Black Sabbath
The Rules of Hell

The closest I’ve ever come to Heavy Metal Parking Lot took place in March of 1992. My friend Tim Dafner and I were perched in the top row of Dayton’s legendary Hara Arena, conspicuously smoking dirt weed while still buzzing from the Danzig set we’d come to see. If we were disinterested in Black Sabbath, it wasn’t because of the songs. From a distance it was hesher heaven for a teen. Only this was the Dehumanizer tour, and our faithful leader Ozzy had been replaced years ago by Ronnie James Dio. Even at that young age, I was in on the joke. Since his induction to the band, Dio has never had the luxury afforded Ozzy; he’s been the perpetual punchline, eventually embracing his place in the metal world as some kind of ironic elfin idol. Looking back at that show, Dio did have his legion of fans, a toothless, nicotine-stained bunch gobbling up his demon and wizard fantasies, indulging in his operatic voice, but never speaking ill of the Oz—or he who cannot be named, could never be replaced.

Leave it to Rhino to get the argument (or snickers) surfaced again. Did Dio leave a formidable legacy in his three-album (and one double-live record) stint with the band or will he always be regarded as a second-tier frontman? Judging from the collection packaged in the new The Rules of Hell boxset, it’s certainly a bit of both. Here we have every artifact from the Dio years, remastered with extensive liner notes and in-depth interviews neatly bundled for a nice price. Granted you could probably find all four albums in your local dollar bin.

The first two discs, Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, are unanimously the favorites, artistically eclipsing Sabbath’s final duo of albums with Ozzy (Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die). Loaded with enough power riffs and sharp hooks to pounce back into a career that was virtually brain-dead thanks to mountains of cocaine, alcohol and bad business, gone are the band’s doom and sludge metal, replaced by a renewed sense of speed and majesty. Despite the calls of blasphemy, recruiting the New Jersey native Ronnie James Dio into the fold brought a healthy squire to battle with Tony Iommi’s virtuosic overlord persona. Dio’s voice was perfectly equipped for this new direction, either ferociously growling through arena-ready carpet-bombs like “Die Young” and “Neon Nights” or grandstanding through the Middle-earth imagery of “Children of the Sea” and “Lady Evil.” Unfortunately this prolific collaboration was short-lived. By the time the group was to release Live Evil, a poorly recorded document of greatest hits old and new, they had reached a boiling point creatively.

Sabbath continued on, trudging through the ‘80s barely noticed while Osbourne, and even Dio, maintained successful solo careers. Re-instating Dio for the Dehumanizer album was the only gem in a decade of obscurity. But that honeymoon was a one-off and failed to connect with the black magic of yore. “TV Crimes,” though an obvious retread through “Children of the Grave,” was a competent grind that precedes Dimebag Darrell’s speed ‘n’ guzzle shred. (This is still a potent Iommi.) The stunted comeback was unfortunately the epitome of regurgitated late ‘80s metal. Dio’s clean living wasn’t the problem here; his voice, preserved in amber, actually sharpens an album that could’ve been a total disaster.

We all know the story from there. The band finally convinced Ozzy that half a decade of touring the classics would bring a small fortune, and Black Sabbath headlined Ozzfest sporadically through the ‘90s. A shame that line-up couldn’t conjure up enough comraderie to record the fabled sessions with Rick Rubin. Instead Dio is back again; now they’re known as Heaven and Hell. Pretty original sure, but it will be interesting to see if Iommi and the little Italian Elf from the shore can rekindle the synergy of that silver age in the early ‘80s.
Kevin J. Elliott