vinnie appice

REVIEW: Dio – Strange Highways (1994)

Scan_20151011DIO – Strange Highways (1994 Reprise)

Black Sabbath had a very acrimonious split with Ronnie James Dio in 1993.  Sabbath were asked to open for Ozzy Osbourne at his “farewell” concerts in Costa Mesa.  At the end there was to be an original Sabbath mini-reunion.  Ronnie James Dio outright refused to perform and left the band immediately afterwards.  Sabbath were forced to get Rob Halford, not so far away in Pheonix, to fill in (the first of two times he would have to do so in Black Sabbath, the second time due to an Ozzy illness).  Halford did so admirably under the circumstances.  After the show, drummer Vinnie Appice joined Ronnie in a new version of Dio.

The new Dio lineup was a four-piece for the first time since album #1.  On bass, Jeff Pilson (ex-Dokken), also helping out with keyboards and backing vocals.  Pilson was always capable of singing the high parts in Dokken songs, and with Dio he adds a little bit of melodic accent by harmonizing with Ronnie.  On guitar, controversially so, was Tracy G (Griljalva) from the band WWIII, which had also included Appice at one point.  Dio described his mood as “pissed off” during this period and it certainly came out in the heaviest Dio album yet.

The thing with Tracy G was that he had an abrasive, atonal drony guitar sound, although certainly fitting to the new angry Dio sound.  It was very different from the slick neo-classical bent that guys such as Vivian Campbell added to their solos.  It was a brutally heavy and edgy change that should have earned Ronnie some credit rather than criticism.  “Jesus, Mary & the Holy Ghost” opens the album on a speed metal approach, showing off the new guitar player.  Tracy G was like the mad man’s scientist heavy metal guitar player crossed with Steve Stevens from Billy Idol’s band.  If you want to check out what Tracy G did within Dio, just crank up “Jesus, Mary & the Holy Ghost”.

Admittedly, a whole album of Tracy G’s razor blade guitars can make one weary, but fortunately Dio albums are usually varied in song tempo and style.  “Firehead”, the second track is a slow metal groove that suits Dio well.  Arguably, the Dio lineup with Pilson on bass is more adept at this Sabbathy path than any other.  Pilson has always been one for the low end, and his bass has an elastic thud that is similar, but different from ex-Dio bassist Jimmy Bain.  Slower and heavier still is the title track “Strange Highways”.  Ronnie has always stated that he liked to hear the space between the instruments, and that’s “Strange Highways”.  This really was a great lineup for the band.

“Hollywood Black” is based on a lyric that Ronnie wrote for the sessions of Black Sabbath’s Dehumanizer album.  Maybe it’s even the same melody; the original has never been leaked.  This is a strong mid-tempo slog; the most mainstream Dio song yet in this collection.  Side closer “Evilution” (love that title) is even better; nastier and snippy.

I have a funny story about this song.  I bought the cassette while out on a road trip with my buddy Peter, who was always a much bigger Ozzy fan than Dio.  We put the tape in the car deck.  The words at the end of the song baffled us both, but it was a case of mis-heard lyrics! On Peter’s overdriven, bass-heavy car system, we heard the closing words as:

“Hello, good night, it’s me,
I’m open again,
Come back, come in, goodbye,
Wear clothes!”

The actual final line is “We’re closed.” If you play the song and pay attention…you can hear it too, can’t you? “WEAR CLOTHES!” Misheard lyrics…or hidden message?

As if there was any question from the first side of the album that Ronnie was in a bad mood lately, then “Pain” should settle.  “Take the water and wash your face with pain!”  Or, “Take the hammer and pound yourself with pain!”  My favourite, “Bury my bones on the moon, if they ever should find me it would be too soon.”  It was hard to find Ronnie’s usual positivity in some of these words.   But listen to that one floor tom hit at 2:00 in!  Holy drums, Batman!  I love that one hit, it’s my favourite part of the song, which is actually pretty good.

“One Foot in the Grave” is a lot more upbeat than you’d expect by the title and it too is pretty decent.  Notice these songs are not “great” — they are just shy of whatever quality makes a song great.  Then “Give Her the Gun” is the Dio power ballad, but thematically it too stark and real for some tastes.  Child abuse, gun rights?  In a Dio song?  All power to the man for speaking his mind, but even the most ardent supporter must concede that this is an unusually blunt song for him.

