Coming just a few months after the devastating loss of Ronnie James Dio, Neon Knights Live In Europe – 30 Years of Heaven & Hell, is the new release from the Mob Rules-era version of Black Sabbath. Since 2006, they’d been successfully reformed under the moniker Heaven & Hell, releasing new music, including a full studio release and following up 1992’s Dehumanizer, the last complete studio album from vocalist Ronnie James Dio, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Vinny Appice.
Oddly, this is not the line-up that recorded the album the group is named for, yet it probably works better than Mob Rules, perhaps, Live Evil, or Dehumanizer. It is Black Sabbath to many, and whatever the label, clearly was a project that had legs. One might think they’d gone on considerably longer had Ronnie’s health not cut this latest journey short, when he died in May of this year. It was a span of time as long, if not a bit longer, than their original era together. The CD, and DVD title and track listing reflects the long stretch of time from when the collaboration began, through the many years apart, stopping along the way in 1992 for a brief reunion, before wrapping up firmly in the modern day world of Dio Sabbath.
Recorded in the summer of 2009 before a European festival audience at the Wacken multi-stage event, it features a full concert with the set performed throughout the tour. The band were supporting the first new album in seventeen years, and “The Devil You Know” gets several tracks included in the set, mixed with monster slabs of strictly Dio-era Sabbath, per the MO of Heaven & Hell. Approaching it after Ronnie’s passing, there may be some sensitivity from fans wondering what kind of shape he’d been in on that tour. Certainly from this reviewer, who’d heard Ronnie had complained of stomach pain often on the summer 2009 tour. Knowing that going into watching, for the duration of the performance, there is not a shred of evidence that this powerful man would be gone within a year. His mind-boggling retention of skill — at his age — is so aptly displayed in this release, it serves as a huge tribute in the final chapter of Ronnie James Dio’s collective work. That fact first and foremost sticks out after repeated viewings; he looks and sounds great. A few times after the end of slamming out his stunning vocal prowess to close songs, the camera shows Ronnie with a look on his face like, ‘that is how you do it’… a sense of self-confidence and bravado that is muted, in the shadows, and wonderfully understated. These moments make for a compelling watch, as you get a bit more than a concert video. “Falling Off the Edge of the World” is a great example of this. It adds personal dimension, and considering the players, those kind of revealing, introspective moments with Tony, Geezer and Ronnie caught in thousand-yard stares lost in the music… it’s like the texture of fine wood. The power of the music is enhanced realizing the ages of the men delivering it; they are perhaps the hardest rocking men of their age ever documented in such form, and the sound it makes is riveting.
An outstanding version of “Heaven and Hell” is part of the finale to what is, without being labeled as such, a moving tribute to Ronnie. Everyone comes to the game with talent to spare. Tony Iommi is one of the crucial founding links to heavy metal, and his work on the rock epic adds new twists and turns to the improvisation section, using a few of the passages familiar to hardcore fans, while throwing in some newer hooks not part of the early 80’s life of the song. Ronnie leaves the stage to allow a serious session for the three instrumentalists, and the climax is truly on par with the classic interpretations.
Extras come on the DVD in the form of interviews with the band members recorded for this release. They are candid beyond most included with an official band product. Ronnie goes into incredible detail with host Eddie Trunk, who puts together timeline-like interviews that are very well done, with details to the recording process and their relationships many fans may not know. The personal demise of the different line-ups, why the latest one worked, the pain involved with the break-ups, the very real differences these guys had, and to some degree, still have, gets laid out. These extra interviews, for their candor, are quite a bonus indeed. Geezer Butler shares details that also help fill out the picture of how the guys found their way back to each other — his recollections on why the whole Minneapolis meet-up with Ronnie happened are priceless and hysterical. Tony Iommi and Vinny Appice paint pictures that help fans get a real postcard of where the band is at… or was at… just before the loss of Ronnie.
This album impressed with it’s ferocious sound, striking displayed passion, and perhaps most of all, and most meaningful of all, as an affirmation to those who are moved by the tragic passing of this giant of a man, Ronnie James Dio. On Neon Knights Live In Europe, he is truly alive, the magical elf with his fist in the air, pouring his soul into some of the most important soundtracks for many people’s adolescence, and then lives. For a person who wished they could reach out and hug him, and offer him the warmest, most sincere acknowledgment of his impact on their life, this record brings him into the living room, in a loud, emotion-laden presentation, capturing all his glory and majesty. It is not an ‘at the end of their career’ video. It’s all four of them on fire, full bore, and to people who grew up with this music, it stands as essential Black Sabbath.
-Dave Lawrence, Honolulu host of NPR’s All Things Considered, KHPR, Honolulu.
Here’s the official sample video they’ve released: