(as Heaven & Hell)
Black Sabbath (Warner Brothers ‘70) Rating: A
Coming from a cold hearted Birmingham U.K. factory town, these hippy hating crazies “just wanted to be heavier than everybody else,” according to lead singer Ozzy Osbourne. And they were, inventing heavy metal in the process (sorry, but I consider the likes of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and even Led Zeppelin to be hard rock rather than heavy metal) and influencing nearly every heavy metal band that has arisen since. Recorded and mixed in a mere two days, the band’s debut album is (like Zep’s) their rawest and bluesiest on record. Ozzy sings in a deeper, different voice than he would display on later albums (perhaps he hadn’t completely found his true voice yet), and their heavily amped, blues-based sound is in turns amazingly forceful and ponderously plodding (fortunately much more the former than the latter). The spooky title track is an absolute classic whose Satanic lyrics are matched to a truly harrowing musical vision; listen to this at full blast with the lights out and see if you can last the whole song without turning them back on! Go ahead, I dare you! I think it was Ozzy who described the opening riffs as “like the gates of Hell opening up,” and the bluesy jam-based ending - highlighted by soloing guitarist Tony Iommi (the band’s leader, whose uniquely heavy style improbably resulted from modifications caused when he lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers in a factory mishap!), bassist Geezer Butler (also the band’s primary lyricist, unbeknownst to many), and cymbal happy drum hitter Bill Ward - sounds like a herd of elephants stampeding through my head. Of course, getting scared out of ones wits isn’t the type of "entertainment" that’s for everyone, but they do feature a kindly wizard getting rid of assorted baddies on, appropriately enough, “The Wizard.” This song (which prominently features harmonica, a rarity for this band) and parts of others, notably the riff-tastic “N.I.B” (a tongue in cheek number about Lucifer falling in love!) and “Warning” (a classic mid-tempo chugger on which Ozzy and Ward especially shine), are actually quite catchy and are easily enjoyable, proving that the band were developing their songcraft (though the latter song is actually an Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation cover). However, the album could use some editing and less aimless guitar soloing; they didn’t really have a full album’s worth of material and it seems to me that they padded it out a bit, which resulted in some plodding, overly long performances. Fortunately, overall it’s still a wickedly cool debut with some truly fantastic peaks, plus its historical significance alone makes it a must-have classic and I also dig the creepy album cover art (which looks like the album sounds!). Going forward, the band would continue to better focus their musical vision and learn from their mistakes, ultimately going onto a legendary career as the epitome of all things metal.
Paranoid (Warner Brothers ‘70) Rating: A+
The band's most famous album was a U.K. #1 hit that went to #8 in the U.S., largely on the strength of three of their greatest songs. In Martin Popoff's book The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs Of All Time, which was based on a poll of 18,000 people, "Iron Man," "War Pigs," and "Paranoid" came in tenth, eighth, and first, respectively, while "Fairies Wear Boots" came in at 241. "War Pigs" begins the album with an anti-war song featuring all of Sabbath’s trademarks: Ozzy’s eerie wail of a voice, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward’s thundering (and at times lumbering) rhythm section, and Tony Iommi’s low-pitched, evil sounding guitar riffs. Simply put, Iommi is the absolute master of the heavy metal riff, creating the blackest doom riffs in rock history, malevolent moments that explode through scorched speakers. "War Pigs" is an epic that has it all, including a cappela vocals from Ozzy, dynamic drum fills, those RIFFS from Iommi and Butler, and a great solo from Iommi. Still, "Paranoid" will always be the Black Sabbath song, this one a straight, to-the-point and well, paranoid little piece that lurches to and fro with a froth-like, frenetic intensity, with Ozzy's on-the-verge-of-madness vocals being especially memorable. Oddly enough, the song was spontaneously put together at the last minute because the record company wanted the band to fill up more space; there's a lesson to be learned there for all you bands out there who fuss over every little minutiae and take years between albums. Anyway, "Planet Caravan" then provides a break in the action with a slow, spacey, extremely evocative track notable for Ward's tom tom drums and Ozzy's echoed, drugged out vocals; Pantera would respectfully cover the song 24 years later. Then comes another all time riff on "Iron Man," a futuristic tale about a killing machine that's famous for its cartoonish intro and features another blitzkrieg of a jam ending. After that fantastic first side, needless to say side two fails to keep pace, but the aforementioned "Fairies Wear Boots" is another all-time classic (great groove and chorus on that one). While not quite as great, the dark, thudding "Electric Funeral" likewise has terrific twisting riffs, while the explosive "Hand Of Doom" is also heavy as hell and has a great Ozzy lead vocal and vivid anti-drug lyrics ("push the needle in, face death's sickly grin"); the other song on side two, “Rat Salad,” is merely a short instrumental showcase for Ward and Iommi. Overall, Paranoid is less blues-influenced and jam-based than the debut, but the songwriting is more focused, as the band solidifies and perfects the "Sabbath sound." More than any Sabbath album, this is the one most responsible for spawning their legions of inferior imitators, and it’s probably not a gross overstatement to say that most metal bands that have arisen since first learned to ply their trade by playing along to this album. Note: The album was originally supposed to be called War Pigs, the theme of which was reflected on the album cover. However, the band's record company insisted on calling it Paranoid instead, alas too late to change the war-themed cover art.
