Originally I was going to write a review for the new Black Sabbath album “13”. Turns out I don’t have much to say about it. Just buy it. Ozzy hasn’t sounded this good in years. Probably because he hasn’t had Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler backing him up. His voice was built for those too.
As much as I enjoy the album it makes me sad. I miss Dio. Ronnie James Dio is the greatest vocalist to ever live as far as I’m concerned. He had a power unmatched by even the Gods. When Rock vocals were about screaming or stealing from Southern Blues, he was a champion soaring voice that commanded your attention and those around him to play better.
(And, the dude grew up in Cortland, NY. Not all that far from my hometown. In fact once when I was working at a call center I got a woman in Cortland on the phone with the last name Dio. That was awesome. How many Dio’s live out there?)
It’s funny, over at cinemassacre.com, James Rolfe and his wife did a podcast devoted to Black Sabbath. When they came to the “Dio Years” his wife said she was always a little scared of Dio. She says he had this mystical aura around him. It was as if he had some power that Man was not meant to have. Given all his lyrics about Magic and mythology, it makes absolute sense. I always felt the same way. When he sings about wizards, magic, mysticism, and Gods, it seems to come from a place of knowledge. His voice carries an authority about such things. This little Italian Metal Master is from another realm and was only able to manifest in our reality long enough to share his epic tales through song.
When’s the last time you heard a Black Sabbath song sung by Dio on the radio? Once in a while you might hear Heaven and Hell. But you never get a taste of Sign of the Southern Cross, Lady Evil, Computer God, or Bible Black. These are all amazing songs that came from masterworks, and yet they get no cred. I have never seen a poster or a Tee with Ronnie and the Sabbath Boys hanging up at Hot Topic.
The truth is Dio made Sabbath a better band. They were already awesome. I love the Ozzy stuff. But Dio made them better. In the podcast I mentioned above James Rolfe explains how Dio’s ability as a singer altered the way they wrote songs. Ozzy sang with the riff. Dio sang across it. He also wrote his own lyrics which gave Geezer a chance to really cut loose on the bass. Iommi was able to go heavier, faster, and a bit funkier. Dio is a guy who can captivate you with a whisper and blow you away with a growl. That left room for Iommi, Butler and Ward to spread their black wings and rock like never before.
I’m sorry to say that every time I listen to “13” I just have to go back and listen to the “Dio Years.” The music has more diveristy and presence. You can feel Geezer’s bass pulsing through your body, Ward’s drums pumping your heart, and Iommi’s insane riffs cleansing your soul, all while Dio’s incredible pipes take you to another world.
Here is a small retrospective on the legacy of Dio and Sabbath as seen through my eyes.
Heaven and Hell: The first “Dio Years” album. From the first song Neon Knights, I was converted to the church of Sabbath. This is an electric album. Energy exudes from it, taking me over. It is the next evolution of an already massively talented band. Ronnie has said he’s been in three bands that produced perfect albums. The first was Rainbow Rising. Then Heaven and Hell. And Holy Diver. Well, I agree. Heaven and Hell is a perfect album. Not a weak track to be heard. Where I disagree is he didn’t make three perfect albums. More of that next. If you want to explore Ozzy-less Sabbath, start here.
Mob Rules: Black Sabbath’s followup to Heaven and Hell. This album has a lot of haters. They claim it’s just a ripoff of the previous record. I’m not afraid to say these people are total morons. Not only is this not a ripoff but it took everything great about that Heaven and Hell, did it better, and went further. It’s bigger, heavier, faster, and weirder. Vinny Appice took over for Bill Ward on drums and the rest of the band sounds tighter than ever. The dynamic established in Heaven and Hell has matured into a metal melting beast! Dio’s voice is stellar, packing a punch from the very start. He is the thread holding it all together. Everyone here is turned way up to eleven. E5150 is a heavy experimental track with a twisted bass and dour synth line. The one song most people remember is The Mob Rules, because it appeared in the film “Heavy Metal.” It’s a chaotic warning about what happens when Man allows corruption to infect society.
For me, the standout track is Sign of the Southern cross. It is a sweepingly epic song. You might believe at the beginning that your in for Black Sabbath’s first ballad, with Dio coming in gently over classic guitar. Soon the curtain drops, the heavy riffs come in, and you’re taken on a cosmic journey to “a small world west of wonder.” Few songs can truly take me out of my body. This one does it every time. If you dug the last album, you should fall deeply in love with Mob Rules. Easily one of the perfect albums Dio forgot he made.
Dehumanizer: After some disputes over the mixing of a live album, Dio and Appice split to form Ronnie’s first solo project, Dio. (some day I’ll write about that. It might take a while. He made a LOT of great music.) But they couldn’t stay apart. These guys may not always agree, but they make incredible music. They needed each other. Dehumanizer is the darkest and heaviest of their efforts so far. It’s a bleak examination of the corruption of mankind through technology. This is my least favorite. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic, but it is so heavy and grim that I need to put aside a whole day to listen. It takes a lot out of me. Not a good place to start for new Sabbath fans. But worth your time anyway.
The Devil You Know: After Dehumanizer, the boys broke up over the direction of the band. More than twenty years passed. Sabbath joined up with Ozzy for a few tours. Dio went on crafting epic music. Then, impossibly, Ronnie, Tony, Geezer, and Appice got back together. I’m telling you, they were supposed to play together. Because Black Sabbath was already touring, and to avoid confusion, they changed their name to Heaven and Hell. What came out of this was yet another perfect album Ronnie failed to mention.
The Devil You Know is the perfect exclamation mark on the love affair of these four power houses. It sounds like everything they’ve ever done, with a maturity and wisdom you just don’t hear in this kind of music. You can hear their age – and I mean that in the best way possible. Their decades of experience comes through to shape a sound completely their own. There is a severe weight to it all. It sounds physically heavy. Like it is actually in the room with you. Dio sounds like an ancient prophet, with a message from the worlds we’ll never get to see.
Too often heavy metal means indiscernible, fast and obnoxious. Crap like Lamb of God; kids who seem too afraid you’ll notice how untalented they are if they slow down for even a second. Not so with Heaven and Hell. These guys are sure of their craftsmanship. They’re in no hurry to impress you. There’s no need! The music speaks for itself. That is art.
A guy I know once told me his theory on why Dio Sabbath works so well. We were inebriated at the time, but it still counts. He said that in Rainbow it sounded like Ritchie Blackmore was writing the soundtrack to the story Dio was telling. But Tony Iommi and Dio were telling the same story in Sabbath. Absolutely right.
Sadly, Ronnie was battling stomach cancer. While it would eventually claim his life, that didn’t stop him from touring, and letting his fans know he wasn’t going to give up. He was a fighter.
That’s another thing that made him such a wonderful and fascinating human being. He was a nice guy! Of course he fell out with band mates, and was probably pretty controlling, but he never treated his fans that way. On That Metal Show, Rob Halford told a story about how Ronnie stopped his tour bus to give a fan a ride to the bus station after seeing the poor kid left alone at the stadium they were playing at. In interviews he always seemed soft spoken, warm and genuine. He loved what he did and those who made it possible. Even Bruce Dickinson said Dio didn’t have a mean bone in his body.
I never got to see him. I had opportunities but they always fell through. Honestly, I’m one of the only people I know who truly appreciated Dio. So it was never easy to find someone to come to a concert with me. Still, the magical metal man with the Olympiun voice, the man on the silver mountain, lives on through his music and all those he inspired. I’m even writing a character based on him. He shines on…Like a Rainbow in the Dark.
Rock In Peace, Dio.