November 29, 2022

At the time when Black Sabbath released Heaven And Hell in 1980, with ex-Rainbow man Ronnie James Dio improbably replacing the departed talisman Ozzy Osbourne, there was an uncertainty in the air about whether the new line-up, and new material, would be accepted by the fans who had grown up with the distinctive voice and astonishing live charisma of Ozzy fronting the band. In fact, when the album did appear, all doubts were banished as it was hailed by critics and (most) fans alike as a rejuvenation, and a necessary kickstart to the band’s flagging momentum in the latter days of Ozzy’s tenure. Underneath all of that, however, there remained a small yet significant portion of the fanbase who felt that the sleeker, more streamlined sound of the band with Dio was too much at odds with their doom-metal roots, and that, at the very least, they should have changed their name. Four decades have now passed since that time, of course, presenting us with a renewed sense of perspective regarding this particular influential – if quite short-lived – period in Sabbath history.

When listening to Heaven And Hell now, the initial impression when Neon Knights bursts rampaging from the speakers is the same as it was then: namely ‘My God, these guys are back!’ Sleeker and smoother with the fat trimmed off the sound may be, but it’s hard to make an informed and considered evaluation when you’re getting swept along in the slipstream of this quite remarkable track, which might still be argued to be the perfect crystallisation of the marriage made in heaven (or hell) between Dio and Sabbath. All bets are off, and it simply can not be denied that the song was, and remains, a triumph, a classic, and yes – a reinvention. It is in the second track, the slower-paced and more grandiose Children Of The Sea, that the first inklings of doubt might appear, in a sense of ‘should this be called Black Rainbow’. Simply put, Ronnie James Dio was such a remarkable vocalist, as well as distinctive lyricist, that his stamp on the project was always going to exacerbate the perceived connection to Rainbow classics such as Rainbow Rising four years earlier. The band may well be correct, however, when they have claimed that the last thing they needed was for someone to directly attempt to fill Ozzy’s boots.

Leaving aside these age-old differences of agreement, however, we can now look from a position of welcome hindsight just how well the album has held up over the decades against its stellar reputation when first released. The answer to these ideas is ‘flawed genius’, as the undeniable quality of the aforementioned two songs plus the lengthy and powerful title track Heaven And Hell are counterbalanced by a smattering of what can only be honestly described as ‘filler’. Lady Evil is a lesser song sandwiched between Children Of The Sea and Heaven And Hell, but for all that it works in the same sort of way as, say, Starstruck on the Rainbow Rising album. Greater problems arise on the old Side Two of the album, with Wishing Well and the uninspired Walk Away (which flails away in search of an actual song, and is saved only by Bill Ward’s tremendous drum work) definitely providing the lowest points. Happily, that side of the album is rescued by the still-dynamic Die Young and Iommi’s incendiary soloing in the lengthy coda of the closing, bluesy Lonely Is The Word (despite the presence of a nagging motif in the background channelling Stairway To Heaven to a distracting degree). Black Sabbath were back, and the ensuing world tour was enthusiastically received, though things were less than rosy behind the scenes, as drummer Bill Ward took heavily to the bottle as a coping mechanism to deal with the remorse he still felt over having had to tell Ozzy he was out, together with his, ultimately correct, feeling that the Sabbath he had known were gradually changing. After the first leg of the tour to promote the album, Ward – who had reportedly been drunk during pretty much the whole album session, and had ‘little knowledge of having played on it at all’ – went missing before a US show in Summer 1980, and was promptly replaced by Vinnie Appice, another American joining Dio, and unwittingly creating two distinct ‘camps’ within the band.

