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Heaven & Hell is, of course, the lineup of Black Sabbath from when Ronnie James Dio was the singer. Or at least, most of the time, as Bill Ward was still Black Sabbath’s drummer on Heaven and Hell and was later replaced by Vinnie Appice who drums on this album. The band took the name Heaven & Hell in order to respect Black Sabbath who had recently been inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Tony Iommi, who at this time, owned the rights to the name “Black Sabbath” decided that this band should have its own identity and fans should not expect to hear “Paranoid” or “Iron Man” at a Heaven & Hell show. So thus, Heaven & Hell was born.
Prior to the name change, the lineup had gotten together for a tour and recorded three new songs for a Best Of compilation for the Dio-era Black Sabbath. These three new tracks laid the groundwork for the upcoming new album. But first, the band changed its name.
The album The Devil You Know is the first album of new songs recorded by the band, and is the first album of new songs recorded by any form of Black Sabbath. It was one of the most highly-anticipated albums of 2009 and for good reason. There had not been a new album from Tony Iommi since 2005 and from Ronnie James Dio since 2004. Knowing that these two icons had gotten back together and recorded new material was enough to send metalheads into a frenzy. When the new album artwork was posted, again fans were abuzz.
So, how is the new album?
Honestly, it’s something of a letdown. It is a perfectly good album, but it was a victim of its own hype. The interest in the album had risen to a fever pitch and very few albums could have adequately lived up to that hype. That is not to suggest that it was a bad album, very far from it. It just was not as good as everyone hoped it would be.
The band fits very neatly into the traditional doom genre. This was to be expected as Black Sabbath had been the purveyors of the doom metal sound. When Dio came on board, the band perfected that sound. Heaven & Hell is slow and extremely heavy and somber. There are some faster songs on the album, but even those still easily fit within the doom genre. The album does have a more traditional metal flavor to it as well, to go along with the doom elements. The album would not have been out of place coming out immediately after the Dehumanizer album, which also had Dio fronting Black Sabbath. It sounds that true to the style.
The music, as implied, is often very slow with lumbering riffs, and heavy bass. The bass is audible and is some of Geezer Butler’s best work in years. It is the driving force of the rhythms behind the riffs. Tony Iommi has not lost a step in his age. He is still very capable of writing some amazing riffs, and does so many times. It makes the album interesting to listen to and many of the riffs are infectious, getting stuck in the head and not leaving for days. Iommi also provides some great guitar solos, with a clean tone and good technique, particularly the solo on “Fear”. The drumming is efficient but definitely not one of the major features of the band. It is there for rhythm only and filling in where needed, and while there are some interesting drum parts, it mostly takes a back seat for the riffs and vocals.
The music is mostly played in minor keys, obviously to take advantage of the natural tendency to sound more imposing. The band does do a decent job of staying away from standard verse-chorus-verse structure. This makes the individual songs stand out more and keeps the album from running together. Unfortunately, many of the songs do tend to stay at one speed. Some tempo changes would serve to make the songs stand out even more.
Ronnie James Dio is one of the all time great vocalists in metal, and perhaps any genre of rock music for that matter. His vocals are still great, despite his advancing age. He is still able to reach that awe-inspiring, rich tenor tone that he has become known for over the years, and his ability to continue to do so is one of the highlights of this album. His vocals also fit seemlessly with the music. He does not sound at all out of place as his higher vocals balance out the deep bottom end of the music. If anything, this interplay makes the music even doomier.
Lyrically, this is definitely similar to a Black Sabbath album. Many of the themes are dark. The only song that seems to have bad lyrics is “Rock and Roll Angel”, which would have been a perfectly acceptable song in the 1980's but sounds pretty cheesy now.
The better songs on the album are “Bible Black” and “Eating the Cannibals”. “Bible Black” starts out with a powerful, solitary guitar solo and the vocals of Dio. It then slowly builds upon this loneliness into a heavy power chord progression. The song is very similar to classic tracks like “Heaven and Hell” and “The Mob Rules”. “Eating the Cannibals” is the fastest song on the album and is exactly the kind of song that fans expected out of the reunited lineup. It is a straight-ahead, classic metal track.
The album as a whole is a strong release and will probably be one of the better traditional metal albums released this year. However, it does not possess enough new and original ideas to match the hype that was built up for it. It is a very good, sometimes great album, that is a victim to its own impossible expectations.