Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980)

BACKGROUND

Heaven and Hell is the 9th album by British Heavy Metal pioneers Black Sabbath. This album was somewhat of a career revival for Sabbath as their previous two albums had failed to grab much attention from critics and fans. Heaven and Hell was a success with critics and fans and was the first album with new singer Ronnie James Dio. Dio had come into the band after a 3-year tenure in the Ritchie Blackmore-led Rainbow. Previous Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne had developed a substantial substance abuse which led to him being fired.

I wasn’t planning on reviewing this album just yet, but the recent death of producer/mixer/engineer Martin Birch made me think this was as good a time as any to review it, as the album also celebrated its 40th anniversary in April this year. Martin Birch (who had previously worked with Dio in Rainbow on the first three albums) was brought in to produce the album. The relationship between Birch and Sabbath was a fruitful and successful one, and I think the high quality production was one of the reasons why this album fared so well among fans and critics.

The addition of Dio on vocals must have had a significant change on the song writing approach of Iommi, Butler and Ward, because there is very little left of the “original Sabbath sound” on this record which may sound like a bad thing, but the direction they took on this album is really quite good in my opinion. I like the Doomy, Sludgie and occasionally Progressive old-school Sabbath, but I also like the faster, Fantasy-based more “pure Heavy Metal” early 80’s Dio-fronted Sabbath.

Cover art

The cover art is an illustration by Lynn Curlee. It features three angels sitting and smoking while playing cards. This contradictory image of angels indulging in something you wouldn’t expect them to indulge in embodies the title of the album and the main message of the title track: that good and evil, heaven and hell, exists in all of us, and it’s up to you whether you choose to do good or evil.

Members of Black Sabbath

Ronnie James Dio: Vocals

Tony Iommi: Guitars

Terrence “Geezer” Butler: Bass

Bill Ward: Drums

Geoff Nicholls: Keyboards

Produced and engineered by Martin Birch

Music written and arranged by Butler, Dio, Iommi and Ward.

Lyrics by Ronnie James Dio

Spotify link to the album:

Side 1

Side 1 starts with a fast-paced Rock song which is followed by a mid-tempo Rock ballad-esque track which at times is gentle, but always epic. This is followed by a bluesy hard Rock track. Side 1 then ends with one of Sabbath’s best known and loved tracks: the heavy and doomy title track which is arguably the crowning achievement of Dio-era Black Sabbath.

Neon Knights

The first time I heard “Neon Knights” I thought it was too punk for my taste. This experience turned me off from wanting to listen to the rest of the album. It was probably 2 years down the line that I decided to give the whole album a chance since some of my friends had spoken of the merits of the album. I was at that time also familiar with Dio’s voice as I had listened to the first three Rainbow albums. This time, the album clicked with me, and I found that I had changed my mind regarding “Neon Knights”.

“Neon Knights” starts off the album with a fast Punk feel. The verses are quite happy-sounding and Dio sounds amazing like always. The first two verses are followed by a bridge.

Despite the bridge of the song featuring some really nerdy lyrics (“Circles and rings, dragons and kings…”) I really like it. The chords and the melody in the bridge are really strong and probably my favourite part of the entire song. I also love Dio’s vocal delivery, especially on the line “…called by the toll of the bell.” and “Bloodied angels fast descending…”

This excellent bridge is followed by the chorus where Dio sings the title of the song. The music then shifts into a somewhat darker mood and Nicholls’ keyboard makes an entrance, providing a backdrop for Iommi’s guitar solo. This is one of Iommi’s most memorable guitar solos in my opinion.

A third verse then follows which is lyrically the same as the second verse. The song ends on the chorus fading out.

I really like this song now, and it’s a great album opener. It shows the new direction the band had taken with Dio instead of with Ozzy. It also showcases the kind of lyrics we would come to expect from Dio rather than previous Sabbath lyricist Geezer Butler.

Children of the Sea

“Children of the Sea” could possibly be my favourite song on the album, it’s definitely a top 3 album song for me. It’s also one of the best Dio-era Sabbath songs in my opinion. I would actually go as far to say that it’s one of Sabbath’s best songs ever!

It starts off with a beautiful acoustic guitar picking pattern. Iommi’s clean electric guitar then enters, followed by Geezer who plays his bass in third harmonies. First of all, I love Iommi’s clean electric guitar tone in this part. In the Martin Birch blog, I mentioned how I thought that perhaps Mikael Åkerfeldt had “stolen” Iommi’s clean electric guitar sound on this song for some Opeth songs. Second of all, it’s so cool that Geezer’s bass part in this intro harmonizes with Iommi’s guitar. There are plenty of instances in Black Sabbath songs where Geezer Butler’s bass playing is just brilliant. He deserves more credit for that!

