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With their albums becoming increasingly weaker with each successive attempts and their last tour featuring a supporting act called Van Halen that blew them out of the water, Black Sabbath was a metal dinosaur on the verge of extinction. And when they were forced to kick out frontman Ozzy Osbourne, well that appeared to be pretty much it. But then one of those unprecedented, magic moments occurred and ex-Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio (whose career needed a bit of saving itself) was recruited as Ozzy’s replacement. The result was an absolute about-face in the band’s sound and popularity and one of the best metal albums ever released by Dio, Sabbath, or most anyone else for that matter.
I can’t say for sure if the remaining Sabbath members came up with the sound on Heaven and Hell all on their own, if Dio had a direct hand in writing the music, or if it was simply a natural evolution with Dio’s strong melodic vocals as catalyst, but one thing is unquestionably apparent: the sound was brand new for Black Sabbath and essentially updated the band for the new decade. While the later Ozzy-era Sabbath records leaned heavily upon progressive rock territory (without ever actually stumbling into it), Heaven and Hell is both a steadfast return to heavy metal and an almost complete departure from their doomy past.
Some have described the sound as NWOBHM, and while I lean more towards the proto-power metal explanation, there are plenty of moments here to support the former. The quicker tracks (“Neon Knights,” “Die Young”) are closely relatable to the early works of Iron Maiden (listen to Geezer Butler’s bass on the latter). The addition of Dio’s melodicism and experience working with Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow add a certain ‘catchy’ element to the band’s sound, something that was not entirely lacking on the Ozzy stuff, but was far less explicit. This is a good thing, as plainer numbers like “Lady Evil” and “Wishing Well” shine on like diamonds anyway, thanks to Dio’s excellent voice. Tony’s riffwork is just as efficient as ever, but it is his leadwork that really profits from this new melodic edge. Geezer is Geezer, so there are no worries about the bass guitar presence being anything except magnificent. Similarly, Bill Ward is Bill Ward, though his playing is not as heavy or as frantic as on early albums. Indeed, with the frequent keyboard accompaniments, Heaven and Hell is not as heavy as the early Sabbath records, but it flourishes nonetheless because of the flawless musicianship you’d expect from Sabbath, the powerful vocals and intriguing fantasy lyrics you’d come to expect from Dio, and the excellent songwriting that, prior to this record’s release, I don’t think anyone was quite expecting from the unlikely pairing.
Much of the record consists of the straightforward, catchy metal anthems like “Walk Away” (which actually borders on hard rock) with the occasional speedier number. However 3/4 of this band was present for the recording of immense, atmospheric heavy metal like that which is found on Master of Reality and Black Sabbath Volume 4, so it is to be expected that they will achieve sublimity when playing at slower tempos. Nowhere is this more comprehensible than on the title track and writing a review for this album without dedicating a reasonable portion of words to the praise of that masterpiece would be criminally negligent. Can perfect be an understatement? From the immense opening riff (the second coming of “Snowblind”), through the bass-driven atmospheric verses, to that awesome post-chorus vocal thing, to the heavenly guitar solo, to the hellish, climactic speed section, to that somber classical acoustic bit that, while it officially ends the track, far from concludes the purposefully ambiguous tale Dio spins before it, “Heaven and Hell” is one of metal’s timeless anthems. The power of Dio’s voice is well suited to a track like this, while sort-of member Geoff Nichols provides the perfect keyboard compliment. Ideas developed here would resurface on the group’s next effort to similar (but not quite equal) effect, as well as on Dio’s own solo material with cheaper “Heaven and Hell” knock-offs like “The Last in Line.”
However the title track is not the only track with an emphasis on atmosphere. “Children of the Sea” is also pretty impressive, based off a nice clean riff and featuring one of Dio’s more emotional performances. The chorus reminds me of “Imagine,” but the track is not weakened because of it. Other notable departures include the bluesy “Lonely is the Word,” particularly the outro bit of it, and the interlude part of “Die Young” (once again, thanks to Geoff Nichols for his undercredited role as keyboardist on this and many other Sabbath albums).
If you don’t own this record already, you’re missing out on one of the best classic heavy metal experiences there is. It is so well-crafted and accessible that even if you’re a diehard Ozzy-era fan, you’ll have no hang-ups with the new vocals and different sound delivered by this lineup. And yet, it’s deep enough that you’ll find your artistic elitist happily listening to the album right next to your weekend headbanger. Enough said.