Onto “Blood From a Stone”, back to metaphors once again, and back to blazing hot Tracy G shreddery.  Back to insuppressible Pilson bass.  There are some 80’s-isms in some of the guitar licks, but blink and you’ll miss ’em.  Then, rock out to “Here’s to You”, which sounds like a blazing hot celebration of the rock, or the “masters of the universe”, or something.  But according to Ronnie, “The wheel goes ’round, so here’s to you!”  Sounds like by this point in the record, Ronnie has worked out whatever bitterness he had left seething in his system.  Finally “Bring Down the Rain” ends the album on a very Dio note, with all the majesty and power he can inject into a closing song.  It’s just heavier than before.  “Put out the flame”, sings Ronnie, his leathery lungs never more impassioned nor powered.

Perhaps Dio still had much anger left in him after all, since the next album was the aptly-titled Angry Machines.  But that’s another review.

Strange Highways in a good album bordering on great — but not quite.

3.5/5 stars

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Blu-ray REVIEW: Sound City (2013)

“The internet’s cool for some stuff, but like many things, there’s no book store, there’s no music store, and there’s no Sound City.” — Josh Homme

SOUND CITY (2013 Roswell Films)

Directed by Dave Grohl

Uncle Meat persuaded me to see this movie, and I’m glad that he did.  He said it wasn’t optional; that it was a must and that I would love it.  So I bought it on Blu-ray, invited him over to co-review it with me, and we viewed it one afternoon after work in 5.1 surround.   Needless to say, Sound City was good.  So good that we never felt we could do it justice in a review, so I sat on my notes for over a year!  Having recently re-watched Sound City (directed by Dave Grohl) with Mrs. LeBrain, now I can finally finish what Meat and I started last year.

Van Nuys, California.  Sound City Studios, the legendary place where everybody who is anybody recorded.  Nirvana?  Check.  Fleetwood Mac?  Rick Springfield?  Tom Petty?  Check.  Slipknot?  Also check.  Neil Young recorded much of  After the Gold Rush there, after being enamored of the vocal sound that he got on “Birds”.  Keith Olsen learned his craft there.  It’s not much to look at on the outside:  according to producer Butch Vig, it’s “kinda dumpy”. On the inside, there’s booze and cigarettes everywhere.  Big room, huge floor. Lots of black magnetic tape.

Grohl narrates, personal anecdotes flow, then he steps out of the movie’s way.  Grohl has a nice visual style, a combination of close ups and wide shots with plenty of details to look at.  He infuses the movie with plenty of humour, sometimes at his own expense.  The film has two phases:  the first is a history lesson regarding the studio and the artists who created the hits there.  The second consists of Dave purchasing the studio’s Neve board, moving it north to his own studio, and recording a brand new album with the same legendary artists.  Pretty cool concept.

SOUND CITY_0003

The huge Neve console was built like a “brick shithouse” (Keith Olsen), or a “tank” (Neil Young).  Its original purchase price: bought for $75,175  in 1969 dollars.  A nice house at the time cost around $30,000!   The Neve was one of only four.  Combined with the room itself at Sound City, the drum sound you can capture is incredible.  The studio’s acoustics were not designed; it was a complete fluke.  It was originally a box factory that happens to sound magical.

As for that Neve console, it is of course entirely analog.  The one at Sound City was unique, considered the best sounding one. Rupert Neve tried to explain the electronics of it to Grohl in one of the movie’s more humourous scenes.  The very first song recorded on that board was “Crying in the Night”, by Buckingham Nicks.  This led directly to Mick Fleetwood hearing them while at the studio, and hiring not only the studio, but also Buckingham and Nicks!  Essentially, the modern Fleetwood Mac formed right there at Sound City. The studio’s success really began with Rumours.  Then, everyone wanted to record there.   As for Tom Petty?  It appears that Tom Petty pretty much spent his entire career at Sound City.  In fact one of the coolest scenes was an old behind the scenes video from the 1990’s.  Seeing Rick Rubin produce Tom Petty and being brutally honest was very interesting.

Rick Rubin to Tom Petty:  “Sounds like you’re aiming a little lower today than you should be.”

Along came the compact disc, and the infancy of digital recording.  Digital was the latest trend, and you could do new things with a computer that were harder to do on tape.  Sound City suffered during this time, as newer rival studios were on trend. Sound City was dead…but one album helped resuscitate it:  Nevermind.  Then came Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Slayer, Kyuss.  Analog tape and vintage equipment became popular again.  Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash recorded Unchained there with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Nine Inch Nails combined the old with the new, by bring in their own computers to record on ProTools along with the Neve.

