Music

Biochemistry of a classic album: Heaven and hell by Black Sabbath

Sometime in 1979, when I was in the ‘4th year’ of secondary school I was lent Rainbow’s ‘Long live rock n’roll’. It was this album, with its faded parchment cover which introduced me to the lion’s roar of Ronnie James Dio’s voice. ‘Strange name,’ I thought. It wasn’t until about a year later that I read an article in the ‘must-buy’ metal magazine of the time, Kerrang, that Dio meant ‘God’. No shrinking violet was he. To be honest, I was initially disappointed with the record, simply because it wasn’t Graham Bonnet’s voice. My introduction to Rainbow had been their entry to the charts, ‘Since You’ve Been Gone,’ so, to me, RJD seemed a second best. This was not to remain the case.

I was round at my friend’s house, ‘Mouse’ was his name, and we were playing a wargame or subbuteo or something. In the background he was playing a tape.

“Let’s see if you can guess this song,” he said as he trounced me at the game. The block ‘G’ riff of ‘Kill the king’ pounded out of the tinny speaker on his portable deck. I told him it was a cool song. Actually, I probably said ‘Bril’ ‘cos cool wasn’t the common vernacular then. When he told me who it was I promptly asked another mate, Andy, to lend me the album again the very next day. I listened much more carefully, reading every lyric. From that moment onwards I was hooked on Mr Padovana’s vocal prowess.

Asking around at school I learned why LLRR was RJD’s last album with Rainbow. Apparently he had been kicked out by Blackmore, or he had jumped ship – it wasn’t quite clear at the time. The good news was, he had recently teamed up with Tony Iommi in a re-vamped Black Sabbath. Replacing Ozzy Osbourne, he was writing songs slated for an album to be released sometime the next year.

I had to wait until the following January of 1981 to actually buy the album. It was my first compulsory purchase from a record club I had just joined. I think it was called ‘Britannia’ or something, but you got four introductory albums at 99p each and then you had to by several more at full price over the next year.

So it was a snow-laden afternoon that I arrived home after trekking through drifts for two miles (the school had closed early). Waiting for me was ‘Heaven and hell.’ Ripping off the cardboard packaging, I was disappointed that the cover had been bent slightly and there was no lyric sheet inside. In fact, apart from a sketch of the band on the reverse, and a snippet lyric from the title track, that was all I could find – except for the vinyl. I’d hoped there might at least be some band photos, but no, it was quite a bare offering.

So, I fixed myself a crisp sandwich and put the record on our Sony system. In those days you sat and listened to the music from beginning to end, letting your imagination wander. After finishing the record, I thought to myself ‘It’s OK. A little dark perhaps. Nearly every song was written in Em. In fact it seemed that they were written in E flat minor, making the songs difficult to ape on my Bellwood strat copy. I didn’t find out til’ later that many bands, including Thin Lizzy, tuned their guitars down a half step.

In the ensuing months I would play the record to death until I knew every lyric and every note of Iommi’s riffs and lead breaks. At least, I thought I knew the lyrics. It wasn’t until a quarter century later that I found that the final complete line of the title track was ‘…and when you walk in golden halls, you get to keep the gold that falls…’ I’d always thought Dio sang ‘…and when you’re walking, going home…’ If only they’d put in that lyric sheet ….

So why is this seen as one of three classic albums that Dio recorded? Well here’s my biochemistry:

Track 1 – Neon knights                                    Listen/watch here

A tight, fast opener. Similar in style to the first track, ‘Turn up the night’ on their next album, ‘Mob rules’. From the outset you knew that you were dealing with a morphed Sabbath beast. One that had evolved significantly from the Ozzy-fronted version. It wasn’t just Dio’s consummate baritone to tenor vocals. Iommi’s guitar sound was less fuzzy and the lead breaks were more imaginative – not just your twelve bar blues noodling. Word has it that Iommi wanted to up his game after hearing Ozzy’s new guitarist, Randy Rhoads. Whether this is true or not, the solo on this and every other of these tracks is nothing but soul-searing. Iommi makes his guitar cry as he allows his fairy-liquid packet fingertips to extract every ounce of juice from the strings. ‘Circles and rings, dragons and kings ….’ Dio was obviously being given carte-blanche to pursue his favourite themes with the re-launched Sabbath – one of the main reasons he had left Rainbow. This first track really sets the pulse racing.

