With Black Sabbath miraculously revitalized both personally and artistically with the addition of Ronnie James Dio in 1979, it only made sense for the group to capture their sleek new live sound on tape. Little did they know that it was also to be the soundtrack of their demise. Despite rejoicing in their reclaimed commercial success, a punishing touring schedule for albums ‘Heaven and Hell’ and then ‘Mob Rules’ began to strain the group dynamic. Exacerbated by boatloads of cocaine, the band had split somewhat into ‘Brits vs. Yanks’ camps by 1982, Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler travelling in separate cars to the singer and drummer Vinnie Appice. With Dio also being offered a solo deal by Warner Brothers, things came to a head with the infamous mixing sessions.
Accounts differ, but accusations were made that Dio requested the engineer to turn his vocals higher up in the mix while Iommi and Butler weren’t present. This was the final nail in the coffin for the original members, Dio’s increasingly controlling behavior proving too much for them to work with. From the frontman’s point of view, he was simply experimenting with different levels, the founding members not showing for days on end, and when they did, they were off their nut with drug paranoia. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. The result was the same. The fallout saw Dio and Appice go off and make the metal classic Holy Diver while Sabbath’s fortunes slowly tanked until a full reunion with Ozzy was had. Forty years on, ‘Live Evil’ remains the sound of a veteran band enjoying newfound glory until rock n’ roll drama once more took the wheels off.
Despite all the acrimony brewing behind the scenes, Black Sabbath’s first official live album holds together pretty well. Thankfully this new 40th-anniversary mix helps clear up some of the muddy low ends while amplifying the crowd noise to help get a feel for the shows themselves. The band itself is on fine form, sounding sleeker and more fired up than the late 70s live material featured on recent super deluxe editions. Unsurprisingly it’s the recently recorded numbers that really shine, ‘Neon Knights, ’Voodoo,’ and ‘The Sign of the Southern Cross’ highlighting Dio’s theatrical roar with aplomb.
The other half of the set leans back on older Sabbath classics, with some material matching Dio’s vocal delivery better than others. ‘N.I.B,’ in particular, proves a fine match for the rock legend’s more professional prowess, while ‘War Pigs’ and ‘Paranoid’ are missing Ozzy’s pained wail. Dio is clearing the better musician and showman, but Sabbath’s earthy numbers need some of that Brummy grit. Iommi and Butler prove as reliable as ever, the guitarist dropping face-melting solos while Butler’s mighty rumble keeps things chugging along. Right to their final 2017 tour, their chemistry and power remained unmatched.
While slightly slimmer than previous super deluxe editions, ‘Live Evil’ remains a treasure trove for fans of the band. Included are the album’s original and new mix versions on gatefold vinyl, a period-accurate poster, and a tour booklet. Once again, a beautiful hardback forty-page booklet has been created, this time covering Sabbath’s entire history with Dio. This covers him joining the outfit all the way to their final tour billed as ‘Heaven and Hell,’ footnoted by his tragic passing to cancer in 2010. It’s a sweet summary and tribute to the metal icon’s time with the OG metal band, and, along with last year’s documentary, seems to tie into a reappraisal – or at least celebration – of Dio’s influence on 80s metal. ‘Live Evil’ stands as a welcome upgrade to the last snapshot of Sabbath in their creative prime.
Words: Sam Walker-Smart