Black Sabbath Review Countdown #15: Seventh Star

Released: 1986

The High Points: Angry Heart, In Memory, Seventh Star

The Low Points: No Stranger to Love

The Verdict: Pretty good if you can ignore the name on the cover

The Rating: 7/10

Following the departure of Ian Gillan in 1984, Black Sabbath was thrown into chaos. No singer, and drummer Bev Bannon (who had been hired to do the tour after Bill Ward fell off the wagon) went off to do whatever Bev Bannon does. So once again it was just Butler and Iommi with Geoff Nichols sort of tagging along, trying to get a band together. A few drummers came and went; Bill Ward was back in for awhile and then gone again. They went through three or four singers, going as far as to get some demos recorded with Dave Donato. They did some pre-production work with Quiet Riot’s producer, none of which came to anything. Finally, Geezer Butler threw up his hands and walked.

Iommi was left with kind of a mixed bag. On one hand, he was now sole owner of the Black Sabbath name. On the other, he had a contract for two more albums and no friggin’ band. After some deliberation he decided to put Sabbath on hiatus for a year and do a solo album while he figured out what the next move was. The idea was to have a different vocalist on every track, including a couple of former Black Sabbath singers.

Didn’t turn out to be so simple. The idea of having a bazillion singers on the thing was the first thing to go; it wasn’t going to work logistically. So he wound up with ANOTHER former Deep Purple singer. This time it was Glenn Hughes, who had played bass in Purple while splitting lead vocal duties with David Coverdale.

There’s some confusion over who wrote what here. Seems Hughes had a songwriting contract elsewhere that precluded him being credited on this package. Apparently he did write some lyrics for this record, but by all accounts Geoff Nichols did too. It’s easy to tell which is which; Hughes style is so obvious you can easily tell when it’s NOT him. That being the case it’s a real pity Nichols didn’t get to do more writing during his time in the band… he’s really pretty good.

That seems like enough complications for one record… but fuck me, there’s one more. Once the finished product was turned in to the label they informed Iommi that they would only release it if the Black Sabbath name was on the cover. He was all like wait, it’s not a Sabbath record! and they were all like well, if you want us to release the damn thing it is now! They settled on a compromise; the jacket says Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi which may be the dumbest thing ever… all Black Sabbath records feature Tony Iommi. The jacket “art” is just a picture of the man himself… looking as if he’d rather be elsewhere.

And now for the good news: this is much, much better than you have been led to believe! It kicks off with a burst of power with the hard rocking In For the Kill which really sets the pace for the album; contrary to Sabbath tradition there are a lot of fast rockers on here. It’s more hard rock than metal; more 80s than 70s. Hughes dives in for the first verse doing what Glenn Hughes does; it’s his full on White Boy Funky Soul (TM), love it or hate it.

There are several similar tracks, and while they may come off as a bit generic they are better than 80% of the crap that was calling itself metal at the time. Danger Zone in particular is interesting, being built around a very cool riff. But where this album really shines is when it slows down a bit. I’m thinking of the title track, which also happens to be the most Sabbath-like; dark, atmospheric, and built around a killer riff. Hughes is a bit more restrained here than usual (that’s not saying much BTW).  There’s a nifty little blues tune on here called Heart Like a Wheel… hey, we haven’t heard Sabbath get all bluesy since the first album! And this time, there’s a singer that really gets the blues. Cool.

The best moment, however, is the last two tracks taken in combination. The first is a mid-tempo rocker called Angry Heart which segues into a lush, gorgeous slow closer called In Memory. Stunning.

There’s only one real stinker here; the odious power ballad No Stranger to Love. Naturally it was also the first single and featured a weird-ass video of Iommi wandering around some city streets. Where the hell is this even coming from?

Some of it comes off sounding a bit contrived, but if you aren’t thinking of it as a Black Sabbath record it’s actually much better than you’ve been led to expect. It’s mostly enjoyable, has only one real loser, and there are a few gems. Worth getting.


