On May 16th, 2010 at 7:45 am CDT, Ronald James Padavona succumbed to metastasized stomach cancer at the age of sixty-seven. Known to his legions of fans as Ronnie James Dio, the man's musical career had spanned fifty years, including stints as a part of acts like Elf, Rainbow, and Dio. None earnt the diminutive singer who popularized the "devils horns" as much notoriety as he experienced in Black Sabbath, however. Having cut the albums "Heaven And Hell" (1980), "Mob Rules" (1981) and "Dehumanizer" (1992) during two stints, the lineup that recorded "Mob Rules" reunited as a part of Heaven & Hell (essentially Sabbath under a different name). This culminated in the April 2009 album "The Devil You Know", something that suggested the quartet could've reigned supreme once again had it not been for Dio's untimely passing. Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Vinny Appice performed a tribute set at the High Voltage Festival on 24th July, 2010 with guest vocalists Glenn Hughes (of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Trapeze and Black Country Communion fame) and Jrn Lande (of Masterplan), the proceeds of which went towards the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund. The three remaining members of Heaven & Hell have clearly stated they have no desire to perform or record under that moniker ever again following their frontman's passing. However, that poses the following question: what should Black Sabbath do next?
Of course, the possibilities for Black Sabbath's next move are endless, but one routinely crops up: a reunion of the original lineup, the Aston, Birmingham foursome (which, for anyone who doesn't know, comprised Ozzy Osbourne on vocals, Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, and Bill Ward on drums) that issued six stellar albums from 1970 to 1975 (1970's "Black Sabbath" and "Paranoid", 1971's "Master of Reality", 1972's "Black Sabbath Vol. 4", 1973's "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", and 1975's "Sabotage"). Not only do fans of the outfit want this to take place, but so do several Sabbath biographers.
"The Ozzy line-up should do one more album and tour and then cease trading" comments Joel McIver, author of 2006's "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath". "After that, Iommi should organise a mammoth one-off festival with songs from every lineup and featuring every single member of the band who is still alive. I'm entirely serious: it should be called Sabbathfest and take place over three days. After that, they should all retire permanently while they're at the top."
Personally speaking, I feel the possibility of a new Black Sabbath album with Ozzy on vocals is an overwhelming prospect, but many obstacles would possibly get in the way. Truth be told, the main obstacle is Ozzy himself. The MTV reality program "The Osbournes" launched him into the stratosphere, and nowadays he's a mainstream celebrity - sadly, most of those who watched "The Osbournes" have never even heard of the name Black Sabbath, and many of them aren't aware of Ozzy's solo career either for that matter. In the last several years, it's seemed that furthering his mainstream celebrity profile has been his main concern, his music career coming second. If a new, successful Black Sabbath album with Ozzy was to be made, then the rocker's celebrity commitments would need to be flushed down the toilet. No chat show appearances. No red carpet appearances. No reality television programmes. Such commitments would merely get in the way of a more important goal, and would be an unnecessary distraction from the goal at hand. Ozzy's solo career would also have to become secondary, too, or else that would potentially jeopardize a Sabbath reunion album being made too. Only nine years ago in 2001 did the original members attempt to make a new album, an attempt that proved fruitless because recording sessions were halted so that Ozzy could complete tracks for October 2001's "Down To Earth". That summer, Black Sabbath performed a new track named "Scary Dreams" at Ozzfest shows. As Geezer said while promoting "The Devil You Know", "If we'd written this album ['The Devil You Know'] with Ozzy, we'd still be working on the first track". As much as I love Ozzy's solo work, it pales in comparison to Sabbath's catalogue, and Ozzy's songwriting team - nowadays especially - don't have the songwriting prowess Iommi and co. do to write truly great tracks for him. For that reason, if I was Ozzy I'd maybe even scrap the solo band in favour of a full-time Sabbath reunion for the time being. If Sabbath could successfully record a new, Ozzy led album though, then as Joel McIver said, they should do a proper farewell tour and call the curtain down on the Sabbath brand while it's still on top. With all involved being in their senior years, and the band arguably with their better years behind them, it may be best that Black Sabbath retire rather than tarnish its name.
