1980 was an absolute blaster of a year for the release of classic rock albums. We had AC/DC’s Back in Black, Ace of Spades by Motorhead, Rush’s Permanent Waves and British Steel by Judas Priest to name but a few.
It is, then, a testament to Black Sabbath that their own Heaven and Hell can stand at least shoulder to shoulder with any of the aforementioned mighty records.
April marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Heaven and Hell, the band’s first with diminutive lead singer Ronnie James Dio. To get to this point first the band had to do some deep soul searching and make some life-changing decisions.
In the late 70s, there was no doubt that Black Sabbath were in decline. After the ill-received release of Technical Ecstacy in 1976 original singer Ozzy Osbourne left the band in frustration at the milder direction the band was taking. He shortly returned, however, to record and release Never Say Die! in 1978.
It was around this time that Osbourne’s drink and drug intake dwarfed his bandmates’ to such an extent that he was unable to function and contribute cohesively to a new album. Reluctantly the remaining band members, Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass) and Bill Ward (drums), decided it was time to replace Ozzy. It was left to Ward to inform the out of control frontman that he was being sacked.
Not wanting the band to stand still or gradually fade away, Iommi made contact with Ronnie James Dio, who, ironically, had been previously introduced to Iommi by Sharon Arden, Ozzy’s future wife. Dio was not long out of a job himself, having been relieved of his duties from Rainbow. He had made a massive impact on the rock world in cahoots with Ritchie Blackmore, especially with the release of the all-time classic Rising. It was a relationship that was bound to fail as two massive egos clashed and Ronnie found himself lining up at the job center.
So, Ozzy was out and Ronnie was in, but would it work? Yes, we all know how well it worked, but at the time it was seen as a huge risk. Ozzy was a huge fans’ favorite and to see him go was bound to be viewed dimly by many. Dio’s vocals could also be questioned as to whether his rich tones would suit Sabbath’s perceived doomier sound. This clearly proved unfounded and anyway, the band’s style had recently lost a lot of its doomy style for a lighter, more upbeat sound.
With RJD on board, the next masterstroke was to hire the services of legendary producer Martin Birch. The team was now complete, all they had to do now was record some classic tracks. Easy!
From the opening riff of “Neon Knights” the hairs standing up on the back of my neck let me know that I was onto a winner. And that was before Ronnie’s vocals stormed in, like an iron fist in a velvet glove. Whilst maybe not life-changing, it was certainly life-affirming.
Iommi was in brutal form right out of the traps and there’s no let-up throughout the whole album.
“Children of the Sea” was actually demoed during the Ozzy era, albeit, as Iommi explained, with a different tune and lyrics (!) This is the more old-era sounding song of the album, with Dio plumbing the depths of his soul at times for his lowest register. Lyrically, however, it was definitely Ronnie territory.
“Lady Evil” opens with the coolest of cool Geezer Butler bass riffs which Iommi picks up and moulds into another catchy killer. For Black Sabbath, this is a very lightweight affair in both sound and also lyrically, but it’s catchy as hell and the solo, as with every track on this album, is the dog’s bollocks.
Finishing Side One – for vinyl freaks at least – comes not just the best song on the album, but possibly one of the best metal songs ever. “Heaven and Hell” has simply got everything. It has got the cast iron riff running throughout, Dio giving it all he’s got and atmosphere aplenty. You can sing along to it, headbang to it and get lost in it. And the guitar work. The guitar work. Iommi pulls out all the stops and delivers a true masterclass.
When your hands are no longer shaking after that assault it is time to flip over the vinyl to see what Side Two has in store. Well, would you believe it, it’s another belter of a track! “Wishing Well” gets off to flier and never lets up. It is now a leading contender in the ‘Best song called “Wishing Well”’ category, along with Free.
Challenging “Heaven and Hell” for top dog comes the second-best track on the album, “Die Young”. An understated opening comes before the guitar hits you right in the guts. Every spare second between Dio’s vocals is filled with Iommi’s finger gymnastics and it’s such a treat. Also, in a rare event, Dio’s lyrics seem to make sense. Live for now, you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future. He’s right, you know.
Butler hits the spot once again on “Walk Away” where the track simply drips cool as it lazily wends its way via a deep groove and subtle guitaring.
The big finish comes in the form of “Lonely is the Word”. Not the rip-roaring track you might expect to end an album but these are different times. A slower-paced affair this song is very considered and well thought out. Once again, however, it is Tony Iommi’s guitar that steals the day, but it has for the whole album, to be honest. His finishing solo feels off the cuff and sounds as if he’s got lost in his own work. I know I did.
An absolute classic album, of that there is no doubt.
The follow-up, Mob Rules (with Vinnie Appice replacing Ward) just a year later carried on very much in the same vein and whilst not quite hitting the same heights, it came mighty close. Sadly, things in the band started to deteriorate. After the release of the live album Live Evil Black Sabbath parted ways with Dio and began a spiral into obscurity with numerous wrongly fitting vocalists.
This line-up did reform for 1992’s Dehumanizer album but again did not set the world alight. Between 2006 and 2010 the same foursome toured as Heaven & Hell performing Dio era songs.
1980 was indeed a great year for classic albums. With Dio available and Black Sabbath on the look-out, the stars aligned and a cosmic piece was duly delivered.
If, inexplicably, you don’t have it, you can buy it from:
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