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Black Sabbath Review Countdown #16: The Devil You Know

Released: 2009

The High Points: Atom and Evil, Bible Black, Follow the Tears

The Low Points: Double the Pain, Eating the Cannibals

The Verdict: Inspired band, flagging singer

The Rating: 6/10

I’m gonna get flamed for this review. Hard. Some will probably even question the inclusion of this album; after all it wasn’t released as a Sabbath record at all. When the classic Mob Rules/Dehumanizer lineup (Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Vinne Appice) reassembled to go out on the road and promote Black Sabbath: The Dio Years, they elected to change the name to Heaven & Hell in order to avoid having to play Ozzy-era tunes like War Pigs and Iron Man. The new name allowed them to focus strictly on the stuff they recorded together, and oh hell yeah… I saw them in March of 2007 and it was EPIC. Even more epic was when they announced their intention to record a new album about a year later. They stayed with the Heaven & Hell moniker for the album but you know what? If it looks, walks, and quacks like a duck it is probably a motherfucking duck. New name be damned… this is a lineup of Black Sabbath.

I was sure looking forward to this. I got really excited when I saw the jacket art; this is what a Sabbath record is supposed to look like, by God! Never judge a book by it’s cover…

I got what I was hoping for during the first few tracks; this album is VERY front-loaded. Atom and Evil is that slow, bone-crushingly heavy sludge that nobody does as well as Sabbath, and nobody else can get away with opening a record with this kind of track. Instant metal boner. Fear follows it up with a faster tempo, a cool riff, and a well-written chorus. Then we get our badass metal orgasm with the amazing Bible Black. It’s formula for Dio-fronted bands; start out slow with arpeggiated guitars and Dio crooning like a balladeer, then segue into monster heaviness and the full-throated roar the little man with the big voice is legendary for. But it just works so damn well; three or four of Dio’s best-known tunes including a couple of his best with Sabbath follow exactly this template. Here it works like magic, with Dio weaving a weird-ass tale of a guy who loses himself in a book of black magic over some badass Iommi riffology. A modern classic.

Boy does it go downhill in a hurry from here. The Riffmaster General is doing his stuff, the songs are well-developed… and man do I ever hate typing the next line. Dio is mostly shitting all over it. His vocal melodies are turgid, uninspired, and kinda recycled from stuff he’s done in the past. His lyrics are cringe worthy as often as not. He’s magic on those first three songs, but for most of the rest of the album he seems to really be scraping the bottom of the barrel for new ideas. Probably the worst of the bunch are Double the Pain and Eating the Cannibals. One place where it’s really a shame is Rock and Roll Angels, because if you put in a great vocal melody and some better lyrics this song would have been KILLER.

There is one more bit of dark black magic in the latter third of the record. Follow the Tears is a majestic slice of achingly slow heaviness with some of Dio’s most poignant lyrics ever… for one more moment, he totally has it. An already heavy tune is made even heavier by Iommi’s deadly crunch; he returns to his early 70s trick of tuning his guitar down a minor third here… I think it’s the only time he ever did this on a Dio-fronted album. Bone-crushingly heavy, this sound.

Speaking of Iommi’s tone, it’s on full display here in all of it’s evil glory. The guitars on this album are THUNDEROUS. The recording sounds generally excellent, in fact. It was produced by Butler, Dio, and Iommi with some help from Mike Exeter, who also added some keys. Butler and Iommi are nicely balanced in the mix, which is nice to hear as their interplay was always such a huge part of the early Sabbath sound. Both players sound positively inspired here; clearly they are really getting off on their first full-length album together since 1994.

Vinnie Appice turns in a performance that is competent but dull. He denies responsibility for this; apparently he was not included in the songwriting sessions. The demos were all done with  a drum machine, and he was instructed to just duplicate what was programmed. Don’t forget his status in Sabbath has always been hired gun, but on the two albums he was on before he was at least allowed to be there for the writing and put his own personality into the drumming.

As for Dio, his voice sounds great. It’s darker and deeper than in the past and his falsetto seems to be gone, but unlike many of his contemporaries (most of whom he was much older than) he isn’t trying desperately to pretend that he has something that no longer exists. Instead he takes the much classier route of making the most of what he has now.

