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Black Sabbath: Heaven And Hell (1980)

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From Geezer Butler's bass buckling the somber bridge in the epic title song, to the bone-chilling power of Ronnie Dio's voice, practically vibrating archetypal sigils ("Sing me a song/you're a singer/do me a wrong/you're a bringer of evil...") Heaven And Hell is, was and remains a touchstone classic of metal: Auralgasm without end, amen.

I'll never forget the radio spots that introduced this record: "Black Sabbath takes you on a musical journey through heaven and hell." To use one of Dio's own favorite terms, the feeling put out by this teaser made magic -- that frisson of sensation that goes along with anticipating a really good movie (quite similar, in fact, to waiting for Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to be released on its first run. I literally taped up the newspaper ads that ticked down the days to the show's opening. So I was a little kid. But I was still a little kid when I first encountered Sabbath!).

Then came the "Black and Blue" tour taped for the old Midnight Special TV show -- astounding stuff. Dio twirling that microphone stand like some kind of metal demiurge, air-painting his words in good Italian style, clad in some wizard garb that didn't look goofy at the time, unfurling octaves like dragon's wings; Bill Ward's iron-man drumming; Tony Iommi flashing mutant fingers along the inlaid crosses of his black Gibson SG; and, of course, Geezer, silly grin plastered to his face, holding up the bottom. It was a life-changing moment.

Dio recounts how he came up with the album's first cut at a rehearsal session, but "Neon Knights" betrays a far higher order of preparation. Ditto "Children Of The Sea" with its elegant acoustic intro and the crushing weight of the band as it kicks in; "Lady Evil," strutting her bad stuff, "eating rats from her hand" like Sauron's scarlet lady; "Wishing Well," with Iommi's razor 16th notes practically burning up the mixing board, and my personal fave when I was 16, "Die Young."

Yes, "Die Young." Of course at that age it sounded far easier than it would prove to be; as a metaphor, it kicked bloody as*, but it wasn't so much the literal message that did me in as the way the song conveyed it. Drenched in synth swathes that sounded for all the world like a waterfall of stars, with breakneck full-band synergy and Dio's imperious vox, this song ruled my world (as in many ways, though differently, it continues to).

"Walk Away" sounds what would become one of Dio's most hackneyed themes, something he'd already glossed in Rainbow days with "Tarot Woman" and of course "Starstruck": the b*tch who's trouble from the start but keeps her claws in your life for some unknown, possibly metaphysical, reason. And "Lonely Is The Word": At 13, I nodded in time with the slow, shuddering speed of this, the album's longest song and also its closer, meditating on the sheer unfairness of it all. An echoing space jam -- Iommi playing off against himself mediated by phase delays -- contains some of the most beautiful and elegant playing of this most masterful guitarist. A literally stellar end to an album that I'd want played at my funeral.

Alex S. Johnson

  

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