For much of the past decade, Black Sabbath have been performing with their original singer, Ozzy Osbourne. And while they haven't yet released any new material, their seemingly perennial appearances at Ozzfest make it seem as if Osbourne is the group's only real singer.
That's not exactly the case. The band had several different singers after Ozzy left in 1979, and fans almost universally agree that Ronnie James Dio — unquestionably one of the most legendary throats in metal history — is by far the best Sabbath vocalist not named Osbourne.
During Dio's tenure (1979-1982 and 1992-1993), Black Sabbath recorded their best material since 1975's Sabotage, but while both 1980's Heaven and Hell and 1981's The Mob Rules were haunting, heavy and arguably more musically mature than much of the band's earlier work, their significance in the Sabbath catalog has been diminished by the many hit-and-miss Sabbath records that followed Dio's departure, and more significantly by the group's reunion with Ozzy. And sadly, the group's third studio effort with Dio, the punishing 1992 album Dehumanizer, hit at a time when metal was shunned and faded with barely a blip (the underrated 1982 concert album Live Evil also featured Dio).
But now Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler are taking strides to resurrect the Dio era by recording three new songs with him for an upcoming best-of album, Black Sabbath: The Dio Years, and scheduling a world tour under the band name Heaven and Hell.
This doesn't mean the end of the Ozzy-fronted Sabbath, nor does it spell curtains for Dio's long-running titular band. It's even unclear whether Heaven and Hell will record a studio album, but for most of 2007 the band will, barring some unforeseen circumstance, spread its taloned wings and take to the skies.
"It's going to be a lot of fun to get back in front of fans and perform these songs again," Dio said. "I think this is something a lot of people have been waiting a long time for."
According to Dio, the Heaven and Hell tour will kick off in Vancouver, British Columbia, on March 3 and play at least seven shows across Canada, ending in Toronto. Then the band will likely play South America, Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe before returning to North America for a U.S. tour in August or September.
Though Dio is thrilled to be able to revisit his past with Sabbath, he hasn't lain awake at night longing for a reunion. And while Iommi and Butler have wondered over the years what it would be like to play again with Dio, it was Warner Music subsidiary Rhino Records that first brought up the idea by making plans to release The Dio Years. The label contacted Iommi's manager and said it would like to include some previously unreleased songs. Since there was nothing worthwhile in the vault that hadn't been used, Iommi contacted Dio and suggested they consider getting together to write some new material.
"About four months ago, I went over to England to Tony's house, where he has a studio," Dio said. "We started to work together, and it was really so enjoyable. After long spaces of time not working with people, you forget how good they are or how much you liked being around them."
The band isn't yet ready to announce the titles of the three new songs, but that doesn't mean Dio isn't eager to talk about them. One, he says, will be slow and doomy, the second will be midtempo and the third will be a scorcher.
"They're the perfect blend, [given] the limitations of only doing three tracks," he said. "I feel like we covered all the bases, and it's all guitar, bass, drums and voice. There are no keyboards, and it sounds excellent. And the lyrics are pretty weird. Whenever I get back with Sabbath, I seem to have this leash taken off me and I can write as weird as I want to."
The three tracks were recorded during three sessions, each of which lasted an average of 10 days. Black Sabbath's original drummer, Bill Ward, was not involved with the recordings and will not tour with the band. Instead, Heaven and Hell recruited Vinnie Appice, who joined Black Sabbath after Ward left in 1980 and played on The Mob Rules and Live Evil before teaming with Dio to form the latter's titular band (he played on five Dio records in the '80s and early '90s).
"It was wonderful to work with Vinnie again," Dio said. "Even though I hadn't seen him in many years, we got along as if we'd never been apart because we know each other so well from all those years of being together."
Shortly after Heaven and Hell announced their plans, the Osbourne camp issued a lukewarm statement. "Tony Iommi and Ronnie Dio are working on a project together which has nothing to do with Black Sabbath," it read. "There is only one Black Sabbath. Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Bill will be touring late next year along with a new Black Sabbath album. However, Ozzy wishes Tony and Ronnie much success in their project together."
After being nominated several times, Sabbath were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year (see "Black Sabbath Finally Make Rock Hall Of Fame — Whether Ozzy Likes It Or Not").
For more on Black Sabbath, check out the feature "The Greatest Heavy Metal Bands of All Time."