BLACK SABBATH – Say Nothing of Forever
25 years ago, the legendary godfathers of monumental doom that we all collectively know and love as Black Sabbath released one of the heaviest and darkest heavy metal albums to ever see the light of day. I am of course referring to the underrated Dehumanizer record, which was released on June 30, 1992, by the now defunct I.R.S. Records. The road leading up to the recording and release of this epic and gloomy record is an interesting and fascinating one, one that we shall explore here. I was not kidding before; Dehumanizer really is a wonderfully unpleasant and monstrously dark piece of work. Nothing short of brilliant. In many ways, it has become something of a cult object, or an underrated gem, if you will. Many fans rate it highly and it only seems to garner even more adherents and worshippers as time passes. I am tempted to say that it was misunderstood when it first arrived on the scene in the early 90s, almost as if the world was not yet ready for it. Of course, back then grunge was all the rage. The thrash metal giants that had ruled the 80s with an iron fist were pretty much left for dead. Well, some of them at least. Nobody seemed to care about aggressive and fierce heavy metal anymore. Sure, there was the death metal boom in Florida and the rise of black metal in Norway, but pure heavy metal was struggling. Those were dark days indeed. Black Sabbath soldiered on and refused to give in. More importantly, they refused to adhere to other rules than their own. They did not intend to change their sound or attitude. Vinny Appice, Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, and Geoff Nicholls were back together again, and what better way to celebrate that than by putting together an album consisting of ten sinister hymns of doom? There are many aspects of Dehumanizer that are…well, special and unique, I think. We shall touch on those as we go along, but for now let me just say that it was the very first album by Black Sabbath that I ever bought and immersed myself in. I was eleven years old when I bought it on CD for 120 Danish kroner in a little record store named FONA in my hometown. I will never forget the first time that I ever spun the disc. I was overwhelmed. It was otherworldly. It was forbidden. It was bliss. It was beyond anything that my pre-pubescent brain could possibly have fathomed or conceived of at that time. In other words, it was a completely new experience for me, listening to Black Sabbath, but then I suppose Dehumanizer is not exactly the easiest album by the band to digest for a newcomer. The dense and bleak atmosphere of the album along with the fact that many of the songs need to grow on you probably make it less easy to absorb compared to "Paranoid" or "Heaven and Hell", just to list a couple of albums that boast catchier songs (or rather songs that are instantly memorable, if that makes sense).
The album marked the return of the iconic vocalist Ronnie James Dio and hard-hitting drummer Vinny Appice thus reuniting the Mob Rules (1981) and Live Evil (1982) line-up consisting of original members Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi, the aforementioned Dio and Appice, and long-time member Geoff Nicholls on keyboards. When original singer Ozzy Osbourne was either fired or quit (depending on whom you ask) from Black Sabbath in 1979, former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio joined the band and lent his incredible talents to the inhumanly awesome Heaven and Hell record that was to follow in 1980, which singlehandedly resurrected the band’s career. Not only was Heaven and Hell a musical triumph, but it won Sabbath countless new fans, many of whom were too young to remember Paranoid from ten years before. Halfway through the resulting tour, drummer Bill Ward quit and was replaced by Vinny Appice. The American-born drummer fit in perfectly and following the end of the tour the band found themselves back in the studio to record the follow-up to Heaven and Hell with Martin Birch producing. The incredibly varied and sinister Mob Rules was released upon the unsuspecting masses in 1981 and once again, the band went on the road to support it. Internal tensions, problems, lack of communication, and bad vibes started seeping into the band’s atmosphere and this version of Sabbath eventually disintegrated completely during the mixing of the Live Evil album with Iommi and Butler accusing Dio and Appice of sneaking into the studio afterhours to turn their instruments up in the mix. Dio jumped ship and launched an extremely successful solo career taking Vinny Appice with him while Butler and Iommi joined forces with former Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan and returning drummer Bill Ward for the raw and wicked Born Again album in 1983. In many ways, it was a rather sad end to the Dio-fronted version of Sabbath. After all, the band had triumphed in the face of adversity, released two great studio albums, a brilliant live album, and toured pretty much constantly for two years. The acrimonious split left many feeling that there was zero chance of this particular line-up of Sabbath ever returning to the spotlight together. There were too many bruised egos and wide-open wounds left in the wake of the split, or so everyone thought.
