Q: When is Black Sabbath not Black Sabbath? A: When it’s Heaven & Hell. And even then … it’s still Black Sabbath. For the small handful of folks who have been living in a cave, under a rock or perhaps dwelling in a festering dungeon of misery in a barren, foggy and forsaken land time forgot, or something, Heaven & Hell is Black Sabbath’s Mob Rules
-era line-up, trading under a new name so as to avoid confusion with the Ozzy-led incarnation of the band, which is still a going concern at least on paper. It’s not known even by the band members if or when the mighty Sabbath will reactivate (and I’m sure that largely depends on when they can fit in rehearsal between Osbourne photo opportunities and Botox appointments) but in the meantime, there’s Heaven & Hell.
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Any assumption that Heaven & Hell’s The Devil You Know is a consolation prize pending new activity by Black Sabbath is crushingly put to rest within the first 5 seconds of album opener ‘Atom and Evil.’ After an opening drum salvo from Vinnie Appice, a lumbering, demonic Iommi riff lurches forward. If you listen with headphones you’ll hear a distant shimmery overdub which recalls the high-speed phaser sound of ‘Killing Yourself to Live’ from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. It’s a subtle reminder of Sabbath’s past, but don’t go looking to read too much into it because The Devil You Know is not a depository for sly back catalogue references. Oh, you’ll be able to tell from a cursory ear-glance that it’s Iommi, Butler, Dio and Appice, but even though the lyrical direction may lean towards themes explored on the line-up’s last studio album, Dehumanizer, there’s more than enough distinction to keep The Devil You Know from being Dehumanizer 2: Electric Boogaloo.
‘Atom and Evil’ has that dark, plodding tempo that made Dehumanizer’s ‘Letters From Earth,’ yet the orchestration is a little richer, Geezer Butler’s bass tone is more up-front (especially in the second verse), and Iommi’s double-tracked rhythm guitars sizzle and burn, no doubt the result of his extremely high output Gibson Tony Iommi humbuckers. I don’t know if my perception is influenced by the fire-and-brimstone look of the album cover, but compared to Dehumanizer, Iommi’s tone on The Devil You Know generally feels warmer and more organic than the often cold menace of its predecessor.
‘Fear’ picks up the pace a little but two songs in we’re still nowhere near the tempo of ‘Neon Knights’ or ‘The Mob Rules.’ Some darkly supportive vocal harmonies and considered use of backwards reverb ratchet up the menace level in Dio’s voice, which is as powerful and commanding as ever, despite his advancing years. Though Dio doesn’t quite reach for the high notes like he once did, and seems to sing in a lower register overall, it fits the material and adds yet more weight to his delivery. Oh and while I’m singling out individual band members, Vinny Appice’s drum sound is incredible, with just the right mix of ambience and directness. His playing sits so deeply within the pocket that sometimes your ear is drawn away from him, until he throws in a particular fill or accent – there are some great ones in ‘Atom and Evil’ – to kick the song up to another level.
For me, as brutals as this sounds, the key distinction between Ozzy-Sabbath and Dio-Sabbath is one of evil. In their classic 70s output, the band seemed to be stalked and tormented by darkness and doom, while Dio-led Sabbath seems to be in control and command of it. This really hits home with the single ‘Bible Black,’ which starts with a classic Iommi acoustic figure underneath a sombre blues-inspired lead line. A minute and a half into the song, the doom and menace kick in – perhaps recalling ‘Children of the Sea’ from the Heaven & Hell album, but with a little more power and drive. In this tale of an evil bible that leads its reader to commit vicious misdeeds, Dio sounds determined and powerful, sinking his teeth into the character of the protagonist with a sort of demonic relish that Ozzy could only reserve for bats and doves.
‘Double The Pain’ almost sounds like an Iommi-led attempt at covering Alice In Chains’ ‘We Die Young.’ Four songs in and we’ve started to reach the faster tempos that this line-up has always done so well. Of course it wouldn’t be Iommi without more of those famous, evil, snaking riffs, and this track includes a killer half-time line. I’m not sure if it’s in part an in-joke – double the pain, double the length of the bar of music – but it sure sounds cool. ‘Rock and Roll Angel’ has an almost psychedelic opening riff which is quickly pushed aside for a chugging, heavy groove not a million miles removed from Zakk Wylde’s rhythm playing in Black Label Society. Geezer’s tone has a kind of growl which is especially effective in the pre-chorus sections, where Butler and Iommi seem to swap their respective support and leadership roles. Such interplay is all over the album, and it serves as a reminder that while Iommi is the chief riff writer, Butler is absolutely indispensable and perfectly capable of leading the charge.
‘Turn of the Screw’ kinda reminds me of Tony Martin-era Sabbath, with a Butler-led verse riff that recalls that line-up’s criminally overlooked Cross Purposes album. It’s not one of the album’s stronger cuts, yet the band is very tight and they navigate the song’s twists, turns and time shifts with ease. ‘Eating The Cannibals’ is the album’s fastest cut, a high-energy call-to-action about holding big business fat-cats accountable for the current economic state of affairs. A few reviewers have said it’s this album’s ‘TV Crimes,’ and the tempo is similar, but the mood is more smart-ass and revolutionary than the cautionary, accusatory tone of that Dehumanizer track. Oh and Iommi lets rip with a blazing solo that kinda sounds like he’s been spending a lot of time around Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine. Little lead guitar interjections in the following verse are also a nice touch, then we’re given another wild solo. Iommi’s lead playing is in fine form indeed on this album, and it’s great to hear him really stretch out. The intro riff to ‘Follow the Tears’ is possibly the darkest, creepiest moment on the album, moving from ‘threatening’ to ‘menacing’ to all-out oppressive by the time the drums come in. This one is going to be a killer live, and it’s amazing to think that 40 years after ‘Black Sabbath’ the song, Iommi is still writing riffs of this quality, and playing them with such conviction.
‘Neverwhere’ is another fast-paced track which once again has a slight Tony Martin-era feel (astute listeners might recognise a few common intervals with ‘Glory Ride’ from Eternal Idol). It’s one of the few moments on the CD that isn’t particularly stand-out, but at the same time it provides a welcome up-tempo break from all the stomping, lumbering doom that characterises most of the album. Finally there’s ‘Breaking Into Heaven,’ which bookends the collection with a similar (actually about 10bpm slower) tempo as ‘Atom and Evil.’ A monster, anthemic chorus gives way to repeated lashings of doom riffage, before the tempo picks up for a bluesy, double-stop-accented guitar solo. After a return to the slow doom, The Devil You Know finally fades out on a single chord which, rather than signalling the end of the album and saying ‘There, that’s over and done with,’ seems to say ‘To be continued…’
Man, I hope it is.