The voice is always a surprise. It is a loud, freakish wail, an instrument of brooding messages on demons, dragons and doom. Singer Ronnie James Dio is a small man, shorter than any of the 100 radio-contest winners and record-company staff facing him as he crouches dramatically behind his handheld microphone. At nearly 67, he’s been at this longer than Mick Jagger, beginning his career as a teen in the rockabilly ’50s, several years ahead of the British Invasion and the thunderous first onset of heavy metal. He’s stylish and noticeably fit in a black-velvet tunic, standing center-stage in a cavernous rehearsal room in industrial Van Nuys, but it’s the aching, preposterous sound of that soaring voice of warning and woe that few could have expected to survive into 2009.
Dio leans toward the crowd, his free hand raising the demon horns, as he yowls a new song of supernatural fear: “If there’s a hell and Satan had a daughter/He must have sent her here .”
Three decades have passed since Dio was first recruited to step into the crushing gloom and diabolus in musica of Black Sabbath, filling the sudden vacancy left by Ozzy Osbourne in 1979. Dio’s collaboration with the British metal originators was short-lived but eventful. There were hit albums — 1980’s Heaven and Hell and 1981’s Mob Rules — and the usual god-awful reviews. They broke apart early that same decade, then recorded a 1992 reunion album that went nowhere just as hair metal was crashing and grunge was rocking MTV harder, louder, faster. Sabbath’s Dio years were over.
An encore was unlikely, especially after Sabbath and Osbourne reunited in the ’90s as a live touring unit, playing the same hour of hits every other year on Ozzfest. And yet here they all are — Dio, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Vinny Appice — now calling themselves Heaven & Hell, and preparing for their second world tour since 2007. Today they’re performing songs from The Devil You Know, the quartet’s first new studio recording in nearly two decades.
The egos are still present, but less of an issue as the band demonstrates how metal can actually age gracefully without surrendering its muscle. The Devil You Know is no revelation on the level of Sabbath’s earliest work, but it is a rock-solid, old-school metal album, fueled by Iommi’s smoldering slabs of guitar noise, now pounding the front rows at nearly 119 decibels. The album debuted at No. 8 on Billboard’s album chart in May, matching the highest-ever Sabbath chart position (1971’s Master of Reality), which not only suggests an ongoing hunger for classic metal, but is a kind of vindication for Dio and this particular foursome, free at last from lingering affection for the Sabbath name.
On tour this summer (including an August 11 stop at the Greek Theatre), the band will perform no Ozzy-era songs. No “Iron Man” or “Paranoid” or “Sweet Leaf.” They will instead draw exclusively from their own four albums together. “It really made a great difference by calling it Heaven & Hell,” Dio says later. “We’ve gone through so much — it’s always coming and going and going and coming — that it never feels like anything permanent at this point . I just take it as it comes. I enjoy playing, I enjoy the guys, and I enjoy the fact that we’ve been able to make a great album and show that we can still create after all these years, and haven’t lost a step.”
When he joined Sabbath, Dio was an American with an operatic flair, more flash and less gloom than Osbourne’s desperate howl. He settled in the San Fernando Valley, where he has remained ever since. (Appice lives in L.A., and Butler also keeps a place here. Only Iommi is strictly U.K.) From his estate, Dio witnessed the rise of metal on the ’80s Sunset Strip. He was a local deity then, going platinum as a solo artist in 1983 with Holy Diver. As desperate rockers lined up along the boulevard, Dio was a symbol of possibility. “There was a lot of vitality going on,” Dio remembers of the scene outside the Rainbow Bar & Grille. “Now, we don’t really do that. Going to a bar getting loaded night after night after night like I used to — that just ain’t for me anymore. It’s not fun to see the same procession of people over and over again.”
The dress rehearsal unfolds amid a smoky Young Frankenstein castle motif, with heavy chains and fake iron plating behind the band. At stage left is Iommi, six years younger than Dio and sliding two prosthetic fingertips along the frets of “the old boy,” his hot-rodded Gibson SG, a beaten and scarred instrument customized for him back home in the Midlands in ’75. It looks like it’s been through a fire.
The sound of his guitar is the same as it ever was. His riffs on the new album’s “Bible Black” and “Atom and Evil” connect with a familiar force, his guitar strings down-tuned to a Gothic gloom and aimed right at the solar plexus of our newest generation of disaffected teens. Iommi’s got a million of them. “He came in with 40 for this album — two CDs with all the riffs. World-class riffs,” says Butler of the sessions at Rockville Studios in Wales. The bassist co-founded Sabbath with Iommi, Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward in 1968, back when the idea was just to get heavy, drifting away from the era’s straight-ahead blues explosions and maybe into something closer to the texture of industrial Birmingham.
“It was a whole different thing when we started,” says Iommi, sitting with Butler in the Burbank offices of Rhino Records. “There were a lot of bands around with rhythm-guitar players. It was just the two of us, and we tried to make a sound as big as we could. When we started . we had a slide-guitar player and a sax player. It didn’t last long. It was a horrendous racket.”
What he created with Geezer was a sound as timeless and primal as original punk or classic country. It was the genre least likely to age well, but Iommi, an elegant man in black with a Guy Fawkes goatee, worked to perfect the formula. For most of the past four decades, he kept the Sabbath name going even as original members fell away, recording and touring with new players, sometimes to the distress of longtime fans. He owns the Black Sabbath name outright. Recording as Heaven & Hell at least leaves open the fading possibility of working again with Osbourne, who continues to record solo albums and get laughs on TV. “We still talk to him,” Iommi says of Osbourne. “He’s a friend. We never talk about getting back together or anything like that. He does his thing, and we’re doing ours.”
Just weeks after the new album’s release, however, Osbourne filed a lawsuit demanding a 50 percent share of the Black Sabbath name, plus an equal stake in any profits from the sale of band merchandise. “We’ve all worked too hard and long in our careers to allow you to sell merchandise that features all our faces . and then you tell us that you own the copyright,” Osbourne said in a statement. “We’re all in our 60s now. The Black Sabbath legacy should live on long after we have all gone.” Iommi has no comment.
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Heaven & Hell perform just four songs at the dress rehearsal. After it’s done, fans line up for autographs and a handshake. One man has an armload of Ozzy-era Sabbath albums to be signed. Another has Holy Diver. Others have posters of the new album cover: an enraged, horned demon with three forked tongues. For one young woman, Geezer draws a frowning cartoon face on a headless zombie’s body.
It’s now the stuff of The Lord of the Rings films, not the PMRC or Christian protests. Black Sabbath helped invent something loud and scary nearly 40 years ago. Heaven & Hell are elder statesmen of a genre ridiculed for most of its existence. It turns out loud guitars are eternal.
“We stuck with it,” says Dio. “That gave us a connection with an audience that’s pretty unbreakable. You still don’t see the attention that Carrie Underwood, Susan Boyle or somebody else who did a karaoke program gets. Oh, you worked hard for that? Not like us, who have seen friends die of drug overdoses or get into accidents and beat up on the road.
“I’m a musician, I want to play,” he goes on. “That’s how my life has always been, and that’s how my life always will be.”