Ginger Nuts of Horror
BY ANDREW FREUDENBERG
To my mind there have only really been two proper Black Sabbath vocalists. Ian Gillan and Glenn Hughes are two of hard rock’s finest veteran voices; Ray Gillen’s short stint touring with the band was highly impressive; many fans have a soft spot for Tony Martin. Despite their competence, and in some cases legendary status, these are not the real deal.
It goes without saying that the band made their reputation in the 70’s, with John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne up front. These were the albums that established them as something different, the albums that arguably crossed the line from proto-metal to actual heavy metal. When Osbourne left in a flurry of acrimony, after two arguably disappointing records, it could so easily have been the end of them. Then came Ronnie James Dio.
After establishing himself with a run of albums with Ritchie Blackmore and Rainbow, the American powerhouse wasn’t an obvious choice to replace the nutter from Brum. Clearly Iommi knew what he was doing though, and the new line up recorded two corking albums back to back. ‘Heaven and Hell’ and ‘Mob Rules’ were clearly a sea change in the Sabbath sound, but carried enough of the old DNA to remain true to the original vision. They gave new life to an old dog, and without them I truly believe that would quite possibly have been the last we heard from Black Sabbath.
Unfortunately animosity set in and Dio left to forge a career on his own terms. On the plus side anybody who saw his solo shows in the 80’s were treated to sets heavy with Rainbow and Sabbath tracks, as well as his formidable early solo records. I was lucky enough to catch both the ‘Holy Diver’ and ‘Sacred Heart’ tours, as well as his two shows at the UK Monsters of Rock festival.
Mind you, having missed the boat with Dio’s original stint with Sabbath, and having missed Ian Gillan’s dates with the band, I finally caught up with Black Sabbath in 1986. Ray Gillen was the singer for these shows and a treat to watch. Sadly he didn’t hang around either and Sabbath’s seemingly eternal state of instability continued.
Dio was back in 1992 for one album, before he fell out with Iommi and Butler again, returning to his solo career. There must still have been something there though, because in 2006 he was back for more. By this point Osbourne had reunited from time to time with his old band mates and it was decided by Iommi, and quite possibly Osbourne’s lawyers, that they would perform and record under the name ‘Heaven and Hell’. Released in 2008, ‘The Devil You Know’ was the last full album to be recorded by that line up.
This is an album that, predictably, is somewhat reminiscent of their previous work. It doesn’t, in my opinion, ever reach the quality of songs that were on either ‘Heaven and Hell’ or ‘The Mob Rules’. It’s still good, its not a lazy album, its just that 28 years and countless hundreds of songs later, the inspiration was clearly not flowing quite so freely.
‘Atom and Evil’ is a solid and stately opening to the album, slightly surprising with its dual tracked vocals on the chorus. ‘Fear’ is almost a spiritual successor to Rainbow’s classic ‘Gates of Babylon’; it starts well but unfortunately loses its shine in the second half.
The album’s single, ‘Bible Black’, has a gentle acoustic beginning which slowly builds to a solid grinding riff. It’s quite enjoyable. It’s followed by the more than decent ‘Double the Pain’ which uses a phased bass line to bring in a traditional Iommi chug. Again, the song has a surprisingly melodic chorus.
The unpromisingly titled ‘Rock’n Roll Angel’ is a disappointment. With a chorus as bad as you might predict, its an insipid lyric and vocal melody stuck over a half baked idea by Iommi. I’m not sure what they were attempting here but it didn’t work.
‘Turn of the Screw’ is much better, tighter and more interesting. It’s with ‘Eating the Cannibals’ though that my ears finally pricked up. We’re back in ‘Neon Knights’ or ‘Turn up the Night’ territory. Admittedly its not as good as either of those songs but its at least in the ball park, with an increased tempo and epic wailing lead guitar from Iommi.
‘Neverwhere’ and ‘Breaking into Heaven’ finish off the album in perfectly serviceable fashion, neither setting any new standards or totally letting the side down. As a farewell it could have been better, but no one knew that’s what it was at the time.
On the 11th of November 2007 I saw Heaven and Hell play in Brighton, England. It wasn’t a fantastic show, nor was it a terrible one. It was good to see them but the energy wasn’t there, although that could be blamed on the venue or simply a bad day.
Two and a half years later I was watching Heaven and Hell play the High Voltage Festival in London’s Victoria Park. Dio was dead, struck down too early by aggressive stomach cancer. This was a tribute show with Glenn Hughes and Jørn Landers taking the great man’s place. Tellingly they only played ‘Bible Black’ from ‘The Devil You Know’, leaning heavily instead on the material recorded more than quarter of a century earlier. Although obviously emotional, it was actually a great show, with Hughes and Landers doing a fantastic job of performing Dio’s material. Of course he would have sung it better, that’s a given, but it was a great send off for a great talent.