Unfortunately ProTools was heavy competition, and working with tape was so difficult by comparison, that Sound City finally shut its doors.  They just couldn’t pay the bills anymore, even after selling off their excess equipment.  Then Dave bought the board.  It is amazing to watch it taken apart, boxed up, reassembled and functioning in Seattle.  Regarding the sale of the board, Grohl says, “I think they knew that I wasn’t just going to bubble wrap it, and stick it in a warehouse.  I was gonna fuckin’ use it.  A lot.”

SOUND CITY_0001On November 2, 2011, reassembly of the board began at Dave’s Studio 606.  Then he invited all the original artists back to record a new album on it, produced by Butch Vig.  Regarding Stevie Nicks, in a memorable moment Vig says, “Fuckin’ A, that girl can sing!”  More artists arrive.  The Foo Fighters plus Rick Springfield create a monstrous sound together, a neat amalgam of their respective genres.  Lee Ving (Fear) is hilarious, and performs the fastest count-in of all time.  I discovered a new respect for Trent Reznor, a guy who uses the technology to create original sounds, but desires the warmth of tape.  It’s incredible to see him collaborate with Homme and Grohl.  It’s the sound of humans communicating with instruments.  And they wrote a pretty frickin’ cool song together.  Then, watching Paul McCartney writing “Cut Me Some Slack” with the surviving members of Nirvana is a moment that I’m glad was frozen in time.

Grohl:  “What can’t it always be this easy?”

McCartney:  “It is.”

The blu-ray bonus features include three additional performances: “From Can to Can’t”, “Your Wife is Calling”, “The Slowing Down”.  It was these bonus features that inspired Meat and I to add “Your Wife is Calling” (with Lee Ving) to our 2014 Sausagefest lists.  Our votes allowed the song to clock in at #64.  (The track was my #1.)

Sound City is a complete triumph of a music documentary.  It is the kind of music documentary designed for serious fans, not just passers-by.  I would welcome another movie directed by Dave Grohl with open arms.

5/5 stars

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.

SABBATH DIO YEARS_0006

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: Ronnie James Dio – This Is Your Life (Tribute)

NEW RELEASE

“I’m letting them pick what songs they wanna do in the way they wanna do it.” Wendy Dio

THIS IS YOUR LIFE_0001VARIOUS ARTISTS:  Ronnie James Dio – THIS IS YOUR LIFE (2014 tribute CD)

No preable from me: we all know how great Dio was.  Let’s get to the tracks.

Anthrax kick off the festivities with a slamming “Neon Nights”.  The storming opener couldn’t have been in a better slot.  Not only is Charlie Benate heavy as shit, but the guitar solos are mental.  Joe Belladonna handles the powerful vocal ably.  Rob Caggiano is still in the lineup indicating this isn’t brand new.  I suspect it was recorded at the same time as last year’s Anthems EP.

The guys that never get respect, Tenacious D, tackle the difficult second slot.  No worries there; they chose “The Last In Line” which Jack Black sings with no difficulty.  Uncle Meat has said it before:  Jack Black is one of the best singers he’s seen live.  “The Last In Line” proves his pipes, although some may not like his exaggerated, humorous vocal enunciation.  Kyle Gass plays a cute recorder solo in lieu of guitar, but there’s not enough K.G. on this track.  Brooks Wackerman kicks the drums in the ass.

And speaking of drums, Mike Portnoy is next with Adrenaline  Mob.  They demolish “Mob Rules”, although singer Russell Allen is certainly no Dio.  He is completely overshadowed by Portnoy and the shredding of Mike Orlando.

Corey Taylor, Satchel (Russ Parish) and friends  chose “Rainbow In the Dark” as their tribute to Ronnie.  This has always been such a fan favourite, and a personal one as well.  It is difficult to imagine anyone but Ronnie singing it.  While Corey Taylor is not at all like Ronnie James Dio, you can tell he loves this song.  It bleeds out of his performance.  He does it in his own rasp, and it works.