By 1990, Tony Iommi had more or less steered the Sabbath ship singlehandedly and released a string of truly sparkling yet underrated diamonds aided by some of the finest musicians to grace the face of the earth. While the band’s 1989 and 1990 albums and tours did extremely well in Europe, Sabbath was a long forgotten relic of the past in the US. Nobody in the US cared anymore. The Headless Cross US tour in May/June of 1989 was cancelled following just a handful of dates and the 1990 Tyr tour never even made it across the pond. When Geezer Butler joined Black Sabbath on the UK leg of the Tyr campaign at London Hammersmith for the encores, it was clear that something was afoot. The management were breathing fire and wanted more.
Black Sabbath meantime had demonstrated they could still generate a sharp upward curve in album sales and respectability in Europe but in America, the land where it really counted, the career graph was looking decidedly flaccid. If Ozzy wasn’t about to play ball the Warner Bros. execs reasoned Dio might just do the trick. (Young 237)
Geezer Butler also visited Dio in St. Louis and performed "Neon Knights" with the DIO band on stage. It was only a matter of time before someone came up with the idea of putting the Butler/Dio/Iommi line-up back together again to reclaim lost territory and recapture the spark and intensity of Heaven and Hell/Mob Rules era. Before it got to that point, however, the initial idea was to keep Cozy Powell in the line-up. After all, he had been Sabbath’s drummer since 1988 and helped put the band firmly back on the map in Europe not to mention co-producing two of the greatest albums ever released under the Sabbath moniker, namely Headless Cross and Tyr. Butler, Dio, and Iommi did rehearse and write with Powell as evidenced by the Dehumanizer Rehearsals that are in wide circulation on YouTube, but unfortunately, Cozy broke his pelvis when a horse died and fell on top of him. Frankly, the story sounds bizarre, but that was the official version of what happened. As Cozy told one reporter,
‘I was kicked out of the band because a horse fell on top of me and I couldn’t play for six months,’ he fumed. ‘Also a few dirty tricks were played and Tony suddenly ran off with an American version of Black Sabbath. Ronnie James Dio was hired as a singer, and he demanded that Vinny Appice was hired as a drummer. I didn’t agree with Dio’s choice because I already worked with him in Rainbow. I was disappointed in Tony’s choices and especially because he didn’t want to wait for me to recover. Whether I wanted to play with Dio remains to be seen […] (Wall 301)
Once Cozy was out of the equation, the obvious thing to do was to get Appice onboard and hope that the magic of the early 80s could be evoked. That proved easier said than done. The atmosphere within the band was tense and it gradually became apparent to the members why they had split in the first place. Perhaps that is one reason why the songs sound so intense and devastatingly heavy. Either way, the quality of the material could not be denied. There was still a certain magic there. As Garry Sharpe-Young states,
Ronnie James Dio towed the PR line when asked how the album was assembled, "I love that album," Ronnie enthused. "I really thought it had a good modern sound, lots of very heavy riffs, very heavy songs. The whole album had an edge. I liked the fact that we were dealing with some good topics too, not the expected Sabbath subjects. Geezer pulled some interesting stuff out there. I think the fans loved it but the press couldn’t see past the fact that it was me singing, or that it wasn’t ‘Heaven and Hell’ part two, but who cares. Both Geezer and Tony came up with some great stuff for that record. I think it’s a hugely underestimated record." (Young 242-243)
While the band may not have gelled personally, musically and lyrically they were on top form. Rarely has Dio’s iconic voice carried so much power and venom with it, and Iommi’s riffs are razor-sharp and downright malevolent. The pounding artillery courtesy of Appice and the rumbling 4-string pulse provided by Butler never fail to send shivers down my spine. Dehumanizer is a roaring beast of an album. Epic in scope, but strangely dark and compelling through and through. It may well be the heaviest album ever conceived by Black Sabbath, which definitely says something. Granted, no one can really "out-heavy" that immortal riff that rips open the debut album, but "Computer God" is without doubt one of the most crushing songs to ever open an album by Sabbath. Speaking of which, the track "Buried Alive" might well be one of the sludgiest and most doomy songs to ever cap off a Sabbath album. As Mick Wall says,
The completed album, titled Dehumanizer, was a marked improvement on anything they’d done in recent years; their best, certainly, since Heaven and Hell. What it lacked in the warmth and sheer exuberance of the latter, it made up for by being simply the most convincing Black Sabbath album since then. Stripped of the melodic pretensions of the Hughes and Martin albums, injected with the kind of bloody vigor unheard since the long-ago days of genuinely monstrous statements like ‘Symptom of the Universe’ and ‘Snowblind’, it was raw and unapologetic. The best work Dio or Iommi had recorded for too long. (Wall 301-302)
While I think the Tony Martin-era albums that preceded Dehumanizer are stunning, I do agree that Dehumanizer is a convincing slab of raw metal. It also proved that Sabbath could still rock with the best of them and were as relevant as ever. On top of that, it went against the grain of what was popular at that time, namely grunge. It was evident that Sabbath were neither trying to sound commercial nor deceivingly modern. Simply put, the album ended up sounding ahead of its time.
