Metal is a tricky business. So is memory. I first heard “Children of the Sea” soon after it was released, I think, as a young teenager in 1980, tutored by an older sister in thrall to Rush’s Permanent Waves, Judas Priest’s Unleashed in the East, and, most of all, Black Sabbath’s Heaven and Hell. It was later that I learned of Sabbath’s late 70s identity crisis, their parting of ways with Ozzy Osbourne, and Ronnie James Dio’s efforts to help salvage a band worthy of his prowess. It couldn’t have been an easy road, and by all accounts wasn’t, BUT… the fruit of Osbourne’s dissolution, Dio’s post-Rainbow quest, and the Sabbath juggernaut’s need to produce a next record, was a pair of LPs blueprinting one way forward for metal: operatic vocal facility, pop-tinged melodies, subject matter less doom-and-gloom than dungeons-and-dragons. With, of course, guitars fully and thunderously intact. It was what Heart showed it could be with 1978’s “Mistral Wind,” and would be taken to its natural conclusion by Iron Maiden in the next decade; but, as the so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal began to draw its borders as the 70s turned into the 80s, it was Black Sabbath, the original metal wellspring, still sitting in the center of the compass rose.
Of course, many die-hard Sabbath fans don’t acknowledge Dio’s Sabbath as the real Black Sabbath — a respectable point of view, in fairness, that such distinction can only come with the inclusion of Ozzy and in consideration of the first six, genre-defining, Sabbath LPs — and the band itself acknowledged this when reuniting for a tour and LP with Dio in 2007, calling themselves, naturally, “Heaven and Hell,” out of respect for both Dio and Ozzy. But for a certain generation of us the Dio-led band was the gateway to Black Sabbath, with Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules (1981) jewels in the crown equal in quality heaviosity to the First Six. And it turns out that Dio’s here-be-dragons sensibility was just what Sabbath and metal needed: dramatic vocal flights, lyrical escapism, and a feel for the sheer cliff riffs. I imagine too that his maturity (he was in his late 30s at the time, older than the rest of the band by at least six years) brought a steady, compositional, horns-flashing hand to a Sabbath dearly in need of it. Dio would set a solo course soon after Mob Rules but would never stray far from the tone he set in his work with Sabbath.
From the flawless first side of Heaven and Hell comes “Children of the Sea,” the kind of fantasy piece Dio trademarked, where the story lines are drawn vaguely enough to appeal broadly, and are there, ultimately, in support of the Riff King, for if there is one true hero in the story of metal, it is and will forever be Tony Iommi. Two versions here: the original studio take and, because it counts, the Heaven and Hell band version from 2007, with Dio, at the age of 65, still bringing every bit of showmanship to the legacy he was so justifiably proud of.
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