Master Of Reality (Warner Brothers ‘71) Rating: A+
Many bands have been faster but few bands have ever been HEAVIER than Black Sabbath, and Black Sabbath were never heavier than on Master Of Reality. Ditching their psychedelic jam inclinations, Tony Iommi’s deafening riffs and solos hit like sledgehammers, while Geezer Butler and Bill Ward once again supply massive exclamation points as Ozzy bellows warnings against impending damnation. Indeed, this is generally known as the band’s “Christian album,” most overtly so on the excellent “After Forever,” which Iommi wrote as a repudiation of their "Satanic" rep. Other highlights include “Sweet Leaf” (Butler’s bludgeoning ode to marijuana), “Lord Of The World” (the "Lord" here being Lucifer), and “Into The Void” (a futuristic tale of space travel), all of which sport the colossal Sabbath chug, while the unstoppable “Children Of The Grave” is all about its great galloping grooves. On the lighter side, “Embryo” and “Orchid” are short (:30 and 2:00, respectively) and ultimately inconsequential instrumental interludes that bridge the gap between the surrounding doom, while “Solitude” is a “Planet Caravan”-type change of pace only not quite as good. Still, in retrospect this admittedly pretty, flute-infested track likely provided a blueprint for future classics such as “Remember Tomorrow” (Iron Maiden) and “Fade To Black” (Metallica). Anyway, this album is too short, with only six real songs, but better too short than too long in my opinion. Besides, five of the six proper songs here are heavy metal classics, as Black Sabbath stick to their headbanging strengths in creating a monolithic monument to heaviosity.
Vol. 4 (Warner Brothers ‘72) Rating: A
Perhaps it was due to the constant hammering from the critics (most of who now praise the band) for their basic style, maybe it was their move to L.A. and working with a new producer (Patrick Meehan instead of Rodger Bain), or maybe it was simply the drugs (the band infamously thanks "the great COKE-Cola company of Los Angeles" in the liner notes), but Vol. 4 was a more musically ambitious and experimental album than the three preceding ones. And though perhaps this patchier album doesn't hold together as a cohesive whole as well as, say, Master Of Reality, this album does contain some of their best songs and is another classic effort. Certainly the awesome "Wheels Of Confusion/The Straightener" gets the album off to a rousing start, beginning with a bluesy intro followed by Iommi's massive riffs and Ozzy's eerily unforgettable vocal wail ("long ago I wandered through my mind"). Yet this is really two songs in one, as a jazzy, moody instrumental passage with a great Iommi guitar solo closes things out and leads into "Tomorrow's Dream," an effectively straightforward chugger that also has its more melodic moments. Trouble then emerges on "Changes," a droopy piano ballad (that's Rick Wakeman on piano, a la David Bowie's "Changes," a much better song) that set a bad precedent for future metal bands (I'd call it one of the first power ballads if it had any power at all!), though Ozzy’s impossibly sad vocals are certainly affecting at least, while "FX" is an echoed, experimental oddity that merely takes up space (1:42, to be exact). Fortunately, "Supernaut" sets things right with a fast-paced, utterly monumental exercise in pure power (aside from its funky little drum interlude, that is), while the superb "Snowblind" is the most obvious drug song of the bunch (subtle these guys 'aint), being a bluesy bruiser with some unexpected orchestrations that also work surprisingly well. Seemingly lumbering on the surface, "Cornucopia" is actually much more complex than your (strong) standard riff rocker, particularly Ward's drum parts, which he had considerable trouble nailing (though nail them the underrated drummer eventually did), while "Laguna Sunrise" is an acoustic, almost ambient performance that provides some light amidst the darkness. After this short, pretty all-instrumental performance comes the also short "St. Vitus' Dance," a solid if unremarkable album track which slams money hungry groupies. Finally, the stellar multi-sectioned "Under The Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes" begins with a malevolent march before moving onto a faster, poppier section before returning to a doom-laden signoff. So there you have it, a detailed song-by-song breakdown of what is actually a pretty terrific album, as beyond their customary earth rattling riffs there's far more here than initially meets the eye. I would think that this would be the Sabbath album that most appeals to prog lovers (until Sabotage, anyway), what with its multi-sectioned opuses, more complex arrangements, and an all around increased "far out" factor. These songs follow no set patterns, are governed by no set rules and are all the better for it, because at its best Vol. 4 rewards with a far-reaching excellence.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Brothers ‘73) Rating: A
