The High Points: Atom and Evil, Bible Black, Follow the Tears
The Low Points: Double the Pain, Eating the Cannibals
The Verdict: Inspired band, flagging singer
The Rating: 6/10
I’m gonna get flamed for this review. Hard. Some will probably even question the inclusion of this album; after all it wasn’t released as a Sabbath record at all. When the classic Mob Rules/Dehumanizer lineup (Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Vinne Appice) reassembled to go out on the road and promote Black Sabbath: The Dio Years, they elected to change the name to Heaven & Hell in order to avoid having to play Ozzy-era tunes like War Pigs and Iron Man. The new name allowed them to focus strictly on the stuff they recorded together, and oh hell yeah… I saw them in March of 2007 and it was EPIC. Even more epic was when they announced their intention to record a new album about a year later. They stayed with the Heaven & Hell moniker for the album but you know what? If it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck it is probably a motherfucking duck. New name be damned… this is a lineup of Black Sabbath.
I was sure looking forward to this. I got really excited when I saw the jacket art; this is what a Sabbath record is supposed to look like, by God! Never judge a book by it’s cover…
I got what I was hoping for during the first few tracks; this album is VERY front-loaded. Atom and Evil is that slow, bone-crushingly heavy sludge that nobody does as well as Sabbath, and nobody else can get away with opening a record with this kind of track. Instant metal boner. Fear follows it up with a faster tempo, a cool riff, and a well-written chorus. Then we get our badass metal orgasm with the amazing Bible Black. It’s formula for Dio-fronted bands; start out slow with arpeggiated guitars and Dio crooning like a balladeer, then segue into monster heaviness and the full-throated roar the little man with the big voice is legendary for. But it just works so damn well; three or four of Dio’s best-known tunes including a couple of his best with Sabbath follow exactly this template. Here it works like magic, with Dio weaving a weird-ass tale of a guy who loses himself in a book of black magic over some badass Iommi riffology. A modern classic.
Boy does it go downhill in a hurry from here. The Riffmaster General is doing his stuff, the songs are well-developed… and man do I ever hate typing the next line. Dio is mostly shitting all over it. His vocal melodies are turgid, uninspired, and kinda recycled from stuff he’s done in the past. His lyrics are cringe worthy as often as not. He’s magic on those first three songs, but for most of the rest of the album he seems to really be scraping the bottom of the barrel for new ideas. Probably the worst of the bunch are Double the Pain and Eating the Cannibals. One place where it’s really a shame is Rock and Roll Angels, because if you put in a great vocal melody and some better lyrics this song would have been KILLER.
There is one more bit of dark black magic in the latter third of the record. Follow the Tears is a majestic slice of achingly slow heaviness with some of Dio’s most poignant lyrics ever… for one more moment, he totally has it. An already heavy tune is made even heavier by Iommi’s deadly crunch; he returns to his early 70s trick of tuning his guitar down a minor third here… I think it’s the only time he ever did this on a Dio-fronted album. Bone-crushingly heavy, this sound.
Speaking of Iommi’s tone, it’s on full display here in all of it’s evil glory. The guitars on this album are THUNDEROUS. The recording sounds generally excellent, in fact. It was produced by Butler, Dio, and Iommi with some help from Mike Exeter, who also added some keys. Butler and Iommi are nicely balanced in the mix, which is nice to hear as their interplay was always such a huge part of the early Sabbath sound. Both players sound positively inspired here; clearly they are really getting off on their first full-length album together since 1994.
Vinnie Appice turns in a performance that is competent but dull. He denies responsibility for this; apparently he was not included in the songwriting sessions. The demos were all done with a drum machine, and he was instructed to just duplicate what was programmed. Don’t forget his status in Sabbath has always been hired gun, but on the two albums he was on before he was at least allowed to be there for the writing and put his own personality into the drumming.
As for Dio, his voice sounds great. It’s darker and deeper than in the past and his falsetto seems to be gone, but unlike many of his contemporaries (most of whom he was much older than) he isn’t trying desperately to pretend that he has something that no longer exists. Instead he takes the much classier route of making the most of what he has now.
This is a tough album to review, partly because there is so much untapped potential here, and partly because we all would like to have seen The Man on the Silver Mountain go out on a high note. Almost all of the elements of greatness are here, but we have someone writing the vocal melodies and lyrics who mostly sounds tired and uninspired. Was the cancer that would eventually kill him already starting to take it’s toll? Given the results of Black Sabbath 13 a few years later I have to wonder what would have happened if he had handed the pen back over to Geezer Butler; would this have been a stronger package? We’ll never know.
Mind you, the best stuff fucking RULES; Bible Black and Follow the Tears are worth the price of admission by themselves. The first two tracks also kick maximum wads of ass, but too much of the rest of the album consists of mighty musical ideas brought low by turgid melodies and bad lyrics. RIP anyway Ronnie… you were always my favorite singer. That has not changed.