Album of the Week 41-2015: Black Sabbath – Heaven And Hell

Black Sabbath of course has a legendary status in the pantheon of Heavy Metal based on their first six albums with Ozzy Osbourne on vocals alone. And rightfully so. But none of Black Sabbath’s albums are so amazing all the way through as ‘Heaven And Hell’, which was recorded with the incomparable Ronnie James Dio, who single-handedly transformed the band from riffwriters to songwriters. The increased emphasis on melody and Dio’s vocal lines – which are infinitely more interesting than Ozzy’s – make this probably the best traditional Heavy Metal album there is. It’s quite likely the most played Metal album in my collection.

Hardcore fans of the band’s Ozzy-era were afraid that Dio’s arrival would water Black Sabbath down and though this is definitely not ‘Into The Void’ – follow-up ‘The Mob Rules’ would restore some of that crushing heaviness – the album still contains all the heavy riffs and pounding rhythms you can wish for. Of course, there were some changes: Dio’s vocal melodies didn’t slavishly follow Tony Iommi’s guitars and the band definitely upped the ante in terms of tension and release in songwriting. And Dio’s fantasy-based romanticism may be a departure from Geezer Butler’s darker lyrics, but they’re no less memorable.

Of course, the accessible Hardrock of ‘Walk Away’ and the remarkably positive, but ultimately irresistible ‘Wishing Well’ were something fresh for Sabbath at this point. But opposite that, there’s the monumental title track, which showcases a huge Iommi riff, perfect dynamics, brilliant guitar solos and a downright incredible climax. Easily a showcase in Heavy Metal song writing and one of the ultimate songs in the genre. ‘Children Of The Sea’ and the dark melodicism of closing track ‘Lonely Is The Word’ also still show the band in semi-Doom mode. The latter has an amazing middle- and ending section unlike anything the band has ever done before as well.

When the album speeds up, we can see the groundwork for early Power Metal being laid. Opening track ‘Neon Knights’ shows Dio in top shape – he rarely had any other shape, but that’s beside the point – over a simple, but brutally effective uptempo Iommi riff, while ‘Die Young’ shows Black Sabbath at their most vicious – despite the use of keyboards. All of this requires drummer Bill Ward to employ a slightly simpler and less jazzy approach than usual to make room for everyone else, including Geezer Butler’s underestimated, but still mindblowing bass work.

In a way, ‘Heaven And Hell’ is a turning point. It shows a rejuvenated Black Sabbath and it opened the doors for a more melodic approach, that Iommi continued to pursue until long after Dio left. But even without its historical relevance, ‘Heaven And Hell’ still warrants an enjoyable listen. It’s an exercise in excellent songwriting and a more than amazing musicianship. It is quite likely the best album that any of its musicians ever were involved with – although Dio’s legendary contributions to Rainbow’s sophomore ‘Rising’ album shouldn’t be forgotten either. Every respectable Heavy Metal collection should contain this album. Period.

Recommended tracks: ‘Heaven And Hell’, ‘Neon Knights’, ‘Wishing Well’

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