So, here it is – the new Black Sabbath studio album since 1995’s “Forbidden” and the fourth one to feature the classic line-up of Iommi-Dio-Butler-Appice. The band surely bided their time before releasing the long-awaited new record, but since the mentioned foursome succesfully reformed for touring a couple of years back, the metal fans knew that the new album would at some point be inevitable. After all – the guys who came up with classics ‘Heaven And Hell’ and ‘Mob Rules’ plus the criminally underrated ‘Dehumanizer’ have well proved their ability to write and execute top class material.
Obviously the band’s not called “Black Sabbath” at this point, but the different moniker doesn’t fool anyone. Whitout getting any deeper into the well-known and – from the fans’ point of view more or less stupid – reasons behind the band not going by their better known name, one has to sneer at the numerous sources (starting with the likes of Wikipedia) labeling ‘The Devil You Know’ as ‘the band’s debut album’. It does look quite ridicilous in the big picture doesn’t it?
Anyways, let us turn our focus at the most important thing in question – the music itself. “The Devil You Know” was released roughly a month ago and it’s been spinning in my CD player well enough times to conjure a focused review. In this case coming up with a well-thought-of one took a little more work than usual. After all I – like many others – had huge expectations for the album so ‘an ok’ release would’ve been a dissappointment. Such is the burden of these classic bands and the weight of their huge legacy. Add to this the long gulf of time stretching from the release of Dehumanizer plus a bit inconsistent quality of releases by the group’s individuals since that time, the big expectations were also haunted with a great amount of doubtfulness.
Of course, we did get ‘a teaser’ of Heaven And Hell’s current state with the three new tracks on “Black Sabbath – The Dio Years” compilation album a while back (read Ville’s spot-on review here) but although good, the songs left some unanswered questions hanging in the air – for example the certain lack of power and vigour on the doomy and brooding pair of ‘Shadow of the Wind” and “The Devil Cried” missed the sharpest edge of old Dio-era Sabbath. The third track ‘Ear In The Wall’ showed more spunk and was the finest track of these three.
The first few listens through “The Devil You Know” proved the expectations set by the three Dio Years tracks correct. Compared to band’s previous material the tracks on the new disc do indeed form a more dark, lower tempo and more difficultly accessable package that the eighties classics. The speedier, more rocking tracks seemed almost absent with only ‘Eating The Cannibals’ bringing back recollections from songs like ‘Neon Knights’ or ‘Turn Up The Night’ that were amongst the fiercest cuts on the previous three albums by this lineup.
Otherwise the listening experience of “The Devil You Know” started off a bit draggingly, and the band seemed to chug on like an old steam engine – working like expected and proceeding in a majestic fashion but without the ability to really let go of the breaks every once and awhile.
But if the initial impression caused by the lack of faster songs was a slight letdown the album’s true strengths started to become more and more evident with each listen. Continuing with the steam engine metaphore; the awe-inspiring true form of this unstoppable old colossus truly rose into full view after the first clouds of smoke had cleared and allowed the listener to behold the package as whole.
Whereas Heaven And Hell might have put aside some of their deadly songwriting tools in the form of faster cuts, they prove their mastery on the other aspects of their game. The trademark, ingenious guitarwork of Tony Iommi creates unmistakenly sabbath-y riffs and skillful solos on top of Geezer Butler’s basslines that have been left thunderously prominent in the album’s mix. Vinnie Appice fills his role trustworthly as ever and on top of this all Ronnie James Dio’s vocals cut the darkness with a sound that remains masterful as ever before – full of charisma and emotion. All in all – labeling the sound these guys make together as legendary would be an understatement.
The songwriting on “The Devil You Know” is as expected on a high level though doesn’t reach the heights on which the previous Sabbath albums by these men stood. At best Heaven & Hell manages to summon up very similar atmosphere and greatness as the bulk of their previous material – for example tracks like ‘Fear’ and ‘Atom And Evil’ form strong units that are driven by the classic sound of Iommi’s heavy riffs and even if they were instrumental would be easily recognized as Black Sabbath. Dio’s vocals also follow the familiar pattern, but without copying the past to the extent of becoming repetitive. Add to this lyrics that bring back echoes from the past but are again well written for the style and themes of the songs. Solid, very good material, but not in the band’s usual masterclass.
The album’s fastest take, aforementioned ‘Eating The Cannibals’ has a strong ‘TV Crimes’ vibe – a speedy song that rises above others thanks to sounding different from the slower material around it. The classic Sabbath vocal melodies drag a little on most of the album, but ‘Eating The Cannibals’ lets Heaven & Hell show the side of the band that in the past produced diamonds like ‘Die Young’, ‘Neon Knights’ or ‘The Mob Rules’ – to name a few. Track number nine, ‘Neverwhere’ slows the tempo down a little but works like on fire. Again, on these sharper songs, Iommi’s riffs surge with power and are vintage Sabbath.
Regardless of the power of the songs mentioned above, the title for the best song on ‘The Devil You Know’ goes easily to ‘Bible Black’. Starting off with hauntingly beautiful mix of both acoustic and wailing sounds of Iommi’s guitar, the song quickly escalates to majestic heights as the band kicks in with a full-on, dark and devilish Black Sabbath sound with Dio singing the ingenious lyrics better than any other singer could deliver them for this setting. The brothers of Bible Black would be found amongst the likes of ‘Heaven And Hell’, ‘Sign of the Southern Cross’ or ‘Falling Off The Edge Of The World’. An epic song that wouldn’t feel out of place had it first appeared in the band’s catalogue during the beginning of the eighties. Definitely the cornerstone of this new album and a song that will live on as a classic one day.
As for the rest of the songs, most are well done and sound as expected, but don’t cause any bigger thrills. Perhaps it’s the fact that, with their quite similar, doomy and slow structures they don’t get enough air to breathe – so to speak. Perhaps it’s the lack of that extra dose of fire and determination to ‘make the best damn comeback album ever’ or perhaps it’s just that the old legacy is just too good to top even for the band itself.
What we get with “The Devil You Know” is a very strong heavy metal album from the true pioneers of the genre. The high points are right up there with the best of them and Heaven & Hell easily wipes the floor with their younger copycats, although are not quite able to outdo themselves. The contrasts between songs like “Bible Black” and “Rock And Roll Angel” are huge and as for the greatest fault on the album – to quote my fellow steelmiller Ville Krannila: “the classic light and shade is definitely missing”. Maybe we’ll get that back on the next H&H album, in the meantime there’s still plenty to enjoy on “The Devil You Know”.
1. Atom And Evil
3. Bible Black
4. Double The Pain
5. Rock & Roll Angel
6. The Turn Of The Screw
7. Eating The Cannibals
8. Follow The Tears
10. Breaking Into Heaven