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Heaven & Hell - The devil you know - 75%

Radagast, May 22nd, 2009

Regardless of the name at the top of the cover slip, the personnel involved in the recording of this CD quite rightly mean that it is always going to be regarded as a Black Sabbath release. Not only does this mean it is a serious event – far more so than any of the work the members have been turning out in their respective individual projects in recent times – but of course also put an extra onus on Dio, Iommi, Butler and Appice not to balls the whole thing up.

The quality of the 3 Dio/Iommi-penned tracks that were written for ‘The Dio years’ Sabbath compilation just before The ‘Mob rules’ line-up properly reformed (or formed, or whatever) under the Heaven & Hell banner strongly suggested that there was nothing to worry about though, and this 19th full-length/debut CD follows suit accordingly.

Musically and lyrically, ‘The devil you know’ is very much a logical continuation from where this version of Sabbath left off on ‘Dehumanizer’, the more upbeat melodiousness of “The mob rules” and “Neon knights” discarded again in favour of pounding, dark anthems of paranoia and isolation. Though despite being a natural successor to the first comeback of this line-up, it is not quite ‘Dehumanizer 2’ – the defiant chest-beating of “I” and “TV crimes” is not delved into this time around, and despite the overall downbeat, doomy vibe, the chilling menace of “After all (the dead)” is never quite reached again, and as a whole the songs sit in the middle ground between the 2 extremes.

Presumably the lack of tension in the studio between the musicians that no doubt drove much of the aggression on ‘Dehumanizer’ is responsible for this, and the newfound comfort they have as a band has quenched their fire a little, but that is maybe doing the songs a disservice. Truly its own CD, ‘The devil you know’ offers something that is both immediately familiar but not an example of habitual repetition.

Performance-wise, the assembled veterans deliver exactly what would be expected from each of them. The vocals of Ronnie Dio, despite his ever-advancing years, are still a joy to behold. Anyone who has been paying attention knows his register has lowered over the years, and the snarling edge has mostly gone from his voice, but he remains the master of captivating melodies and hasn’t lost an inch since his last full studio performance on ‘Master of the moon’. Butler and Iommi’s playing skills are naturally less susceptible to age than those of the frontman, but despite a lack of standout instant classic riffs and solos, the 2 are in fine form as well. Butler’s bass playing may not be as unique as it was 40 years ago, but he retains a distinctive style and offers many unexpected little quirks as the CD progresses. The doubled-up intro to “Double the pain” is typical outside-the-box thinking from the bassist.

Iommi of course has always been the rock on which the endless Sabbath permutations have been built on, and his display was always going to be the make-or-break factor as far as this CD is concerned. The foreboding riff that opens the CD on “Atom & evil” more or less sets the tone for what is to come and confirms, as if anyone had any doubts, that the grandmaster has still got it. The skulking, sinister playing that follows in the later verses of this song is just pure, simple inspiration from Iommi and even though there aren’t many riffs that feel like they’ll achieve truly iconic status like so many of his previous concoctions, the most important cylinder in Black Sabbath is without a doubt still firing. The ubiquitous phrase “Bible black” is finally committed to song on what is possibly the best track on ‘The devil you know’. Some stellar acoustic playing in the mournful intro couples with a perfect vocal display from Dio, before the anticipated heaviness kicks in on a menacing doom-fest wrapped up in some enthralling lyrics. One of the few ventures into the expected occult territory, they could nevertheless also be read as another treatise on temptation and man’s thirst for knowledge whatever the cost that make up much of Dio’s work on this CD.

The most noteworthy and commendable about thing about the quality of ‘The devil you know’ is that it shows the rejuvenation and freshness that this reunion has provided for the 3 main members (no disrespect to Appice intended), as it is most definitely the best product any of them have delivered in some years. Dio’s own band has been rather stagnant for a while now (while still providing a terrific live show), while Iommi’s last solo outing with Glenn Hughes back in 2005 was diverting if entirely overrated. The less said about Geezer’s industrial tomfoolery the better, and that the 3 of them have collaborated on such a strong undertaking just goes to show the magic this version of Black Sabbath really had, and indeed still retains.

When all the euphoria over the fact that the CD has actually happened eventually dies down, the cold light of day will reveal that it is not a classic, but that is not to say there is anything disappointing about it. The Dio-fronted Sabbath always set the bar very high, and the fact they have not quite managed to match the amazing quality of their previous works 15 years after their last collaboration is nothing to be ashamed of. Seeking this one out is mandatory.

(Originally written for