Crawling out of the gate with a doom dirge blast from the subterranean hollows of 1970, Tony Iommi leads his aging troops into one more battle with a riff and a tone that could level Mordor. It's BLACK SABBATH, the Ronnie James Dio-fronted version of the band, although the new moniker provides both a balm to Ozzy's wounded feelings and a steely statement of intent. This isn't a county-fair knockoff milking the customers with ever-more-cringeworthy renditions of "Paranoid" and "Iron Man"... it's a band, a partnership firing on all cylinders creatively, with plenty of dark magic left to dispense and no intentions of resting on laurels.
Dio still sounds amazing, writing in a lower register these days but possessed of a grandeur and gravity that's just awe-inspiring. He's always been a consummate professional, able to give the dodgiest material a patina of class and grace, and when he's working with Iommi and Geezer Butler, he's clearly inspired to kick things up a notch. And speaking of Butler, the band's oft-underrated secret weapon is all over "The Devil You Know", his bass high up in the mix, with a larger-than-life tone and plenty of sly accents and fills burbling under the obsidian sheen of Iommi's riffing.
The songs are generally big, staid tanks of lead, built on Vinny Appice's plodding 4/4 pound and loaded with a stately majesty that recalls this lineup's classics — the atmosphere of "Heaven and Hell" (the song) and "Children of the Sea", brought into the modern day and made just a little darker and more weighty. Some are decrying the sheer metric tonnage of doom on "The Devil You Know", but I submit that HEAVEN & HELL are at their brooding best on this more ponderous, epic material. The more uptempo "Double the Pain", for instance, is one of the few less-than-stellar cuts on the record, seeming like a castoff from Iommi's late-Eighties riff tapes (though even here, the band's effortless conviction comes pretty damn close to selling it).
And besides, it's not all pristine 16rpm sludge — after an archetypal Iommi doom opener, "Turn of the Screw" delivers a verse that flirts with AOR, while "Eating the Cannibals" is the "TV Crimes" of this record, a hard-charging raveup with a monster main riff, a scorching solo and a little welcome Appice thundering in the bridge. It could be said that one more song of this tempo and attitude, maybe a little earlier in the proceedings, would have given "The Devil You Know" the final kick in the ass it needed to reach perfection — a little more raucousness on what is, admittedly, a pretty stern and dour record overall.
But it's hard to get picky or ask for more when the riff for "Follow the Tears" or the soaring open chords of "Breaking Into Heaven" thunder down the mountain — giant notes of polished granite, barely accented with atmospheric keyboards, bass throbbing through your sternum, Dio by turns pleading, testifying, cold and sardonic. It encapsulates the vibe of this whole black, bleak, cathartic ride, a stalking monster of timeless riffing from the very wellspring of heavy metal itself, howls from the hills of Valhalla delivered not as a feel-good nostalgia trip, but as an eloquent, elegant piece of hard rock for the faithful. "The Devil You Know" isn't a perfect album, but when it's on, it's nothing less than the sound of age, wisdom, and a lifetime of craft alchemized into a joyous, communal heavy metal milestone. If it doesn't give you goosebumps at least a few times, you might as well just leave the damn hall.