Once upon a time - in the heavy-metal '80s - a little man with an operatic howl and extravagant lyrics took the reigns of the land's darkest band from its evilest ogre.

Before this gets too silly, it was Ronnie James Dio who fronted Black Sabbath after Ozzy Osbourne split. While Tony Iommi's hammering riffs and "Geezer" Butler's lumbering thuds stayed gloriously glum, Dio lent the diabolical Sabbath Dungeons & Dragons-like esprit.

Reunited now as Heaven and Hell, with ham-handed drummer Vinny Appice, they stood before a castle's rocks (seriously, that's their staging) on Thursday at Wachovia Spectrum. Rocks, so as to stone you? Or maybe stones, so as to rock you? No matter, they were impressive.

With shoulders hunched and bony hands extended through his tunic's dolman sleeves, Dio looked like metal's Richard III. But rather than appropriating Ozzy's paranoid vision, Dio's too-literal lyrics spoke of crystal soldiers and machines rendering man useless.

When old dudes sing about computers being evil, things are rotten in Denmark. But Dio's vocals, through the cascading "Children of the Sea" and "Heaven and Hell," were so poignant, so powerful, that the lyrics didn't matter. Even tuneless new songs like "The Devil Cried" sounded like a unicorn throwing a tizzy.

This was metal-marauding perfection. Iommi's sinister guitar made it all possible.

When Dio's gargantuan croon threatened to overthrow the repetitive simplicity of "The Mob Rules," Iommi's power-punk riffs saved it. When Dio drove his wiry voice through the "The Sign of the Southern Cross," Iommi offered subtlety.

But if you wanted subtlety, what were you doing at a show that featured Megadeth as its opener? Looking and sounding much the same as when he left Metallica (that's a compliment), nihilistic metal king Dave Mustaine does thrashcore rock better than most.

His guitars, and those of Glen Drover, stomped through "Symphony of Destruction" and what he called "happy political songs" such as "Peace Sells . . . But Who's Buying?" like elephants in taps, thundering.