Black Sabbath’s sound is unmistakable. Thick distorted guitars, lumbering rhythm section, macabre lyrics – their early albums helped form the foundation of hard rock and heavy metal, influencing countless bands that followed. Forty years on, the group continues to build upon their legacy, recently reconvening as Heaven and Hell, a new project that brings their music into the 21st century by blending the power of classic Sabbath with the latest production techniques.
The band’s latest record, The Devil You Know, hit stores this spring, and was co-produced by 1992 Recording Arts graduate Mike Exeter. Mike has had a long relationship with the band, previously working with guitarist Tony Iommi on a solo project in the mid-’90s.
“It’s that whole thing of grabbing the opportunity when it’s presented to you,” Mike says. “Tony came in to the studio I was working at to do some demos, and afterwards his manager said ‘I think Tony would really like to work with you again.’ Sometimes you get in the right place at the right time, and you just have to step up to the plate and go for it.”
Those initial sessions produced a wealth of great material, and nearly a decade later Mike got the call that would eventually lead to him working on a new Black Sabbath project, as the band wanted to record some tracks for a new compilation covering the best of their years with singer Ronnie James Dio.
“My involvement with Tony got rekindled in about 2003, when I heard they were looking for the master tapes from our original sessions, which I had,” he says. “So I got together with him again, and we delivered a couple of Iommi solo records in the next couple of years.
“Then, in 2006, Ronnie came over and spent time writing with Tony which produced a new song, then later that year Ronnie and [bassist] Geezer Butler came back over, and we spent a couple of weeks writing two other songs for the ‘Best Of’ project. We recorded, mixed, and released it, and then they went on tour. It was a really great comeback for them, and at some point in that tour they said ‘How do you fancy doing an entirely new album?’”
Production of the new record began in early 2008, and would turn out to be some of the most creative sessions of Mike’s recording career. He and Iommi spent weeks together writing and demoing songs at his home studio, before bringing in the rest of the band – Dio, Butler, and drummer Vinny Appice – to flesh out the arrangements and put the songs to tape.
“It was essentially all of us working on one song a week,” Mike says. “There was three to four hours of really solid work, lots of laughing, lots of fooling around, and then coming back the next morning and listening to what we had. So within two to three days of tweaking we’d have a song ready for Ronnie to start putting melodies to. It was a weekly process of creating these incredibly complex songs, and we’d just be drained at the end of each day because it was such a creative outpouring – everyone working hard to make sure that we didn’t overlook what could be a great hook or what could be a better part for a certain section.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that the band has some of the most dedicated fans in rock music, and while the prospect of living up to Black Sabbath’s legacy would be an intimidating proposition for any artist, Mike has honed a production style that manages to balance the expectations of fans with the aspirations of the artists he’s working with.
“The producer’s role is to give the fans the band that they want to hear, but without compromising what the band wants to sound like,” he says “The song is the key, so what I like to do is strip it back, get them each arranged properly, and then see where they go after that. And the arrangement ideas we all put into these songs to make them not ordinary is really being recognized by fans. There’s a lot to take in every time you listen to them, and this is what the guys wanted, it was about creating the best possible songs that they could.”
The results of that hard work saw The Devil You Know debut in the top 10 on the UK charts, supported by the heavy radio play of the lead single, “Bible Black.” Reviewers have also taken notice of the band’s new flourishes, hailing the disc as everything from “shockingly good” to “demonically alluring.” And while Mike is thrilled about the commercial and critical success, 17 years since graduating from Full Sail, it’s still all about music for him.
“The greatest feeling is when you sit there in the studio, a big smile comes up on your face, the hairs come up on the back of your arms, and you’re like ‘Yeah, this is what it’s all about,” he says. “I think Sabbath is 41 years old this year, and to have such close friendships with guys 20 years my senior – to have had such a fun time with them – is a really fantastic thing to me. It’s a real family thing, and I sometimes sit there thinking ‘There are so many people who would love to be here watching Tony play.’ That’s when I look back and realize I’m so lucky to be doing this.”