Track 2 – Children of the sea.                          Listen/watch here

I first heard this track as a live version from the ‘B’ side of the single ‘Neon Knights’. While good, it didn’t compare with the studio version. There’s something about Iommi’s use of the acoustic guitar which adds magic to these tracks. He confesses to hardly using acoustic in his practice, but I guess that the subtle approach is where he wins over. I don’t think the song ‘Sabbath bloody sabbath’ would be half as menacing without those acoustic major/minor interludes which are sandwiched between the verses. ‘Children …’ has become a long enduring favourite of mine. In fact, I recorded an acoustic version which you can listen to here if you so desire. I had to sing it an octave lower as there’s no way at the time that I could reach Dio’s high notes. In a lyric reminiscent of Led Zep’s ‘Ocean’ song, Dio always dedicated this to his audience saying they were the ‘Children’ in the lyric. To me, the track has echoes of Milton’s ‘Paradise lost’ and fallen angels. But, as with many of Dio’s lyrics, you can read what you want into them. A sense of doom and paradise lost pervades the song right up to the final ‘It’s never coming back – look out!’

Track 3 – Lady evil                                               Listen/watch here

This track opens with Geezer Butler’s thunderous bass. At this point I have to say that Geezer is one of my favourite bassists of all time. I loved the crazy way he would shake his head about in early Sabbath and his tone was full and bombastic. He also, gracefully, stepped to one side as the band’s main lyric writer when Dio arrived. Yet, he was no mean lyricist – being an avid reader he was a metal poet. Anyway, this is one of Dio’s ‘warning’ songs about a lady living in a valley who ‘feeds the darkness’ and eats ‘right from her hand.’ Some fine wah-wah pedal work from Iommi brings this rocker to a close.

Track 4 – Heaven and hell                                     Listen/watch here

And so to the title track. A sprawling epic. If this song were a story it would be a sextology to rival anything produced by George R.R. Martin or Brandon Sanderson. It starts uncompromisingly with the main theme of power chords, but then slips effortlessly into Geezer Butler’s cantering bass line. This in turn creates the space for Dio to segue into the verse: ‘Sing me a song, you’re a singer …” This would always be an opportunity when playing live, for Dio to exhort crowd participation. His interaction evolved over the years. Compare the minimalist approach heard on the bonus tracks which came with reissues of H&H and Mob rules, and the more lengthy exchanges on ‘Live Evil’ or Dio live albums.

The arc of the song is very much ‘old style’ Iommi and features interludes and tempo changes in a linear progression. The preceding songs had more of a verse-chorus-verse-chorus-midIdle 8- verse-chorus-outtro approach. The skill of Geezer amd Iommi in combining root bass notes with the chords cannot be overstated. If there was an algorithm to calculate ‘hooks’ in a song then H&H would produce a sky-scrapingly high quotient. Take, for example, Dio’s melody line for the lyrics ‘Love can be seen as the answer’ or ‘Fool, fool …’ and experience the spine-tingling bluesy gravitas of these phrases. For Iommi’s mid-solo he uses, possibly for the first time, a long tape-echo with deceptively simple string bends, chops and running scale rounds which build up on each other creating their own harmonies. Iommi is a long time compatriot of Brian May, the guitarist in Queen. I wonder if he wasn’t just a little bit influenced by May’s long stereo delay offerings when he played ‘Brighton Rock’ live. Iommi makes it his own though – a perfectly crafted solo ending in a familiar bluesy string bend. The atmospherics around this central part are enhanced by Geoff Nicholl’s masterful keyboard effects and Martin Birch’s consummate production technique. Together they create a gothic, apocalyptic backdrop.

Then we get the upping of the tempo, segued by Bill Ward’s call to arms on the kick and snare. Iommi continues the lead guitar, playing succinctly chosen licks to complement Dio’s lyrical culmination: ‘The world is full of kings and queens, who blind your eyes then steal your dreams – it’s heaven and hell.’ Not so much a literal dichotomy between paradise and damnation in the after life, but more a recognition that we are all complicit in the heaven or hell we make for ourselves and others during our lifetime.

The song ends with a long vibrato E reminiscent of the Dr Who theme tune. This finally fades into a round of acoustic guitar by Iommi, giving the song a folk tale vibe to finish.

I doubt if Dio ever played a gig after 1980 which didn’t feature this song. He never seemed to grow sick of it either – like Robert Plant did with ‘Stairway….’ Small wonder that when the troupe finally came together again before Dio’s passing, they named the group after this song.

Track 5 – Wishing well                                               Listen/watch here

As far as I’m aware this song was never played live by either the sabs or their later incarnation, ‘Heaven and hell,’ but it remains a strong favourite of mine. I even included it in my first compilation of songs which I made for the girl who eventually became my wife. What makes this song magic? It’s a fairly simple minor chord progression with an upbeat rhythm. It could be Dio’s melody, or it could be Iommi’s emotion-ripping licks which intersperse with the singer’s lines. Maybe the structure of the song evokes precisely the tone of the lyrics. It’s probably a combination. Dio always recognised a certain alignment of stars whenever he wrote with Iommi, and this song exemplifies that. Take the mid ‘dream on …’ segment played over an unusual two-chord minor seventh repetition. Dio’s harmonised background singing blends with Iommi’s quite unique playing before entering a connecting piece with the main verse again. Iommi confesses to playing two or three different solos when recording. Then choosing the best take. He obviously chose well. The other ‘Wishing well’ song is the Free offering from their ‘Heartbreaker’ album. One of the few occasions where Dio seems to lift a line from another song. In this case, ‘I wish you well …’ I suspect this is a case of convergent evolution rather than plagiarism since both Rogers and Dio had a penchant for ad-libbing.

