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Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980)

Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell - Frontal1.JPG

The first of the three Ronnie James Dio-fronted Black Sabbath albums. After the admitted success that was Sabotage, Ozzy’s followups with the band were… disappointing, to say the least, at least going by popular opinion. More than just a shift in vocals, Heaven and Hell represents a major paradigm shift for Black Sabbath, and one that (at least for a while) treated them so well that it later resulted in two separate revivals of the Dio age; one in 1992 (Dehumanizer) and another in 2009 (The Devil You Know). How’s the first salvo in the age of Dio, you might ask?

This is the point where I reiterate on the significant changes Heaven and Hell brings to the stereotypical Sabbath sound. Black Sabbath started out especially blues and doom oriented; while they diversified their approach throughout the ’70s, their first album with Dio actually reminds me, to some degree, of his work with Rainbow. Weighty album name aside, the songs here feel brighter and more assertive than before, although much of this is an overall shift in production. The guitars are cleaner than before, which helps with the accentuated focus on guitar leads, but comes at the expense of riff ‘heaviness’ on an album that remains heavily riff driven. One thing that’s definitely improved, however, is the quality of the vocals – Ronnie James Dio is far more technically accomplished as a vocalist than Ozzy Osbourne, who… admittedly fits on his recordings with Sabbath, but that may be more a sign of the songs of the time being written with his strengths and limitations in mind.

More than anything, Heaven and Hell feels like an important stepping stone towards ever faster and more extreme works in metal, but also towards what would eventually become the power metal scene. Other albums in 1980 were faster and more aggressive (Motorhead’s Ace of Spades comes to mind), but any overtures to this in an age where disco’s rotting carcass was being scavenged for the electronic dance music that would dominate future decades are worth noting. If this sounds like the buildup to one of my ‘historical significance’ rants, it probably is – after all, a comeback album by a world famous band usually draws the attention of the music press at large. On the other hand, this album is strong enough in overall songwriting that we can quickly toss that aside. It lacks some of the overt prog influence of previous Black Sabbath efforts (read: Sabotage), and is generally performed in a pop oriented fashion, but it’s nice, loose pop, with lots of bridge content between big choruses, and a well-developed sense of narrative that comes in handy when you’re trying to write heavy metal. This is the sort of thing 10 years in the industry can help with.

In short, definitely pick this one up if you’re remotely into metal. You won’t be doing anything unique and unprecedented by doing so, but it’s still worth it.

Highlights: “Neon Knights”, “Children of the Sea”, “Die Young”