In Criminally Slept-On, Schuler Benson takes a look at some of the most underrated tracks from his favorite prolific bands’ back catalogs.
While all the groups I feature in Criminally Slept-On are established acts with significant fan bases, Black Sabbath is another animal entirely. It’s tough to try touting rare and overlooked material by a band whose every era has been intricately chronicled. And I don’t just mean random articles and the occasional thinkpiece; there are literally books upon books written about Sabbath, detailing all aspects of the band’s career, from their destitute origins to the pinnacle of their 1970s excess and debauchery. (ed note: while this column is Dio-centric, we’re giving away two-disc versions of Sabbath’s first three albums and a limited edition print, and you can enter right here!)
If I didn’t make it clear with the Ozzy-era edition of this column, most of what I’ll highlight here is for the benefit of the casual fan. I’d include myself in that category for a good chunk of my musical formative years. While I grew up in the shadow of a father who loved Sabbath and who shared that music with me, that love began and ended with Ozzy. I wasn’t truly exposed to the band’s later eras until I was in my 20’s, and once I finally heard post-Ozzy Sabbath, I wondered why the hell I’d taken so long to try it out. Most of this list will be stuff that’s fairly easy to find, but that less-fanatical Sabb appreciators may not have heard before. So if you already own the three-disc, semi-official Dehumanizer Rehearsals release, you’re not gonna find anything new here… there’s your fair warning. However, if you are left wanting and would like to revel in more obscure Black Sabbath minutiae, check out Martin Popoff’s book, Black Sabbath FAQ: All That’s Left to Know On The First Name In Metal. I pretty much guarantee there’ll be some new info for you there. Moving on.
Back to excess and debauchery. A good bit of what cemented the band’s hard-partying reputation took place during Ozzy’s initial reign as Sabbath’s frontman. Following his (for real) departure after 1978’s ill-received Never Say Die!, things took a different turn with the addition of former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio to the band’s ranks. Dio’s tenure with Sabbath is marked by extremes in every category. The band rekindled success in ways Iommi and Butler never dreamed they’d once again enjoy after Osbourne’s booting. Some expectations were exceeded, others dashed by clashes of ego. Some fans (like my dad) never accepted Dio. Others never gave a shit about Sabbath until Heaven and Hell. Regardless of which category you find yourself in, Sabbath’s Dio output contains some truly legendary material. Dio’s last official release under the Sabbath moniker, The Dio Years, relished in the glory of the lineup’s most well-known songs, like “The Mob Rules,” “Heaven and Hell,” and “Neon Knights.” Let’s look at a few that stand in a slightly dimmer spotlight.
1) “Breaking Into Heaven”
This is the closing track from Dio’s final collaboration with Tony and Geezer, 2009’s ironclad The Devil You Know. Iommi owns the Black Sabbath name, and after reforming the classic-era Dio lineup, the group decided to call themselves Heaven & Hell to avoid confusion with the since-revamped Ozzy version. This album contains some of the best work Iommi, Butler and Dio ever did together, and songs like “Bible Black” hold their own quite capably among anything bearing the Sabbath name. I chose “Breaking Into Heaven” because not only is it forceful, cathartic, and powerful as hell, but it contains a poetic foreshadowing; this was Dio’s final recorded output before succumbing to stomach cancer in 2010. Some of the man’s best lyrics, bar-none.
2) “Ear In The Wall”
In addition to remastered versions of Sabbath classics, The Dio Years featured three new songs from Black Sabbath’s Mob Rules / Dehumanizer era. All three songs showcased some of the finest qualities of past Dio/Sabbath collaborations, including Iommi’s doomy riffs custom-tailored for Dio’s melodic range, and Dio’s fantastic ability to tell a hell of a story through his lyrics. “Ear In The Wall” is the shortest of the three, and probably packs the most punch as far as retreading some of the territory the band conquered during the Heaven and Hell days. Check out the lyrics when you hear the song. So weird. So awesome.