THE THEME OF THE ALBUM
"Computer God" really sets the tone of Dehumanizer. Bone-crushingly bombastic and heavy to the point of the absurd, the lyrics are some of the best ever penned by Geezer Butler and Ronnie James Dio and are strangely prophetic considering how modern technology dominates our everyday existence. Keep in mind that the words to the song were written back in the early 90s; one could argue that Butler and Dio were actually well ahead of the curve when it came to outlining just how far we humans have descended into the abyss in terms of letting ourselves be controlled and dictated by technological inventions and whatnot. Lyrically, the album was different to anything the band had previously done:
‘Dehumanizer’, without doubt, struck out on a new lyrical path. Geezer’s recent excursions with his latter solo material made their presence felt in bringing the record right up to date. This is something Ronnie James Dio is happy to clarify. "At first I was writing words in my fantasy style actually. These were being submitted and Tony Iommi was not too happy with it. We spoke about it and he said he wanted to change a few things. What he actually said was ‘You’ve used all that before’. OK, I took that on the chin because Tony was probably right. Then we had to decide what he did want. […] Eventually we determined the fantasy stuff was out. I started to write in a very stark, black and white kind of way. It was about as heavy as you could possibly get. Geezer had quite a few things too. He had a great idea of ‘Computer God’ so I came up with some more stuff to go around that. ‘Computer God’ was probably the song that started us off into the direction we ended up with." (Young 239)
As Dio indicates, Dehumanizer is a dark, pulsating, and thought-provoking record with a modern edge to it. There is nothing old about it whatsoever. When you listen to it now, it does not exactly sound as if it is 25 years old. Would you not agree?
Unfortunately, the Dehumanizer record was never toured extensively in Europe, which is a damn shame considering that the Iommi/Martin/Murray/Nichols/Powell line-up had done an incredible amount of work in Europe prior to the reunion with Dio. The Tyr line-up had put the band firmly back on the map over here, but the US market was clearly what Black Sabbath anno 1992 had their eyes on. Judging from the response the band received at the time from both the fans and the press, Black Sabbath were in great shape and played some thunderous shows on the Dehumanizer tour. Listen to some of the bootlegs that are floating around on YouTube and you will see what I mean.
It was a rather sad ending to the whole tale when the band decided to open for Ozzy Osbourne at the two Costa Mesa shows in 1992. Dio had the integrity to say no and simply turn down the offer by telling the others that he would not do it. For some bizarre reason, the others probably thought that he would come around and do the shows, but he never did. They then called Tony Martin asking him to help them out, but VISA issues prevented that from happening. Old friend Rob Halford (Judas Priest) then stepped in and did the shows with the band. Halford is one of the greatest singers of all time. One has to love and respect the man, but those two shows were nothing but an anticlimactic ending to the Appice/Butler/Dio/Iommi/Nicholls line-up:
The Costa Mesa show itself, featuring Rob Halford and the Dio-era line-up of Black Sabbath, followed by Ozzy and his solo band – followed by the big reveal of the four original members coming on to blast through a 30-minute encore – was something of a damp squib. The set with Halford was perfunctory, the singer forced to use teleprompters to sing the lyrics, which then broke, forcing him to improvise. The Ozzy set with Sabbath was much better but no more than a glorified encore, with little said publicly about what the next move might be, other than sticking to the party line about this being Ozzy’s last show. (Wall 315)
The whole notion of acting as the support band before their former vocalist went on stage and headlined seems absurd. Personally, I am glad that Dio stood his ground and never went along with that idea. Either way, it was sad to see the band end on such a low note considering just how strong the Dehumanizer album is and how well received the shows on that tour were. To jeopardize it all just to support Ozzy seems rather lame to me. As Dio himself said at one point, "’Dehumanizer’ was about the best album we could make at that time, I loved it. I was very proud of that album and the tour was good, we were getting an excellent response so to shoot it like lame horse at the end was insulting. (Young 248).