Dio’s vocal melody is gorgeous, and his voice sounds softer here than it ever has as far as I know. One possible exception for softer recorded vocals by Dio could be Rainbow’s “Catch the Rainbow” and “Rainbow Eyes”. By the way, what was the deal with Dio singing about Rainbows?

As a side note, there is supposedly a recored version of “Children of the Sea” with Ozzy on vocals as this song was written prior to him being fired from the band (ca 1979). According to Iommi, Dio’s vocal melody was vastly different from Ozzy’s, but as far as I know, that’s the only piece of information Iommi has divulged on the matter. It would be very interesting to hear how Ozzy approached the melody and delivery of the vocals.

The song then gets heavier, and we get treated to a classic riff from Iommi. This heavier section is a steady mid-tempo riff with Dio’s powerful voice. My one and only gripe with Dio’s vocals in general (is this Rock ‘n’ Roll heresy I’m about to commit?) is that he usually sings with an added “snarl” to his voice. This can be heard in Dio’s (the man and the band named after him) probably biggest hit “Holy Diver”. Having said that, he usually didn’t sing with the snarl during his time in Rainbow (1975-1978) or during his first stint with Black Sabbath (1980-1982).

The transition from the verse to the chorus is seamless. Overall, the song structure and pacing of this song is just brilliant.

In the second verse, listen out for Geezer’s incredibly cool bass fill around 2:17!

After the second chorus Iommi plays a short guitar solo. The song then shifts to a new section over which Iommi continues playing. This part also prominently features Geoff Nicholls’ choir keyboard sound. This adds to the mystical Fantasy feel to the song. I think Iommi’s solo hits the mark in this song. The solo section ends with the choir going from a Sus4 chord to a Sus2 chord and ending on the major chord, giving the music a Church-vibe.

Iommi’s picking pattern from the intro comes back again. Dio’s vocals are once again soft, befitting the mood of the music and the sparse instrumentation. The chorus then comes back with full force. Dio’s vocals are very powerful towards the outro chorus.

As I said earlier, this is top-tier Black Sabbath for me, and it’s not hard to see why this song became a fan favourite during Black Sabbath concerts in the early 80’s.

Lady Evil

“Lady Evil” starts with a bluesy bass riff accompanied by Ward’s drumming. Iommi and Geezer then play a very cool blues-based riff together. Iommi adds some slow bluesy lead guitar which I can only describe as “snake-like”. Geezer’s bass sounds very electric in this song, and I love that.

The verse riff is very bluesy and so is Dio’s vocal melody. I love the nuance he adds on the line “And they only speak in whispers of her name”. The chorus sounds less bluesy and more classic Heavy Metal. Lyrically, this is my least favourite song on side 1. Apart from singing about rainbows, Dio also had a thing for penning lyrics about evil/vindictive women (for example “Starstruck” from Rising (1976), “Lady Evil” and “Country Girl” from Mob Rules (1981)).

Despite my minor gripe with the lyrics, the music is an excellent bluesy Hard Rock song.

The second verse and chorus is followed by Iommi playing a guitar solo over the verse riff. Halfway through the solo, the riff modulates up, which is really cool. Iommi’s solo features a lot of wah-wah pedal (but not near as much as Kirk Hammett from Metallica). There’s a short and cool transition riff between the solo and the third verse.

After the final verse and chorus, the band plays the bluesy verse riff and Dio sings some ad-lib vocals while Iommi adds some more wah-wah guitar lead lines.

In conclusion, the music is awesome while the lyrics don’t quite match the greatness of the music (in my opinion). This song has grown on me over time.

Heaven and Hell

“Heaven and Hell” starts with a heavy and memorable riff that will echo in your mind for hours, if not days. It’s definitely one of Tony Iommi’s best riffs, and that’s really saying something as he is an inexhaustible source of killer riffs! The riff then drops out, leaving only Ward’s steady drumming and Geezer’s plodding single-note bass line. This bass line will also get stuck in your head. The tempo of the song seems to slow down when it goes into the bass and drum part compared to the preceding part with the riff.

The single note that Geezer plays on the bass during the verse is an Eb.