This is a tough album to review, partly because there is so much untapped potential here, and partly because we all would like to have seen The Man on the Silver Mountain go out on a high note. Almost all of the elements of greatness are here, but we have someone writing the vocal melodies and lyrics who mostly sounds tired and uninspired. Was the cancer that would eventually kill him already starting to take it’s toll? Given the results of Black Sabbath 13 a few years later I have to wonder what would have happened if he had handed the pen back over to Geezer Butler; would this have been a stronger package? We’ll never know.

Mind you, the best stuff fucking RULES; Bible Black and Follow the Tears are worth the price of admission by themselves. The first two tracks also kick maximum wads of ass, but too much of the rest of the album consists of mighty musical ideas brought low by turgid melodies and bad lyrics. RIP anyway Ronnie… you were always my favorite singer. That has not changed.

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Black Sabbath Review Countdown #17: Never Say Die

Released: 1978

The High Points: Never Say Die, Junior’s Eyes, Air Dance

The Low Points: Hard Road, Breakout, Swinging the Chain

The Verdict: Not great,but better than you’ve been led to believe.

The Rating: 6/10

It’d been coming for awhile, but Ozzy got the boot at the end of the Technical Ecstasy tour. Rampant alcoholism seemed to be the prime culprit, and the Ozzman was becoming completely unreliable and impossible to work with… apparently they had to hire a guy to keep him  from wandering off and make sure he actually showed up for gigs. In a panic, the band hired Dave Walker, late of Fleetwood Mac to come in and fill the role.

It wasn’t a stunning success… the songwriting sessions for the next album didn’t go well, and the one televised live performance will tell you all you need to know if you wanna get on youtube and find the wretched thing. But with studio time looming there seemed no alternative to soldiering forward… until Ozzy called at the 11th hour and asked to come back.

So here you have a heavily demoralized band dealing with plunging record sales, the aftermath of a series of lawsuits, and a singer who hadn’t been in on the writing sessions… and refused to sing on any of the stuff they had written with Walker. Not the best environment to get the ol’ creative juices flowing. With their backs against the wall and a looming deadline, they booked time during the day in a theater near the recording studio in which they were laying tracks. By day they’d go down to the theater and write songs… and freeze their asses off. It was winter, it was cold, and the theater’s heat wasn’t working properly. At night they’d go in and record whatever they had written that day. The results were somewhat mixed… but better than they had any right to be.

This album gets dissed more than probably any other Sabbath record… but it’s by no means the worst thing they ever did. The band would disagree; they all hate the record. Iommi has called it the one album he’s not proud of, and Ozzy has referred to it as “the worst piece of shit I was ever on”. Sorry, Oz… I’ll take this over 80% of your overrated solo career (erects flame shield). The truth is there’s actually a lot of good music here.

The title track, for one thing. It’s a short commercial rocker, but it’s a GOOD short commercial rocker. It doesn’t sound much like Sabbath, but really neither does anything else on this platter so whatever. It’s a cool song with some tasteful instrumentation; I particularly like the little guitar lines between the vocals during the chorus. Junior’s Eyes is one they snuck past Ozzy; they wrote it with Walker. You can hear it in that context on youtube… and say a grateful prayer that Walker never actually appeared on a Sabbath record. Butler re-wrote the lyrics entirely, making the new version about the death of Ozzy’s father. It’s a really cool track with a great bassline and a kick-ass vocal melody. Over to You is awash in keyboard courtesy of Don Airey… as is much of the rest of the album. Woodruffe split for another gig rather than wait for the band to get it’s shit together during the lead singer problems, and Airey was hired to do Never Say Die. He plays great over the whole thing. Anyway, Over to You rocks in places, is lush and balladesque in others, and is full of longing. Very nice indeed. Also check out the weird but interesting rocker Johnny Blade.

Air Dance is a track that really stands out. It’s a piano-driven ballad that’s completely different from anything Sabbath has ever done, and it totally works. Dig the lovely guitar harmonies in the intro, showcasing a tool that Iommi rarely pulls out of his toolbox. Lovely in every respect.

There’s a fair amount of shit here as well. Hard Road is a really bad example of what I like to (very derisively) call Bouncy Rock. Did I mention I’m kind of a metal guy? Breakout is one of those WTF were they thinking moments; a really bad horn-driven jazz number. Barf. Swinging the Chain is a sludgy sort of… well fuck, I’m not sure how to even describe it. Except that it sucks. It features lyrics and vocals by Bill Ward who really oughtta just stick to bashing the skins. Shock Wave is inoffensive but boring hard rock, but one of the few tracks that ever made it into the live show.