The incredible Lzzy Hale and Halestorm are up next with another Dio classic, “Straight Through the Heart”.  There is no denying the talents of Lzzy Hale, but her powerful pipes are almost too much.  Perhaps she overpowers the song, rather than simply fueling it.  Halestorm fans will love it, but I think Lzzy maybe should have reeled it in a bit.  Or, maybe I just need to get used to it.  “Straight From the Heart” does sound better after a few listens.

Biff Byford (Saxon) joins Motorhead on lead vocals for Rainbow’s “Starstruck”.  There’s a bit of that Motor-slam in it, but if I didn’t know who it was, I never would have guessed Motorhead.  You can hear Lemmy on backing vocals, but weirdly, he’s not credited on bass.  Nobody is, but you can hear the bass clearly and it sounds like Lem.

THIS IS YOUR LIFE_0004

I’m a little sick of the Scorpions doing ballads, but I admit that “Temple of the King” (another Rainbow classic) is stunningly good.  One might almost mistake it for a Scorpions original.  It has that regal Scorpions bombast to is, but Matthias Jabs’ lead work is just sublime.  He’s an underrated player, absolutely.  You can tell he’s a Blackmore fan.

An oldie from 1999, Doro’s cover of “Egypt (The Chains are On)” is excellent.  It’s cool to hear female singers like Doro and Lzzy Hale sing Dio.  Doro’s impressive pipes have always been astounding.  Her version of “Egypt” is a little over the top compared to Dio’s, but that’s cool by me.

Killswitch Engage…hmm.  “Holy Diver” starts great, super heavy, with some perfectly acceptable, melodic vocals.  Then it all goes down the toilet at the bridge.  That’s when it turns into hardcore shouting and blast beats…sorry, not on this song, thanks.  I can listen to that stuff in moderation, but don’t sully “Holy Diver” with it.  Fortunately the guitar solos are great, sounding like an Iron Maiden outtake from Powerslave.  Shame about the growling and shouting.  Skip.

“Catch the Rainbow” is a great song, and Craig Goldy plays guitar on this cover.  He’s ex-Dio himself, and he’s backed by his former Dio-mates Rudy Sarzo, Scott Warren and Simon Wright.  (Hey, that’s also 1/3 of Tateryche!)  Glenn Hughes sings, but this song sounds out of his scope.  His bluesy slant doesn’t work for me.  Sorry Glenn, you’re still awesome!

I find it strange that two more ex-Dio members (Jimmy Bain and Rowan Robertson) chose to cover Black Sabbath.  But who cares!  They covered “I”, perhaps the greatest song from Dehumanizer (1992)!  On drums is Brian Tichy, with Oni Logan (Lynch Mob, Dio Disciples) singing.  It’s a perfectly authentic version and I love it.  It’s absolutely thunderous, and I love Jimmy Bain’s bass sound.  Always have.  Of all the vocalists on This Is Your Life, it is Oni Logan that comes closest to nailing Dio’s vibe.  Considering he’s in Dio Diciples, I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I didn’t expect it though, based on what I knew of Logan from Lynch Mob.  He fits “I” like a glove!

I was disappointed in Rob Halford’s version of “Man On the Silver Mountain”.  It’s true that Halford did replace Dio in Black Sabbath for two shows in 1992.  However, having owned a bootleg video of that show since that time, I knew that Halford’s and Dio’s styles didn’t really mesh.  This is no different; I don’t think his voice works with the song and it unfortunately shows off the places where Rob’s voice has weakened.  What is cool though is that the band (all ex-Dio:  Doug Aldrich, Vinnie Appice, Jeff Pilson and Scott Warren) take it to a swampy bluesy Whitesnake-y place for the intro.  You can definitely hear Pilson covering the high notes in the chorus.

Finally we arrive at the mighty Metallica.  Snicker if you like.  If Metallica do one thing really well, it’s covers.  If they do two right, it’s covers and medleys.  The “Ronnie Rising Medley” is entirely made up of parts of Rainbow songs.  “A Light In the Black” bleeds into “Tarot Woman,” where the vocals begin.  It’s safe to say if you don’t like Metallica, you won’t like this.  If the opposite is true, I think you’re in for a treat.  Metallica do these classics in their own style, just as they have in the past when covering Maiden, or Mercyful Fate, or Thin Lizzy.  Simply add Lars’ thuds, James’ growl, and some standard Metalli-licks, and you’ve got a medley that is enjoyable through its near-10 minute run time.  Having said that, the weak point is definitely “Stargazer”, which is gutted of all its majesty.  They do much better with “Kill the King” which is fucking perfect.  They include the entire song in their medley!

