MusicBLACK IS REALLY WHITE
As a phrase, “heaven and hell” covers more ground than any other dichotomy, spanning from the spiritual playground that lofts nebulously above the cosmos to the torture pit buried beneath the earth’s molten core. As such, it’s an apt moniker for a band fronted by Ronnie James Dio, whose polarities-based lyrical approach – the Diochotomy – ranks just behind his popularization of the mano cornuta “devil’s horns” gesture as a signature innovation.
The Black Sabbath song “Heaven and Hell,” from 1980, contains the first evidence of the Diochotomy. “They’ll tell you black is really white,” he portentously sang. “The moon is just the sun at night.” The Diochotomy thrived throughout the ’80s, especially when Dio left Black Sabbath to form his eponymous group. Examples of this flexible construct include “We’re a ship without a storm/The cold without the warm” (from “Last in Line”) and “Is the wise man always right? No, he can play the fool” (from “Mystery.”)
The Heaven and Hell tour resurrects material from the Dio-era Black Sabbath albums (Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules, Dehumanizer) while incorporating three fresh concoctions (included on this year’s collection Black Sabbath: The Dio Years). During the new Heaven and Hell track “Shadow of the Wind,” Dio demonstrates he hasn’t lost his alternately magic/Mugglish touch, mentioning “black and white,” “good and evil” and the darkness that “just killed the sun.”
“All these dichotometric – I think I just made up that word – titles and lyrics just make me more of an individual, someone you always know who it is because I write that way constantly,” Dio explains. “I like blacks and whites. I like the starkness of them.”
Sabbath scholars usually depict the group’s Ozzy Osbourne (1968-79, 1997-present) and Dio (1979-82, 1991-92, 2006-present as Heaven and Hell) eras as opposite extremes, a characterization the contrast-craving Dio unsurprisingly supports.
“I brought melody and classicalness and a great amount of musicality to this band,” he says. “Ozzy began it, and he deserves all the accolades he can get because he helped invent this kind of music. What he did was absolutely right for what it was, but music grew at that point, and I think it grew beyond what Ozzy was capable of giving an audience from a musical standpoint. I’ve only had one gear in my life, and that was that it had to be great music. It was a music gear. Ozzy had a lot of different gears, a frontman gear and a character gear and a wild-guy gear, whatever that might have been, and that was not nearly what I brought to this band or what I wanted to bring to this band.”
Osbourne’s voice is the baleful whine of a damned soul bitterly making its haunting rounds. His reedy tone has thinned with age, giving it a deathly sonic pallor. Dio’s operatic vibrato resounds like a gallant hero’s confident salutation. There’s no warning inherent in its mellifluous tones, which might be why he chose “Look out!” (first appearance: “Children of the Sea,” a Heaven and Hell set-list staple) as his trademark exhortation, to reinforce the music’s menacing aesthetic.
The gap between the singers’ stage presences has become more pronounced in recent years, particularly with regards to profanity. 1998’s Osbourne-helmed Sabbath live album Reunion might contain more permutations of “fuck” than Scarface. The closest Dio comes to cursing on this year’s Heaven and Hell Live From Radio City Music Hall is a muttered “boo bloody hoo” during the introduction of the new tune “The Devil Cried.”
Varied frontman personas aside, all Sabbath incarnations remain true to the same tenets: Tony Iommi’s guitar lines, which uncoil slowly before dangling in a murky abyss; Geezer Butler’s death-rattle bass; and drums that alternate between zombie-pulse metronomes and pyrotechnic detonations (Bill Ward usually mans the kit for Osbourne; Vinny Appice plays for Heaven and Hell and did so for most of Dio’s Sabbath stints).
After immersing himself in sprightly melodies and synthesizer hooks for more than a decade, Dio could have transformed Heaven and Hell into the converse of Ozzy’s oppressive gloom, a relatively breezy, Rainbow-tinted Sabbath. Instead, he embraced the group’s classic sound on Heaven and Hell’s recent sludgy, keyboard-free studio creations, and he refrained from tampering with his earlier Sabbath material.
“You have to be true to the songs, to what you did before,” he says. “If you’re not, it confuses people. It’s like if you loved an early Mustang or Corvette, you loved it for what it looked like, not what it became.”
Even the Diochotomist sometimes sees shades of gray.