(Black Sabbath: The Dio Years)
Rhino Records
by Todd K Smith

It was late April of 1980 that Heaven and Hell made its mark on the metal community and forever changed the face of Black Sabbath. A revitalized line up featuring Rainbow/Elf vocalist Ronnie James Dio and an invigorating song direction set the pace for the band’s more poetic yet philosophically darker days. It was recently brought to our attention that it was the same summer Back in Black would test the reigns for Australian band, AC/DC. Two pivotal rock bands betting their careers on a new singer, a more melodic direction and a place among the upstarts of the NWOBM. Prior to that, the late ‘70’s were a tumultuous time for Sabbath who had relocated from England to LA. After getting thoroughly trounced by opener Van Halen on the “Never Say Die” tour (1978), original vocalist Ozzy Osbourne slipped deeper and deeper into a drinking and drug induced haze - eventually bringing drummer Bill Ward with him. Bassist Geezer Butler had lost interest in the group altogether and was ready to jump ship while guitarist Tony Iommi was looking to form a more commercial solo outing along the lines of Queen.

Heaven and Hell was a converging of talents during what was initially an extended hiatus. Several of the ideas were set when Dio, then Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, toured with the Easybeats and the songwriting team of Harry Vanda and George Young (Angus’ brother) in the late ‘60’s. Titles like “Heaven and Hell” and “Falling off the Edge of the World” were tucked away in the back of his mind. Later, as a member of Rainbow, his fascination with Europe was fueled by tours through Germany, England and France. Under Blackmore, the Italian New Yorker grew more confident as a vocalist and lyric writer embracing different cultures, folklore and mysticism – fodder for future writing. In Blackmore’s desire to move Rainbow in a more FM-friendly direction, Dio got his walking papers back to Cortland, NY and eventually landed in LA with good friend Glenn Hughes.

Iommi was taken with Dio after Hughes made the initial introduction. Locking themselves away for a flurry of writing, the early sessions yielded the environmentally conscience “Children of the Sea,” the basic structure of “Heaven and Hell” and “Lonely Is the Word.” Dio was self-confident, self-contained and eager. Where Ozzy was more sponge-like, Dio was focused and creatively able to explore his darker side. Butler made his escape and was replaced by Quartz guitarist/keyboardist Geoff Nicholls who joined Iommi, Dio and Ward in knocking about songs in their Bel Air mansion. Rainbow/Elf bassist Craig Gruber also sat in as parts and pieces of songs written with Ozzy were spliced in here and there including “Die Young” and “Lady Evil”. Ward felt uneasy and to this day regrets having worked on Heaven and Hell. He was the one that eventually fired Ozzy and after he sobered up realized he’d betrayed a brother. Several months into the ’80’s tour and after news of the death of his parents, he would cut the lifeline to Sabbath for some 20 years.

Relocating to Miami, FL the as yet un-named project took up residence at Barry Gibb’s Criteria studio. Most of the record’s eight songs were polished off with recording engineer Martin Birch at the helm as producer. Birch was exceptionally skilled at creating unusual sounds and building musical texture. Iommi credits Birch, who had worked with Fleetwood Mac, The Faces, Deep Purple, Rainbow and would later go on to produce Whitesnake and Iron Maiden, with giving the record its slick, progressive radiance. Logically, once Warner Brothers heard the tapes they “strongly encouraged” the band to adopt the name Black Sabbath and commit to a co-headline tour with Blue Oyster Cult. Geezer Butler also got wind of the vitalized effort and returned to the fold. The last song written for the record, the quick paced rocker “Neon Knights” that eventually led the charge as the opening cut, was recorded at Geezer Butler’s house in France.

The label hired storybook illustrator Lynn Curlee to represent the band’s good vs. evil mantra. The depiction of three angels smoking and playing cards has become a classic among collectors. Each of the members of the band has attempted to buy the original, yet it still hangs at the Warner Brothers office to this day. Neither the art nor the music it encased initially sold the record. Sound technicians from other bands started playing Heaven and Hell between set changes. The first time I heard it was between Uriah Heep’s set and Judas Priest at Big Mac in Denver. Most of the Hell’s Angels sitting around me had the same quizzical look. “Who is that?” we all muttered. As the record caught fire, fewer Black Rainbow references were bantered about in the press. The disc had legs and met with resounding applause at the Day on the Green, the LA Coliseum and Madison Square Garden. Even with all the accolades, Bill Ward was suffering inside without Ozzy at the helm and he eventually quit. His replacement was Vinnie Appice (brother to Carmine) one of the loudest drummers on the planet.

Mob Rules released in November of 1981 was almost a carbon copy of Heaven and Hell. Housing the vinyl was a classic cover by high-profile fantasy artist, Greg Hildebrandt. It was recorded at the Record Plant in LA and again produced by Martin Birch. The songs were musically strong with Dio penning all lyrics. It launched the robust “Turn on the Night” into the UK top 40 and boasted the concert intro “E5150” composed by Geezer Butler. Lyrically the songs are more menacing starting with “Mob Rules” written to coincide with the film Heavy Metal. Its words sing of “Death and darkness rushing forward to drag you away” complete with Butler’s galloping bass. The bluesy “Voodoo” hosted another mammoth Iommi riff while “Sign of the Southern Cross” picked up where “Heaven and Hell” left off. The album’s second epic “Falling off the Edge of the World” was proof the band were still willing to push the envelope. A colossal effort, it began with Dio’s balladry voice lending way to Iommi’s thunderous chord progression.

Capping the Dio-era Sabbath was Live Evil a two-record, 14-track set that caught the band setting a brisk pace in Seattle, Dallas, and San Antonio. Released in December 1982, it made for media frenzy as Ozzy’s first post-Randy Rhoads disc (the ‘live’ Speak of the Devil) had been released a month earlier. In it’s original two-disc format, Live Evil cut “Heaven and Hell” in half, a major irritant to fans - however, the 1996 Castle’s re-issue put the whole show back together again on one disc for a much better presentation. Seven songs were pulled from the Ozzy catalog the other seven represented Dio’s involvement with the band. Rumor had it this incarnation split over production disputes sadly escalating into the permanent departure of Dio and Appice. Ten year later, the four made a second go of it with a record (Dehumanizer) and tour meeting with the same egotistical fate.

Another fifteen years has passed and fan demand was such that all differences were put aside once again to resurrect the Mob Rules line up and take it for one last jog around the park. Rhino Records (subsidiary to Warner Bros) slapped together a compilation of the Dio years with the magic “three-bonus tracks” sticker. Granted “The Devil Cried,” “Shadow of the Wind” and “Ear in the Wall” are admirable they do lack conviction – however, the tour is intriguing. As the bus rolled into the HP Pavillion in San Jose, ticket sales were brisk and lines were so long that most on the floor punters missed openers Machine Head arriving only in time to catch the second half of Megadeth’s set. Yet, Heaven and Hell delivered surprisingly well. Storming onto a stage crafted like a church, complete with stained glass windows and a wrought-iron fence, the band’s pace was that of a fine-toned athlete. Dio’s voice shook the rafters as riff-master Iommi pierced the night air with staggering wedges of demonic rock guitar. Both Geezer and Appice rolled on with eighteen wheels of pure thunder hitting the highlights in “Voodoo,” “Die Young” and of course, “Heaven and Hell.”

Website: Heaven and Hell, Black Sabbath (fan site), Rhino Records

Check out the original “Die Young” on YouTube by clicking here