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I have been familiar with this album for many years but there was a time when I used to sit around having casual conversations with guys around my age and when the topic of Black Sabbath came up. Their faces were met with delight and enthusiasm. I remember asking several different mates on three different occasions if they liked the band when they had Ronnie Dio and the reaction was uniformly identical: a slow but decisive sway of the head from side to side before the end of my question. It was amazing. Was I the only one who had taken interest in this part of the band's career? Was John "Ozzy" Osborne really the be all end all of Black Sabbath? Where I have lived, it seems these Dio early Sabbath years has enjoyed a renaissance in the last dozen years. They are now older and old rules in the heavy metal world. In my opinion the songs on Heaven in Hell always had that "old days", growing up in the seventies and early eighties charm to me and I want to explain how. That being said, while I think this is a very good start of a new era, it has its shortcomings when compared to many of the band's other albums up to 1983. I think those dismissive smirks from my youth might have been thinking of Heaven and Hell when they thought of Dio fronted Sabbath. Find out why..
That this album was a major house cleaning is old, old news. Anyone can tell just by listening to it. I'm just going to flat out acknowledge what everyone else it seems is afraid to say in so many words: This album is "Rainbath". Please, that's not a pejorative description in this instance. Yes, it implies the same thing as the whole "Van Hagar" idiom when Sammy joined Eddie V's band but in this case it would not be negative like that one(to most). It's just the most direct way of getting across the fact that you can tell by the direction and harmonies that Dio was co-captaining this ship fresh off from his stint with Rainbow. And a more important difference, it only applies here to this album and this one only. It's a merger of Black Sabbath's sound and Rainbow's. That's all. I think this release was the made with the best of ambitions and optimism by all involved. And considering it was made in a relatively short period of time with some hectic personnel issues before hitting the recording studio says alot about the professionalism heard on the tracklist.
As I sit here, I'm looking at that list right now. Eight songs. All very neat and tidy; each hovering in and around a consistent runtime. It's a compact design although its length is normal for the day. Nothing too top heavy or unrefined which is something that couldn't be said about Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy. A conscious choice was made to not allow that here. The choice of producer was probably brought in at Dio's recommendation. Martin Birch's handling of this album is the reason why it sounds so shiny. Like with Whitesnake, Blue Öyster Cult and here with Black Sabbath, his studio mentoring is very hands on where on Iron Maiden's albums his role as producer was more on the George Martin custodianship side of things as well as engineering.
Tony and Ronnie worked closely to make Neon Knights work as best an opener as possible. It might not have been the first song written but it was tailored and tweaked specifically to be the starter. This track is a self referential inauguration to announce this new stage of Black Sabbath; the fresh brightness of a neon light for the eighties. Were they being self prophetic with the lyric 'hold on good things never last'(acrimonious breakup two years later) and 'nothing's in the past it always seems to come again' (Dehumanizer and recent reunion under H&H)?
This would be the first release where Tony Iommi adopted a more modernistic change to heavy blues riffing from before that brought a mystical quality to accompany Dio's operatic style of singing. Gone are the straight doom riffs where everything else was written around those. In the previous lineup Tony would have to take charge of everything to get an album written but when Dio joined room had to be made to acommodate his creative experience with textured melodies. It's the reason why Heaven and Hell is not an all encompassing doom laden Sabbath album like before.
That also meant there is more separation. Since it's less of a spoke and wheel system, the bass has to assert itself more on it's own. No longer can Geezer's bass follow the riffs once the richer sense of placement for solos and Dio's operatic foundation are factored in. As a result, I think Geezer did a great job on here. I'm near certain the elevation to more complexities for an independent bass was at the encouragement of Birch as I noticed it was a style of playing later renowned of Steve Harris from Killers onwards.
However, I cannot say that Bill Ward adapts very successfully on the album. His drumming is only adequate here but somehow sterile and perfunctory on half the songs especially on Neon Knights. His transitional rolls on the title track were catchy but on the slow beats at the beginning of the song they seemed lackadaisical and unenergetic.
Lady Evil and Wishing Well are filler songs. The latter I've sort of grown to accept because it is rather catchy. Since Ronnie does bring alot of the Rainbow sound, this is one if those songs that sound like it. And as for Lady Evil, it's easily the most filler. The bass is the only standout part but you won't be calling for this song at any Sabbath concert. Very forgettable. Since the album is relatively compact, it's disappointing that there are two filler tracks like that.
Die Young isn't the most popular song in the band's catalog but I think it's an underrated little gem. It's more or less what power/speed metal would sound like a couple years later. It has a break of a mini-ballad in the middle of it that was very nice to hear. I've heard Rob Halford, Ian Gillan and Glenn Hughes sing their rendition of it and all of them sounded bad at it. This is Dio's song and everyone else should not try it. Walk Away is an almost straight rocker that sounds even more Rainbow-ish than the two filler songs(especially with the backing chorus) but Geezer's bass brings that old Sabbath sense to the upbeat track. Don't walk away from it. It should be good enough to grow on you after awhile.
I meant what I said about Heaven and Hell not being top heavy. Lonely is the Word is great way to end the album. It's a testament to how well produced the record is. If the song had not ended up as the one to come out of the bullpen to close the game out, the album wouldn't be as good. That super eclectic riff that opens it is a beautiful thing of heavy metal! Overall, the song is a melancholic doom-y ballad. I love the soft, jazzy solo that Tony plays at the two minute mark because it has a quaint atmosphere of loneliness from the grave. Its sounds identical (but more downtrodden and abridged) to Mick Abrahams' solo on the 1968 Jethro Tull song Cat's Squirrel. With this closing track, I guess it's the right time to mention the keyboard work done on Heaven and Hell. Only were keys used sporadically on previous albums. While they're only a little more present than before, it's noticeable enough when you go up and down through the playlist. They decorate the production nicely and enhance the luster of a brand new sound going into 1980.
Alot of people have made up their minds when it comes to how they view this album. I'm glad it's gotten more appreciation so many years since after it was released. It's not their best,no. It's worthy but hardly addictive next to other Black Sabbath albums.There was a time when a heavy metal diehard had to be a closeted fan of this recording. Are there still many of those who have yet to make the decision? You know what decision...Get off that carousel and ride the well.