Neon Nights: Live In Europe
Eagle Rock, 2010
REVIEW BY: Ben McVicker
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/29/2010
It was on April 26, 2005 that longtime Black Sabbath bassist, Geezer Butler, gave an interview to Metal Sludge on the eve of a summer tour -- a play-it-safe jaunt that saw the band performing virtually the same set list as it had since reuniting in 1999. “Don’t you wish,” asked the interviewer, “that, for just one tour, Black Sabbath could play something other than the same ten songs?” “Absolutely,” Butler replied. “You’ll have to ask Mr. Osbourne. We’re always trying to get him to sing something different, but it’s always a losing battle.”
Butler’s answer rang true with a number of fans, who had tired of singer-cum-television-star Ozzy Osbourne’s unwillingness to record new music or mine the back catalogue for lesser-played songs. It was to their delight then, that Butler and Sabbath founder Tony Iommi would reunite with vocalist Ronnie James Dio in 2007 under the name of Heaven & Hell. Dio’s third tenure with the band (he had previously rejoined the group in 1992) was remarkably productive. It began with a greatest hits collection that included three new tracks, saw the re-release of his early work with Black Sabbath in a boxed set entitled The Rules Of Hell, two live albums capturing the band in its 2007 and 1981 incarnations (the latter printed in just 5000 copies), and finally a new studio effort entitled The Devil You Know.
Neon Nights: Live in Europe captures the band’s performance at the Wacken Open Air festival on July 30, 2009, and is a fitting testament to the fire and chemistry this lineup had, even with three of its members past sixty years of age.
Arguably the greatest strength of this release is its balanced setlist. The band gives due attention to the full body of their work, with each of the Dio-era Sabbath albums getting a few songs. While things start off a bit plain, with unremarkable versions of staple tunes “Mob Rules” and “Children Of The Sea,” Heaven & Hell quickly find their feet. Even Vinny Appice, oft lambasted as one of the most vanilla drummers east of AC/DC, cranks it up a notch and adds his stamp to a definitive version of “I” and a jammy, seventeen-minute (!) rendition of “Heaven And Hell.” There is a certain looseness and groove to this show that makes the songs particularly enjoyable compared to past live albums.
Another standout item is that unlike most of their ‘70s rock brethren, Dio, Iommi et al make a point of dodging the nostalgia label and give the new material due attention. “Fear” captures Dio at his most powerful, and has a chilling, epic quality about it despite being one of the shorter tunes of the lot. “Bible Black” is another winner, with Tony, Geezer and Vinny having ample room to showcase their talents.
While a strong performance to be sure, the album is not without its flaws. The decision to play the lurching “Follow The Tears” between two fast-paced classics in “Falling Off The Edge Of The World” and “Die Young” is a bit of a momentum-killer, and obviously Dio’s voice isn’t quite what it was in his earlier tours with Black Sabbath. But the real head-scratcher is the editing: most of Dio’s trademark interactions with the crowd have been cut, which is a shame considering that this release is essentially a tribute to the man. Hearing Dio introduce Vinny Appice in the lead-up to what would have been a drum solo, only to have it cut into “Bible Black” is almost comical. It seems like the height of nitpicking to say, ‘they had eighty minutes and only used seventy-four,’ but one gets the sense that the record company wanted to strike while the iron was hot and get this on the market quickly, without much consideration for the atmosphere fans expect from a live album.
This said, Neon Nights is a solid addition to any Sabbath fan’s collection. The album could perhaps be deemed non-essential given the deluge of material since 2007. But a hot performance, plus the inclusion of three new songs and “Time Machine” (not included in the setlist for the Radio City show) make it worth having.