Music Reviews

posted: April 20, 2009

Black Sabbath’s Latest Heaven & Hell: The Devil You Know

Rhino CD
Black Sabbath’s Latest

This time it’s okay to judge the record by its cover. Depicting a horrific, three-tongued demon grasping a nailed Christ-like figure in his left hand, the red-hued artwork superbly conveys the ominous themes and weighty hard rock prevalent throughout the aptly titled The Devil You Know. Yes, this is how Heaven & Hell—better known as Ronnie James Dio-led Black Sabbath—is supposed to look, feel, and, most importantly, sound.

Picking up on its successful 2007-08 reunion tour and trio of promising new studio tracks that graced The Dio Years greatest-hits collection, the quartet continues its improbably strong comeback on this, its first studio album in 17 years. And while it doesn’t dethrone 1980’s Heaven and Hell or 1981’s Mob Rules—Black Sabbath’s initial two efforts with Dio at the helm and, by all accounts, the albums that resuscitated the group’s career—The Devil You Know is far from a typical slapdash reunion affair and leagues better than 1992’s awkward Dehumanizer.

From the menacing opening notes of the lead-off track “Atom and Evil” to the imposing drive of the closing “Breaking Into Heaven,” it’s apparent that the record isn’t a forced corporate session. Rather, it’s the outcome of a genuine chemistry that resulted in most songs being recorded in just one or two takes. All of the classic elements are in place, from Geezer Butler’s hulking bass lines to Dio’s dramatic singing. And at 66, the impish frontman remains as mystic as ever, his looming voice a guide through underworld labyrinths in which evil, darkness, and uncertainty constantly lurk. As with every great artistic partnership, he’s got a sympathetic foil. While Dio plays the role of wizard sorcerer, guitarist Tony Iommi acts as a puppet master of riffs, balancing heavy dirges against linear solos and slithering fills. The legend hasn’t yet run out of ideas—or down-tuned, doom-evoking chords.

Whether taking the form of authoritative marches (“Atom and Evil”), anvil-smacking stomps (“Follow the Tears”), or vengeant screeds (“Eating the Cannibals”), the music grooves and breathes. With a slow-building introduction and explosive hook, “Bible Black” is indicative of Heaven & Hell’s contemporary relevance, the electrifying arrangement a synthesis of hypnotic melody and epic flair.  Similarly, “Fear” persuades via edgy tones and an escalating interlude that leads to a classical-flavored guitar finale. Only on “Double the Pain” and “Neverwhere” does the band lose inertia and settle for stock performance and narrative.

Otherwise, the current issues of corporate greed, political corruption, and advanced science bookend traditionally sinister songwriting topics in completing a statement that sonically, visually, and lyrically connects in a manner that won’t have anybody pining for Ozzy Osbourne to return anytime soon.

–Bob Gendron