[27 May 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Anyone who loves Black Sabbath must cringe at the mere mention of the much-ballyhooed studio tracks “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul”. The songs appended the otherwise excellent 1998 live album Reunion, the celebrated reunion with Ozzy Osbourne back at the helm of the heavy metal progenitors, and fell disastrously flat. Because the resulting tours from 2007 and 2008 of Black Sabbath’s mach-three lineup of guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, singer Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinny Appice proved to be surprisingly spirited affairs and a resounding success, fans had every right to believe a new album by the beloved old coots would be an unmitigated triumph.
The band, rechristened itself Heaven and Hell out of respect for the Ozzy camp, performed with a passion many had thought was long gone. The leather-lunged, ageless Dio sounded as fiery as ever, and Iommi and Butler were clearly thrilled at the prospect of never having to perform such tired standards as “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” again. In addition, the three new tracks recorded for the 2007 compilation The Dio Years were excellent, fitting in well amongst such classics as “Neon Knights”, “The Sign of the Southern Cross” and “I”. With so many veteran metal acts experiencing creative rebirths this decade, from Iron Maiden to Judas Priest to Motörhead, little reason existed to doubt Heaven and Hell would follow suit.
Listening to The Devil You Know, the first question that pops into our head is, Wait, what went wrong here? Instead of coming out with guns blazing, the new album’s overall power barely measures above that of a pea shooter. The legendary foursome sounds as if they’re merely going through the motions. The songs are stilted, with the vast majority of the record mired in the same plodding tempo, sounding more in keeping with the inconsistent, safe-sounding recorded output of Sabbath’s period with Tony Martin as lead singer in the late ‘80s and mid-‘90s. It lacks the passion and malevolence that drove 1992’s Dehumanizer; the youthful hard rock fury that dominated 1981’s Mob Rules; and aside from one track, the majesty of 1980’s classic Heaven and Hell.
That one song is The Devil You Know‘s third track “Bible Black”, and although it reverts to the tried-and-true template used for such cuts as “Children of the Sea” and “The Sign of the Southern Cross”, it does so with unabashed, devilish glee, and for six-and-a-half triumphant minutes, we’re captivated. The formula is so familiar: Dio croons over an extended mellow intro; Iommi adds expressive lead fills; and menace subtly creeps in when Dio thunders with inimitable authority, “Don’t go on, put it back / You’re reading from the Bible Black!” Iommi’s riff at the 1:36 mark is quintessential Sabbath: simple, dignified and epic in scope. In addition, the rhythm section of Butler and Appice proves formidable; Appice is metal’s great minimalist drummer, the spaces between his beats as important as his massive, resounding thuds, and like his three bandmates, he sounds in prime form on this track.
The rest, though, falls completely flat. Iommi’s riffs sound uninspired, and Dio’s lyrics come off as so silly that not even he, the master salesman of cornball metal shtick, can keep it from sounding ridiculous. The lurching-death crawl of “Atom and Evil”, as awkward as the cringe-inducing pun of its title, starts off such a heavily anticipated album in a listless way. “Rock and Roll Angel” sounds haphazardly written, with its opening riff sounding arbitrarily put together, and Dio’s lyrics make zero sense (“You’re on a caravan to Superman”). The only reason the rote, galloping solo break gets our heads bobbing is because we’re just instinctively relieved the pace has been picked up for once. “Eating the Cannibals” sounds as forced as Steve Harris’s many lazy songwriting efforts for Iron Maiden in the 1990s, with its sorry attempt at a groove riff totally beneath the normally classy Iommi. To make matters worse, Dio hits a new low lyrically: “I’m sure you’ve never had this meal before / We’re still open / Stay and have some more.”
Listeners do get sporadic glimpses of the possibility Heaven and Hell could reach the same heights as “Bible Black”, as “Fear” boasts an ornate, slithering riff courtesy of Iommi, and the album-closer “Breaking Into Heaven” is a mildly pleasing exercise in doom metal aesthetics, but no matter how rosy a picture you want to paint, the fact remains that the underwhelming The Devil You Know is a huge opportunity squandered. Those looking for some new, passionate and classicist heavy metal would be far better off hearing Candlemass’s superb Death Magic Doom, which outclasses this album in every respect.