Listening to the new Black Sabbath (Dio version) disc, Live At The Hammersmith Odeon, I came away with two or three dominant responses. Response #1: Wow, this kicks all kinds of ass. Response #1A: Wow, Vinny Appice is a fucking incredible hard rock/metal drummer. His machine-gun fills on "Neon Knights" alone are worth the price of this disc - maybe even the wildly inflated eBay price that's about to take hold, now that the initial 5000 copy print run has vanished. Response #2: Black Sabbath with Ronnie James Dio up front were/are a completely different band than Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne up front, and nowhere is that made clearer than when Dio tackles the Osbourne-era material on this disc.
See, the thing of it is, and this is in no way a slap at Dio, whose work in just about every context I tend to like (I'm not a big Elf fan, but hey, who is?)...but he sings nonsense. His lyrics are disjointed strings of often clumsy metaphor, all about questing, and heroism in the face of nothing specific, and the soul, and on and on. If you know Dio's music, you know the deal. For example, here are the lyrics to "Heaven And Hell":
Sing me a song, you're a singer
Do me a wrong, you're a bringer of evil
The Devil is never a maker
The less that you give, you're a taker
So it's on and on and on, it's Heaven and Hell, oh well
The lover of life's not a sinner
The ending is just a beginner
The closer you get to the meaning
The sooner you'll know that you're dreaming
So it's on and on and on, oh it's on and on and on
It goes on and on and on, Heaven and Hell
I can tell, fool, fool!
Well if it seems to be real, it's illusion
For every moment of truth, there's confusion in life
Love can be seen as the answer, but nobody bleeds for the dancer
And it's on and on, on and on and on...
They say that life's a carousel
Spinning fast, you've got to ride it well
The world is full of Kings and Queens
Who blind your eyes and steal your dreams
It's Heaven and Hell, oh well
And they'll tell you black is really white
The moon is just the sun at night
And when you walk in golden halls
You get to keep the gold that falls
It's Heaven and Hell, oh no!
You've got to bleed for the dancer!
Look for the answer!
Fool, fool, fool!
This song is meaningless. No single verse has anything to do with the one that precedes it, or the one that follows it; indeed, no idea is sustained for an entire verse. Note the deployment of the place-holder "Oh well" and the utterly clumsy phrasing ("The less that you give, you're a taker") undertaken just to fill out the rhyme scheme. It's a string of muddled concepts that don't stand up to even rudimentary analysis, but sound really fucking cool bellowed into a packed, screaming arena atop a wall of power chords and thunderous rhythm. And every one of Dio's lyrics with Black Sabbath are exactly the same kind of empty mumbo-jumbo. Even when he seems to be addressing something specific, such as the song "Country Girl," he blows it up into a big gaseous cloud about a girl who'll "snatch your soul" - but she doesn't even have a name, or any identifying characteristics. Dio doesn't sing about women; he sings about Woman. And this is why he falls so flat on some of the early Sabbath songs that make it into the set here, "War Pigs" and "Paranoid" in particular.
Those early songs, written primarily by Geezer Butler, had a psychic groundedness that turned them into messages aimed straight at the hearts and minds of stoned, depressed late-60s/early-70s youth across the globe, but particularly in the then-failing Western industrial nations like the UK and US. A lyric like
Politicians hide themselves away
They only started the war
Why should they go out to fight
They leave that all to the poor
with its raw class rage, is utterly beyond Dio's ken. Thus, he attempts to put his own stamp on the song, ad-libbing at the beginning "Oh, they take you away/Make you go/You die/But you try/Oh yeah" over the classic opening doom riff. It's almost embarrassing; it takes the song from the realm of political protest to the brink of Broadway schtick. The ad-libs continue throughout the song, so it's not like Dio's not trying to sell it, but he's doing it in the only way he knows how - through muddled conceptualism. Concrete ideas just aren't his thing. And so, while both the Dio-era Sabbath and the Ozzy-era Sabbath released great records, they were doing completely different things. Which is why the Heaven and Hell project, during which the band plays only Dio-era material, is such a good thing. It keeps Dio from screwing around with songs he doesn't understand.
(To be totally fair, there are Ozzy-era songs with lyrics that are unreal enough for Dio to tackle them in perfect psychic comfort. I'll bet he could sing the fucking hell out of "Supernaut," for example.)