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"When I'm finished doing this, I'll probably just dig in my garden"
- Ronnie James Dio on his retirement plans
I have tried to begin reviewing this album several times. From endless listens I know it is the best thing 2009 has to offer, a strong contender for the best thing of the decade, yet doing justice to such a monolithic creature is no easy task. To start with, it's as close to perfect as you can get (hence the rating which, as someone once very sensibly pointed out, should be understood figuratively as a rounding up of 99.9% rather than actual audio perfection), and it's up there with Rainbow's Rising and Sabbath's Heaven & Hell in terms of quality and significance.
The Devil You Know benefits from carrying the confidence of both a band established by decades of pioneering and longevity and the hungriness of a fresh contract and band name. Another benefit of the band's vague identity is that I can now tell myself Forbidden was not the last Black Sabbath album.
Firstly, after the mighty tracks forged for the Sabbath compilation The Dio Years, and the biblical live set that followed under the Heaven & Hell moniker, I am just so glad that this decade-defining beast actually happened. Although simply hitting the 'reset' button and following on from either Mob Rules or Dehumanizer would have provided Dio, Iommi and their colleagues decent grounds for a new album, the dark and challenging sound of those three new songs hinted at far greater things, and with The Devil You Know the band uses them as a basis for a bigger, more complex and more all-encompassing sound than anything attempted under the Sabbath name. The fearsome cover art is the perfect analogy; covering familiar ground (the devil) but in a far more intricate and imposing way. When listening to the album you will hear not only the three albums known as the Dio years, but the decade and a half that separates them from this disc. With the exception of the lineup for Heaven & Hell with Bill Ward and the Tyr lineup, this is probably the only lineup of Sabbath that never suffered passengers, each band member contributing something remarkable, and here in 2009 Iommi, Ronnie, Geezer and Appice bring their disparate experiences to bear without the tension that plagued the Dehumanizer sessions.
Since his last stint in Sabbath, Ronnie Dio has arguably achieved a bit more than Iommi. Having decided to make Dehumanizer the first part of a thematic and musical trilogy that he continued with Strange Highways and Angry Machines, Dio left his comfort zone for a creatively challenging concept album in Magica and then wrote a classic heavy metal album, Killing The Dragon, and a rock and roll infused doom epic in Master of the Moon. For Strange Highways and Angry Machines, Dio continued to use high-register rasping howls and low, menacing moans to sing his lyrics, while on his last three solo albums he staged a return to his '80s style of flamboyant tenor that he began to move away from on Lock Up The Wolves.
With The Devil You Know, Dio's performance is more varied than almost anywhere else in his career. Not being the sort of person to look upon the reformation of a band like Sabbath as simply a cash cow, Ronnie makes an enormous effort both lyrically and vocally. Dio draws on his decades and decades of experience singing in different ways for different projects for a colourful and inspiring performance on The Devil You Know. There are many moments on the album that actually demand a very high-pitched delivery, and for a man of 67 Ronnie never stumbles, managing to hit high notes that any given handful of your throwaway 'noughties power metal bands wouldn't dare attempt for fear of hurting themselves. His vocal melodies even in the verses often sound completely unlike anything he has done before, every line memorable in some way. Epic, romantic choruses on 'Atom & Evil' and 'Breaking Into Heaven' showcase an operatic edge that Iommi's riffs haven't truly benefited from since 1982. Lyrically, the poetic wizard of rock and roll still manages to somehow capture your heart with his eloquence and keen intuitiveness. The idea of how relying on religion can become an almost druglike addiction for some is an idea I have often thought about and tried to phrase, but could never have put it so excellently as does the evil elf: 'Let me go, I've found addiction, and it makes me feel alive!'
Iommi delivers a host of riffs more electric than anything since Dehumanizer and Tyr, managing to meld the aggressiveness slam of the former with the invigorating technicality and creativity of the latter. 'Double The Pain' is essentially built around a rock and roll riff, just with tons of fuzz and gain. The sound he goes for here has much in common with the pristinely-produced and rounded bluesy vibe of his excellent 2005 effort Fused with Mr Glenn Hughes, crossed with the violent, roaring tone of Dehumanizer. Tony has also realized our love of pretty little acoustic breaks such as that found at the end of the song this band is named for, and the end of 'Rock and Roll Angel' is even more beautiful than his stellar instrumental 'Scarlet Pimpernel' on The Eternal Idol.