Dio’s vocals then enter and his melody is very memorable. The quality of Dio’s voice really shines through on this song. In various interviews, he has stated that this song is his personal favourite song that he wrote in terms of lyrics. I can totally understand why he thought so.

The first chorus is quite short, and after the last line in it (“It’s heaven and hell”), Iommi adds a riff over the bass line that fits perfectly. The riff is simply evil sounding!

In the second verse Iommi adds some slow and atmospheric guitar work that builds a harmonic framework for the second verse. Geezer plays the steady and slow galloping Eb note while Iommi alternates between an Ebminor and a Db major chord.

This kind of harmonic movement with a pedal tone in the bass and the chords shifting from the minor tonic to the 7-chord is something that has been used in a lot of songs. From the top of my head, some other songs that I can think of that do this are The Eagles’ “King of Hollywood” from The Long Run (1979), parts of Genesis’ “Dancing with the Moonlit Knight” from Selling England by the Pound (1973) and “Squonk” from A Trick of the Tail (1976).

I really like that kind of sound so the second verse is in my opinion much better than the first one. This verse is followed by a longer pre-chorus and chorus. IN this chorus, instead of playing the main riff like Geezer does, Iommi opts to play in minor third harmonies, adding some harmonic depth to the chorus.

An angelic part with a musically lighter feel and some very high harmonies by Dio then comes in as a bridge. This part of the song is probably meant to symbolise Heaven in a musical way.

Iommi’s evil sounding riff then comes back over Geezer’s single-note bass line. Dio then enters and sings the third verse, while Iommi continues playing the evil sounding riff.

It’s very interesting how each of the 3 verses are slightly different.

I love Dio’s bluesy inflection on the line “love can be seen as the answer”.

A long solo section then comes in as the evil riff drops out, leaving only Geezer and Ward providing a steady rhythm. Iommi then comes in and plays some slow blues licks. His solo slowly picks up in speed, and this is another one of his most memorable solos in my opinion. Eventually the angelic part comes back over which he continues playing.

All of a sudden, Ward starts playing double time on the drums, and we hear a new chord sequence in the background. Iommi continues playing over this part for a while until Dio starts singing again. This part is simply amazing. Dio’s lyrics in this part are outstanding as he paints a very accurate and poetic portrait of the worst qualities the human race has to offer.

The line “Fool fool. You’ve got to bleed for the dancer. Fool fool. Look for the answer” seems to me to be one of the key lyrics and messages of the song. “Fool fool. Look for the answer” is quite easily interpreted, but “fool fool. You’ve got to bleed for the dancer” is a little harder to interpret. I would be interested in hearing your interpretation of that lyric!

This part is followed by a short but fast solo by Iommi. The song then comes to a sudden halt. As the electric instruments fade out, an acoustic nylon guitar starts playing a beautiful but sad melody. To me, this part sounds like something you’d hear playing outside a medieval church in an old Tuscan village.

The outro to this song reminds me of two other songs, namely Iron Maiden’s “The Prophecy” from Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (1988) and Opeth’s “Slither” from Heritage (2011). The track “Slither” was actually written as a tribute to Ronnie James Dio who died in 2010.

Side 2

Side 2 begins with a fast-paced Rock song just like side 1. This is followed by a dark and heavy track rich with atmospheric keyboard textures. A cool  70’s style Rock song follows up and the last song on the album is dedicated to a slower Heavy Metal song with plenty of Iommi’s guitar work.

Wishing Well

“Wishing Well” has always been my least favourite song on the album. I don’t mind it, but compared to everything else on the album it just kind of pales in comparison.

It starts with a fast riff and some very fine drum work from Ward. The vocal melody on “Wishing Well” is perhaps the weakest one on the album.

The bridge takes the music to a slightly darker place compared to the verse and chorus. Iommi plays a guitar solo in the bridge. His solo noodles most of the time.

I hadn’t listened to this album in about two years before I decided to write this review, and it’s still my least favourite song on the album. Not only that, but it’s actually less memorable than I remembered (if that makes any sense). Perhaps the fact that it’s sandwiched between two of the best songs on the album also does the song a disservice.

Die Young

“Die Young” is one of my top 3 favourite songs from this album along with “Children of the Sea” and “Heaven and Hell”. The song starts with dark atmospheric keyboard textures from Nicholls. Iommi then enters with a great guitar tone playing some slow and very good lead melodies. Another guitar comes in and harmonizes with the first one and they gradually ascend until they hit their peak.