This one took me a few more listens to fully grasp, what with several of its songs veering off into all kinds of different directions, but this transitional outing still shows off all of this great band’s strengths. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which is ensconced within the best album cover of all Black Sabbath albums (the only competition for me is the debut), is their mellowest and most adventurous outing yet, as the band tries an acoustic guitar/piano instrumental on the appropriately titled “Fluff” (which, pretty though it often is, definitely doesn’t warrant its 4:10 running time), breaks out big synthesizer flourishes (a very bad idea, actually) on “Who Are You?,” flicks flute passages into “Looking For Today” (which is quite atmospheric at times but which also includes a good soaring chorus from seemingly out of nowhere), and adds lush strings on “Spiral Architect,” a bright, melodic entry that every now and then sports the Sabbath chug marching on in full force (a very good idea). The tremendous title track is a classic by any measure, again packing two songs into one by shifting the focus halfway through from a rumbling, explosive groove onto Ozzy’s wailing vocals. The underrated “A National Acrobat” has both a funky bridge and a surprisingly melodic commercial part along with their customary cool riffs and solos, while “Sabbra Cadabra” (later covered by Metallica) kicks ass with powerfully shouted vocals and more killer guitar, though perhaps it lingers a little longer than necessary. “Killing Yourself To Live” is more atmospheric but at least as good, with more pounding riffs/rhythms and a particularly effective vocal from Ozzy, who seems to be more upfront and center than usual (which isn’t always a good thing given how polarizing his voice can be). Anyway, this fairly diverse collection has weathered time well (aside from the two filler tracks), though perhaps it too often opts for mood over might (rarely a good strategy where Sabbath is concerned). At their worst, the band deserves credit for daringly trying to push the envelope in directions not tried before or since, and at their very best, which is pretty often as per usual from this period, their best is insanely great.
Sabotage (Warner Brothers ‘75) Rating: A+
The experimentation continues here even more successfully than on its predecessor, making Sabotage the last of the bands truly classic offerings with Ozzy. Ozzy arguably never sounded so awe-inspiringly evil, while the ever-underrated Bill Ward pummels his poor kit, giving John Bonham a run for his money in terms of pure power. The long compositions themselves are too weird for words, all over the place yet still unstoppable, including HUGE riff-fests “Hole In The Sky” (Martin Popoff: "possibly the most goddamn Black Sabbath song of the whole Black Sabbath catalogue") and “Symptom Of The Universe,” which, in addition to its great chugging riffs, contains creative, all-over-the-place drum fills from Ward and a powerful vocal from Ozzy. In typical atypical fashion, the song ends with a mellow acoustic section; "Hole In The Sky" had likewise ended uneasily, stopping suddenly before heading into "Don't Start (Too Late)," a 49 second acoustic interlude. “Megalomania” shows that Ozzy is still paranoid, and with deliberately ugly harmonies, weird vocals (including a laugh out loud funny “suck me” chant), moody atmospherics, periodic glimpses of the mighty Sabbath chug (it sounds like Ted Nugent stole some key riffs for "Cat Scratch Fever"), and some synths come roll call (don't worry, they work much better than on “Who Are You?”), it’s a lumbering near 10-minute mess that shouldn't work but boy does it ever. “The Thrill Of It All” is more standard (great) Sabbath (oh yeah!), while the strange marching beats and gothic chants of “Supertzar” would've been a good fit for some horror movie score (file this one under “interesting filler”). “Am I Going Insane” is also inessential, but at least this atypical track is melodic and catchy, and besides, all is forgiven with “The Writ.” Like "Megalomania," this song deals with the band getting ripped off by record company executives and management, and indeed Sabotage is the band's most personal statement to date from a lyrical standpoint (not that anybody in their right mind listens to Sabbath for their lyrics). Sure, sometimes the lyrics and even the music is as ridiculous as the red tights Bill Ward is wearing on the (hilariously bad) album cover, but the album has an abundance of character which makes me return to it quite often. As alluded to previously, Sabotage ends on an ambitious high with "The Writ," which provides eight plus minutes of headbanging heaven, with a showstopping Ozzy vocal that closes out what may be my favorite Black Sabbath album.