Fittingly, the album ends on a ballad:  Dio’s own somber “This Is Your Life”, performed by the man himself in 1996.  I did not like the Angry Machines album, but if there was one song I would have picked as a highlight it would be “This Is Your Life”.  Performed only by Dio and Scott Warren on piano, it is unlike anything else in Dio’s canon.  The lyrics speak of mortality:

This is your life
This is your time
What if the flame
Won’t last forever?

This is your here
This is your now
Let it be magical

What a way to end a great album.  As much as you can “miss” a person you have never met, I do miss Ronnie James Dio.  In many ways he’s been my friend for 30 years.

4.5/5 stars

As a nice added touch, the liner notes include photos of just about every performer on this CD with Ronnie!

Of  note:  the Japanese edition has a bonus track by Dio Diciples:  “Stand Up and Shout.”  It also has Stryper’s version of “Heaven and Hell” from their 2011 album The Covering, which I reviewed here.

REVIEW: Dio – Lock Up the Wolves (1990)

DIO – Lock Up the Wolves (1990)

July 1990: A M.E.A.T. Magazine interview (issue #14) with Ronnie James Dio states that he was unhappy with Dream Evil, one of my favourite Dio albums. He felt the songwriting was unfinished, that the songs needed tightening up. Supposedly some of the changes he made were a response to that. If that’s indeed the case, then Lock of the Wolves came as a total shock. These songs feel even less finished than any Dio album before.

Dio had completely revamped his band. Craig Goldy (guitar) was the first one to leave. Apparently Vinnie Appice, Jimmy Bain and Claude Schnell didn’t care for Goldie, but they all ended up departing too. Ronnie was no longer happy with the writing process nor the dischord that had set into the making of Dream Evil.  Because of these circumstances he was able to revamp the entire Dio lineup but not by choice.

Ronnie took on a young and international crew: Swedish Jens Johansson on keyboards (ex-Yngwie Malmsteen), new York kid Teddy Cook on bass, ex-AC/DC skin-pounder Simon Wright, and the young 17 year old Scot, Rowan Robertson as his new guitar wizard. Robertson won the role after a cattle-call resulted in 5000 tapes sent to Dio for his consideration.  The end combination was a band of skilled players, but lacking in road-tested chemistry. Plus the pressure was certainly on Robertson, having guitarists like Vivian Campbell and Richie Blackmore writing the solos you were going to be playing.

About half the album was written when Bain and Appice were still in the band, and they appear on several writing credits. Robertson has a co-write on every song, and Jens Johansson has two, while new bassist Cook has one. Regardless of the numerous writers, the album is very singular in its direction. That is to say Lock Up the Wolves is a painfully sloooowww Dio album.

I was very disappointed that there are only a couple fast rockers to keep the blood pumping. The first track, “Wild One”, fools you into thinking this album will be a rocking good time full of tasty guitar hooks and wicked Dio lyrics. However, “Born On The Sun”, while boasting a great chorus melody, sags and droops. “Hey Angel” and “Between Two Hearts” are more of the same. I kept waiting for another fast song, or just something different to keep me awake. I had realized that Lock Up the Wolves is loaded with boring pseudo-bluesy riffs, slow to the point of coma-inducing.

The only slow tunes that really have spark of any kind are the monstrous title track (over 8 minutes of drama) and the ballady “My Eyes”. “My Eyes” is my personal favourite track on the album, and perhaps worth the price of purchase if you can find the album cheap. It’s also fun to play the game “How many of Dio’s other song titles are in the lyrics?” with this one.  The CD-only bonus track “Why Are They Watching Me” is the only other serious fast rocker on the album, and I have no idea why it was the CD-only bonus track, because the album desperately needed a kick in the pants.

And that is Lock Up the Wolves in a nutshell. Approximately 50 minutes of slow, pseudo-bluesy guitar and dull rhythms. About 10 minutes of heavy metal. That’s it.

I do love the cover art.

2/5 stars

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REVIEW: Black Sabbath – The Sabbath Stones (1996)

Bought at HMV, Stone Road Mall, Guelph ON, on import for $29.99 in 1996.

