We now think of Black Sabbath as the godfathers of heavy metal, and rightly so. From 1970 to 1975 the original quartet of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, and Geezer Butler released six albums of the most potent and influential music the genre has ever known. But as the ’70s wore on the mighty Sabbath wore down, thanks in large part to the group’s Herculean intake of cocaine, booze, and lord knows what else.
The group’s fortunes dimmed considerably after the release of two poorly-received albums — Technical Ecstasy (1976) and Never Say Die! (1978). To make matters worse, Sabbath took a still wet-behind-the-ears Van Halen on the road in support of the latter and was blown off the stage consistently. Change was coming and it looked like Black Sabbath was about to get steamrolled.
After efforts to record the follow-up to Never Say Die! fizzled for almost a year, Iommi made the decision to fire Ozzy from the band. It was a risky but necessary move to save the band, but who could possibly fill the shoes of one of music’s most distinctive vocalists?
Enter Ronnie James Dio on the wings of a dragon, bringing with him one of the most titanic sets of pipes in metal. Dio had recently ended a five-year stint as the singer in Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and was recommended to Iommi by — of all people — Sharon Arden, daughter of Sabbath manager Don Arden and the future Mrs. Osbourne.
Another founding member exited stage left at the same time, although it’s not as widely acknowledged. Bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler departed from the fold in September 1979, just as the band were about to begin recording a new album. His (temporary) replacement was Geoff Nicholls of Quartz, whose 1977 debut album was produced by Iommi.
So with a new singer and bassist in tow, Black Sabbath entered Criteria Recording Studios in the fall of 1979 to record an album that had the potential to make or break them. Rather than produce another album themselves the band wisely enlisted the services of Martin Birch, who already had a long association with Deep Purple and Rainbow and was soon to become Iron Maiden’s go-to producer.
Oh, and Butler returned in January 1980, toward the end of the sessions. To make room for him Nicholls moved over to keyboards. No more lineup changes, I promise.
Heaven and Hell was released on April 25, 1980 and was nothing short of a creative and commercial resurgence. It was the band’s highest-charting album since Sabotage in 1975 ( #9 U.K., #28 U.S.) and quickly achieved Gold status on both sides of the Pond. It was certified Platinum in the U.S. in 1986. Suddenly, just as it looked like a new breed of bands was set to eclipse them, Black Sabbath was relevant again.
As far as album openers go it doesn’t get much better than “Neon Knights.” It roars out of the gate with so much energy you’d swear it was recorded by a much younger, hungrier band. It was the first single from Heaven and Hell and is as clear an example as any of the leaner (but no less meaner) sound Sabbath was bringing into a new decade.
There are no weak spots on this album, although some songs are simply more essential than others. The mid-tempo “Children of the Sea” is winner as well, while “Lady Evil” is just good. Side A closes with the album’s centerpiece and title track, a deliberate and ominous seven-minute number that never plods, and that goes supernova in the final third.
The relatively light “Wishing Well” is the perfect shiny, metallic palate cleanser before the propulsive and slightly progressive “Die Young.” “Walk Away” is the “Lady Evil” of Side B, in that it’s a decent song but serves as the appetizer for another main course. In this case it’s “Lonely Is the Word,” one of many showcases on the album for Dio’s ridiculous vocals and Iommi’s nuanced fretwork (the man could do more than heavy riffage my friends).
Unfortunately the rejuvenated Black Sabbath was not to last. Mob Rules was released in November 1981 and only suffers in comparison to Heaven and Hell. But within a year Dio was out of the band, and the revolving door of vocalists and other band members began. Black Sabbath’s music and reputation suffered greatly in the ’80s and ’90s as Tony Iommi kept the band alive out of sheer force of will (as well as no small amount of record company pressure).
The Mob Rules lineup of Dio, Iommi, Butler, and Vinny Appice formed Heaven and Hell and released the well-received The Devil You Know in 2008. Plans for future touring and recording were put on hold after Dio was diagnosed with stomach cancer in November 2009. Ronnie James Dio died on May 16, 2010.
On November 11 of last year, the original Black Sabbath lineup announced that they were reuniting for a new album and a world tour. How those plans will be affected by the recent announcement of Tony Iommi’s lymphoma diagnosis is unclear.