There is no debating the enormous impact that Black Sabbath had during their 70s heyday, and, for those old enough to remember, the stakes were very high for the band when they made the decision to continue on without vocalist Ozzy Osbourne.
Enter Ronnie James Dio, who spent half of the 70s teamed with Ritchie Blackmore in Rainbow, to breathe some life into Sabbath.
Surprisingly, Dio not only shook the band from their drug-addled slumber, he helped create a pair of stellar metal albums with them (Heaven & Hell and Mob Rules) that devastated the band’s last two albums with Osbourne (Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die!).
I’m one of those old enough to remember. At the tender age of thirteen, Black Sabbath was the musical equivalent of Satan incarnate, which is to say they were a veritable rite of passage for thousands of boys who traded in their Mad magazines for Fangoria.
A record back then (for me) cost more than a week’s allowance and, without the aid of free downloads, you had to manage your purchases wisely. Thankfully, a barely tunable album-oriented rock station broadcasted a weekly show that featured a new release and played the album in its entirety, commercial free. One of the albums they featured was Heaven & Hell, providing me with an opportunity to preview the release and to test my home recording skills as I loaded a blank cassette, ready to capture my own static-riddled copy of the newest incarnation of Black Sabbath.
Within seconds after the start of some familiar Tony Iommi riffing, Dio makes his presence known with the growl “Oh no! Here it comes again!” And with that, Sabbath was reborn.
Never say die, indeed.
Ronnie James Dio is also known for a few humorous anecdotes that make him common fodder for some of metal’s most infamous jokes. Copyright searches have shown his (disputed) age to be 64 years old (memorialized in the line “You’re too old to rock / No more rockin’ for you!” in the Tenacious D song “Dio”) which does point to the stunning realization that a man older than my own Father is still working the heavy metal circuit.
And if his age and chosen music genre weren’t enough, Dio is notorious for his lyrical Dungeons and Dragons imagery, a fixation that most males grow out of during their teenage years. All of this blatant ammunition comes wrapped in a package that barely scales 5’4″.
Yes, Ronnie James Dio has some image problems.
Black Sabbath may have been the perfect band for him to compliment these shortcomings. They were ridiculed for years for their own juvenile imagery, simplistic musical approach and general lack of critical respect. Black Sabbath has never been a band that apes the critics anyway. No, their primary audience typically fights nocturnal boners when they’re not wearing huge-ass Koss headphones, finger-ready on the pause button of a shitty Craig stereo, listening for the exact moment to steal a copy of Heaven & Hell from a terrestrial radio station.
While a Dio-led Sabbath may have been a match made in Heaven (or Hell), the line up only survived another studio album (Mob Rules) before tensions mounted between Ronnie and the rest of Sabbath during the mixing of Live Evil. Recently, Geezer Butler referred to the album as “Live In The Studio Evil,” a quick jab at an old wound that Dio had re-recorded his vocals and mixed the down the levels of the rest of the band without their consent.
Dio rejoined Sabbath again in 1992 for the frequently overlooked Dehumanizer, which offered the most inspired set since, well, since he was on board a decade earlier.
Rhino Records has recently compiled songs from the three studio albums and the controversial live effort as The Dio Years, an album that actually works well as compilations are concerned, pulling the correct amount of material from the line up’s strongest album and, more importantly, pulling the right material from these sources.
Five of Heaven & Hell‘s eight tracks are included, four songs from Mob Rules made the cut, one from Live Evil and three from Dehumanizer. To entice fans that may already own the proper releases, the band regrouped last fall to record new material, three of which are tacked on to the end of The Dio Years.
Of these three, there is nothing revelatory to speak of and they do not match up to the quality of the first two releases. Yes, Dio (who possesses one of the most perfectly matched voices in the history of heavy metal) still manages to deliver vocally and the band sounds notably heavy, the new tracks are unmemorable and suffer from an obvious sense of “I guess we need to fill out the album with some newly recorded material.” They plod along like some of the weaker moments of Dehumanizer and The Dio Years would have been better served by offering the sorely missed “Sign Of The Southern Cross” from Mob Rules, a track that perfectly captures Dio’s full range and Sabbath’s softer versatility.
With this minor complaint aside, The Dio Years serves as a fine introduction to a band in top form even after such a career-ending event like losing a recognizable frontman like Ozzy Osbourne. The band remained relevant and withstood the influx of creativity during the new wave of British heavy metal with their leather in tact.
The compilation actually works better than last year’s anthology of Ozzy-fronted Sabbath, Greatest Hits 1970-1978. With so much glaringly missing from that set, it’s somewhat reassuring that The Dio Years strives to find a balance of quality material with the obligatory unreleased enticements.
Black Sabbath – “Neon Knights”