The High Points: Heaven & Hell, Children of the Sea, Die Young, Lonely is the Word
The Low Points: Walk Away, Lady Evil
The Verdict: Overrated but still very good.
The Rating: 8/10
I’m erecting a flame shield here… rating this album in the bottom half and below a couple of the Tony Martin records is going to get me crucified. Let me state for the record that this is an excellent album for the most part, but it’s also an album that is mostly remembered for it’s high points. Some of the low points kind of stink.
Most metal fans know what happened here: Ozzy was fired, Ronnie James Dio was brought in to take his place. Almost immediately thereafter Geezer Butler fucked off back to England to deal with his pending divorce, leaving Sabbath to carry on without him. His return was left an open question.
There is a LOT of controversy about who wrote what on this record. Butler is credited but it’s pretty much agreed that he did very little of it. There are apparently some demos of early versions of some of the songs with Ozzy on them (which Dio always denied existed), but Butler’s contribution there would mostly have been lyrics and Dio re-wrote all of that. Bassist Craig Gruber, who had played with Dio in Elf and was working as a high-pofile session man, was called upon to stand in during the writing and recording. There is some question about what if anything he might have contributed… either way he is uncredited.
Speaking of Craig Gruber… shit. He claims that he was supposed to be a permanent replacement, and that he played on all of the tracks except Neon Knights but was fired when Butler asked to come back. The band claims that Butler was pulled back in BEFORE the bass tracks were recorded, and Gruber was never intended to be more than a stand-in. My opinion: that’s not Geezer Butler on most of the tracks. Whoever it is does a good job of duplicating the style… but not a perfect one. I think Gruber probably did play on most of the album, making this the first instance of Black Sabbath recording without Geezer Butler. This is also the first to feature Geoff Nichols on keyboards.
As for the material… the good stuff here is fucking EPIC. There are three or four cuts here that rank right up amongst the best Sabbath has ever done, and no less than four that became concert staples going forward. Neon Knights is the kind of fast rocker that Dio is so good at writing, and it kicks off the album in rousing fashion. Children of the Sea is more traditional Sabbath territory, a downtempo crusher that starts of with pretty acoustic arpeggios before Dio’s whisper becomes a snarl and the riff appears to grind your poor unworthy soul into the ground. Die Young is another fast one, with most of it’s considerable power coming from a godlike vocal melody. Beautiful and underappreciated is closing track Lonely is the Word, featuring one of Iommi’s all-time finest moments as a soloist.
Then of course there is the legendary and awe-inspiring title track. One of Iommi’s best riffs, some of Dio’s best lyrics, a slow careful build in intensity through three verses and then a breathtaking fast outro… holy shit. I’m not sure this is Sabbath’s best song ever, but it’s damn close. When it’s over you can’t believe six minutes have just gone by.
Sadly, there’s a fair amount of filler here. Walk Away sounds like an Elf leftover and not a good one. Lady Evil features some really bad lyrics and lacks enough musical excitement to make up for it. Wishing Well isn’t really bad… but it isn’t really good either.
Martin Birch produces here, and it sounds just like him. Listen to any of Iron Maiden’s 80s output to understand what I mean. Everything is well-balanced and crispy sounding, but the drums lack punch and power. The band plays spectacularly… Ward sounds interested in his job for the first time in like five years, the bass playing is groovy and interesting whether it’s Geezer or not, and Dio sings like a man possessed. Immediately Geoff Nichols makes his presence felt to good effect, supplying exactly what is needed but never anything more.
The real prize has to go to Iommi… the man just plays his ass off on this. He plays a lot of lead guitar here, and it’s all spectacular. If I had to pick one album to point to as his finest recorded performance it would have to be this.
Overall… the good stuff is unbelievable, which is the only reason this album gets such a high rating because frankly the ratios aren’t that good. Out of eight songs there are three that are pretty stinky. The only saving grace is that four of the other five absolutely fucking rule and the other one is pretty damn good. These tracks are legendary and epic and there is a reason this album has been so heavily featured in the Sabbath live show down through the years. Recommended.