Heaven & Hell

REVIEW: Black Sabbath – The Dio Years (2007)

BLACK SABBATH – The Dio Years (2007 Rhino)

Compilations are always fun to quibble about. Fans like to complain about which songs are missing, and which songs they’d replace. I won’t spend too much time talking about that. Most reviewers have already pointed out that “Sign Of The Southern Cross” and “Time Machine” are missing from the 2007 Dio-era Black Sabbath compilation, The Dio Years.

It’s very important to remember two things. One, this album contained the first new Black Sabbath music released in nine years. Nine years! This is a band that used to release an album every year, up until the point that Ozzy Osbourne rejoined the band. Since then (and before the new album 13), the band released exactly two new songs (both with the Ozzman singing) and started to stagnate. Since The Dio Years represented the first new Sabbath material in almost a decade, it bears a listen.

The second point of note: this set was originally supposed to be a 2-CD boxed set. As such I’m sure a lot of songs were dropped along the way, Yes, “Southern Cross” is missing. However, this reviewer’s only real quibble is “Southern Cross”. I mean, hey — “Lonely is the Word” is on here!  I would have replaced “Lady Evil” with “Southern Cross” myself (I never liked “Lady Evil” much), but perhaps the fine folks at Rhino felt that one 7+ minute epic was enough for a single disc. I can understand that logic. Besides, I, like every Sabbath fan worth his or her own salt, already own Mob Rules.

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This disc was freshly remastered. I should point out that this remastering session was not the same one that produced the series of Sabbath Castle remasters in the late 90’s, but one that occurred in 2006/7. As such the sound is even heavier (louder). I found that I had to roll down the bass a bit, as my normal settings made the bass just too heavy. This was also the first time that the material from Dehumanizer (15 years young!) had been remastered.  The running order is a little weird, though.  “Heaven and Hell” as the third song on an album?  A live “Children of the Sea” following “I”?  The flow is lacking in cohesion.

The liner notes are excellent, very detailed, with lots of facts that casual Sabbath fans didn’t know (like the fact that Craig Gruber from Rainbow, and Sabbath keyboard man Geoff Nicholls were brought in to play some bass when Geezer briefly left the band in 1980). There are a bunch of cool pictures and artwork as well, which fit in nicely with the Sabbath vibe.

Every Dio-era album get a look-in, even the controversial Live Evil via a great version of “Children Of The Sea”, almost as memorable as its studio counterpart. No rarities. What you get instead are the aforementioned three new songs. That’s one more than Ozzy gave you on the Sabbath Reunion CD, by the way!

When Dio was with Sabbath he tended to talk about his songs in terms of tempo. As such, you get one “fast one” (“Ear In The Wall”), one “slow one” (“Shadow Of The Wind”) and one mid-tempo song (the single “The Devil Cried”). I almost always prefer the fast Sabbath stuff, so obviously “Ear In The Wall” is my favourite. Sound-wise, these three new songs pick up where Dehumanizer left off, and foreshadow The Devil You Know.

Geezer, unfortunately, was not involved in the writing.  Iommi and Dio also did the production themselves. This might have something to do with the fact that I can’t hear nearly enough of Geezer’s trademark slinky bass lines–something I identify with the Sabbath sound more than any singer they’ve ever had. Iommi’s playing some good riffs and some scorching solos here, although I have found his guitar tone over the last decade to be too modern and distorted. I much prefer it when he gets a nice amp-driven sound rather than something so processed. However, bottom line is, these three new songs are good, albeit not essential, parts of the Sabbath catalogue.

Thankfully these three new songs were not the last gasp of Black Sabbath. Before his untimely death, Ronnie James Dio recorded The Devil You Know, under the name Heaven & Hell. And of course after that, the original Black Sabbath finally delivered the unforgettable 13.

As for The Dio Years?