On the completion of the extensive Heaven And Hell trek, the band set about recording its follow-up, Mob Rules. This is a particularly illuminating release as it offers an example of the perspective of hindsight: regarded in many quarters at the time as a disappointment following the great reinvention of Heaven And Hell, the truth now when listening back to back, and shorn of the circumstances at the time, is that, while very slightly weaker than its predecessor, Mob Rules is much, much closer in quality than it was given credit for, and the gap is much narrower between the two. One issue which can still be laid at the album is that it often attempts to retread ground broken on Heaven And Hell, coming across weakened as a result. The opening Turn Up The Night, for example, is trying very hard to be its hero, Neon Knights, but it lacks the ineffable magic sprinkled over the top of that earlier song, instead coming across as a serviceable fast rocker by comparison. The lengthy, epic Sign Of The Southern Cross channels the Heaven And Hell title track in much the same way, but far more successfully than Turn Up The Night, managing to come over as pretty much the equal of its illustrious forebear. The final inescapable nod back is the mid-paced, bluesy lament of the closing Over And Over, which is clearly trying to close the album in a similar vein to Lonely Is The Word. The great shame here is that Over And Over is a quite magnificent song, full of heft, passion and aching melodic soul, and arguably the better song without doubt, and yet it remains one of Sabbath’s most overlooked and underrated tracks – largely, if not entirely, because it had too much of a feel of being in the shadow of an illustrious predecessor. This is the same reason that King Crimson’s Pictures Of A City is relegated to being an obscure footnote in comparison with 21st Century Schizoid Man, to give a similar example. Over And Over really should have its day in the sun, as it surely deserves it. Elsewhere there is a similar mixed bag to the previous album: The Mob Rules (preceded by the instrumental E5150 – E-V-I-L in Roman numerals, cleverly) is an impressive charger unaccountably buried with E5150 as tracks four and five, when they really should have opened the album and swapped places with Turn Up The Night. Voodoo is a strong track hung on the back of a strong riff, and another highlight, while Falling Off The Edge Of The World begins with a masterful slow, grandiose opening section before being disappointingly transformed from two minutes onward into a decent but less interesting fast rocker. Only two songs (like Wishing Well and Walk Away on the previous album) let things down a little, with Country Girl (the titular lass of which is, unsurprisingly for Dio, not a mere farm girl but in fact a demon on a trip up from the netherhells to steal his soul) being sprightly enough, though far, far too jolly and bouncy to sit easily on a Sabbath album at all. The real low point comes with Slipping Away, which is a run-of-the-mill riffy rocker with Dio manfully trying to discern a melody which doesn’t exist in it.

All in all, then, two pretty strong albums which, with the benefit of time and experience, are far more closely matched in terms of quality than reactions at the time suggested. Both are worthy of any rock fan’s attention, for sure. But what do these new reissues have to offer specifically?

Well, firstly the decision has been made to scale these back from the weighty luxury boxes full of extra bits and pieces and discs full of out-takes and the like which the previous Ozzy-era reissues have had (see the reviews on this site of the Vol 4, Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy sets). Instead what we get are quad-fold gatefold digipaks with booklets telling the story of the albums and all of the original artwork plus single sleeves etc, which is less grand but lighter on the wallet for sure. Both releases are two discs, allowing for plenty of (mainly live) bonus material. Of the two, Mob Rules is the clear winner in terms of the bonus material. Heaven And Hell has only the original album (though remastered extremely powerfully) on the first disc, with the second having a couple of live B-Sides together with live versions of tracks from the album from two different locations. Hartford Civic Centre in the US, from August 1980, has Neon Knights, Children Of The Sea, Heaven And Hell and Die Young, but especially on Neon Knights it is sloppy; the band sound ragged round the edges and the sound is frustratingly muddy. The same first three songs (with intro of E5150), however, at Hammersmith at the end of 1981 on the Mob Rules tour, are a revelation. The sound is superb and the performances are tight and powerful. Mob Rules, on the other hand, has an embarrassment of riches by contrast. Added on to the first disc are more tracks from that Hammersmith show (this time Country Girl, Slipping Away, The Mob Rules and Voodoo) as well as a B-side or two and – happily – the far superior version of The Mob Rules recorded prior to the album for the soundtrack to the Heavy Metal film. A commendable addition. Starting at the end of this packed disc, however, before taking up all of the second, is a superbly recorded show from Portland in 1982. This time we have oldies NIB, Black Sabbath, War Pigs, Iron Man, Paranoid and Children Of The Grave present alongside the Dio-era songs (including, splendidly, The Sign Of The Southern Cross but no Slipping Away or Country Girl), and the performance is as strong and vibrant as the sound quality. An essential recording, to these ears it is better than the 1983 release Live Evil.

One thing which does present itself when listening to these albums is the dramatic dichotomy caused by the arrival of Dio. When all of the elements work, such as on Neon Knights, Heaven And Hell and Sign Of The Southern Cross, the results are transcendent; a meeting of twin giants which is utterly timeless. However, at the other end of the scale, when things really fail to inspire, as on Walk Away or Slipping Away, it manages to strip away everything which was great individually about both Sabbath and Dio, and leaves behind a result which loses all hint of what made them so magical in the first place. Put simply, savour scaling those high points, but be aware of the occasional troughs. Black Sabbath with Dio (they reunited twice more in the future of course) might not have been perfection, but when they did combine to produce musical alchemy, the results were undeniably 24 Carat Gold. And really, that has to be something to applaud and enjoy to this day.

Both of these releases are also available as vinyl versions.