Martin Popoff, author of 2006's "Black Sabbath: Doom Let Loose - An Illustrated History", certainly presents an almost watertight case in favour of a Sabbath / Ozzy reunion full-length being made. "It's a blaze of glory even brighter than Heaven And Hell" the Canadian construes. "Ozzy can still tour solo so it's conceivable that he could still tour Sabbath. But the point is, a record could be done, and creatively, if Geez is up for it, we get to hear his lyrical voice again, which is exciting. This absolutely can't be a commercial, corporate, self-aware, Hollywood metal album though - it would be a thrill if we got something like 'Sabotage' or 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath'. Look what The Who did with 'Endless Wire'. Whether you like it or not, Pete broke every rule of record making in the book. Sabbath used to break rules too. And you know who can help them break rules? Bill Ward - that guys solo albums are masterpieces. He's the secret weapon of the band, their silent Roger Waters, and yeah, it's crazy, but if you want a work of art, maybe Bill should write half the bloody music, and if Geezer has to be dragged kicking and screaming back to lyrics, let Bill do them. There's no greater work of magnificence in the solo catalogue than Bill's "Straws" song - the guy is a massive talent."
Hearing Geezer's lyrical voice again would certainly be exciting, a doom-laden voice that darkens any room it greets whether it be the horrors of war in the likes of "War Pigs" and "Children Of The Grave", or even Lucifer falling in love during "N.I.B.", or many others - take your pick. In promoting "The Devil You Know" though, Geezer bemoaned having to write lyrics for Ozzy to sing and seems reluctant to take up the mantle once again. Asking Sabbath to write an album as creative as "Sabotage" or "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" is a great ask, something that'd really surprise me if it were to happen. To give just one example, "Sabbra Cadabra" efficiently incorporates the keyboard, synth and piano work of on / off Yes member Rick Wakeman roughly during its middle section. Could you see that happening nowadays? Even "The Devil You Know" played it safe, using "Heaven and Hell" and "Mob Rules" as a template.
Bill Ward's involvement certainly poses an interesting question, and Martin Popoff is correct in that Bill is an underrated talent. I do think having Bill write half the music is a pipe dream though, and even the lyrics. I doubt the band's fellow members would even take the time to listen to what he'd written; looking back on Sabbath's aborted 2001 album sessions, Geezer has complained his riff ideas weren't even considered by Ozzy for example - just because he isn't a guitarist. As I've said, they'll go for the safe option. In fact, Bill's health issues could realistically limit his involvement in a fully fledged reunion beyond a smattering of shows. Though not having as great a feel for Sabbath's tracks as Bill, the technically better Vinny Appice has kept himself much busier than Bill in the music world and would be better equipped for live commitments. That'd spoil the magic in the eyes of many fans though, the magic being the Aston, Birmingham quartet back together at last for a proper reunion.
Martin Popoff goes further in his thoughts on where Sabbath should go from here, feeling "Sabbath absolutely shouldn't do anything else with anybody other than Ozzy or Tony Martin. With Tony Martin... as the ages and age roll on, there are a lot of kids who grew up to those Tony Martin albums and took them seriously. Fact is, the guy's a talented singer and lyricist. Sure, it's less exciting a choice, but it's the only other choice. I don't hold hopes out for it being a good album. Again, maybe if Geezer and Bill were knee-deep in the writing, maybe. Heck, that's exciting just 'cos it would be a crazy, unprecedented lineup - two Tonys, Bill and Geez."
After Ozzy, Tony Martin is the vocalist to have recorded the most Black Sabbath full-lengths, five in all: 1987's "The Eternal Idol", 1989's "Headless Cross", 1990's "Tyr", 1994's "Cross Purposes", and 1995's "Forbidden". Often overlooked, Tony Martin is probably the most underrated vocalist to have graced Sabbath's ranks. Albeit not reaching the heights of Dio (in all honesty, who can say they have?), his expansive voice does do great justice when on tracks like "Headless Cross" and "Devil and Daughter". Tony Martin is "less exciting a choice" to front Sabbath though, and too much so I feel for it to be considered.
