Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Old Dogs . . . New Tricks

Let me first say that it's extremely difficult to write a review about a Black Sabbath-linked band and not be consumed by the desire to fawn endlessly about their "heaviness". Or their sinfully ominous sound. Or their status quo as the godfathers of the metal genre. But this being my first TF review of a band with said credentials, I promised myself that I wouldn't. We'll see how that goes . . .

The Devil You Know is the first studio release by Heaven and Hell, their current name taken from an aptly-named 1980 Black Sabbath-titled studio effort. Unless you've been serving time in a foreign prison, or on the road with Barry Manilow, you should already be fully aware that the band is more or less a reformation of that version of the band - sans oringinal Sabbath drummer Bill Ward. That being said, there should be no surprises as to what's in store on the musical side of things. As regular TF contributor James Reetz so eloquently mused following his first full listen: this is what Death would listen to on his way to work in the morning.

The band itself is a classic four-piece line-up fronted by the spritely, snarling vocal dynamo Ronnie James Dio (RJD). H & H's nether-worldly ties come courtesy of Sabbath legends Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi. Serving up the thump is Vinne Appice, younger sibling of Carmine - who to my recollection has been in just about every band on the planet at some time or another. Together, a solid, zero-fluff line-up that's fully committed to ripping your head off with old school fire and brimstone metal.

The story of how The Devil You Know came into being goes something like this: When the group got together to cut a few new original tracks for the Black Sabbath / The Dio Years project, the band felt that the vibe present during those sessions was too good to just let simmer on a re-released greatest hits comp. Bat-winged serpents were duly summoned, incantations chanted, and powdered elk antler mixed with eye of goat. Lo and behold, The Devil You Know rose from the fiery depths - as if foretold by the ancients.

Culling on their most auspicious talent for the dark and macabre, the new release grinds sinfully through thick, drop-tuned stanzas. RJD's vocals soar effortlessly amidst midieval-themed lyrical fare. Supporting rhythm lines echo with power and ferocity, descending upon the musical arrangements like a full Panzer division on fleeing, rake-wielding French peasants. The overall effect, of course, is extremely satisfying. A wonderfully modern, yet still classically-bound metal album brimming with excellent songs and incredible performances.

The initial salvo of "The Devil You Know" starts of with the deliberate and methodical "Atom and Evil", a song whose curves conjure up images of Butler & Iommi's former musical mistress. The tempo picks up a notch for the second number "Fear", but sticks closely to the same basic formula. "The Bible Black" enters quietly with a lovely acoustic rhythm / electric intro and RJD serenading beautifully. Two measures later, the song explodes into churning, furious metal cacophany. To me, this song is the jeweled chalice of this album, melding together all of the finest points of the band's volumnous talent and classic metal sound. You simply listen in awe and marvel at the incredible artistry that is Heaven and Hell.

"Double The Pain" and "Rock and Roll Angel" capture the band in full gallop. Both are searing mid-tempo concoctions dripping with savage riffery. The latter features an amazing guitar transition part and solo that leaves no doubt that Iommi stands alone on the silver mountain. The often-copied and highly-revered axeman tastefully weaves his magic as only he can do, each breathless note cascading into a molten display of six-stringed mastery. Then, as if in a dream, the song fades into the mist on a lovely acoustic passage.

"The Turn of the Screw" echoes solo-era Dio material; wryly-written lyrics dancing between a crunchy rhythm lines. The pace intensifies with "Eathing the Cannibals", but again - conjures up trademark cues. "Follow The Tears", "Neverwhere", and "Breaking Into Heaven" bring this fantastic release to a satisfying climax. Familiar tempos and grinding guitars paying glorious homage to Dio's incredible vocal prowess.

If you're getting the idea that The Devil You Know isn't "re-inventing the wheel", so to speak, then you've hit your mark. This band isn't giving you anything you wouldn't expect to hear from artists of their caliber. The tricks these old dogs can do are still quite impressive, thank you very much.

As I look this review over, I see I have failed miserably in my efforts to avoid the usual Sabbath superlatives. But who cares? It's hard not to get excited about music this good. For that, Heaven and Hell is rightfully deserving of the Tone Farm's full five star rating for The Devil You Know. Easily, one of 2009's must-have hard rock CD's.