By Sean Palmerston
As much as it surprises me to now say it, the reformation of the Mob Rules-era line-up of Black Sabbath as Heaven & Hell has really surpassed my expectations. Over the past few years, I have had three opportunities to see the band live, with each subsequent performance being more impressive than the last. Over the course of eighteen months, those three shows I attended transformed this group of middle-aged musicians into a blood-curdling metal band once more. In fact, their Toronto performance last summer at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre was so bloody good that even my good pal Kevin Stewart-Panko – who had gone to the show with me worrying he was going to be bored to tears, dubbing it “oldies fest” weeks in advance of the event – was blown away by the majestic muscle the quartet flexed on stage. They were on fire and were clearly better on this evening than both Judas Priest and Motorhead. Taking all of that into consideration, I am still not sure how I feel about the band’s new studio offering. While Heaven & Hell has proved itself as formidable of a live act now as it was first time around in 1981, The Devil You Know is a decent album but unfortunately it isn’t as great as it possibly could have been.
It is hard to say exactly where the problem with the album lies, but I think for me personally it is a case of it being too much Dio and not enough Iommi. While there are definite highlights on the album – the lead off single “Bible Black” and the moody “The Turn of The Screw” are my own personal favourites after some thirty-odd spins of the full platter – some of the songs sound to me like they were written for a Dio album and then later sculpted into H&H songs. The one song in particular I’d center out as being the guiltiest is the atrocious “Rock And Roll Angel.” The introductory section to this song sounds more like Stone Temple Pilots than Black Sabbath and the lyrics are amongst the hokiest ever to be accompanied by Messrs Iommi and Butler (although it does have a classic Iommi solo). Of course, RJD has always had his own style lyrically, one that is arguably much more fantasy based than any other lyricist that has ever contributed to the many different eras of Sabbath, but I still get the feeling that when he and Iommi got together to write these songs that old Ronnie had a lot of these lyrics (and arguably partial melodies) already in the can for a future Dio band album and decided to offer them up here instead. As we all know, a big part of Black Sabbath has always been the guitar riffs; think of all the truly classic Sabbath songs and they all have absolutely killer guitar lines. The riffs on many of these H&H songs almost feel like they have been added as afterthoughts, instead of having the songs built around them.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike this record. I am in fact very glad it has been made. I really enjoy all of the Dio-fronted Sabbath records, even 1992’s much-maligned Dehumanizer, I just wonder how many times I’ll reach for this record in particular even five years from now when I’m hankering for a bit of Dio-led Sabbath. Methinks this might be the least played one of the bunch, despite having my favourite album cover of the four.