split with Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow. Always in the former Deep Purple man’s shadow during his prolific four-year stint as Rainbow’s frontman, Dio joined Sabbath and contributed to an album that was a transatlantic match made in heaven, and the sound of a band truly reborn and revitalised: 1980’s Heaven And Hell.
Ronnie James Dio’s vocal delivery was unlike anything I’d ever heard. His powerful, skyscraping range ushered in an exciting new era for Black Sabbath, with Tony Iommi admitting that Dio was technically superior to his predecessor – which in turn allowed for fresh creative approaches far exceeding Ozzy’s skill set as a vocalist. Citing Iron Man as an example, Iommi observed how Osbourne used to sing with the riff, while Dio would sing across it coming up with his own unique melody different to that of the instrumentation. Musically, this opened a lot of doors for the band, and songs like Children Of The Sea and HAH’s staggering title track were way ahead of their time. Dio’s vocal prowess was at its most striking on Die Young, where he effortlessly alternated between searing, hard-rock verses and the tender balladry of the choruses – an emotive juggernaut of a song that floored me with its message of defiance and heartbreak.
The arrival of Dio also advanced Black Sabbath in a lyrical sense. Where much of Osbourne’s creative focus was on drug-imbued metaphor, Iommi’s early, bluesier style was certainly better suited to the likes of Sweet Leaf, Hand Of Doom and Snowblind. Dio was a true storyteller whose works were steeped in folklore and mythological nuance – perfect thematic frameworks for the band’s newfound progressive direction. Look no further than the album’s opener, Neon Knights, for hard evidence: ‘Bloody angels fast descending, moving on a never bending light/Phantom figures free forever, out of shadows shining ever bright’. Covering the song with my old band Perfect Crimes at a West Street Live tribute gig two years ago is still probably the most fun I’ve ever had behind a drum kit.
Not that the band’s resident riff lord and long-serving sergeant-at-arms was exactly lacking, but Dio’s talents undoubtedly brought out the best in Tony Iommi and imparted a renewed sense of enthusiasm upon the guitarist. HAH featured some of the most spectacular riffs and dazzling lead breaks of Iommi’s fifty-year career (just listen to the second half of Lonely Is The Word) while the incomparable rhythmic spine of Geezer Butler and Bill Ward offered the same groove synonymous with the best of the Ozzy era offerings. But what would this love letter to Heaven And Hell be without a special mention of the album’s roller-coasting tour de force of a title track? In my opinion, it’s Black Sabbath’s finest moment, and one that’s seldom been bettered in heavy music since. A devastating, seven-minute-long doom-prog opus featuring some of the most iconic lyrics ever penned in rock reflecting on the human capacity for good and evil. That turn of pace at 4:15 still gives me goosebumps every time.
I really have warmed to Ozzy over the years and nowadays I do consider myself a big fan of 70’s Sabbath, but I’ll always be a Dio guy. Not just for the love of Heaven And Hell as a body of work, but also for the invaluable lessons in melody, dynamics and narrative that it offered my younger self. Lessons that helped shape the music lover I am today, almost a decade on. HAH will preserve Ronnie’s spirit until the end of time, but it seems fitting to part with the late legend’s most famed lyric: ‘The world is full of kings and queens who blind your eyes then steal your dreams, it’s heaven and hell!’