The success of Heaven & Hell, the Dio-fronted lineup of Black Sabbath reunited this year, is a testament to the power of music – not legend, just music. Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio and Vinny Appice were together just a short time in the early ‘80s and 1992. And in addition to the songs Iommi, Dio, Butler and Bill Ward wrote together, they played a bunch of Ozzy-era stuff at the time, as documented in “Live Evil” ” (recorded 1981) and the recently exhumed recording released as “Live at Hammersmith Odeon” (1982).
Now they’ve shown they don’t need either the corporeal Ozzy or the blessing of his ‘70s ghost: no “Paranoid,” no “War Pigs,” no Black Sabbath, even, a name to which Iommi has indisputably earned the right. Iommi and Dio composed three excellent new songs for this year’s greatest-hits compilation “Black Sabbath: The Dio Years,” and are playing two of them live. And people are going nuts for Heaven & Hell.
Which proves that names aren’t everything. The Black Sabbath brand retains such luster that even an unsatanic young television hypester like Jane Velez-Mitchell felt she could cop some cred by genuflecting before the Sabbath throne while interviewing Glenn Hughes (who sang with the band for a minute in 1985) about his friend Lana Clarkson for Court TV. Yet Iommi has dispensed with the B.S. trademark – simply as a matter of pride.
That wouldn’t have been so easy if he didn’t have the goods. But Iommi plus Dio equals magic, an alchemy that’s all over the new Heaven & Hell DVD, produced by Barry Ehrman and directed by Milton Lage. Though RJD twice left Black Sabbath following injuries to his own pride (over studio pecking order and over being temporarily slighted during a prospective group reunion with Ozzy), he has called Sab his ideal vehicle, and when he hired Appice for the blackest version of the Dio band in the ‘90s, he succeeded in capturing some of the vibe.
Metal guitarist Dave Van Heusen, a reliable commentator on all things Sabbath and Dio, has observed that Dio mates Doug Aldrich and Simon Wright must feel fortunate that they’ve got alternate gigs as guitarist and drummer with Whitesnake and Rhino Bucket, since Ronnie seems unlikely to proceed with his grand plans for his own outfit while prospects of a Heaven & Hell studio album loom. RJD himself has never been out of work in 40 years, for obvious reasons.
The first thing you notice about “Radio City,” in fact, is Dio’s total command. Unlike with other vocalists on other DVDs, the camera doesn’t cut away while he’s singing to disguise overdubs, because it doesn’t need to. I’m not saying there’s no dubbing, but as always, RJD, performing on March 30, the 12th date of the 2007 tour, hits all of his wide range with no strain and plenty of barely contained emotion, while holding the crowd on the edge of his ever-gesturing fingers and engaging them with apparently spontaneous patter between songs.
The DVD (this is out in CD as well) also tightens focus on Dio’s lyrics. How appropriate that he’d admit, on “Falling Off the Edge of the World,” that he wishes he was born in the time of King Arthur. The environmental message of “Children of the Sea” emerges beautifully in lines like “Reaching for the stars, we blind the sky.” When he improbably sings “I’m a giant” in “I,” for the first time I realize he might be putting himself inside the furry hide of the mythic beast Grendl. In the new “The Devil Cried,” Satan breaks down and sends Ronnie’s soul to heaven when he learns that Dio was condemned to love a certain You. Judging from Dio’s mysterious exchange with former druggie Iommi before the other new number, “Shadow of the Wind,” and from the words -- “The first one’s always free,” “I slip beneath the skin” -- he’s talking addiction here. (Fantastic bridge, by the way.) The signature “Heaven and Hell,” whose sentimental “Sing me a song” setup riptears to such a classically frenzied peak, metamorphoses in live versions (here and a quarter-century ago) into a love letter to the fans: “Then a little white shape looked down at me/He said, ‘I know where you ought to be, it’s heaven’/He said, ‘Come with me, I know just what to do’/I said, ‘Go away, I want to burn in hell with you! you! you!’” Not with the Shape -- he’s pointing to the crowd.
Iommi’s masterful feedback-shaping and note shading on that song, and his first solo on “Lady Evil” -- a model of simple fluidity and nuance that Ellington alto saxist Johnny Hodges would’ve admired -- nearly overshadow his passionate speedwork throughout. But you don’t have to look far for examples of why he’s considered the inventor of metal guitar. In an accompanying band documentary, he talks about his frustration playing the same Black Sabbath set with Ozzy for the last decade, so he takes every opportunity on “Radio City” to cut loose. His improvisations usually carry a rich taste of blues; though he’s rapid, he makes sure you hear every note; and most amazing is the way he ratchets up the energy level without accelerating the tempo -- you gotta be right on the edge of the beat for that.
Speaking of tempo, a word about Vinny Appice: This guy rocks. While he may have started out imitating Bill Ward, he has become a fully individual band member. Ward played a fraction behind the others, expanding the individual beats and making the whole thing really big. In Heaven & Hell, though, everybody plays together while still producing that slight tension that makes the rhythm lumber and slog in a gloriously different way. How they do it I dunno, but it has something to do with the wonderfully adaptable Geezer Butler, who’s matching Appice’s massive deliberation with simpler bass fingerwork. Heaven & Hell’s rock is an art appropriate for confident, mature men; the fact that they’re no longer barely-in-control drunks and dopers, as exciting as they may have been in that role, is not a problem. At all. Note for philistines like myself who tend to visit the water closet during drum solos: Appice’s turn is most entertaining, not only in the dynamic musicality of his improvisation but in the Samson theatricality he presents when he stands and bashes skins arranged 360 degrees around him. Also, the closeups up of his ridiculous sports footgear are priceless in this medieval context.
“Radio City” is one of the best rock DVDs I have seen. Performances: amazing, with Scott Warren’s offstage keyboards and somebody’s invisible guitar and vox adding small touches that’re just right. Sound: mighty and physical. Editing: active without being frenetic. Visuals: real, the one drawback being that at home you can’t possibly experience the massive magnificence of Paul Dexter’s stained-glass projections, giant winking eyes and cemetery-wall props.
The documentary extras are worth seeing, too. The interview with Radio City Music Hall’s proud publicity mistress is informative. The footage of the little-acknowledged but truly human stagehands is fun: Geezer’s guy has a pope-on-a-rope tattoo; Tony’s tech gives the fullest explanation I’ve seen of Iommi’s finger prostheses. Ronnie says he’s always vowed never to do anything that doesn’t make him happy. Vinny says he used Cozy Powell’s drums on the studio recordings by way of tribute to his deceased colleague.
And one longtime female fan says the final word for Sabbath acolytes: “We all relate to evil.”