On April 24, 1980, the ninth and masterful studio album of "Black Sabbath", "Heaven and Hell", was released.
The album marks the beginning of Ronnie James Dio's era in the band, an era that will include a fundamental change in Black Sabbath's sound and song structure. But more than that, the album marks the beginning of an era in which all metal and hard rock fans of all kinds have united under one symbol - "the horns" or "the devil's horns" or "the metal horns".
So to understand how it all happened, one has to go back to the beginning.
In 1979 and after 3 successful albums with Rainbow, Ronnie James Dio leaves the band at its peak. On the tour following the album 'Long Live Rock 'n' Roll', Ritchie Blackmore and Dio began discussing the direction of the next album. Blackmore aspired to create shorter and more catchy songs, he very much wanted a "hit". Dio on the other hand did not like the direction Blackmore was attracted to, but since it was nevertheless Blackmore's band Dio simply decided to leave.
That same year, Black Sabbath's popularity was declining. The band failed to recreate the success that had existed on their major albums from the early 70s. Tony Iommi described the process of writing and recording with Ozzy as extremely frustrating. Ozzy Osbourne became more and more problematic, his addiction problems got worse and worse and his behavior became unbearable, to the point that it was clear to everyone that he could no longer be a member of the band.
Don Arden managed Black Sabbath at the time. His daughter, Sharon Arden (who would later become Sharon Osborne) is the one who suggested the band collaborate with Dio. The original plan was to employ the members in a side project until Osborne "reset" himself, but at some point, everyone realized that Ozzy would not be able to stay in the band in his current condition and they approached Dio with an offer to become a permanent member.
Dio was invited to an introductory meeting at Tony Iommi's house in Beverly Hills. During the meeting, Tony played a guitar Riff and Dio suddenly started singing leaving Iommi breathless. On the same day, the two wrote "Children of the Sea", one of Black Sabbath's greatest songs of all time. The song goes back to Ozzy's era in the band, but it included completely different lyrics and a completely different melody, that one can say the song was rewritten.
Tony Iommi described the writing process with Dio as different, innovative, and refreshing. While Ozzy used to sing along with the riff itself (listen for example to "Iron Man", the melody in the song is the same as the riff), Dio used to improvise melodies around the riff, which caused Tony Iommi to open his eyes to new musical possibilities.
However, the idiom between Dio and Iommi was disrupted due to the personal issues of the other two band members. Drummer Bill Ward struggled with alcohol addiction and bassist Geezer Butler went through a divorce process at the time, which led to the recruitment of Geoff Nicholls who served as bassist during rehearsals. At one point, Geezer called Iommi and asked to return to the band. Dio thought it would be good if Iommi and Geezer will play together and therefore supported his return. Eventually, the talented Nicholls was shifted to fulfill the role of keyboardist. The use of this instrument also contributed to the change in the sound of the band. In fact from that time until Black Sabbath's last album "13" Nicholls served as the band's keyboardist.
When Bill Ward listened to the demos of the new songs, it was immediately clear to him that he must be a part of the album. He decided to immediately return to the band which return to create with the same enthusiasm that had existed in the first half of the 70s.
Another reason for the band's change in sound was related to Dio's insistence on bringing in super-producer Martin Birch to work on the album. Birch encouraged the band to explore new fields of music and experiment with new musical structures appropriate to Dio's multi-octave sound range. The results were nothing short of amazing.
This album maintains a high standard throughout and includes some masterpieces that are written in the history of metal.
Already in the amazing opening song "Neon Knights" you can feel the change in the sound and the erupting power of Geezer, Tony, and Bill led by the mighty voice of Ronnie James Dio. It is hard to believe, but this song was meant to be a "filler." It was written and recorded last of the album's songs, in a completely separate session and in a different location from where the rest of the album songs were recorded. Martin Birch asked for another song to fill the album and Iommi said the band wanted a fast song to balance the heavy and slow songs on the album. This song was eventually written and recorded within hours, and it amazingly illustrates the fundamental change that has taken place in the band, which has made the transition from Doom and slow riffs to rhythmic and exploding Heavy Metal. Similar to "Hells Bells" which came out that year and was Brian Johnson's first public audition for the devout "AC/DC" fans, "Neon Knights" was Dio's initial test for "Black Sabbath" fans, and he undoubtedly passed it successfully.