A number of new things are attempted by the Birmingham axe man; the main riff to 'Follow The Tears' sees Iommi taking a glance at the chugging menace of death doom that rose as Sabbath fell, and blowing it all away with a few deadly notes that constitute one of his most threatening compositions to date. 'Atom & Evil' features almost progressive, dancing licks in the chorus while 'Bible Black' sees a more energetic approach to the groovy thrust of 'The Devil Cried.' 'Breaking Into Heaven's chorus features almost sad-sounding doom chords. I would like to say this sees a return to form for the guy, however after the three consecutive flops that were Forbidden, the 1998 tracks recorded with Ozzy Osbourne and his ill-conceived debut solo effort, Iommi released two albums of fantastic quality and daring experimentation in The 1996 DEP Sessions and Fused; The Devil You Know sees him continuing a very good streak indeed.
Geezer seems to have risen from his slumber to not only shame contemporary bass players, but to reinforce the importance of the bassist in heavy metal. Too often I hear an album where the bass either follows the guitar (so that the potential chemistry shared between guitarist and bassist is lazily squandered) or is simply inaudible. Geezer is as patient and self-assured a musician as ever, with deep, hearty plucks bubbling above even the fuzziest and sludgiest riffs on the album. As always, he is worth listening for as he provides a different instrumental perspective on the song. Of all four men, his performance defers the most to the days of Sabbath, following the improvised-sounding canters of the Heaven & Hell album.
Vinny Appice, the youngest present at a positively sprightly 52, is a far more accomplished drummer than he was in the days of Mob Rules. His almost narcissistic love of fills and rolls is present as ever, tempered by some of the rhythmic rock and roll sensibilities he learned in his years alongside Ronnie in Dio. The admittedly holy production job afforded the album by the band themselves and this Mike Exeter fellow allows each instrument to gleam forth in its crushing glory, and Appice's work behind the kit benefits massively. He sounds even better here than on the tracks recorded for The Dio Years, and with a good set of headphones you can almost see each stroke crashing into the kit with all the visceral reality of a live performance.
The album itself is structured very well, opening with a traditional doom crawl in 'Atom & Evil', moving into the urgent riffing and schizophrenic chorus of 'Fear', introducing more classic-sounding influences in 'Bible Black' and 'Rock and Roll Angel' and drawing to its close with a combination of hurtling rock and roll numbers ('Eating The Cannibals' and 'Neverwhere') and somber doom monstrosities ('Follow The Tears' and 'Breaking Into Heaven'). With the darkest moments at either end of the record, the blues and classic rock influences present in its middle feel better integrated, with everything flowing naturally from a base of doom-drenched heavy metal. It also means it doesn't trail off or fire all its rounds too soon; placing 'Fear' at the end might have detracted from the power it has as a second track, while opening with one of the two faster tracks could have created the illusion that the album became "boring" after. While it wouldn't have made a huge amount of difference either way, the tracklist is so well thought out that as each song ends you are left in just the right mood for the one that kicks in next.
In terms of actual songwriting, I seem to remember watching an interview with the band (conducted during recording the album) where Geezer in particular explained in very simple terms that, having finished a slow song, the band would try and record a faster one, and then perhaps a mid-paced one, with an eye to not doing the same thing over and over again. The other band members seemed to have very little to add on the actual thought going into creating this piece of art. Now you might put that down to the guys simply being tired of endless interviews and unwilling to cover the same stories over and over, which is understandable. I believe however that they simply had no more to add. When Iommi limited his contribution to something like '...then there's Geezer on bass, and Ronnie doing his thing', he was speaking from the unworried perspective of someone who needs to know no more than that each band member is holding or sitting at their particular instrument to be sure that excellent music will be produced. This is a positive thing in every way; you don't end up with something as compelling as The Devil You Know by going over it constantly and trying to make it better. Iommi had a phase doing that and produced Sabotage which, though I like it, was definitely a divisive one for Sabbath fans. Dio went through a period of overthinking his music and, again, produced two very divisive albums in Strange Highways and Angry Machines. So, cantankerous as they are in interviews, the four guys find themselves in a position any musician must surely hope to be in; being able to create classic music without even really thinking about it.
While I have dissected the album with all the self-indulgent scrutiny of the Sabbath-worshipping basket case I am, this thing actually works well on a purely basic level, providing ten tracks of incredibly involving head-banging heavy metal that someone with no knowledge of music recorded before this millennium could thoroughly enjoy. It's immediate, it's captivating and it's really very enduring. After months of listening to it, it is without a shadow of a doubt as essential and powerful an addition to the Dio-Sabbath collective catalogue as either Heaven & Hell or Mob Rules, proving the incredible strength of this lineup by even dwarfing spectacular releases by Iommi and Dio when separated from one another such as Sacred Heart or Headless Cross - something Dehumanizer couldn't do.
I will be listening to this in twenty years. Because of the age of the men involved, there is sadly little doubt in my heart that this opus stands towards the end of the incredible canon of work Dio, Iommi, Butler and Appice will record individually and together, and it is an eternal monument well deserving of doing so. And I think that, after creating something like this, you deserve as much time pottering about in your garden as you want.