The production is awful; limp, dull sounds. Iommi’s guitar in particular has this atrocious buzzsaw sound like a bunch of pissed off bees. Jesus. The performances aren’t much better; nobody at all sounds inspired here. When the keyboard player on a Sabbath record turns in the best performance out of anybody that really tells you all you need to know.

All the same… there are a lot of good songs here. Like Technical Ecstasy this would have served better as an EP than a full album, but it would have been a damned good EP. And besides, the title track might just be the best pick to introduce Sabbath to your pop-rock loving friends.

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Black Sabbath Review Countdown #18: Technical Ecstasy

Released: 1976

The High Points: You Won’t Change Me, Gypsy, Dirty Women

The Low Points: She’s Gone, Rock and Roll Doctor, It’s Alright

The Verdict: There’s some truly bad music here… but the good stuff is amazing.

The Rating: 6/10

Sabbath went through the first half of the 70s as if they had been sprinkled with fairy dust… it was like they could do no wrong. They managed six absolute masterpieces in a row; who the hell does that? But apparently even they couldn’t keep it up forever.

Album number 7: Technical Ecstasy. Sabbath had been through the wringer during the two years leading up to this record. A split with their management led to lawsuits which led to the band trying to handle their own management which led to… well, you get the idea. Flagging sales figures didn’t help; 1975’s Sabotage is looked back upon as a classic masterpiece but didn’t sell as well at the time as did it’s predecessors. This was at least partly because the management/label issues the band was undergoing at the time resulted in the record being a bit underpromoted, but also because trends were changing. The dark, heavy stuff coming out of Britain was losing ground, and party-hearty American bands like Kiss were ruling the rock roost. Disco and punk were inserting their greasy fingers around the corners. Sadly, Sabbath decided that if they couldn’t beat ’em they might as well join em…

Technical Ecstasy brings to us a very different Black Sabbath. There’s a line between hard rock and metal (think AC/DC vs Iron Maiden), and here’s my full disclosure of bias: I am heavily weighted towards the metal side of the fence. Worse, we’re talking about the 70s here… and with very few exceptions the heavy stuff is about the only music I really like from the 70s. Bad Company? I think they suck. Lynyrd Skynyrd? Hate ’em. This is where I’m coming from. And for the first time, Black Sabbath recorded and album that crossed that line and sacrificed all that was quintessentially Sabbath on the alter of fitting in with current trends in rock. Not only did it NOT help their sales figures, it resulted in one of the worst albums they’ve ever recorded.

It hits you right off the bat. Lead-off track Back Street Kids is a generic chug-rocker and you immediately notice that Iommi’s mighty, mighty tone has had the edge filed off. It’s basically that overly midrangy pseudo Les Paul thing that polluted so much of the 70s. Then there’s the bad lyrics… Geezer, what the hell is going on? On this album Butler abandons his trademark mysticism and topical themes and tries to go for a more mainstream approach. He tries to follow Kiss’s path and write about how awesome Rock n’ Roll is… and man is he BAD at it. Dude, leave the rock till you drop crap to Kiss… they do it better (and even from them it’s generally nauseating). “Nobody I know could ever take my rock n’ roll away from me”?! Really? That’s the best you could do for a refrain line? Interestingly Ozzy would often walk this road in his solo career with ridiculous tracks like Rock ‘n’ Roll rebel. But never mind. It’s actually not the worst track; if you ignore the lyrics it’s listenable enough and it gets really interesting after the 2nd verse.

Speaking of Ozzy, this is the first album where they make really extensive use of the vocal multi-tracking that would become his signature sound going forward. To hide how weak his voice was getting? Who knows? The rest of the band is also showing signs of fatigue; Butler’s bass lines are mostly limp and uninspired and Ward is laying off a lot of the out-of-left-field fills he’s so well known for. Iommi, on the other hand, sounds super-energized and plays great. Also of interest is the addition of a keyboardist. Jezz Woodruffe had been tapped to play the previous tour in order to address a growing sense on the band’s part that some of their newer stuff was too layered to translate well live with just their classic guitar/bass/drums lineup. Woodruffe was kept around for the record and apparently was in the studio with Iommi the whole time putting the record together… while the rest of the band was mostly lying around on the beach.