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Heaven & Hell – The Devil You Know (2009)

H&HTDYK_0001HEAVEN & HELL – The Devil You Know (2009 Atlantic)

If one considers The Devil You Know as a part of the official Black Sabbath canon (as I do), then it’s not a stretch to call it the darkest and heaviest album in this band’s storied career. The only album that would be on a par with that is Born Again. If I refer to Heaven & Hell as Black Sabbath in this review, I trust you’ll forgive me. After all, this is the Mob Rules/Live Evil/Dehumanizer lineup of Black Sabbath, and a rose by any other name….

The previous album that these four guys did together was 1992’s masterpiece Dehumanizer, (notwithstanding the three new songs on the compilation Black Sabbath: The Dio Years). The last official Black Sabbath studio album prior to this was 1995’s Tony Martin-helmed Forbidden, a dreadful rushed piece of garbage that almost buried Sabbath forever.*

So, it is quite refreshing that The Devil You Know is so heavy, and so good. If you are familiar with the slow, dirgey sludge that were the three new songs on The Dio Years, that is a good reference point to the sound on this album. Very sludgey, mostly slow, guitar-heavy and intense. There are some faster ones (“Double The Pain”, “Neverwhere” etc) but for the most part this is 10 tons of pure heavy Black Sabbath. Songs like “After All” from Dehumanizer are the blueprint.

Especially enticing are the riffs. Iommi’s riff on “Bible Black” is crushing. “Fear” has some exotic noodling that I found surprising and refreshing. Vinnie’s drums are all cannons without the machine guns, which I do miss. I also wish Geezer’s bass was more slinky and audible, but combined with Iommi’s guitar it just creates this sheer wall of metal. All this is held together by Dio’s still-strong, unique, wonderful voice. Tonally, it is deeper than it was back on Dehumanizer, over 15 years previous.  He was 66 years old when this was recorded.

Walmart version

Walmart version

The Devil You Know is not an instant pleasure. Hooks are scarce, as the album bludgeons you with sound. However, the familiarity that these four musicans create with their combined sounds are the hook. One of the most missed sounds in metal was that of Black Sabbath. When Ozzy came back to Sabbath in ’97, new music was scarce (only two new songs on Reunion, although a third never-released new song called “Scary Dreams” was absolutely mindblowing). I am glad that Dio-era Sabbath was capped off with one hell (pun intended) of an album. This album stands up to the glory days without copying it, and that is a hard thing to do.

Itunes bonus tracks exist for the OCD collector: You can find unique live versions of both “I” and “Neon Knights” on their version of The Devil You Know. If you’re not a hardcore collector, then you can stick to the double live album Live From Radio City Music Hall. If you are a Sabbath completist, then be aware the two live bonus tracks are not from that album, but are unique (and great) live versions unavailable anywhere else.

Rest in peace Ronnie. Sleep well, knowing that you did something rare. You created a cap stone worthy of your body of work.

3.5/5 stars

* The “rough mix” of Forbidden is better.

REVIEW: Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell – Live in Europe

HEAVEN & HELL – Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell – Live in Europe (2010 Armoury)

Even though there was a double live CD (Radio City Music Hall) shortly before this, I don’t think anybody was complaining.  Obviously, with Dio now gone, this is his final live album. There was also a studio album in between these two live albums (The Devil You Know) and there are three songs from it here. The fact that none of these albums are released under the name “Black Sabbath” means nothing, to me this is Black Sabbath by any other name.  Please excuse me if you find me using the names Black Sabbath and Heaven & Hell interchangeably.

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Obviously Ronnie was not a young man when he died, and the human voice changes naturally with age. This is not the same sound as the guy who recorded Mob Rules or Heaven and Hell. The older Ronnie had a deeper voice, the range reduced noticeably. However, it is still Ronnie James Dio, one of the most powerful charismatic metal singers of all time. It might be an older, wiser Ronnie, but he knows how to work around his voice’s limitations to still deliver stirring versions of these songs.  He made stylistic changes to compensate.