The question that many keeps asking is whether or not Iommi should have broken up the Tyr line-up in order to make way for the reunion with Butler, Dio, and Appice. Interestingly, Iommi did call up Tony Martin while the band was putting together Dehumanizer and asked him to come down and sing on it, explaining that things were tense and not really working out.
Nevertheless, the making of Dehumanizer had not been plain sailing. According to Tony Martin: ‘As soon as they’d started, within weeks, they called me up and said: "This is weird, this is not going well. Can you come back and have a chat?" So I went down to see Tony but I couldn’t do anything because I’d already started my solo album.’ (Wall 304)
Martin did up singing on some of the tracks, but those recordings have never surfaced on any bootleg that I know of. Black Sabbath eventually got their shit together and got the album in the can, but Martin did in fact lay down some vocal tracks prior to that happening:
"Basically they wanted me to redo the vocals for the ‘Dehumanizer’ album" states Tony matter of factly in a revelation that will no doubt shock many Sabbath and Dio fans. …"We put down vocals on some of the ‘Dehumanizer’ songs and it was sounding good. Obviously we had to start from scratch on all of the vocal melodies and lyrics to redevelop everything. In fact it was sounding very good." (Young 242)
On the other hand, some fans feel that the Martin albums were a little lightweight and lacking in heaviness and power, which is to say that there can be no doubt that Dehumanizer was a welcome return to form from the perspective of a lot of fans and critics. Having said that, I am extremely curious as to what the Iommi/Martin/Murray/Nicholls/Powell would have come up with following the Tyr record, but at the same time, I would not want to be without Dehumanizer, if that makes sense. A strange paradoxical feeling indeed. However, nothing changes the fact that Dehumanizer is great piece of work that deserves praise. It is a great record that still stands tall and proud as one of the best metal releases of the 1990s, but it did indirectly mark the end of both the Black Sabbath Tyr line-up and the DIO Lock Up the Wolves line-up, both of which were brilliant.
HEAVEN AND HELL
When the Mob Rules line-up reunited in late 2006, the band recorded three exclusive songs for a compilation entitled The Dio Years and went out on tour in 2007 in order to support this particular release. A few songs from Dehumanizer were aired on the 2007 world tours and they sounded spectacular. They sounded livelier and more vibrant than ever before. On top of that, they were well received by the crowd. I attended their show at KB Hallen in Copenhagen in June that year, and the whole experience was otherworldly. Apart from an epic and sinister rendition of "The Sign of the Southern Cross", the highlights of that particular evening were "Computer God" and "I". One must keep in mind that I had been dying to hear those particular songs performed by Black Sabbath live on stage ever since I obtained my copy of Dehumanizer way before I even had hair on my pecker. The aforementioned tracks literally gave me the chills on that warm summer’s night in early June 2007. I will forever cherish that experience.
DIO IN DENMARK
On a bit of side note, I witnessed the DIO band (another favorite group of mine) perform Sabbath’s "I" in Aarhus in late August 2006. I specifically remember Ronnie saying that he felt that Dehumanizer was somewhat underrated and that he was truly proud of this album. In retrospect, I wonder if he knew that he was going to reunite with Butler and Iommi at that point in time. Given that the DIO gig took place in August, it is definitely conceivable that the decision to perform "I" on this tour was a sign of things to come, or a teaser, if one will. Of course, it could be nothing more than Ronnie wanting to perform one of his favorite songs off the Dehumanizer album, but the fan in me obviously wants to read more into it than that. With Sabbath, it has always felt as if everything happened for a reason. I know that Iommi and Dio met in the UK in October 2005 when the DIO band were performing the entire Holy Diver album live in its entirety on a select few dates. I was lucky enough to witness the one at the London Astoria, and that was truly magical. Nothing off Dehumanizer was performed that night, but that is beside the point. If you buy the DVD or Blu ray version of the Holy Diver Live release, go to the bonus features and then watch the backstage footage. At some point, you will see Iommi and Dio hanging out and talking. Did they discuss the The Dio Years compilation? Did they discuss writing new and exclusive songs for it? At what point in time did the two gentlemen actually discuss what would eventually mutate into the Heaven and Hell band? It is perfectly conceivable that plans had already been set in motion by the time DIO granted me my wish by playing "I" at Train in Aarhus in 2006. Who knows?
