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Mostly Heaven - 87%

gasmask_colostomy, September 14th, 2017

There's an old saying about music (I'm actually just making it up now, so don't go searching for the quote). It goes like this: if you don't like Black Sabbath, you haven't listened to enough of their albums. That's because Black Sabbath were so many different things over a period of 45 years, morphing from proto-metal upstarts into prog rock riffmeisters to a prominent place in the burgeoning NWOBHM to a secret epic metal phase which is probably my favourite from the (mostly) Birmingham four-piece. There's another saying as well (same source, by the way), which is that if you've listened to all of Black Sabbath's albums and still don't like them, then you don't like Tony Iommi and therefore you don't like guitar music. All of which would imply that you've come to the wrong website or I've just become more famous than I ever imagined and you're reading this somewhere else.

So let's assume that you're here because you like heavy metal, since that's the most likely explanation. You know Dio, right? He sings on this album. He sings very well. You know Tony Iommi, right? He's on the album too and he's also very good. Perhaps you've heard of Geezer Butler and Bill Ward? The other two men who invented heavy metal: they play on Heaven and Hell as well. They are great, especially Butler.

That little paragraph tells you what everyone already knows about this version of Black Sabbath, but it doesn't say anything about what makes this both special and different from other albums by the band. The first thing that distinguishes this from the early incarnation of the group (conveniently forgetting about Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die!) is the pace of the songs. While TrooperEd may be having a laugh about this really being a Rainbow album, there's enough of the energetic style of Dio's last venture with that band, Long Live Rock 'n' Roll, to prove more than just an incidental connection between the singer and Richie Blackmore's project. The manner in which the title track takes off in its second half harks back to Blackmore's riffing on that album's 'Kill the King', while the more rocking 'Wishing Well' moves in the same circles as 'The Shed (Subtle)' or 'Long Live Rock 'n' Roll'. On the other hand, there's a different kind of influence on the likes of 'Neon Knights' and 'Die Young', sounding closer to the more primal Iron Maidens and Saxons that were cropping up by 1980 as they bound forward on the kind of riff that made 'Sanctuary' a breath of fresh air in the UK. The quality of those songs, though, is actually that much higher than Iron Maiden or Wheels of Steel, the fluidity of the solos and masterful bubbling bass work refining the punky rawness of early NWOBHM into a finished product, while Dio is clearly the most accomplished vocalist of the three groups (bearing in mind Paulo Di'Anno still fronted Maiden at this point).

Naturally, Heaven and Hell isn't all about pace, taking things down a notch for 'Children of the Sea' and the obligatory mournful closer in 'Lonely Is the Word'. The use of acoustic guitars and fluctuations in song movement give an extra dimension to those songs, ensuring that the emotion seeps in by way of the defeated mid-section leads and hopeful ending of 'Lonely Is the Word' and the soothing calm of the former song. Even at these moments, in addition to the steadier rockers 'Walk Away', 'Lady Evil', and 'Wishing Well', the music remains busy, Butler, Ward, and Iommi continuing to supply diversions from their respective instruments, the guitarist drenching several songs in leads and the rhythm players rarely settling to remain out of the spotlight. For anyone expecting doom metal, Heaven and Hell is pretty barren of the stuff, which may explain why the subsequent formation of the band named Heaven and Hell (who released The Devil You Know in 2009 with Vinny Appice taking the place of Bill Ward) did not experience total success with a generally darker sound. Here, only a short bridge in 'Walk Away' and the epic opening of the title track could be called doomy, meaning that the general mood is much lighter and more wistful than any of Sabbath's earlier or later material.

The only thing that remains for me to comment on is the quality of the 40 minutes of music. Quite honestly, the style doesn't suit me throughout Heaven and Hell, since the more rocking songs can feel a little throwaway at times, even if 'Lady Evil' is an absolute stomping stormer of a rocker and the other two have some good moments, especially with the leads. I'm more a fan of the fast paced material, plus the songwriting on the title track is impossible to fault, though I can't actively complain about any of the band's decisions in playing, even if it would have been nice to make the style a bit more Sabbath specific. In any case, this is an iconic release with four musicians at the top of their game (whatever people may say about Ward, he does a good job to my ears) and has some of Black Sabbath's best songs, along with a few that are high in quality but slightly exchangeable. You'll be wanting to listen to this one, that's for sure.