Technical Ecstasy (Warner Brothers ’76) Rating: B+
This much-maligned album is a far cry from previous classics but is still worthwhile for Sabbath fanatics. Still, after years of constant touring, excessive drugs, and inter-band squabbling (mostly between Ozzy and Iommi), the strain started to show on this one. The Hipgnosis album cover (a rare misfire from those usually reliable artists) illustrates the band’s increased use of studio technology, but the end result is slicker, not better, and any Sabbath fan will be struck by how little “heavy metal” exists on the album; even the best songs are more “hard rock” than anything else. That said, there are some good songs, beginning with the hard charging groover “Back Street Kids” and continuing with “You Won’t Change Me.” Man, that’s a great overlooked song, a tough blues-based epic with spooky organ parts and some incredibly powerful playing from Iommi. “It’s Alright,” surprisingly written and sung by Bill Ward, is a pleasantly enjoyable Ringo-ish fluff piece, and “Gypsy” is somewhat generic but is ultimately elevated by more great Iommi guitar. “All Moving Parts (Stand Still)" is notable for its embrace of funk, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor” is boogie-based (Sabbath does Foghat?), and “She’s Gone” is a dreaded orchestral ballad but not bad as such. Fortunately, riff-based hard rock returns on “Dirty Women,” another impressive Iommi showcase, and another epic scale track a la “You Won’t Change Me” at over 7 minutes long (unsurprisingly, these are the album’s two best songs for me). Anyway, there’s some good (and some not so good) stuff here, as rumors of the band’s drug induced decline were somewhat exaggerated (this album generally receives very poor reviews). Still, it’s safe to say that Sabotage marked the end of the band's peak era with Ozzy, and you should only get this one after fully ingesting the band’s first six studio albums.
Never Say Die! (Warner Brothers ’78) Rating: B
The weakest Sabbath album among the first eight with Ozzy is still worth seeking out if you're a big fan of the band. In fact, that it was recorded under such difficult circumstances (Ozzy had briefly left the band in '77 and the recording sessions were contentious) and was still a solid album is proof positive of the band’s unconquerable chemistry. Never Say Die! has some of Sabbath’s most commercial material, and in many ways catchy, groove-based pop metal songs such as the title track (probably the best song here), “A Hard Road” (really commercial but quite good), and “Over To You” (likewise but not as good) remind me more of Ozzy’s later solo work than what’s usually associated with Black Sabbath. The band brings their heavy brand of boogie to “Swinging The Train” (a solid song unfortunately sung by Bill Ward when Ozzy was "unavailable"), while strange synths and a big groovy beat propel the ambitious “Johnny Blade,” though its updated technology seems mismatched to Sabbath’s usual doom-laden appeal. Still, Iommi is in fine form (both here and elsewhere), while "Junior's Eyes" is a cool riff-based effort that's also mellower and atmospheric at times. So is "Air Dance," or at least it attempts to be (it also almost rocks but decides to get all jazzy instead; bad idea), while the experimental sax wailings of “Breakout” (a short, horn-heavy instrumental) again takes the band away from what they do best. "Shock Wave" certainly has its moments (primarily due to Ozzy and Iommi) but on the whole doesn't add up as well as it should, and the same could be said for this somewhat scattershot album on the whole. Still, its brighter, more contemporary, overly keyboard-heavy sound is unique for Sabbath (for whatever that’s worth), and it has some appealing songs as well. Alas, change was in the air, and getting blown off the stage on a nightly basis by an upstart opening act (Van Halen) only reinforced that stagnation had set in. Ozzy was fired (much later briefly reuniting with Black Sabbath for a ballyhooed late ‘90s Reunion tour and album), and diminutive former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio was hired, a move that ignited all parties involved, at least for a little while.