Mike Stark, author of 1998's "For the Record - Black Sabbath: An Oral History", concurs. "I do believe Ronnie's unfortunate passing opens the door again for the original band to have another go at it" Mike agrees. "I suppose that Tony, being the consistent thread through the history of the band, could try another "Heaven & Hell" type project using some of the other lead singers that passed through the band. Maybe a tour with several of the former lead singers? That might be a package some Sabbath fans might want to see. Having said that, I don't believe anything would be more satisfying to Sabbath fans than a project involving all of the original members."
Mike Stark points out something that many Sabbath fans miss, in that Tony Iommi is "the consistent thread through the history of the band". Tony Iommi IS Black Sabbath - not Ozzy, not Ronnie James Dio. No-one else. If anyone needs further proof, listen to the man's solo efforts, especially October 2000's "Iommi" and July 2005's "Fused". The former features a host of guest musicians, whereas the latter uses Glenn Hughes' vocals. Very easily these releases could've been labelled Sabbath albums. In fact, check out "Who's Fooling Who" on "Iommi" for a taste of what a modern day Sabbath album could sound like. "Whether a project involving all of the original members happens seems to depends on politics as much as desire" Mike stresses. Politics will inevitably play their part behind the scenes, with Ozzy's camp making sure the limelight shines on him more than any of the others.
Mick Wall, who penned 2008's "Osbournes Confidential: An Insider's Chronicle" as well as other Sabbath related books (Don Arden's autobiography, for example), shares his views on the politics involved. "What Black Sabbath do from here is not their decision - that's up to Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, who own all rights to the Sabbath name" Mick notes. "Hence the Dio-led lineup having to go out under the name of Heaven & Hell in the years leading up to Ronnie's death. However, with Ozzy's solo musical career currently treading water my guess is they will all get back together with Ozzy and Bill Ward quite soon. Summer tour 2011 anyone?"
Rights to the Black Sabbath name will certainly play their part, Ozzy having attempted to sue Tony Iommi in May 2009 in a New York federal court for fifty percent ownership of the name. Though the lawsuit was settled in June 2010, tension over this must be lurking in the background. Mick Wall's prediction of a summer 2011 tour involving the original four members will likely be proved right, and my guess would be a North American trek headlining Ozzfest dates. Beyond that, I couldn't see anything else with Ozzy coming to fruition.
Ultimate-Guitar.com writer Steven Rosen, author of 1996's "The Story Of Black Sabbath: Wheels Of Confusion", probably offers the solution with the greatest and most stable long-term prospects. "The question really is "What should Heaven and Hell do about looking for a new singer?"" Steven feels. "Certainly the idea of the original Sabbath getting back together to record has massive appeal. But wouldn't it be interesting if the Heaven & Hell band found a new singer? An unknown. Plucked some great vocalist from obscurity and built their musical future around him. Or her. What about an amazing female vocalist with power and range and depth and personality? There are a litany of obvious choices to replace RJD but it would be very cool to hear a new voice guiding the Sabbath / Heaven & Hell juggernaut."
To answer Steven's question, yes, it'd certainly be interesting if Heaven & Hell / Sabbath found a new singer. As I said earlier, I feel Tony Iommi is the real backbone of the group, the one who provides it with its musical identity. You can have a Sabbath minus Ozzy, but not a Sabbath minus Tony Iommi. With a great vocalist at the helm, this'd give Tony and Geezer the impetus to write magnificent Sabbath style tracks to match that singer's voice. Power, range and personality definitely tick all the correct boxes. A female singer though? Hmm. I'd certainly give the music a listen, but I'm not sure a female singer would compliment the band's doom-laden sound as well as a male vocalist. Which "new voice" would you choose to guide the Sabbath / Heaven & Hell juggernaut? What should Sabbath do now?
Sabbath has many options at its disposal in making its next move, and as with anything, all we can do is guess what'll happen from hereon in. I, for one though, will be watching and listening with great interest.
By Robert Gray