BLACK SABBATH – The Sabbath Stones (1996 IRS)

The Sabbath Stones, a record-company cash-grab, is a greatest hits compilation of Sabbath’s Tony Martin years (mostly) plus a smattering of bonus tracks. While it is not perfect, and so many great songs were omitted, it is still a really great listen from start to finish. Tony Martin is probably the most derided of all Sabbath vocalists. Having seen Sabbath live on their final tour with Martin (also including Cozy Powell and Neil Murray) I can say that I quite enjoyed that incarnation of Sabbath. Also, in 1996 when this was released, albums such as Headless Cross and The Eternal Idol were very hard to find on CD.  With that in mind, read my track-by-track breakdown.

1. “Headless Cross” — This compilation is the IRS years (that’s the record label, not the government agency) and thus starts with their first IRS album, Headless Cross. The title track is one of those underground classics. The groove here is monstrous (thanks, Cozy)  and the notes Martin hits in the chorus are superhuman. This track, back in 1989, was Sabbath getting back to a truly heavy evil sound. Shame that the keyboards (on all tracks by Geoff Nicholls) are mixed so high!

2. “When Death Calls” — One of my favourites from Headless. Beginning with fretless bass (by temp bassist Lawrence Cottle) and haunting vocals, you’d almost think this was a ballad. By the end, it’s breakneck, with Tony Martin singing these evil lyrics about how “your tongue will blister” when Satan says you’re to die! The guest guitar solo by Brian May will sear your soul.

3. “Devil and Daughter” — A third great track from Headless, an album loaded with great tracks. This is an uptempo one all the way through!

4. “The Sabbath Stones” — From 1990’s underrated Tyr album. I quite liked Tyr. “The Sabbath Stones” is a fast one, wicked, but muddy in sound as was all of Tyr. Once again, Martin hits inhuman high notes by the end.

5-7. “The Battle Of Tyr/Odin’s Court/Valhalla” — These three tracks are actually all bits of one long piece, on Viking mythology. Sabbath at the time were trying to get away from the “Satanic thing”, and Vikings were still evil enough to sing about. Some fans didn’t like that turn of events but I think Sabbath were well ahead of their time. “The Battle Of Tyr” is a keyboard-y bit, just an intro to get you in the mood. “Odin’s Court” is acoustic, with Iommi picking a simple melody while Martin sings about “leading us on, to the land of eternity, riding the cold cold winds of Valhalla”. That takes us into the main meat of the trilogy, the “Valhalla” portion. One of the most powerful of all Martin-era tracks, with great keyboard accents and a memorable Iommi riff, this was my favourite track off Tyr.  (It’s either this one, or “Jerusalem”.)

8. “TV Crimes” — A brief departure from the Tony Martin years. In 1992, he was out and Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler, and Vinny Appice were back in. The album was called Dehumanizer and even though it did not sell well, a hardcore following now consider it among the very best Sabbath albums of all time, and possibly one of the best things Dio’s ever done. Why it was underrepresented here with just one song is beyond me. There should have been at least three Dehumanizer tracks on this CD (I would have nixed “Devil and Daughter” and “The Sabbath Stones” in favour of two more with Dio singing.) Anyway, “TV Crimes” (the single) is here, and while not one of the best songs from Dehumanizer, it and “Time Machine” were the two most well-known.

9. “Virtual Death” — Tony Martin is back, with Rainbow’s Bobby Rondinelli and Geezer Butler too!  That would not last long, as Geezer soon fled back to Ozzy’s solo band to record the Ozzmosis CD. “Virtual Death” is hardly one of the better songs from the Cross Purposes album, a decent record if a bit soft. Having said that, the soft tracks were really quite good and “Virtual Death” was just a grunge song.  Black Sabbath influenced that whole scene, but they ended up copying Alice In Chains’ trademark vocal style on “Virtual Death”.  That double tracked vocal melody could have come right off Dirt.

10. “Evil Eye” — Another puzzling Cross Purposes selection.  I can’t think of a reason to include it.  There was once a legend that “Evil Eye” was co-written by Eddie Van Halen, who went uncredited.  The same rumour suggested that Van Halen either performed the guitar solo or wrote the solo for Iommi to play.  Joe Seigler of black-sabbth.com has busted this rumour as false.   My two tracks from this album would have been “I Witness” (fast one) and “Cross Of Thorns” (slow one).

11. “Kiss Of Death” — Finally we arrive at the end of the Martin years with the dreadful Forbidden album. It’s sad because it wasn’t the end that Tony Martin deserved. The album just got out of hand and next thing you know, Ozzy was back. This track was at least one of the strongest ones. A killer, slow closer with some unbelievable Cozy Powell drum fills, if it had been recorded right it would have just slammed you in the face.