The band itself is cooking. Tony’s riffing and soloing sounds straight out of 1980. Vinnie’s drumming is more fill-laden than it was on The Devil You Know which was very sparse. I’m happy about this.  Geezer is playing those rolling, rollicking bass lines that only he can compose.  This helps define that “Black Sabbath sound”. Geezer played on 3/4 of Black Sabbath’s studio albums, and his bass sound is part of that identity.  Most importantly, Heaven & Hell were having fun, showing the world why these guys together were as Black as any Sabbath. This is the way it should have gone with the Dehumanizer tour. That reunion should have lasted a long time, should have produced tours like this one, and should have produced a live album. I guess there were still egos and wound and the band weren’t ready to stick it out back then. This then is our last chance to appreciate the Iommi/Butler/Appice/Dio gestalt of Black Sabbath.  They should have but didn’t get all the glory back in ’92, the last time they tread the floorboards of hockey barns nationwide.

The track listing is just fine and dandy if brief. I would have preferred a double CD like Live Evil or Radio City Music Hall. Highlights for this listener included the three new songs, especially “Bible Black” and “Fear”. I also loved the new version of “Heaven and Hell,” which has some new tricks during the extended middle. I guess the guys were being creative right up til their last.

Because the keyboards are handled by Scott Warren (Dio) and not Geoff Nicholls (Sabbath 1980-1995),  there is a slightly different sound to the backing keyboard parts. He uses different voices than Nicholls did. Not a huge deal but an observation worth mentioning. Speaking of voices, I don’t like the way that Sabbath have been using tapes/samples on the backing vocals. This is especially noticeable on “I,” where you can hear several distinct Ronnie’s singing backup vocals while the “live” Ronnie sings lead. I guess Sabbath lacks a good solid backup singer, and Ronnie couldn’t hit the same notes anymore, but I feel cheated. I am firmly in the category of people who like their live music to sound live.

4/5 stars. Still a crucial part of the Sabbath live canon and necessary to all fans as Ronnie’s last stand.

GUEST REVIEW: Black Sabbath – 13 (by Uncle Meat)

Uncle Meat is back to tell us about the new Sabbath — the standard 8 track retail version.  When I get the deluxe and Best Buy editions, I’ll do my own.  Until then, please welcome Uncle Meat for his insightful take on one of the most anticipated albums of the last 33 years.

BLACK SABBATH – 13 (2013 Universal)

What is your favorite Black Sabbath album?  How many times do you think that question has been asked over the last 30 years or so?  Before today, I would have said my personal favorite would be a tie between Volume 4 and Heaven and Hell (cop-out answer I know).   Expectedly, that has not changed after listening to the long-anticipated “reunion” album simply titled 13.  There is a case to be made that this is one of the most anticipated albums of all time.  So does this album live up to that hype?

Sabbath LogoThe true answer to that question lies within you as the listener of course.  Personally, I always find that something truly great will build momentum with every listen.   With that in mind, my first listen to 13 was one of pleasant surprise.  It has been a long time since Black Sabbath (or Heaven & Hell for that matter) has released something that I have connected with.   Even Dehumanizer, which I believe to be the last relevant Sabbath album, went in a direction that was not really what I wanted to hear from Black Sabbath.   My theory is that with Dehumanizer, they were trying to “reclaim the throne” so to speak.  Being overly heavy just for the sake of being heavy, and losing the diversity and groove that made them true rock royalty.  It appears Rick Rubin has brought back at least some of that old Black Sabbath magic.

Rick Rubin’s legacy is almost as iconic as Black Sabbath themselves.  He has been responsible for the re-birth of several artists such as Slayer, Beastie Boys, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Johnny Cash et al.  The first thing that struck me about 13 was the bass sound.  Geezer has never sounded better and is hot in the mix, complimenting and adding to every track.  I also really like Tony Iommi’s guitar sound on this album.  More than a few times I found myself reminded of that classic Iommi riff sound.  Brad Wilk’s drums are great, and this could be nit-picking, but there is no doubt that Ward’s drum style is missed here on a few tracks.  Even Ozzy gets a passing grade here but I suspect that has a lot more to do with Rubin rather than a resurgence of Ozzy’s voice.  I was pleasantly surprised as well by the vocal melody lines on the album as a whole.