The song then goes into a fast and heavy riff which has always reminded me of Uriah Heep’s “Bird of Prey”. This riff is just great, and Iommi plays some fast lead guitar over the riff. Dio comes in with full power in the verse.

The chorus slows the song down once again with Nicholls’ keyboards and Iommi’s clean electric guitar taking centre stage. Dio sings this part in a much softer voice than the rest of the song.

Nicholls then plays an arpeggiated minor chord while Iommi plays yet another monstrous riff from his endless supply of them. This part serves as a bridge between the previous calm section and the coming second verse. After the second verse is finished, Iommi keeps playing the verse riff and Dio repeats the phrase “die young”. The song ends on a fade out of the verse riff.

Despite the dark nature of the song title, the lyrics are actually about living for today, and not for tomorrow.

Walk Away

“Walk Away” is quite similar to “Wishing Well” in that it’s an up-beat song. It is however a much better song than “Walk Away”. The riff is simple but powerful, almost AC/DC-like. It definitely has a 70’s vibe to it. Geezer’s bass enters and once again it sounds electric. His playing is on this song is also very melodic, almost acting as a secondary melody during the verses. Dio’s vocal melody is also very strong.

The chorus is also simple and memorable. The second verse is structurally identical to the first, except for one part added to the end (“Can’t see a fire…”).

This is followed by Iommi playing a riff that is similar (but not identical) to the intro riff. It has a triumphant feel to it. Iommi then shifts to a darker and bluesy riff over which he plays some very tasteful lead guitar. A smooth transition brings us back to the chorus which continues until the song fades out.

I would describe this song as a cool, bluesy, 70’s-style Hard Rock song with plenty of swagger. Without Geezer’s melodic bass playing, this song would not be as good as it is.

Lonely is the Word

“Lonely is the Word” is, like “Heaven and Hell”, a slower placed heavy song. This song is however bluesier than “Heaven and Hell”.

It starts out with a blues-based riff from Iommi. Geezer and Ward then enter providing a slow and steady backbone for the song. Dio

The chorus is very memorable and features a nice break from the heavy blues. The chord sequence is much stronger and so is the melody.

This is followed by another verse and then by a chorus that is twice as long as the first chorus.

The song mellows out and features a slow electric guitar solo over Geezer’s and Ward’s rhythm section. This mellow clean electric guitar solo is broken off by a short riff.

A faster and more distorted guitar solo then enters.

The same short riff from before breaks off this solo, which then continues over the chords from the chorus. Dio then comes in and sings the chorus one last time. This is followed by another guitar solo. Nicholls eventually comes in and adds synthesizers to the mix. Iommi’s soloing in this long end solo is sometimes very good and sometimes just a little too much noodling for my taste.

In general, Iommi’s guitar solos are hit and miss for me. Sometimes he plays brilliant things, but other times (sometimes even in the same song) he tends to noodle. In that regard, I think he is quite similar to Rainbow’s and Deep Purple’s Ritchie Blackmore. Although, when Blackmore plays brilliantly, Iommi doesn’t really stand a chance against him. Iommi’s real strength lies in his ability to write amazing riff after amazing riff. Sometimes, a Black Sabbath song with a great riff will feature a bridge or something with another riff that is equally as good as the main riff. You’re left perplexed over how this man could churn out so much quality.

Production

Martin Birch’s production is miles ahead of the production on the previous Sabbath album Never Say Die! (1978). It’s crisp, clean, punchy and in your face. Geezer’s bass sounds really good on this album, and it’s also quite loud in the mix. His playing style on this album is also different from what we were used to during the Ozzy-era. During the 70’s, Geezer would often occupy the bottom-end of the sonic spectrum. On this album, a lot of his bass lines sound like they’re played quite high up on the neck. This results in the album not having a lot of bass frequencies. The mid-range seems to dominate on this album.

You would think that the lack of low- and high-end frequencies would hurt an album and make it perhaps difficult to listen to, but that is certainly not the case here. That just goes to show how talented Martin Birch was as a producer and engineer.

Final thoughts

Heaven and Hell is very different album for Sabbath compared to their 70’s output. The music took another direction as did the lyrics. Dio was also a completely different singer than Ozzy. Birch also pushed their sound towards the brighter end, which fitted the music perfectly.

Overall, this is a solid album that acted as a career revival for Sabbath. Heaven and Hell was released the same year as many other important Hard Rock and Heavy Metal albums, such as Iron Maiden’s Iron Maiden, Judas Priest’s British Steel, Motörhead’s Ace of Spades, AC/DC’s Back in Blackand Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz.

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