Black Sabbath: The Rules of Hell Box Set Reviewed
Fairly or not, when a band loses a charismatic frontman, they’re left with a hole that’s both more obvious and difficult to fill than, say, keyboardist or drummer. Rock history has shown that bands can actually become more popular (AC/DC, Van Halen) or spend the rest of their careers hoping audiences will forget the old guy… at least until the eventual “reunion” tour (Judas Priest, Journey, Deep Purple, Styx).
So when a drug-addled Ozzy Osbourne was ejected from Black Sabbath in 1979, remaining members Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass) and Bill Ward (drums) tapped a guy who already came with built-in name recognition - lead Rainbow belter Ronnie James Dio.
What Dio brought to Sabbath's pentagram-shaped table was a fiery new energy, a strong work ethic, solid songwriting and, with Iommi, a faster overall sound that was more shredding than sludgy.
Though this version of the band was relatively short, interest in this Black Sabbath 3.0 (now with Vinny Appice on drums) has never been higher. The four regrouped as “Heaven and Hell” in 2006 - partly to free themselves from playing Ozzy-era material, partly to avoid the wrath of the proprietary Sharon Osbourne - for a tour to support a compilation featuring surprisingly strong new tracks.
That popularity has extended into a live CD and DVD, more touring and even a new studio album set for release early next year. The reissue masters at Rhino have also just released Black Sabbath: The Rules of Hell, a box set compiling the Dio-fronted Sabbath’s canon, remastered with new liner notes (though, sadly, no bonus tracks or alternate takes). Here’s a rundown:
Heaven and Hell (1980): The first effort is still the gold standard for Sabbath 2.0 and 3.0, and is considered one of the best from any lineup. The title track features one of Iommi’s most memorable riffs, and songs like “Neon Knights,” “Die Young” “Lady Evil” and the soft/loud contrast in “Children of the Sea” are Dio at his most powerful.
A couple of lesser numbers (“Wishing Well,” “Walk Away”) notwithstanding, this is one of metal’s all-time classics. Original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward plays on the album, but leaves shortly into the susequent tour and is replaced by Appice.
Fact: During recording, the band would take cassettes of the new material to a nearby strip club and gauge the reactions (and movements) of the dancers to the tunes. No doubt Butler’s fine bass work here gave them a lot of “bottom” to work with.
Mob Rules (1981): Darker and heavier that its predecessor (including a genuinely scary cover by Greg Hildebrandt), Mob Rules isn't as high-quality as H&H , but is still a solid, formidable release. The title track - actually called “The Mob Rules” - is perhaps the band’s most frenetic song ever, the soundtrack to a barbarian invasion.
“Turn Up the Night” showcases Iommi’s guitar, “The Sign of the Southern Cross” is a genuine epic, and “Country Girl” is one of this lineup’s lost classics. However, “Slipping Away,” “Over and Over” and “Falling Off the Edge of the World” seem like filler.
Fact: Appice’s older brother, drummer Carmine, was working with Rod Stewart at the time during his disco phase. When the pair visited Sabbath in the studio, they were freaked out by all the upside-down crosses and religious icons the band had decorated the studio with for inspiration.
Live Evil (1982): Long disparaged by fans, critics and the band itself, this is a live document of a group already falling apart due to burnt-out bodies, egos and creative-control issues. It gains nothing from remastering, and is The Rules of Hell 's weak link.
On this double CD, live versions of this lineup’s output compare unfavorably to the studio versions (“Voodoo,” “Neon Knights,” “The Mob Rules”), and the band mars a “Heaven and Hell/The Sign of the Southern Cross/Heaven and Hell” extended sequence with Dio’s attempts to get the crowd to sing along and Iommi’s meandering solo.
As the audience would have expected, the group also performed some Ozzy-era material, but Dio’s vocals just don’t fit with tracks like “Iron Man,” “War Pigs” and “Paranoid.” The reason Ozzy made his "Black Sabbath" work is because he sounds scared shitless of the demon he’s facing. In Dio’s version, he is the demon. Luckily, this lineup eventually got another chance at a live record, last year’s excellent Live at Radio City Music Hall.
Fact: Dio adamantly denies that he snuck into the control room at night to change up Iommi and Buter’s daytime mixing work, which Sabbath mythology holds as a key factor in this version's eventual break-up.
Dehumanizer (1992): The first regrouping of Dio, Iommi, Butler and Appice produced a surprising record packed with memorable songs and meaty riffs. However, released as grunge was in its ascendancy, this record by a group of “metal dinosaurs” - as influential as they were on bands like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains - was largely overlooked.
A pity, as Dehumanizer remains perhaps Sabbath’s most underrated record. Coming off his massive solo success, Dio felt more assured both in voice and as lyricist, and leaves the dungeons and dragons behind for now-prescient material about creeping technology (“Computer God”), right-wing Christianity (“TV Crimes”) and even himself (the epic “I”).
But the graveyard is still on the Sabs’ mind, with “After All (The Dead)” going down as one of their creepiest numbers ever. Throughout, Appice’s drumming is at its most powerful. A few weak links (“Master of Insanity,” “Sins of the Father”) notwithstanding, Dehumanizer deserves another listen.
Fact: The track “Time Machine” became an unexpected hit when it was included in the soundtrack to Wayne’s World. The CD includes both the original and film version. - Bob Ruggiero
Black Sabbath 3.0 performs, as Heaven and Hell, with Judas Priest, Motorhead and Testament 5:30 p.m. Saturday, August 23, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
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