Black Sabbath Review Countdown #19: Born Again

Released: 1983

The High Points: Disturbing the Priest, Born Again, Zero the Hero

The Low Points: Trashed, Digital Bitch

The Verdict: What the fuck were they thinking?.

The Rating: 5/10

Sabbath was in a fucked up state in 1983. The band had just really started to recover from the disaster that was the latter half of the 70s, and then they lost their drummer and lead vocalist at the same time. Dio and Appice quit (or were fired depending on what side of the story you buy off on), leaving original members Geezer Butler (bass) and Tony Iommi (guitar) kinda high and dry. Still hanging around was keyboardist Geoff Nichols, who’d been with the group in an unofficial capacity since 1979.

The good news: they managed to get original drummer Bill Ward back; apparently sober for the first time in his adult life. The what the fuck were they thinking news: former Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan was recruited to take over the singer’s chair.

Yes, you heard me right. Ian Gillan. He of the crazy banshee shrieks. The guy who wrote nobody’s gonna take my girl cus she’s got a moving mouth and body control. Yeah. That guy. He’d been out of Deep Purple for almost a decade, and had stumbled through various solo projects and a fuck of a lot of booze in the interim. Now he was on a medically ordered hiatus from singing due to nodes on his chords… that’s what you get for guzzling whiskey by the gallon and chain smoking right before you have to sing. Even forgetting that… Ian Gillan? In Black Sabbath? The story goes that their respective managers got them all really drunk and when they woke up the next morning they’d signed a year long contract.

The first thing you’ll notice with this record is the godawful jacket art. There’s a story here; the guy who did the art was also doing stuff for Ozzy, and didn’t want to risk a high-dollar gig like that by working for the guys who fired Ozzy. So he submitted art he figured NOBODY would accept… and Iommi liked it. It’s dreadful; this hideous red baby with claws and shit.

The second thing will hit you like a ton of bricks the moment you push play… this is one of the worst-sounding recordings in the history of rock music. Holy shit, this sounds bad. Everything is mushy, muddy, and all fizzy on top. Apparently it didn’t sound like that when it left for the mastering plant; speculation is that the tapes may have been left in a hot car. Even more extraordinary is that a final pressing seems to have been approved without the band ever signing off on it! How does this even happen? Either way it sounds like canned ass. When Iommi went through and did re-releases of the Sabbath back catalog a few years back it was his intention to get the original mixdown and have it remastered, or failing that get the multi-tracks and remix from scratch. Turns out all the tapes were missing. After an extended attempt to find them he just did his best to clean up the existing masters with current technology… still sounds like shit.

Like Forbidden, this thing starts out with the worst track on the record. Trashed is a generic fast rocker with nothing to recommend it musically and god help us there is Gillan being Gillan… a badly told tongue in cheek story about getting drunk and crashing his car (which really happened during the recording session, by the way). Ugh. Gillan’s lyrics don’t get much better as the album goes forward. Full disclosure: I’ve always hated Gillan as a lyricist. He was a great singer back in the early 70s, but I’ve always thought his lyrics retarded. He got away with it in Purple… in Black Sabbath it’s just jarring.

Funny side note: Gillan was in the middle of a six month singing probation when he joined the group. The band did it’s usual thing; work out riffs and arrangements first and the handle the vocal melody and lyrics. In the old days with Ozzy it was Geezer Bulter writing the lyrics, often to melodies Ozzy came up with. When Dio replaced Ozzy he took over the lyric writing. Same deal with Gillan; being Ian Gillan from Deep Motherfucking Purple means not having to sing anyone’s shit but your own. But he couldn’t sing during the songwriting sessions, so the band had no fucking clue what he was going to sing until he walked into the studio to record it.

The record has one more real stinker on it; Digital Bitch is another generic fast rocker with Gillan trying to be cute and looking like a jackass. Then there’s some boring but unobjectionable filler; the hard-rocking Hot Line and the heavy semi-ballad Keep it Warm.

But when this album gets good, it’s REALLY good. Disturbing the Priest is the clear winner here, a brutal crusher of a track featuring Gillan actually singing some lyrics that fit the band he is in, and in a suitably menacing way. I’ll also take the somber darkness of Born Again, which I can oddly hear Dio singing on. Zero the Hero kicks ass in that slow, brutal way that only Sabbath can consistently pull off. It features the best riff on the album and is good enough that a characteristically goofball lyric from Gillan doesn’t ruin it. This would get ripped off much more famously a few years down the road; listen to the main riff and the listen to Paradise City by Guns and Roses… I’ll wait.

Sadly even these moments of true greatness are let down by the godawful sound, and by some less-than-spectacular performances. Iommi is on form; is he ever not? But Bulter and Ward both chug along in a competent yet uninspired way, and Gillan’s once-godly pipes sound weak and strained. He’d never really recover; this was the beginnings of a permanent decline. Nichols does his thing; the man is not a great keyboardist but he kept his job for 17 years because he is a MASTER at being the keyboardist in a band that doesn’t feature keyboards. He adds exactly what is needed, and otherwise stays the hell out of the way. Unsung, but a true artist in an understated way.

You might have noticed that I gave this platter the same rating as Forbidden. I almost had to flip a coin to pick which one to rank above the other. This one slightly wins out despite having worse sound and about the same amount of bullshit because it manages three awesome songs instead of one. Nevertheless, like Forbidden this is completists only territory. But do check out Disturbing the Priest:

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