SABBATH CALM

TRACK 1 – “END OF THE BEGINNING”

The guitar parts in the verses paint an almost too-reminiscent picture of Black Sabbath‘s “Black Sabbath”.  But overall this track is strong throughout its 8:07 running time.  Definitely a great start to the album. Ozzy hits some notes at the end of this song that I find hard to believe even came out of the man. Steroids?

TRACK 2 – “GOD IS DEAD?”

I was not thrilled about this song when it was released prior.  Not that I dislike this song, just nothing special here to me. Next.

TRACK 3 – “LONER”

Good track.  They are somewhat ripping themselves off here to be honest, and that’s OK ’cause every band with longevity does it to an extent.  Main riff is VERY reminiscent of “N.I.B.”, and also Ozzy’s  “Alright now” and “Come on, Yeah!” made me genuinely smile.   Anyone remember Barry Horowitz?  Patting himself on the back?

BARRY PAT BACK

TRACK 4 – “ZEITGEIST”

More self-pilfering, this is the the “Planet Caravan” of the album.  Don’t particularly like that song to begin with. There are more strong vocals from The Madman here though.  But, still glad it’s the shortest song on the album (4:37).

TRACK 5 –”AGE OF REASON”

This track is in a tie right now with upcoming Track 7 (oh the drama!) as my favorite tune on the album.  Not only are the best riffs of the album on this song, I found myself loving the progressions here.  They remind me of the diverse song-writing on Sabotage, for example.  “Age of Reason” also contains a CLASSIC Tony Iommi solo.  This cannot be under-stated.  One kick-ass monster Tony Iommi solo!

TRACK 6 – “LIVE FOREVER”

The second shortest track on the album at 4:49, this is a good little song; and a great main riff on this track.  Very reminiscent of one of my favorite Sabbath songs, “Cornucopia” and even Brad Wilk seems to channel some Bill Ward in the open crash cymbal playing on this song.

TRACK 7 – “DAMAGED SOUL”

This is what we have been waiting for.  This is Sabbath being Sabbath better than all the bands that try, intentionally or un-intentionally, to be Sabbath.  [Wait until you see tomorrow’s story — LeBrain]  This is what I want from my Black Sabbath.  Doom meets gloom meets the blues.  There is something wonderfully sloppy about the guitar on this song.  Like a cross between Iommi and Keith Richards.  We even get some Ozzy harmonica in there.  Love the bridge in this song and the harmony vocals that come with it. The last third of this song is just lovely.  Yes… I said lovely. Check it out.  I must take back a proclamation made earlier in this review.  This is my favorite track on the album.  It’s that simple.

TRACK 8 – “DEAR FATHER”

The last track on the album is solid.  Once again there are some great drums on this song.  It builds momentum as well, getting more majestic as it goes along.  The last track on the album has a very fitting ending.  The track ends with the thunder, rain and tolling of the bell that started off their very first album 43 years ago.

The bottom line is this:  Black Sabbath have released a very relevant album in 2013.  I had my doubts if that was possible, and I am sure the presence of Rick Rubin was a big part of this being a very good if not great album.  Even without Bill Ward, there is life and inspiration within 13.  I find the ending of this album (hopefully) very fitting.  They have made an album which will be rightly recognized as something special, and this should be the end for Black Sabbath.  A glorious end indeed.

A solid 3 ¼ / 5 stars

Look for Mike Ladano’s upcoming review of the super duper extra-special royale deluxe version … containing several more tracks … coming soon.

Uncle Meat

BLACK SABBATH-13 SUPER DELUXE BOX