Heaven and Hell (Warner Brothers ’80) Rating: A+
Although some dubious volumes of rock history will tell you that Black Sabbath recorded nothing worthwhile once Ozzy left the fold, one listen to this album will convince you otherwise. New singer Ronnie James Dio has a pure, powerful set of pipes well suited to the trademark Sabbath sound, and while Ozzy’s loss has robbed Sabbath of a distinctive, eerie part of their sound, this album was still a phenomenal achievement. More straight ahead, eighties-styled metal than the highly experimental blues-based days of yore, sleeker and less pummeling (but also less plodding), songs such as "Neon Nights," "Children Of The Sea," "Die Young," "Heaven And Hell," and "Lonely Is The Word" are heavy metal classics that any band would be proud to call their own. And though Dio’s dungeons and dragons lyrical content takes some getting used to, especially when compared to Geezer Butler’s malignant creations, his phenomenal voice is simply undeniable, while Iommi repeatedly comes up with the goods on guitar, cooking up tremendous riffs and solos throughout. The galloping grooves of “Neon Nights” (Butler’s only co-write as he left the band after Ozzy’s departure, returning to play on the album at the last minute) gets the ball rolling, and “Children Of The Sea” starts as an exotic acoustic ballad before evolving into a powerful mid-tempo rocker with gothic overtones (this "gothic/medieval" side was a new dimension to the band - kinda like Rainbow, actually - that they never would've explored with Ozzy). The alternately atmospheric and rocking "Die Young" is also one of Sabbath's very best songs, while the monumental title track is a 7-minute epic whose famous bass riff was actually written by unofficial new member Geoff Nicholls, who was drafted in to play bass during Geezer’s departure and then slid over to keyboards when Butler returned; he would be Iommi’s trusted right-hand man for years thereafter. Anyway, in addition to its classic mid-tempo chug, the song is notable for its catchy “on and on” chorus and its spectacular jam ending on which all band members shine, particularly Iommi and Dio. Far from a hits plus filler affair, Heaven and Hell also features really good album tracks like the memorable evil woman rocker “Lady Evil” (another Dio specialty on which he and Iommi are at their absolute best), the explosive, hard charging “Wishing Well,” and finally the monolithic power ballad “Lonely Is The Word” (with yet more great Iommi soloing). Simply put, these songs should prove immensely enjoyable to both early Sabbath loyalists and to fans of Dio’s other work. True, “Walk Away” is melodic but rather generic and the album's polished, commercial sound might be off putting to some long time Ozzy-era fans, but this remains an exceptional release. Though not as groundbreaking (you can only invent something once) or as earth rattling as Ozzy-era Sabbath, Heaven and Hell saw a transformed band belting out another classic.
The Mob Rules (Warner Brothers ’81) Rating: A
Bill Ward split for this one, not for the last time, but given that for all this talents he was always the band's most replaceable member, and given that he was replaced by the great Vinny Appice, the band soldiered on undaunted. As another side note, despite succeeding without one another, the Ozzy vs Dio warfare was extraordinarily intense during this period. Some people claim that the words "Kill Ozzy" are subliminally written on The Mob Rules cover, while Ozzy had a midget on stage named "Ronnie" and called Sabbath "3 wops and a Geezer." Perhaps that's why Ronnie sounds like he has such a chip on his shoulder, and indeed he turns in a vicious performance throughout, and the album on the whole is heavier and darker than Heaven and Hell. It's not quite as consistent, however, as "Voodoo" is rather generic melodically even if I like its overall atmosphere and Iommi's intricate soloing, "E5150" is merely a strange effects laden interlude, and "Falling Off The Edge Of The World" takes awhile to get going. Of course, once it does get going it's terriifc, with twisting, intertwining riffs and a killer solo from Iommi, and there are plenty of other highlights, though in general the best songs here (“The Sign Of The Southern Cross,” “The Mob Rules,” “Falling Off The Edge Of The World”) don't rise quite as high as on their superb previous album. On the hard charging front, "Turn Up The Night" and the classic title track are difficult to deny, while the more mid-tempo "Country Girl" (notable for some mellow crooning from Ronnie on the bridge, a brief but blistering Iommi solo, and fantastic drum fills from Appice) and the dirge-like power ballad "Over and Over" (featuring more tremendous Iommi solos) are underrated standouts. The poppier yet still riff heavy "Slipping Away" is also solid, while the standout track is clearly "The Sign Of The Southern Cross," another moody gothic epic (almost 8 minutes) with ballady sections and explosive interjections featuring MASSIVE Iommi riffs, Dio at his growly, majestic best, and Appice again showing his expertise at filling in all the gaps (as per usual Geezer is great too). All in all, when taken together Heaven and Hell and The Mob Rules are certainly comparable in quality to Ozzy's far more ballyhooed first two solo albums, as well as the Dio-era Rainbow albums, as Black Sabbath once again simply got down to business, delivering more high quality heavy metal.