12. “Guilty As Hell” — Another Forbidden track, and one of the weakest. “Can’t Get Close Enough” should have been subbed in. Just filler.

13. “Loser Gets It All”TREASURE!  The Japanese Forbidden bonus track, finally available domestically! (Please note, the Cross Purposes Japanese bonus track “What’s The Use” is still unreleased outside Japan, dangit.) This song, a shorty just over 2 minutes, is actually stronger than all the other Forbidden stuff. Good riff, good keyboards, not bad sounding. Shame it was buried on a Japanese release.  Why?  Who knows.  Maybe Tony Martin does.  Tony, drop me a line.  I’d love to talk.

And that finishes the final IRS album, and the final one for Martin. He’d been replaced once before by Dio, and now finally by the once and future Ozzy, and it’s all over for him.  Since then he’s taken a back seat to his more famous predecessors, although he released the strongly reviewed (by me) Scream solo album in 2005.  He also did a number of albums with guitarist Dario Mollo, two of which I own but have to revisit.

There are three “bonus tracks”, songs that were included under license, from the period before the IRS years.  The inclusion of these songs really make the album a fun listen.

14. “Disturbing The Priest” — My favourite incarnation of Sabbath was 1983’s Gillan/Iommi/Butler/Ward and this is my favourite song from Born Again. It’s so evil you’ll feel like you need to confess your sins after listening! I have no idea how Gillan managed such demonic screams. Brilliant selection!

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15. “Heart Like A Wheel” — I’m actually quite fond of the Glenn Hughes fronted album, Seventh Star, but this song has no place on this album. Granted Sabbath played it live on the ’86 tour with Ray Gillen subbing in for Hughes, but it’s too slow and bluesy. The title track or “In For The Kill” should have been subbed in.

16. “The Shining” — Tony Martin triumphantly ends the album with his first single with Black Sabbath.  “The Shining” has a vintage Iommi riff, and more ungodly high notes. There are early demos of this song from before Tony joined the band, with other singers, as Iommi had this riff a long time before.  A 1984 demo entitled “No Way Out” was recorded with Ian Gillan’s short-lived replacement singer, David “Donut” Donato.  Then it was re-written and re-sung by Ray Gilllen, and this version was recently released on the Eternal Idol deluxe edition. Tony Martin’s version then is the third incarnation of the song that I have, and it’s a triumphant one.  I love the way this album was bookended with Tony Martin songs.

That’s the CD: 80 MINUTES LONG! You just can’t argue with cramming that much music onto one disc. And yes, you can get 80 minutes onto a CD, and this album is the proof.

While I have argued against the inclusion of some songs, by and large this is a well-made compilation, for a record company cash-grab. Considering the Martin years have been buried, I think it is well worth owning. I listened to it all the time.

4/5 stars

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.

REVIEW: Black Sabbath – Mob Rules (deluxe edition)

I’m addicted to buying these deluxe editions, and I’ll be doing more Sabbath in the coming days! Check out more of my Sabbath deluxe reviews by clicking here!

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BLACK SABBATH – Mob Rules (2010 deluxe edition)

The entire Dio-era catalogue of Sabbath has now been reissued so many bloody times! First there was the original CD issues, then the Castle remasters in 1996, then the Dio years boxed set (The Rules of Hell), and now these deluxe editions. I’m feeling lightly pillaged. But buying these is optional…unless you’re a die-hard like me. If you’re not, stick to the Dio box. If you are a die-hard, plunge forward.

The big reason to buy this set is the Live at Hammersmith Odeon bonus disc. Folks, when Rhino announced this live album in 2007, I jumped on it immediately. The CD sold out immediately, only 5000 copies were ever made.  Limited and numbered (I got #3723), even if it sucked it was bound to be worth a fortune in the future right? Well not necessarily. Now it’s been included as a bonus disc. (It’s also seen a vinyl reissue.)  So, for me this sucks — my Rhino issue is no longer as desirable to collectors. For you, it’s awesome. Now you can have this blistering live album, way better than Live Evil!

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All the other expected perks are here, including bonus tracks:  the soundtrack version of the title track, and a B-side (“Die Young”, live) from a 12″ single.  It also has extensive liner notes that cover the recording, the tour, and the Hammersmith disc. Throw in some photos and a great remastering job, and you have (hopefully!) the last copy of Mob Rules that you will ever need to buy.