And he’s everywhere on this. This is the most keyboard-heavy thing Sabbath ever did, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Woodruffe’s contributions are interesting and tasteful. It’s not his fault the band was writing shit that was beneath them.

Back to the songs… when this album is good, it’s great. Gypsy is dark, weird, and riffy, with cool vocal melodies and maybe the best lyrics on the record. Sabbath taps into their unique ability to tack seemingly unrelated parts together into a coherent song. Iommi holds back the main riff for a bit in the beginning, and its that much more powerful when it comes in. You Won’t Change Me is a big, sweeping semi-ballad with effective keys from from Woodruffe, some great riffs, and lots of killer lead fills from Iommi. Doesn’t sound much like Sabbath, but it kicks ass. All Moving Parts (Stand Still) is a weird attempt to tap into the funky music that was becoming popular. Normally I hate funk like the plague, but this works for me. Cool song, and Butler’s best bassline on the record.

The last song is the album’s real masterpiece. Dirty Women may have a weird-ass title for a Sabbath tune (and yes it really is about looking for prostitutes, WTF) but it more than makes up for it by being a badass piece of music. It features the best riff on the album, which Iommi holds back for two full verses. When it appears the effect is stunning. At this point we’re off to the races, and Iommi barnstorms through some ripping extended leads before Ozzy comes back in with the rideout vocal. This song, by the way, is the one thing from either of the last two 70s Ozzy albums to appear in any of the reunion touring that got rolling in the late 90s. It was a very welcome deep cut when I saw them during that period and went a long way towards making up for the fact that almost the whole show was stuff from two albums.

When it’s bad, it’s horseshit. There are TWO godawful ballads here; the inexplicably Bill Ward sung It’s Alright and the utter borefest She’s Gone… and you thought Changes was bad! Then there’s Rock n’ Roll Doctor, a pathetically naked attempt to cop the swinging vibe so characteristic of mid-70s rock. Boys, leave the generic boogie-woogie to Led Zeppelin… they do it better. And man, that cowbell…

Overall, I’d say this album is a bit better than many give it credit for. There’s about half an album’s worth of excellent music here; it would have made a badass EP. But it’s not a great ALBUM. And oh, did I mention the jacket art? Two robots getting romantic… get it? Jeez. Anyway, this was an awfully long way for the mighty Sabbath to fall. It’s marginally better than Born Again or Forbidden, but we’re still pretty firmly in completist land. But even the most cynical of souls can bask in the glory that is Dirty Women.

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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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Black Sabbath Review Countdown #20: Forbidden

Released: 1995

The High Points: Kiss of Death, Rusty Angels

The Low Points: Illusion of Power

The Verdict: Not much really bad, but very little that’s really good.

The Rating: 5/10

Time to review all 20 Black Sabbath studio albums from worst to best! Today we scrape the bottom of the barrel… the worst the band has to offer.

The year is 1995, and guitarist Tony Iommi has a dilemma. He’s back in the same position he found himself in during the latter half of the 80s: the only remaining original member and lacking a bassist and drummer. So he naturally does the sensible thing by bringing back the all-star rhythm section that toured and recorded with Black Sabbath in the late 80s. Enter Neil Murray on bass (mostly known for his work with Whitesnake), and Cozy Powell on drums (known for his work with Rainbow/Jeff Beck/Whitesnake/Everybody Else). Added to the existing lineup of Tony Martin on vocals and Geoff Nichols on keyboards it was a full-on rebirth of the band that gave us the grotesquely underrated Tyr… what could possibly go wrong?

Damn near everything, I guess. There was record company pressure to rectify the borderline-nonexistent sales of the previous release by modernizing the sound a bit, and Iommi’s mind-boggling response was to recruit a rap producer to oversee the recording of the next Black Sabbath opus. You heard me right; a motherfucking rap producer. Ernie C to be specific, famous for his work with body count. The result is a record that sounds like absolute dogshit. I mean seriously, this sounds like  a bunch of cheap-ass demos. Iommi’s Epic Guitar of Thunder is blunted in it’s assault, Murray’s bass sounds fuzzy and indistinct, and Powell sounds like he’s just bangin’ on the pots and pans.

