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If absence, as they say, truly makes the heart grow fonder, than this group of four veteran musicians would enjoy eternal reverence from the black masses of metal for all eternity based on that alone. But unlike many other longstanding franchises that have come and gone since the inception of heavy metal, this one does not survive by faithful adherents alone, but instead delivers high quality cuisines whenever it reforms itself. Within their very much orthodox and consistent mode of song creation, there seems an infinite number of possible ways for them to write perfect songs without need of quirky gimmicks and stylistic crosspollination. Everything here, as it has been all of their previous, though sparsely placed opuses, is pure unadulterated heaviness delivered in its simplest form.
By all accounts, this is a Black Sabbath album, excluding technical legalities brought to us via the Ozzman, aka mister washed up media whore. It is a testament to the fact that in spite of the name being scuttled, that the parts that made up the same sum are still alive and well, which is more than I can say for the original front man of this group given his output both with these musicians and others in the past 17 years. Perhaps it was out of jealousy that Ozzy can’t accept someone actually putting together a full length album under the Sabbath name, something that he has failed to do since he reunited with them and turned them into his own personal sideshow attraction. But regardless, Heaven And Hell bears little difference from its former name in terms of quality, nor spirit.
“The Devil You Know” is exactly what its own title suggests; a familiar recapturing of the spirit of Sabbath styled doom metal that was long thought to be lost more than a decade ago. It features a collection of well crafted, punishingly slow and heavy anthems to woe and discord that has embodied Metal since it first rebelled against the illusionary world of flowers, peace and love that blinded many to the true nature of the world in the 60s. Powerful guitar riffs and traveling bass lines battle each other for which one will reign as the darkest aspect of these trudging tributes to darkness, while the drums exhibit this duality of looseness and dryness that keeps things organized and also stirs the cauldron a little with unexpected ornamentations and fills. But the greatest charm to be found here is the simplicity at work and the utter lack of pretention. There’s no effort to impress, but simply a blunt honesty that can rival even the most and grandiose of epic compositions in the doom style, but with about half as many riffs.
The leading aspects of the band are also noteworthy, as they further differentiate this release not only from the rest of the pack out there, but also from previous works under the Sabbath label. Tony Iommi has gone through various stages of basic and complex soloing, the former of which peeked during “Vol. 4”, and the latter character came to dominate his leads during the 1980s. What emerges here is a much more moderated approach to an instrumental break, having a very melodic character that is quite different from the rapid streams of pentatonic runs that triplet licks utilized on previous Ronnie Dio and Tony Martin collaborations, but also not nearly as formulaic as the more primitive solos heard during the 1970s. A good example of this is the expressive lead work during the acoustic intro of “Bible Black”, which has more of a singing quality to it than even the intro to “Children Of The Sea”, which is among Iommi’s more catchy and memorable lead moments from his more technical era. Likewise, the steady stream of notes heard on the solo of “Eating The Cannibals” is about as far away from the formulaic leads of “Snowblind” and “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” as they come.
Ronnie Dio’s vocal work is basically flawless, still remaining a step ahead of his semi-operatic emulators Tony Martin and Robert Lowe. At the ripe age of 66 this colossal vocal answer to Napoleon Bonaparte still fills the microphone with high end majesty as if he just hit his early 30s. Decades have passed since he cut his first single in the late 50s, long before the concept of heavy metal came into being, and in spite of all the trends that have come and gone, the same vocal style and character has remained, forcing every genre of music that it has ever accompanied to assimilate to its will. It’s basically an expressive combination of clean sung glory and gravely yet tonal shouts common to both rock and metal music, but with about four times the attitude and twice as much control as what you’d get out of most in the former style.
When dealing with these songs on an individual basis, comparisons to “Dehumanizer” could be made, along with a lot of other Dio and Sabbath albums that came out after said release, and even a few from before it. There isn’t really one era of their project that defines this album, but more of an even mix of them all, compressed into a modern yet not overdone production. Songs such as the creepily slow and dark “Atom And Evil” and the dissonant yet catchy “Fear” could be compared to material heard on “Cross Purposes”, “Strange Highways” and “Magica” and still not quite describe the character of the sound in its entirety. Likewise, faster songs such as “Eating The Cannibals” and “Neverwhere” carry a dueling “Dehumanizer” sense of darkness and a “Mob Rules” meets “Holy Diver” feeling of riff familiarity and majesty. Some other songs such as “Double The Pain” and “Follow The Tears” get so heavy on the bass and low end riffs that they cross over into sludge territory. There’s essentially a little something for every fan of every respective era of these musicians’ careers to grab onto.
As was the case in 1992, the triumphant return of this outfit has resulted in a lesson that can school any and all adherents of metal music. It is definitely one of the best, if not the best album to come out this year. It isn’t a matter of this band being capable of doing no wrong, but simply that every time their in the studio, nothing ever comes out that way. They reprove their worth every time, starting nearly from scratch at each instance, and have once again put out something that will be talked about and listened to years after the novelty wears off. This is the devil that all of us know and love, forever unchanging, and forever a master at his craft.
Originally submitted to (www.metal-observer.com) on May 8, 2009.