Live Evil (Warner Brothers ’82) Rating: B
This album is more famous for its surrounding subplots than its actual music. First, when getting wind of this album, Ozzy decided to release his own live album, Speak Of The Devil, which contained only Black Sabbath songs and effectively stole this album's thunder when it was released soon afterwards. Secondly, there were the accusations that Dio snuck into the studio to increase the volume of the vocals in the mix, which led to much mudslinging (Dio insists he wasn't "sneaking around" but that Iommi and Butler simply weren't showing up to the studio to oversee the album) and Dio's ouster from the band (he grabbed Appice and started his own excellent band, Dio). As for the actual contents of this album, it's a solid live showcase on which Dio predictably acquits himself reasonably well on the Ozzy songs ("N.I.B.," "Black Sabbath," "War Pigs," "Iron Man," "Paranoid," "Children Of The Grave") but just as predictably only truly excels on his own stuff, particularly "Neon Nights" and "Heaven and Hell," the latter of which also reappears during "The Sign Of The Southern Cross." Dio's choppy delivery is at times awkward on songs such as "War Pigs" and "Paranoid," and there are a few more solo sections than what you'll find on the studio renditions, most of which are clearly superior to these versions. Still, there's a reason that Dio is considered one of the all-time best heavy metal singers, and by and large he's in fine form while Appice is a total beast throughout. So, given that it's better than any Ozzy-era live Sabbath cd (the five I own are sketchy, inconsistent), I would definitely recommend this live Dio-era album, though not before first checking out most of the other albums on this page. Afterwards, Black Sabbath continued onwards with a multitude of singers, Ian Gillan (Born Again) and Glenn Hughes (Seventh Star) dropping by for an album apiece and Tony Martin contributing to several. Really, the Black Sabbath name should've been retired with Dio if not Ozzy, but Iommi's tyrannical manager Don Arden (Sharon Osbourne’s dad) insisted that every album he was involved with be called Black Sabbath whether that was what he wanted or not (often it wasn't, like with Seventh Star). By my unofficial count, Sabbath has had at least 22 members since '77 (when Ozzy briefly quit), including four singers who never sang a note on record! (Ray Gillen, later of the woefully underrated Badlands with ex-Ozzy guitarist Jake E. Lee, sang literally one note on Eternal Idol, a demonic laugh that was accidentally left in the mix). Needless to say, the bands rotating membership has done little to help their overall legacy; Dio even returned for 1992's Dehumanizer, and in 2007 the Dio, Iommi, Butler, and Appice foursome undertook a successful world tour with Megadeth, albeit as Heaven & Hell due to legal complications, presumably with Sharon Osbourne.
