Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review: Heaven and Hell, "The Devil You Know"

Metal bands of the world, look on this creation and despair. It doesn't matter how fast you play or how low you tune your guitars. It doesn't matter how high you scream or how deep you growl. You will never be as heavy as the almighty Black Sabbath.

Sure, the name on this record says Heaven and Hell, but we know the truth of it. And if you don't, the first few notes of album opener "Atom and Evil" will certainly clue you in. This is the reformation of the second incarnation of Sabbath, featuring vocalist Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinny Appice, along with original members Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. It's also the most powerful record from the Sabbath camp since 1980's "Heaven and Hell."

In an age of screams and growls, guitar histrionics and machine gun-like drum lines, Heaven and Hell delivers up 10 tracks of beautiful simplicity. It's melodic, it's powerful and it's about as heavy as you can get. But it's far from old-fashioned -- more like timeless.

Let's start with the first single "Bible Black," which is arguably the best song the band has recorded since the title track of that 1980 album they took their new name from. It opens with a soft, clean guitar riff and builds to a sinister crescendo that features all of the best elements that classic metal had to offer -- a memorable guitar riff, great melody and fantastic vocals from Dio. It's a trend that's repeated throughout the record, which offers a nice mix of the slower dirge-like tunes like "Atom and Evil" and "Breaking into Heaven" and more upbeat numbers like "Eating the Cannibals" and "Neverwhere."

Iommi, metal's all-time undisputed riffmaster, is in better form here than he's been in years. The strongest riff is perhaps the ultra-heavy opening licks from "Follow the Tears," which is also overall one of the strongest songs on the record. But almost every track here has those solid, lasting riffs that have been the hallmark of Iommi's career. While I don't think there's anything here as iconic as "Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath," "Symptom of the Universe" or, of course, "Iron Man," they do stick with you better than those on even some of the previous Sabbath records.

It's also nice to hear bassist Geezer Butler, who I've always felt was the real backbone of Sabbath, getting a little love on this record, too. His thumping bass lines add to the overall heaviness of the record, and he even gets the spotlight on "Double the Pain," opening with a bass lick similar to the classic "N.I.B." He and Appice are locked in perfectly on this record, running like a well-oiled machine.

That, of course, brings us to Dio. One of the greatest, some (and I'm one of them) would say THE greatest metal vocalist of all time. His voice just oozes metal. At the age of 67, it's not quite as clear and smooth as it was 30 years ago, but it's still better than most of the singers out there. His work here on songs like the aforementioned "Bible Black" and "The Turn of the Screw" is impeccable, which is really what you expect from him.

While they're using the name Heaven and Hell because of some silly dispute with Ozzy Osbourne's camp (despite the fact that Iommi used the Black Sabbath name for years when it was just him and three guys he picked up off the street), you can call this what you want. Call it Heaven and Hell, call it Four Cuddly Kittens, if you must, it's still Black Sabbath and it's still the heaviest thing going -- even with the members in their 60s. Guys a third their age could learn quite a bit by listening to this record.

It's only April, but I'll be stunned if I find a record better than "The Devil You Know" this year.

Get "The Devil You Know."

If you can't wait until the album hits shelves on Tuesday, get an early listen to the full album at VH-1.

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