Saturday, May 29, 2010
Did you ever have one of those little daydreams where you try to trace a series of events/decisions that led you to your present position in life?
Of course you have!
You wouldn't be human if you didn't take time to ponder your place in the cosmos. Happenstance, luck or just deviating from your usual weekend routine can sometimes alter the course of your existence.
For John Osbourne (Ozzy to his friends), 1979 was a pivotal year. Black Sabbath spent the latter part of the 70s in decline. Their last two releases (Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die) had a soporific effect on the hardcore element of their fan base and rehearsals for the next project with Ozzy fell apart quickly. The ax was bound to fall. Fired from his gig fronting Sabbath after ten years and eight albums, Osbourne was in sorry shape. The decision to let him go on the grounds that his substance abuse and drinking were out of control could be viewed as a bit hypocritical, in light of the fact that the others were not exactly model candidates for membership in the temperance society themselves. Worse yet, drummer Bill Ward, one of his closest friends, was chosen to be the bearer of bad tidings
Ward was so out of it during this time that he does not recall the recording sessions for Heaven and Hell.
Making the story even more interesting is the fact that Sharon Arden (daughter of Don Arden, who managed Sabbath at that point) recommended Ronnie James Dio as Ozzy's replacement. Sharon would go on to manage and marry Ozzy, steering him through a very successful solo career.
With Dio on board, the Sabbath machine once again started up in earnest, though bassist Geezer Butler quit for a period of time and was replaced by Craig Gruber (another former Rainbow member). Geoff Nichols also moved in to augment the band with keyboards. Work started on what would become the Heaven and Hell album. Butler returned early in 1980, carrying on with tracking as the new songs came together. Nichols remained, though Gruber was again out of a gig.
Gone were the transitory experiments with strings, brass and jazz stylings that had crept into parts of their previous two discs. Combining the traditional, bass-heavy attack with a slightly more sophisticated approach in the vocal department served to revitalize their sound. The relative excellence and consistency of these new compositions added up to a very satisfying listening experience, with Iommi stripping things back to basics. He proceeded to turn in his most impressive set of guitar figures in quite some time.
The Dio/Sabbath marriage rejuvenated interest in the group, though, clearly, an altogether different style was presented to listeners. "Neon Knights" kicks down the door at full speed, with an intensity that doesn't let up until the quick break before the solo. Fantasy imagery mixes with a tearing riff and Dio's peerless vocals. Instantly, they shred just about everything in the Rainbow discography in just under four minutes of metal. "Children of the Sea", a thinly disguised cautionary tale about poisoning the environment, opens softly before kicking into the sludgy mid-tempo riff that winds through a few tricky changes, including a great turnaround that supports Iommi's tasteful lead break. This passage breaks down with a mild chant in the background as we loop back to the introductory passage. Brilliant on all fronts, both of these tracks would soon be staples of the live set.
"Lady Evil" is notable for a little joke inserted close to the end of the tune. Singing of a woman who resides in Witches Valley and hand feeds the darkness itself, Dio seems to have no trouble with his new bandmates trying to steer him away from his natural writing style. In turn, after a breakdown with some tasty wah-wah pedal-driven lines, Iommi breaks into the riff from Cliff Richard's 1976 hit, "Devil Woman", before wrapping back into the outro verse.
You can almost imagine him flashing a subversive smile while doing so. There is confidence exuded in every aspect of the playing, none more so than on the astounding, multi-part title track.
"The closer you get to the meaning, the sooner you'll know that you're dreaming
And it's on and on and on, it's Heaven and Hell"
Heralded by a signature riff from Iommi, the distorted intro dissipates, leaving a sparse, insistent bass and drum foundation over which Ronnie powerfully delivers his lyric. Almost hypnotic in structure, the song shifts gears several times with a wealth of changes that could have been used to drive several different compositions. Nichols provides atmospheric coloring on keys throughout. Resolving on what seems to be an abrupt conclusion, Ward kicks in double time, with a perfectly controlled, yet frenetic sounding beat upon which the others jump on furiously.
"They say that life's a carousel, spinning fast you've got to ride it well, the world is full of kings and queens, who'll blind your eyes and steal your dreams it's Heaven and Hell"
Breathlessly racing to the finish, there is passion in every pore of this music, by far the best out of everything on this disc, which is saying something.
As a teenager, I used to listen to side two of this record in headphones many a night while in that twilight space between consciousness and sleep. It's a phenomenal stretch of music that walks a fine line between aggressive playing and lighter moments. Dio's range is on full display as he handles both moods with ease, often within the same track. ("Wishing Well and "Die Young" being perfect examples)
Closing with one of their most underrated pieces ("Lonely Is the Word") Iommi works in some jazzy licks, finally incorporating this side of his playing quite successfully in the context of what begins as a lugubrious, slogging riff that lightens in tone toward the end. Dio is particularly inspired and through the long fade, Nichols quotes from the Jimmy Page playbook with a repeated, short burst of notes (on keyboard) straight out of the final moments of the "Stairway to Heaven" solo. I'm not sure if it was done intentionally or not, though it's certainly apropos, considering the album's cornerstone title track.
Perhaps done as a jibe in the direction of his former band, the back cover artwork is a carbon copy of the last Rainbow LP to feature Dio. Speculatively, this had to have been his idea, or at least an extension of his sense of humor.
Heaven and Hell stands as one of their masterworks, bar none.