All of which I could forgive if the songs were there. Unfortunately this sounds mostly like a record of not-quite-developed good ideas. It was apparently written very quickly; the idea being to go for spontaneity or some shit. The truth is probably closer to what Tony Martin has suggested… that the point was to get it over with quickly in order to fulfill Sabbath’s obligation to IRS records thus leaving them free to pursue a reunion with Ozzy Osbourne. But if that was the case, why go to the trouble and expense of bringing in Murray and Powell when a couple of cheap session players would have done? The world may never know…

There’s a lot of good riffs here; Iommi has an inexhaustible supply. Few of them are developed into memorable songs. Very little is BAD here, mind you… but not much will blow your mind, either. Most of it’s just the kind of unmemorable crap that you have to hear 80 times before it starts to stick in your head. Tony Martin is at least partially to blame; his lyrics sound like he’s just scribbling down anything and singing it, and his vocal melodies are flat and unmemorable with few exceptions. And his voice… it just sounds gruff and unpleasant. It’s largely owing to Martin’s subpar writing that songs with like Get a Grip and Can’t get Close Enough, while showing promise, never quite seem to live up to their potential.

Cozy Powell sounds very uninspired here as well. His usual thunderous drumming sounds very reigned in, and by all accounts it was. Ernie C apparently kept pushing him to play more simple things, and it probably didn’t help that unlike his previous time in the band he was basically given the role of session drummer and denied any creative input.

That said, few of these songs are really BAD… they’re just rarely really good. The only real piece of shit here is the lead-off track Illusion of Power. It starts off great; the intro gave me chills the first time I heard it. Then Martin comes in with his vocal and does a complete butcher job. Ugh. Then it gets worse! Midway through the song Body Count rapper Iced T comes in with a spoken word segment. Yes, you heard me right. A rapper. On a Black Sabbath record. Sweet bleeding chocolate Christ.

But you know what? No Black Sabbath album is a total loss. Even this mostly craptastic offering has some good shit. I like Shaking off the Chains, which is really heavy and just  a touch progressive in the best Sabbath tradition. I Won’t Cry for You is a kinda cool ballad. Rusty Angels… hmm. It comes off almost sounding like cheeseball 80s hair music, but for all that it’s actually pretty damn good! The riff sounds like something George Lynch would play. Yeah so… a Dokken song. On a Sabbath record. Fuckin’ weird. Pity Martin mostly stays out of his high register on this album because when he goes up there he even sounds a bit like Don Dokken! Still, for some weird reason it works. Cool song.

I saved the best for last… a small slice of epic called Kiss of Death. It’s the last track on the album, and it starts out slow with Iommi arpeggios (TM) and the best vocal melody on the album. Then it gets heavy, then soft again, then in the latter third it gets fast and furious, finally settling down into an outro that’s to die for. It doesn’t get any better than this; I’d happily place this track amongst the best of Sabbath from any era. Sadly it’s the only one of it’s kind on this album.

You know what’s funny? One godly piece of music, three pretty good songs, one stinker, and a half album of unobjectionable filler that at least has a few killer riffs to offer (check out the riff the title track is built around)… barring the bad production work lots of bands would kill to ever put together a package this strong. Especially with that badass jacket art! But this is Sabbath; we expect a bit more than this. What we have here is easily the worst record in the band’s catalog, and one that everyone involved seems to unanimously hate. Martin calls it the worst thing he was ever on, Iommi has said negative things about it, and Powell left the band mid-tour because he couldn’t stand to keep lying to interviewers about how good the record was. It’s not quite as bad as all that, but nonetheless this is really for completists only. But everyone needs to hear Kiss of Death:



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Nightwish Feb 29!!

My eight year old daughter Maiya will experience the live metal for the first time at a Nightwish concert in Minneapolis the 29th of this month. She’ super-pumped, and I’m especially excited at the opportunity to hear Floor Jansen sing live.

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