Many have come to regard Dehumanizer as an overlooked and underappreciated masterpiece. Have a look at the reviews on Metal-archives.com and you will see or simply google the album and check out some of the press reviews out there. The interesting thing is that when Dio re-formed the DIO band following his departure from Sabbath in 1992, one could argue that the 1993 album entitled Strange Highways incorporated some of the elements that were also present on Dehumanizer. That unpleasant, sinister, and apocalyptic tone of Dehumanizer permeates Strange Highways to a certain extent. The latter is highly underrated as well.
Even today, Dehumanizer still sounds as sharp as a razor. It neither sounds dated nor out of fashion by any stretch of the imagination. On a personal level, I still get a major kick out of listening to it. It has simply aged incredibly well, perhaps more so than any other metal album from the 90s that I can recall. It was also pretty damn beautiful to revel in the fact that "Computer God", "After All (The Dead)", "Time Machine", and "I" were so incredibly well received when aired on the Heaven and Hell tours between 2007 and 2009. The crowd loved them.
When reading books and articles as well as interviews relating to Dehumanizer, it seems that people have very different ideas of whether the album was a success or not, but the fact is that it was the best-selling Sabbath album for a decade. It cracked the UK Top 30 and even made it into the Top 40 in the US. What makes it even more successful to me is that it feels as if the album was ahead of its time. A superb record from front to back. Pull out your copy of Dehumanizer, crank up the volume, and revel in its many qualities.
Rowan Robertson og Ronnie James Dio (R.I.P.)
THE SIGN OF THE SOUTHERN CROSS RE-VISITED
As a little bonus feature, I thought that it would be interesting to ask former DIO guitarist Rowan Robertson a few questions in relation to the Dehumanizer record. For one thing, Rowan was a huge part of the Lock Up the Wolves album and line-up in the years leading up to Dio re-joining Black Sabbath, but perhaps more importantly he is a member of the Dio tribute act named The Southern Cross, which toured Norway back in 2012. On top of that, Rowan, Jimmy Bain, Oni Logan, and Brian Tichy contributed a crushing version of Sabbath’s "I" for the "This is Your Life" tribute disc to Ronnie.
Choosing to perform a somewhat obscure song such as "Letters From Earth" was a stroke of genius. Whose idea was it?
RR: It was Henrik’s idea [i.e. the drummer].
How familiar were you with the song before actually rehearsing it with the others?
RR: I was pretty familiar with it
Musically and lyrically, could you sum up what the song means to you or what it is that you love about it? Do you associate it with anything in particular? Are there any memories or anecdotes that come to mind when you listen to it?
RR: The first thing that comes to mind was that Ronnie actually came up with that title during the Lock Up the Wolves period as I remember. I seem to recall him saying it. It’s a Mark Twain book, isn’t it? Ronnie was a big reader and a very proud American, and Twain was a great American author. I remember Ronnie listening on the radio to his baseball, the Dodgers. He told me they were a Brooklyn New York team originally. He loved books. As I remember, he would have liked to end his time owning an old bookstore! Tony’s riff is fantastic. I can hear his jazz influence. Ronnie told me Tony’s favorite guitar player was Joe Pass.
You recorded the classic "I" with Jimmy Bain, Oni Logan, and Brian Tichy for the tribute album to Ronnie James Dio. That is such a kick-ass song. Your version rules and is easily one of the best songs on that tribute disc. Could you tell me a bit how it all came about the song?
RR: With regards to "I", Oni is my dear friend and we share a long history. I think he is an amazing talent and did a great job on this Sabbath masterpiece. I’ve heard that Dio said this was his favorite song he ever wrote with Sabbath. The song sums a big part of Ronnie to me as he was in many ways all alone in his career but he was like the daddy of heavy metal to a lot of us! Wendy Dio offered the opportunity to Oni and me and the track choice was one of hers I would think, which we ended up choosing.
Vinny Appice – drums
Geezer Butler – bass
Ronnie James Dio – vocals
Tony Iommi – guitars
Geoff Nicholls – keyboards
Produced by Mack for Musicland GMBH
All songs by Dio/Butler/Iommi
1. Computer God
2. After All (the Dead)
3. TV Crimes
4. Letters From Earth
5. Master of Insanity
6. Time Machine
7. Sins of the Father
8. Too Late
10. Buried Alive
Wall, Mick (2013). Black Sabbath – Symptom of the Universe. Orion Books
Sharpe-Young, Gary (2006). Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – The Battle for Black Sabbath. Zonda Books