Mob Rules itself is very much a brother record to Heaven and Hell. You have that big dramatic epic (“The Sign of the Southern Cross”), the speedy opener (“Turn Up The Night”) and everything else in between (“Voodoo”). It’s not quite up to the lofty standards of H&H, although it does follow the blueprint quite closely. I find the closer (“Over & Over”) to be the weak link in an otherwise pretty damn strong chain.

I think the title track, “The Mob Rules”, is probably one of the greatest heavy metal songs ever written.  Furiously paced, with Dio’s pipes in fine form, it an energized trip.  “The Sign of the Southern Cross” is, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much an equal track to “Heaven and Hell”.  Its riff is simply earth-shattering.  Once again, Dio’s pipes are unequaled.

Even something like “Country Girl”, a lesser known track, blows me away.  Iommi pulls another memorably powerful riff out of his bag of tricks, while Ronnie wails away…about what, I’m not sure.  But it sure is fun to sing along.  “Slipping Away” is another personal favourite due to Geezer’s fluidic bass solos.  “Falling Off the Edge of the World” smokes, another fast Iommi riff that bores its way into the brain.  You’ll be exhausted by the end of it.  Really, the only mis-step is the album closer, “Over and Over”, which I find a bit too dull and slow for an album as great as Mob Rules.

Pick it up to help complete your Sabbath collection, and to hear the awesome Live At Hammersmith Odeon.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Black Sabbath – Dehumanizer (deluxe edition)

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BLACK SABBATH – Dehumanizer (2011 deluxe edition)

After a chaotic decade of lineup changes, solo-but-not-solo albums, record label switcharoos, and a few aborted attempts to reconcile with Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi finally did something that we fans had been wishing for:  He recovened the classic Mob Rules lineup of the band, featuring fellow cohorts in rock Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler, Vinnie Appice, and unofficial keyboardist Geoff Nicholls.

The results were staggering: Dehumanizer, the best Black Sabbath since Born Again at least, and Sabotage at best. It is incredibly heavy even for Black Sabbath, topped only by the same lineup’s The Devil You Know in 2009. Yet heaviness alone would not make any album a classic. Dehumanizer is marked by outstanding production (by Mack of Queen fame), newfound seriousness in the lyrical department, and a certain rhythmic thrift courtesy of Appice. To me, Dehumanizer is among the best of all Sabbath albums, and that includes Ozzy’s. For that vintage guitar sound, Iommi resurrected his old Gibson SG that he used back in the Paranoid days. That’s why it sounds like a monster puking distortion out of the speakers.

A track like “Computer God” relies on Appice’s relentless hammering, until Iommi’s riff subdues you into a pulp. None of these songs are immediate. The sludge of “After All (The Dead)” crawls along, but slowly burrows its way into your memory. My personal favourite song is “I”, which…man, I won’t even try to describe it, except to say that it’s awesome.

The liner notes reveal that the band had to convince Dio to drop the rainbows and dragons from the lyrics, and the album is that much more powerful for it. This carried on through to some of Ronnie’s solo albums as well. It is a shame that this newfound seriousness did not strike a chord with the grunge scenesters of the time.

This deluxe edition is pretty much as good as they get. It collects every B-side side and associated track for Dehumanizer, as well as one previously unreleased one. On the bonus disc you will find three non-album versions of “Master of Insanity”, “Letters From Earth”, and “Time Machine” (the version from Wayne’s World). “Letters From Earth” is an early version with slightly different lyrics and riffs. This had been on a B-side before.

You also get five live tracks, all from single B-sides. This was a real coup for me, as I didn’t even know these existed before. I missed out on those singles. As far as live songs go, they could be better. “Die Young” is a mere two minutes long (you can hear that it was about to merge into “Too Late” before the fade). Geoff Nicholl’s keyboards are mixed in too loudly. “Master of Insanity” is previously unreleased, and although unlisted it is actually a medley with “After All (The Dead)”. I’m glad that this brief era of Sabbath has been documented with some live songs, and Dio was in peak form back then.

For some reason, I couldn’t get this from the Canadian Amazon site. I had to order it in from the States. Weird.

5/5 stars. A crucial slab of Sabbath that has now been given the appropriate treatment, same as Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules. Complete your collection.

Party On! Excellent!