The Devil You Know (Rhino, Roadrunner ’09) Rating: B+
In 2007 the double live album Live From Radio City Music Hall was released, and it proved to be an enjoyable souvenir of the band's recent reunion tour, as it contained crisp performances of only Dio-era Sabbath songs plus two new tracks. The Devil You Know, the first "Heaven & Hell" studio album, turned out to be the last Dio album, as he succumbed to stomach cancer on May 16, 2010, thus ending one of the most illustrious careers in heavy metal history. I'm glad that I got to see him as often as I did (once with Dio and twice with Heaven & Hell with whom he was particularly impressive), and I'm glad that he spent the last few years of his life reclaiming his legacy in Black Sabbath, as it was an important and often underrated part of both his and their legacies (it’s a major oversight that Dio wasn’t inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame along with the original four members). In reality, the band probably should've been renamed Heaven & Hell from the get-go, as the Ozzy and Dio versions of the band are quite different, and had they taken another name perhaps they wouldn’t have been compared so often with Ozzy-era Sabbath. But what's in a name, anyway? The important thing is that at least Dio left near the top of his game, quite unlike another Sabbath singer turned reality T.V. star that I could name. Perhaps he sings in a lower register more often than in the past, and his theatrical, melodramatic delivery will never be for everybody, but Dio is in fine voice throughout this surprisingly hard-hitting and accomplished reunion album. True, it fails to scale the lofty heights of earlier benchmarks Heaven and Hell and The Mob Rules, but it is certainly comparable to Dehumanizer and it's probably the best album that all involved have released since that album. Certainly Iommi is better at riffs than any of the journeyman guitar players in Dio's recent bands, and certainly Dio is a better singer than anyone Iommi has worked with since. I could complain about some generic choruses and silly lyrics, and this mostly mid-paced, doom-laden, atmospheric effort could use a couple more up-tempo tunes, but the album is so consistently kickass that I'm going to button my lip and simply give it a hearty thumbs up (or better yet, give it the "maloik" or goat horns symbol that Dio helped popularize in metal circles). I'm not sure I hear any great tunes here, which is why I don't feel compelled to describe them, but I do hear a lot of very good ones, which is a pretty great achievement for a bunch of old geezers.
13 (Vertigo, Universal ’13) Rating: B+
The first studio album with Ozzy Osbourne and Sabbath since 1978’s Never Say Die! is surprisingly enjoyable, even if it mostly echoes past glories and is quite a distance behind any of their first six studio albums. Still, it’s comparable to the last two with Ozzy I suppose, and it’s shocking commercial performance (#1 in the U.K.) showed that Black Sabbath and Ozzy both still have significant fan bases and are still relevant. I certainly wouldn’t have said that about Ozzy the solo artist, but he actually performs better than expected here, providing vocals hooks (his specialty) and few embarrassing moments even if his range is now nil. This album really belongs to Tony Iommi, whose riffs and solos throughout are generally spot-on if at times overly familiar (more about that in a bit), while Geezer Butler is a formidable accomplice as per usual and Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave drummer Brad Wilk, well he’s no Bill Ward (who didn’t sign up because they couldn’t agree on finances, basically) or Vinny Appice for that matter (he’s too connected to Dio to have been considered I guess), but he does a solid enough job for it to not really matter too much. Many also seem to find fault with Rick Rubin’s overly compressed production, but like Wilk it doesn’t really bother me though I understand the criticisms (production minus: Geezer’s bass could be more prominent; production plus: I suspect that Rubin deserves much of the credit for Ozzy sounding so much better than he has in recent years). The bottom line is that this album delivers what you’d hope Black Sabbath would deliver, namely extremely heavy and sometimes memorable doom-laden music that kicks plenty of ass, especially for a bunch of guys who presumably all have grandkids. True, there’s some self-plagiarism at work here that at times is all too prevalent; the big riffs at the beginning of “End Of The Beginning” (or is it “The Beginning Of The End”?) is reminiscent of “Black Sabbath” (but the pace picks up and the song gets better and better the longer it goes, which is pretty long at 8:06), the similarity between “Loner” and “N.I.B.” is inescapable, and “Zeitgeist” likewise can’t help but recall “Planet Caravan,” to cite the most obvious examples. But I still enjoy these songs so all I can do is note their flaws and acknowledge that I like these songs and most of the others (like the Grammy winning dirge “God Is Dead?” and the successfully ambitious “Age Of Reason”) quite a bit anyway. I mean, a lyric like “out of the gloom, I rise up out of my tomb, into the impending doom” is completely silly and completely awesome at the same time, and though perhaps there are a couple of lesser songs and maybe some of them go on for longer than necessary (its 8 songs run on for over 53 minutes), on the whole I can’t help but consider 13 to be a rousing success, as it’s much better than I expected it to be. Fittingly, the final song “Dear Father” ends with rain and thunder, similar to how “Black Sabbath” had begun their career so many years ago. Considering that this may very well end up being the last Black Sabbath album with Ozzy, I really like this touch as it provides a sense of closure and certain symmetry to the band’s career. Well done, guys.
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