Regardless of what anyone says, The Devil You Know is the fourth Black Sabbath album featuring Ronnie James Dio on vocals despite the change in the band’s name. The only reason they are going by the moniker Heaven and Hell is because they do not want to be bothered by Ozzy-obsessed fans when playing live.
Just like its predecessor, Dehumanizer, the album was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Wales in only three months, which has given the band the chance to capture a rather live feel which is both intense and powerful. The band did take a longer time to write the album though, partly in England and partly in the USA.
The Devil You Know expands on the classic Sabbath sound, chock full of thunderous riff work, stomping drum intensity, growling bass lines, and godly vocals. This album once again solidifies the fact that Dio is and always will be the voice of Heavy Metal. He is in fine form here, slightly straying from his style on his recent solo material, and revisiting his glorious past where he exerts a doomy vibe on some of the tunes that fits the compositions like a glove.
It all begins with the sonic punch that is “Atom & Evil” (Adam & Eve) whose rolling drum intro suggests the production on this disc is huge and powerful. Everything sounds crisp; the range of dynamics is great and the instrumentation very vivid. As Iommi lays down his unique riffs, a dark, menacing atmosphere is achieved and perfected with the arrival of Dio singing lyrics of abstract symbolism. Note the use of discreet synths in the background, proceeding through a terrain of rhythmic power. Also pay attention to the mini-riff that is planted beneath Dio’s vocals on the chorus. That riff doesn’t let go till the end — it is absolutely fantastic.
Being a fan of Sabbath’s darkest and heaviest material, tracks like “Follow the Tears,” (what a great, great song!) “Bible Black,” and “Breaking into Heaven” are the album’s most shining moments. The heavy, almost sludge-infested opening riff of “Breaking into Heaven,” once again complete with metaphorical lyrics about fallen angels trying to break into paradise, is a modern take on doom metal while the intro of “Follow the Tears” is so heavy that it would crush just about anything that gets into its path. Iommi will always be the god of riffs, as his writing has been unparalleled for over thirty years. He unleashes riffs, rhythms, and solos unlike any other guitarist in the world. His acoustic guitar playing on “Bible Black” is stunningly dark, as is his volatile, chugging lead solo that follows it. The way the song builds from a pain-ridden dirge to a monstrous finale induces goose bumps every time. Add to this Dio’s vocals that recall his stuff from his most underrated album Strange Highways and Iommi’s schizophrenic solo and you have a masterpiece of composition.
Geezer Butler mostly stands out on the bass-centric “Double the Pain,” again with vocals reminiscent of Strange Highways, where he lays down a sick, stomping bass solo. Likewise, it is the bass that permeats “The Turn of the Screw” which boasts a shred-intensive guitar solo that erupts like a volcano following the patient build-up. This would make for a perfect live performance given the energy between the drums, bass, and guitars.
About the other songs, “Eating the Cannibals,” the shortest song on the album, is the loud, in-your-face number, retaining its heavy drive from start to finish while “Fear” sees Dio’s most theatrical singing highlighted with awesome drum fills by Vinny Appice (whose work on the earlier albums is much, much better — perhaps the best drumming in Heavy Metal).
Admittedly, “Rock & Roll Angel” and “Neverwhere” lack the same intensity and songwriting bliss of the other tunes, but the lead solo on the former is arguably Iommi’s finest on this album as it recalls his blues-inflected playing on Mob Rules quite a bit, and the latter is a hook-laden, catchy rock anthem into which scalding riffs and slamming drums are tucked.
A great entry into the mostly brilliant Sabbath catalogue. Though at this point, I rank it below the other three albums with Dio, this is still one of the best Heavy Metal albums of the year.