Black Sabbath Review Countdown #10: Headless Cross

Released: 1989

The High Points: Headless Cross, When Death Calls, Nightwing

The Low Points: Devil and Daughter

The Verdict: Why didn’t this sell better?!

The Rating: 8/10

Warner Brothers never even tried to promote The Eternal Idol. They’d already written Sabbath off, and just wanted to get the record on store shelves in order to get everyone free of their contracts. Once this was accomplished, Sabbath was dropped. Iommi changed management, and the new people negotiated him a deal with the much smaller I.R.S. records. They also suggested that he bring together a band of known names in order to reestablish some credibility in the eyes of the fans.

The first guy he called was legendary drummer Cozy Powell. They’d been trying to work together for years (apparently it was first discussed in the late 70s when problems were cropping up with Bill Ward), but for the first time Powell was free at the same time Iommi needed a drummer. An attempt was made to bring in Geezer Butler… an attempt that was carried on a bit too long, with the result that Sabbath wound up going into the studio with a session bassist. Management kinda wanted Tony Martin replaced as well, and a few names were bandied about before Iommi said fuck it and decided to give him the chance to participate in the writing and recording of an album from start to finish.

The result was a three-way writing team. Powell was very involved, helping Iommi put the musical aspects of the album together. Martin wrote all of the lyrics and vocal melodies. The result is quite a different Sabbath album. Martin had been working in more of a pop-rock setting before Sabbath, and that line of thinking comes out in the melodies, particularly the mostly excellent choruses.

Iommi lays back quite a bit on this album; it’s not nearly as riff-intensive as much of his previous work. The riffs are excellent, but much more sparingly dished out. He seems to almost deliberately be backing off a bit and allowing the vocal melodies to take on a greater prominence. Is the result a more radio-friendly effort? Yes, but at the same time it manages to be really GOOD. Besides, none of this was destined for mainstream radio… Martin’s melodies might be singsongy, but lyrically he goes for the demons, witches, and warlocks subject matter that Sabbath had mostly avoided since the first album and takes it to a cartoony extreme. It manages to not come off as stupid mostly because of the man’s ability to wield a metaphor… but it’s borderline at times.

Overall the songs are just excellent. Kill in the Spirit world has one of the best vocal melodies on the album and Martin sounding earily like Dio. Headless Cross has a killer riff, a great chorus, and an almost Heaven and Hell vibe during the verses. Check out the blues-metal assault of Black Moon Rising. Only Devil and Daughter falls at all flat, and it’s still enjoyable enough when it’s on.

It’s sort of a tie for best track. When Death Calls is the most Sabbathesque, moving adroitly through a few different sections until kicking in full bast with a powerhouse riff. Nightwing is semi-acoustic and ballady and features the best solos on the album along with perhaps Martin’s best recorded vocal performance. Speaking of solos, this album features the one confirmed instance of a guitarist other than Iommi on a Sabbath album. When Death Calls showcases Queen’s Brian May as a guest soloist.

The performances are great all around. Geoff Nichols is given more room than usual, and his keyboard parts are simple but inspired. Iommi and Powell are their usual brilliant selves, and Martin sings like what he is: a man with something to prove. Session bassist Lawrence Cottle does an understated but effective job. The album was jointly produced by Iommi and Powell, resulting in one of the best-sounding records in the catalog.

This is a little on the singsongy side, but the songwriting is so strong you wont mind too much. The whole thing is a consistently enjoyable experience with plenty of replay value. Get it.

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