Track 6 – Die young.                                                Watch/listen here

This is my favourite track on the whole album – no mean feat when you consider the colossus’ which tower alongside it. Third song in a row in the key of E (flat) minor – and yet the sabs still manage light and shade. Compare this with AC/DC’s repetetive riffs exclusively in E and A and you begin to appreciate that Sabs were masters of their craft. If you watch the video linked to this track’s review (and I recommend that you do), then you see the first appearance of Dio’s sign of the Malik toward the end. How many rock icons do you know invent a gesture which becomes so ubiquitous that almost any metal gig you could name sees it brandished with manic zeal?

The song opens with Geoff Nichol’s keyboards. This man is the unsung hero of the album, and indeed Sabs gigs throughout the eighties. He’s not as flash as a Jon Lord or Tony Banks but his textures allow the other musicians in the sabs to shine. I also love the way the keyboard intros on these albums blend perfectly into the song in a continuum. Once Dio formed his own band he never quite mastered this. On Holy Diver, for example, the synth intro feels like a bolt-on at the beginning. Even worse is ‘Egypt’ from the ‘Last in line’ album. I suspect that Martin Birch’s production also played a part in this.

Iommi employs some more long delay harmonised guitar in this intro to great effect, before merging with another bludgeoning classic riff (how many can this man dream up?). Dio launches in with his rich, textured voice, singing lyrics which weave a fantastical path between dream language and a gritty philosophy of life. “Go to the wind, though the wind won’t help you fly at all, Your back’s to the wall. Then chase the sun, and it turns away to face you as you run …..” The mid-section sees a slow-down again with Dio singing falsetto over a Nicholls/Iommi tapestry. Apparently Blackmore never liked it when Dio adopted this approach – can’t think why, it provides a magnificent contrast. Then comes a dramatic, almost Wagneresque passage featuring crashing guitars and a thundering rhythm section. Finally, the song comes around again with a repeat of the first verse and a fade out featuring an exquisite harmonised melody by Dio and a frantic bone-scratching solo by Iommi lying on top of it.

This song, to me, is the high point of side two. I was disappointed when it didn’t feature on ‘Live evil’, but my patience was rewarded when I heard it performed during one of Dio’s last gigs in November 2009 at Newcastle City Hall.

Track 7 – Walk away                                                        Listen/watch here

This is the only other song off this album which was never played live (to my knowledge), and the maestro of the piece is Geezer Butler. His bass really makes this song with it’s perfect tone and ascending runs. He knows just when to keep to the root note as required to make Iommi’s sustained fourth chords work to maximum effect. The song has a simple warning revealed in Dio’s lyric “But I can see right through it all, it’s the way to hide a child.” This could have been just a token filler romp of a track, but then you have the haunting mid-section, the interrupted note sequence providing an amphitheatre for Iommi’s reverb-laden, bluesy solo. The song ends with an almost doo-wop chorus line which becomes the final fade out. Lucifer meets motown!

Track 8 – Lonely is the word                                             Listen/watch here

The video I’ve chosen for the link above is from Heaven and hell’s 2007 tour when Dio was in his late 60’s. It’s quite poignant that the opening lyrics to this song foreshadow his tragic death from Stomach cancer three years later: “It’s a long way to nowhere, and I’m leaving very soon.” The song ends the album on a real downer emotionally, but on a high musically. It seems that RJD  wrote only one true love song in his career, that being ‘Catch the rainbow’ from the very first Rainbow album. Thereafter, whenever he revisited the pastures of l’Amour it was always a warning or a heart-rending cry for lost love – and there was never such a cry as the one which emanates from this song. Written in the key of A (flat) minor it really tugs on the heart-strings – every last digit of the Iommi/Dio algorythm coming into play.

RJD may have been unlucky in love, but in terms of the love and respect of his hundreds of thousands-strong fanbase, he was never alone.

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So there it is. Like other giants of rock classic albums, Heaven and hell has a minimum of tracks. But, like Shakespeare, each note and each word carry a headily rich cocktail of meaning never to be equalled again. This has not just been an anatomy of one of the greatest albums of all time, but a review which strips things down to a molecular level. I hope you enjoyed it, and that maybe you learned some factoid which you’d never come across before. Feel free to comment in the section below, and watch this space for another classic album review in the near future.

Excelsior!

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