It was evident that the paths of Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne were bound to separate after their not-so-well-received last two albums, Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die. With Ozzy's departure, most fans took the band for dead, considering it was almost impossible to imagine them without their charismatic front man.
But Black Sabbath went ahead and found Dio of both Rainbow and Elf fame and forged themselves a new musical route, totally straying from their sludge-driven 70's sound and bringing in more forthright and remarkable elements. Although it wouldn't be until Mob Rules that the band recruited a full-time keyboardist, some of the songs on Heaven and Hell feature sprinkles of keyboards for a broader musical expression. Without getting into any overdone comparisons, Dio was the polar opposite of Ozzy, and both his unique voice and lyrics breathed new life into the band's much gone-stale and somewhat predictable style heard on the previous records. It is undoubtful that Dio revived this band, transforming Sabbath back into their commerically strong days and earning them a new legion of fans. And yet, after nearly three decades, both albums (and Dehumanizer later on) remain classics in the history of metal, spawning songs covered by hundreds of bands, and rightly so.
Produced by the amazing Martin Birch whose resume with Deep Purple and Rainbow was already impressive enough, Heaven and Hell is arguably the most important album Black Sabbath have released after their amazing first six albums in the early 70's. It consists of eight songs, all of which flow so quickly that you can't believe it. This is one of the fastest running albums ever. It is packed with the super hits "Neon Knights", the thunderous album opener with a great groove; and "Die Young", whose simmering keyboards and sound effects in the intro erupt into a pumping rhythm staccato driven by Bill Ward. The song breaks down into unexpected acoustic passages as Dio whispers atop a layered soundscape before the piece ties in with its majestic ending, with Iommi sporting a crazy shredfest till the piece fades out. Songs like "Lady Evil" and "Wishing Well" resolve with smashing choruses and excellent guitar work thanks to Iommi's unique vibrato. The sturdy bass on the former underpins how unique a player Geezer Butler is; and the backing harmonies on the latter are amazing.
The title track is not only among Black Sabbath's finest works ever, it also ranks as an all-time favourite heavy metal anthem for its epic intro and its majestic main riff, one of the greatest pieces put on tape ever. Butler's bass is the central element here, so simple yet so effective. Everything else, including Dio's vocals, is centred around the bass, which never lets go from start to finish. Just check out the middle part where everything except the bass cuts out and Iommi lets it throb till he's convinced the timing for his piercing lead solo is right. He scorches through the mid-paced piece sending shivers up and down the spine and putting any critic who claimed he wasn't on par with the likes of Blackmore or Page to shame. The folky ending of the "Heaven and Hell" is monumental and the very reason why he will never be duplicated. While his main strength has always been his songwriting, he also reveals a very different side to his playing on this album, throwing in super-heavy riffs and playing extended leads, like on the final song "Lonely Is the Word", complete with goosebump-inducing keys and a killer arpeggiated melody.
The lyrics took on a completely new vibe compared to the Ozzy-era material, and traces of Dio's fantasy-inspired ideas reflected on the album's second greatest piece "Children of the Sea", portraying a society that lives under the sea. Needless to say, the use of Iommi's acoustic guitar mixes perfectly with Dio's powerful voice and the subject matter explored, lending itself to various interpretations.
To this day I cannot help but be blown away by the timeless, unmatched songwriting of the Dio-era Sabbath. Heaven and Hell was revolutionary in Sabbath's career, and as hard as it may be to believe, I am among the minority who think they even surpassed it with Mob Rules one year later. After that, Sabbath would never be the same again.
- Neon Knights
- Children of the Sea
- Lady Evil
- Heaven and Hell
- Wishing Well
- Die Young
- Walk Away
- Lonely Is the Word