The rhythmic song "Lady Evil" with Butler's beating and deep bass, illustrates the change in lyrics compared to Ozzy's era. With Dio the lyrics was surrounded by dark themes, witches, wizards, medieval ceremonies, and other themes that did not suit Ozzy's days, or his voice.
The theme song "Heaven and Hell" is one of the greatest metal anthems of all time. It is written about the ability of every one of us to choose between darkness and light, between evil and good. The simple, monotonous and so iconic bass line in this song was written by then-session player Geoff Nicholls, who will later become the band's regular keyboardist. There is even a 1979 recording of this song with Jeff Nichols on bass. This song simply rhymes with rooted and classic metal, and no wonder it managed to climb to 11th place on the list of the 500 greatest metal songs of all time. It is also so identified with the band that its intro served as Tony Iommi's welcoming song to the stage during the Freddie Mercury Tribute Show.
"Die Young" shows how Dio's voice can be so diverse, so rich and so versatile. Listen to the change between the verses with the mighty and powerful vocals as opposed to the bridge with the soft and sweet voice. A tremendous range and divine voice of one of the great singers in metal.
The tracks "Wishing Well" and "Walk Away" are Tony Iommi's least favorite of all the "Black Sabbath" songs of the Dio era. We actually really like them. Geezer Butler's bass work on "Wishing Well" just "drops jaws" and Iommi's short guitar sentences are just perfect. So true, the lyrics are not typical of "Black Sabbath". Dio even tells the girl that he will fulfill her personal wish and make her dream come true, but it does not bother us. "Walk Away" is indeed the "weakest" song on this album, but mind that this album features so many amazing tracks.
The only song that perhaps includes remnants of the old and no less good "Sabbath", is the excellent ending song "Lonely Is the Word," based on a slow, heavy riff whose roots are planted somewhere in the "Black Sabbath" of the early 1970s.
This album proves without a shadow of a doubt that Dio has managed to inspire a new spirit in the band and bring about its resurgence, but its big challenge was to get into Ozzy's big shoes and conquer the hearts of the band's devout fans, as well.
Fans of the band considered Ozzy's replacement "sacrilege." Ozzy was the band's icon and fans could not have imagined the band without him. Dio was well aware of what he was getting into, it was clear to him that devout fans would not take it lightly. He had a very hard time standing on stage night after night in front of the fans who had seen Ozzy in the same place for ten consecutive years before him, and heard the same crowd roar: 'Ozzy, Ozzy!'
But in the end, Dio managed to capture the hearts of the fans with his amazing voice, excellent singing ability, sheer charisma, and uncompromising performance!
And now for the story of the famous "metal horns".
As part of Dio's "conquest" process to win the heart of the fans, he needed his own hallmark sign. Anyone who has seen Sabbath's live shows with Ozzy from the 1970s, knows that Ozzy used the V sign with his fingers. Dio needed a mark of his own but he could not look like his predecessor, so he chose a mark that his Italian grandmother used to get rid of an "evil eye" - the horn mark known today as "metal horns".
Anyone who has watched recorded "Rainbow" performances during the Dio era, knows that he has not yet used the horn symbol during this period. In contrast, in the video of the show "Black & Blue" released by "Black Sabbath" in 1981, one can see the first times Dio uses this sign. The show "Black & Blue" was recorded in 1980 during Sabbath's first tour with Dio, right after the release of the album "Heaven And Hell".
The "metal horns" symbol soon became the hallmark of Dio, but not only! The symbol's popularity grew and it became associated with metal music.
To be precise, Dio was certainly not the first to use the symbol and even Geezer Butler noted in 2021 that he did so in the early 1970s. At the same time, there is no shadow of a doubt that Dio is responsible for the publication of the sign until it becomes the international emblem of metal fans wherever they are. Read more about the history of "Metal Horns" here.
For listening to the masterpiece album on Spotify: