CD / DVD Review: Heaven & Hell "Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell"

CD / DVD Review: Heaven & Hell "Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell"

Eagle Vision/Armoury Records
All Access Review: A-

Ozzy Osbourne was gone, and this time, he wasn’t coming back, at least not until the “all is forgotten” reunions that would, perhaps inevitably, come years later. Black Sabbath had moved on with Ronnie James Dio, but not everyone was ready to welcome the new vocal sorcerer with open arms.

As Dio remembers it, in an interview included with the new Heaven & Hell live DVD, crowds that came to the first shows featuring the reconstituted Sabbath lineup greeted him not with a pleasant “hello,” but with middle fingers pointed straight at him. Acceptance would come grudgingly, as fans started to realize that it was Dio who was helping usher in a period of restoration for Sabbath, the 1981 classic, fire-and-brimstone LP Heaven & Hell letting all know that a slumbering heavy-metal giant, wracked by substance abuse, personal problems and creative dissension, had awakened.

The world of metal is still in mourning Dio’s death, having lost one of its most spellbinding voices and imaginative lyricists earlier this year. On July 30, 2009, the Dio-period Sabbath, now christened Heaven & Hell, performed at the famed Wacken Open Air Festival in Germany, still riding high on the warm reception, from fans and critics alike, given their deliciously evil 2008 comeback album The Devil You Know. They had lost none of that old black magic, as the new “Neon Nights: 30 Years of Heaven & Hell” DVD and its companion CD so poignantly bears out.

Time stood still that night as Heaven & Hell, consisting of Dio, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Vinny Appice, bulldozed and bludgeoned its way through a set of well-chosen numbers from their glorious, and somewhat underappreciated, past. From the opening instrumental “E5150,” only on the DVD version, Heaven & Hell crash headlong into the violent brutality of “Mob Rules,” before steering their ship straight into the massive rogue wave of riffs and melodic undertow that is “Children of the Sea,” making it sound as epic and majestic as ever, and coming out the other end on the shores of some distant land as rampaging marauders in an especially mean version of “I.”

It’s a breathless beginning, and it only gets better from there. A punishing “Bible Black” is followed by an even heavier “Time Machine” and their latest crushing missive from the depths of hell, “Fear,” with Dio giving it his all and Iommi roaming his way through a tight, fluid little solo that packs a big punch. All of this is captured in crystal-clear video and rich sound, cameras sweeping over and around the action like fighter jets, providing wide views of both the colorfully lit stage – with a giant fiery cow’s skull above the fray – and the endless throng of people gathered at Wacken to get a glimpse of a band that was not at all ready for the grave. The editing is smooth and seamless, putting to good use the wonderful variety of camera angles to emphasize the band’s still potent musicianship – Appice’s thundering drum solo and the beautifully framed close-ups on Iommi and Butler blazing away are not be taken lightly, especially true with the mesmerizing sonic adventure Iommi takes listeners on prior to the raging “Die Young” – and its flair for the dramatic.

As an epitaph, this is as good as it gets, even if it’s difficult to make out what Dio is saying between songs and you can’t help but miss perhaps the greatest achievement of this Sabbath lineup, “Sign of the Southern Cross.” They make up for it, though, with a soaring “Heaven & Hell” that stampedes to a wonderfully chaotic meltdown.

Choosing between the two, the DVD – and its 13 songs, compared to 11 on CD, both including a nice color booklet with a few photos and a well-written history of Dio’s time with Sabbath – is the way to go here, though the CD is an aurally magnificent recording. Actually seeing onscreen this timeless foursome, still breathing fire, live again and enjoying the moment, is priceless, and 30th anniversary interviews with all four members, conducted by venerable metal media king Eddie Trunk, are full of great behind-the-scenes war stories from the past and the kind of wry humor that always comes as a surprise from four men known for some of the gloomiest, most horrifically doom-laden music ever conceived.

-Peter Lindblad

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