Black Sabbath Review Countdown #12: The Eternal Idol

Released: 1987

The High Points: The Shining, Glory Ride, Ancient Warrior, Eternal Idol

The Low Points:  Hard Life to Love

The Verdict: Beats the hell out of anything Ozzy was doing at the time…

The Rating: 7.5/10

Iommi learned his lesson from the Seventh Star debacle; despite the absence of the other three original members there was no way the record label was going to allow him to release an album under his own name. The follow-up was conceived from the outset as a Black Sabbath album… the 13th released under that hallowed moniker. All of the superstition surrounding unlucky thirteen was born out by the convoluted mess that recording the album turned out to be.

Iommi went into the studio with the same band that had recorded Seventh Star except for vocalist Glenn Hughes, who fell out of the tour for that album after just five shows. He was replaced by unknown New York singer Ray Gillen, who turned out to be a great singer and an entertaining frontman. Iommi decided to keep him around, along with bassist Dave Spitz and drummer Eric Singer. Ever-faithful keyboardist Geoff Nichols was still in tow.

It sure fell apart in a hurry. The first casualty was Dave Spitz, who was booted during the writing sessions for spending more time on the phone trying to keep his girlfriend than working with the band. Iommi called in Bob Daisley, known for his work with Rainbow and Gary Moore and this guy you probably never heard of by the name of Ozzy Osbourne. Yeah… this is the man who played bass on most of Ozzy’s 80s albums and apparently wrote all the lyrics. He had a full-time gig in Gary Moore’s band but had time to come in just for the album. The timing was fortuitous; Iommi was in the process of finding out the hard way that his new vocalist was NOT a songwriter. Daisley took over the lyric writing responsibilities and probably saved the album.

Unfortunately he wasn’t interested in staying; Iommi asked but he liked his job in Moore’s band. Worse, drummer Eric Singer decided to jump ship… Daisley arranged him an audition with Gary Moore and he got the gig. Like the true professional that he has always been he stuck around until the drum tracks had been recorded to everyone’s satisfaction… and then handed in his resignation. Someone else was brought in later to add some percussion. The album went through three producers as well, finally being  polished off by Chris Tsangerides. But the real icing on the cake came when singer Ray Gillan got into an 11th-hour disagreement with Iommi and found himself out of a job.

The vocals had been recorded by that time; they could have released what they had and in fact you can now buy a deluxe edition of the album that comes with a second disc featuring Gillen’s vocals. However Iommi didn’t want to be in the position he’d been in last time, touring with a singer who hadn’t done the album. Vocalist Tony Martin was brought in at the last minute. He re-sang the whole album in roughly a weeks worth of studio time.

Given all of the above you’d expect the album itself to be a convoluted mess, but you’d be wrong. The Iommi-Daisley songwriting partnership worked out spectacularly… honestly what strikes me about the Sabbath catalog as a whole is Iommi’s ability to sit down with any lyric writer on the planet and make a great album. It sounds a bit 80s in places, most notably fast rockers like like Born to Lose and Lost Forever. But for the most part these attempts to fit in, while perhaps a bit contrived, work well enough and don’t seriously drag down the best material.

Which is, by the way, spectacular. Opener The Shining screams Sabbath with a big bold riff that could only have been written by the man himself and marries that to a great chorus. Ancient Warrior has a weird eastern vibe and one of the best vocal melodies on the record. Glory Ride is another standout, and check out the weird stop-time riff on Nightmare. Scarlet Pimpernickel is one of Iommi’s nice little acoustic instrumentals, something that had been missing for awhile and was nice to hear again.

The real winner is the slow, doomy title track. Eternal Idol closes the album by hearkening back to Sabbath’s early beginnings, and manages to capture that spirit without sounding forced or contrived. This, my friends, is what Sabbath is supposed to sound like. Bob Daisley seems to agree; he calls it one of the most interesting heavy tracks he’s ever been involved with.

The performances range from good to excellent. Daisley and Singer form a solid, professional and occasionally exciting rhythm section. Iommi delivers as usual, and Tony Martin sounds fantastic… why do Sabbath fans hate this guy so much? His tone is similar to Dio’s, but he has more range and when he goes high he sounds a bit like Don Dokken. Despite the rush to re-track the vocals he sings with power and conviction throughout. Production-wise it sounds like the 80s… not enough bass guitar, and the drums are loud enough but sound small.

For the most part this is a collection of killer songs, and works a lot better than anyone could have hoped for given the circumstances under which it was recorded. The only real loser here is Hard Life to Love and even that’s not terrible. It proved to be Sabbath’s nadir sales-wise, but is being rediscovered by rock fans almost thirty years removed from it’s inception. Don’t miss this one.

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