By Joshua Jabcuga
Heaven or Hell? Josh Jabcuga reviews a recent Ronnie James Dio-fronted BLACK SABBATH gig, with openers Motorhead
The Ronnie James Dio-led BLACK SABBATH is an anomaly. It's a breed apart, a beast of its own. More on that later.
Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, and Bill Ward on drums invented the heavy metal sound, and the metal aesthetic. For years it was always a two-horse race, with many arguing that LED ZEPPELIN were the true studs of the genre and SABBATH were merely the dark horses. The mighty and majestic Zep and the juggernaut sound of the Sabbs have their similarities, both with their massive mortar blasting riffs, their blues-tinged guitar noodling, and their walloping rhythm sections. In retrospect the differences are more accessible and even singular: quite simply, ZEPPELIN was always more of a hard rock band, the hard rock band, and BLACK SABBATH? The heavy metal band.
Throughout the '80s and a healthy portion of the '90s, it just wasn't cool to be a fan of SABBATH. The original band had splintered apart. Ozzy quit/was fired and went solo, becoming the Prince of Darkness (when that title actually meant something, pre reality show/Sharon laughingstock burnout). Metal itself eventually spun out of control with the vapid, watered-down "hair metal" sound taking over MTV and such groups as POISON and WARRANT becoming the poster-poser-boys for a new generation. The advent of grunge music wiped the palette clean and gave rise to NIRVANA, PEARL JAM, SOUNDGARDEN and ALICE IN CHAINS (the latter two possessing a sound that owed a great debt to SABBATH, both the Ozzy- and Dio-led versions). Through the relentless megalomaniacal marketing schemes of Sharon and a non-stop touring schedule, Ozzy stayed in the limelight, while SABBATH fell through the cracks.
What does all of this mean? Timing was a double-edged sword for Ronnie James Dio. In one thrust he became the voice behind the greatest metal band ever, taking over as vocalist when Ozzy left the band. But it was his head on the chopping block. Ozzy's workingman, nasal vocals were no match for Dio's operatic gusto. And the band's sound evolved, forging ahead like a rising phoenix into dark skies. Unfortunately, due to Ozzy-loyalists, the loss of original drummer Bill Ward, and the tumultuous times ahead for metal in general, Dio's reign with SABBATH was short-lived (when compared to the body of work that Ozzy's Sabbs produced). Dio's contributions to BLACK SABBATH and to the metal genre were all but overlooked by everyone but the diehards.
Heaven and Hell
Ozzy Osbourne, as a man, used to represent mystery, among many things. There was power in the intrigue. What was he like off the stage? Behind closed doors? In the comfort of his own home? That was part of the appeal and the draw, the sense that the madman displayed on the stage was just an amped-up extension of the person behind the curtain. Unfortunately, The Osbournes, the highly rated MTV reality show, propelled Ozzy to a mainstream audience that was even greater than the one that had followed his music for years. People saw Ozzy as the blundering idiot who followed orders barked at him from his bitch wife Sharon, no longer as the madman of metal. And thus the illusion was killed.
Sharon Osbourne, the wife/manager, knew it was important to strike while the iron was hot. Like some kind of freak, she pushed Ozzy around from town to town, city to city, until he was sick and broken down. Realizing there was money to be made in healing old wounds, money did the one thing miracles never could: with the insistence of Sharon (surely), the original BLACK SABBATH reunited to play Ozzfest, the traveling summer music bill. It was a beautiful thing for those who had never had the chance to experience the original line-up in person. There was something just "off" about the whole spectacle, though. It was as if Ozzy was hanging on for dear-life, while Geezer and Tony coolly forged ahead like Zen masters. The musicianship had reached masterful levels, but Ozzy was too weathered. It was too little, too late. Sharon had pushed too hard and there was just no more to give. And somewhere along the way, who should reemerge but one Ronnie James Dio.
Rhino Records was putting together a greatest-hits package containing the hits of the Dio years of BLACK SABBATH. As an incentive, the band, with frequent and respected drummer Vinny Appice, recorded three new tracks. SABBATH was back and sounding better than ever. There was still plenty of life left in this monster. Unable to use the SABBATH moniker for legal reasons, the band would embark on a tour as HEAVEN AND HELL. Tightening their sound even more on the road, the band has started to record an album of all-new material, with about five tracks already in the can. If what I experienced last Tuesday at the Erie County Fairgrounds in Hamburg, NY (a suburb of Buffalo) is any indication, metal fans should be preparing to bow at the altar of these metal gods yet again.
We are Motorhead and Play Rock 'n Roll ... and we enjoyed the Banana Derby!
SABBATH, er, I mean, HEAVEN AND HELL, were supported by TESTAMENT and MOTORHEAD. The less we say about openers TESTAMENT the better. Their set was killed by a poor sound system. The drums were about the only audible element, while the vocals were muddy and the rest of the outfit was tinny at best. The band was very energetic and tried to make the best out of what they were dealing with to no avail.
The flaccid TESTAMENT only made the full-on gangbang assault from MOTORHEAD that much more menacing and forceful. The venue was a grandstand, a stage set up in the middle of a horse track, surrounded on all sides by carnival games, rides, carnies, freak shows, and bikers (this was the official "Biker Night"; bikers were admitted at a discounted price and allowed to park on the track). And MOTORHEAD seemed right at home. The band even commented that after witnessing the "Banana Derby" attraction, where tiny monkeys jockey atop dogs and then race to the finish, they'd seen it all. But the audience hadn't seen anything yet, as MOTORHEAD ripped into a blazing set, turning the Erie County Fair, "America's Fair," into a seedy Berlin nightclub. The sun had set by now, the beer had kicked in, the air was rife with the smell of horse manure and weed, and Lemmy and Co. plowed ahead. This is the 169th year of the Erie County Fair, and I believe it's safe to say in the history of the event, there has never been a more unapologetic, devil-may-care, bludgeoning set like this. Under the strobe lights, Lemmy came to life, and showed why he's the seasoned pro who's seen it all and done it all and didn't bother to take any prisoners along the way. Guitarist Phil Campbell, who has been with the band since 1984, ripped and shredded like the older, evil brother of Randy Rhoads. Incendiary in the truest sense, Campbell did everything he could to set that stage on fire. He was cocksure with the precision of a surgeon, but not overly showy. He knew when to pick his battles, and when to sit back and let Lemmy do his thing. Campbell is clearly one of the most overlooked players in metal.
Motorhead's "Killed by Death"
The band steamrolled through the hits, the highlight being a balls-to-the-wall take on "Killed by Death." After MOTORHEAD left the stage, the general consensus was that the band had left the crowd wanting more, like a good lap dance that just made you want to hit up the ATM. The casual fans were completely won over, while the diehards seemed grateful at the chance to see Lemmy in a rather unique setting. MOTORHEAD would be stealing this show if Dio's BLACK SABBATH didn't live up to every inch of hyperbole they've earned collectively over the years. It was going to be a hell of a performance to top, and the Sabbs would have their work cut out for them.
Tony Iommi's solo at the Erie County Fair.
Bassist Geezer Butler was jubilant. He had the vigor of a man a third his age but the sound of someone who has been playing for the better part of half a century. His playing on "The Sign of the Southern Cross" was rippling from his instrument like black magic burping from a cauldron.
Heaven & Hell's "The Sign of the Southern Cross"
Drummer Vinny Appice, a rock 'n road warrior in his own right, secured the fortress of rhythm along with Butler. The Dio-led BLACK SABBATH sound relies upon Appice just as much as it does the other members. Without him, this would be a different band completely, and it's a meaner band of misfits because of him.