Welcome to another “Album by Album Challenge.” For those that are new here, the “Album by Album Challenge” is where I take a band’s entire discography and listen to every album in order of release from front to back. With my unforgiving and well-aged ear, I call it how I hear it. In some cases, I find that what I once thought was good is actually pretty crappy and sometimes crap manages to age into something pretty kick ass. And in some cases, face melting is still just good ol’ face melting.
This time around I’m doing one of my most challenging Album by Album Challenges to date: The Black Sabbath catalog. That’s right, I have made it a point to sit down and listen to every official studio release by Black Sabbath from the 1970 debut to 1995?s Forbidden. This was a really fun challenge for me. While doing this challenge I found many pleasant surprises and I also found some things that I wish I would’ve never found. This challenge will be in a few different installments to cover the different singers of Black Sabbath.
For this installment I’m visiting the Tony Martin era. Tony Martin pretty much had the impossible task of following some amazing Sabbath albums but totally proved himself with some stellar and quite surprisingly amazing work. Like all good things, this too had to come to and end only to crash and burn with the atrocious Forbidden album. Here is the final installment of The Black Sabbath edition of The Album by Album Challenge. Enjoy and open those ears. There’s some cool stuff to be heard and some crap to be avoided.
Black Sabbath – The Eternal Idol
Release Date: November 1, 1987
The Good: The Shining, Ancient Warrior, Hard Life to Love, Glory Ride, Born to Lose, Nightmare, Scarlet Pimpernel, Lost Forever, Eternal Idol
What a monstrous album. Eternal Idol sounds like a fucking Black Sabbath record much in the vein of the Dio era albums. I’m sure I’ll be met with a lot of criticism for this but this is probably now up there with my favorite Sabbath albums. It is such an amazingly produced album and the performance is pure rifftastic awesomeness. Tony Martin seems to breathe so much life into this lineup. His voice is so soulful and full of depth yet at the same time has a darkness that totally makes it worthy of fronting a band called Black Sabbath. In all honesty, I think Martin should’ve been the guy after Dio bailed.
It’s hard to really describe just why this album touches me so fucking intensely. The Eternal Idol sounds dated but not in a bad way. It sounds like the kind of heavy metal that I listened to as a kid. I can totally picture a 14 year old Brainfart lying on his bed with his headphones on jamming out to this one while eating an Oatmeal Cream Pie, drinking a Barq’s Root Beer, and reading the latest issue of Circus Magazine. The songs are solid. The performances are solid, and there’s nothing that could make this album any more perfect in all honesty. You just have to hear it for yourself to understand. Hell, maybe you won’t but who cares right?
Black Sabbath – Headless Cross (1989)
Release Date: April 24, 1989
The Good: Headless Cross, Kill in the Spirit World, Devil & Daughter, When Death Calls, Call of the Wild, Black Moon, Nightwing
I read in Tony Iommi’s autobiography that the album’s title comes from small village outside of Birmingham, England called Headless Cross. The town is reportedly named after all the church crosses were defaced during the plague that struck the town’s inhabitants centuries earlier. Um, yeah. That’s fucking badass. Almost as badass as this album. Once again, lightning was captured in a bottle by Iommi/Martin. Much like The Eternal Idol, this album can do no wrong. Iommi managed to find that missing link in Tony Martin after so many years of misguided promises and strike outs. If you took Eternal Idol and Headless Cross and played them right after Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, you would have an amazing pinnacle of music right there. No disrespect to Seventh Star (it really wasn’t supposed to be a Sabbath album per se) but this is one, consistently great album.
The opening track crushes some serious face with the late great Cozy Powell’s thunderous drums for this outstanding title track and from there, it only gets better. Iommi still proves that he is the Riffmaster with some amazing and quite memorable riffs but the songs themselves are much more than just these hummable riffs. Songs like “Devil & Daughter” and “Call of the Wild” beckon back to the Dio era some soulful, dark, and facemelting vocals carrying some of the most melodic songwriting I’ve heard from Sabbath ever. I love the use of the keys here for depth and some seriously killer organ playing from Geoff Nicholls that add that Rainbow/Deep Purple flair to it. “Nightwing” is an amazing song with some beautiful melody and some classical guitar work unlike I’d ever heard in a Sabbath album. It closes the album leaving it feeling a bit unresolved which I think is an awesome thing. It’s almost as if they were trying to say, “We’re not over yet… more to come.” It’s Sabbath with a much more mature and updated sound for a new generation without sacrificing the very thing that put them on the map: being heavier than all yet doing it with class.
So TYR is a solid album but my only problem with this album is that it doesn’t sound like a progression from Eternal Idol and Headless Cross. For this one, the lyrical content was completely different as the “mystical/occult” vibe seemed to disappear. The production of the also has changed as it doesn’t sound as bombastic and skull crushing. It sounds a bit leveled out and restrained. The songs are actually quite good and I enjoyed them but I feel like this album should have been maybe the first album they did with Martin. It just doesn’t sound like a step forward as much as it does a step to the side.
The ballad “Feels Good To Me” should’ve never happened. Again, leave it to Sabbath to do a ballad that doesn’t really suck but a ballad? Really? This was definitely a sore spot in the album but it does have a pretty amazing Iommi guitar solo in it. If anything, listen just for that solo as it’ll blow your mind. The album is a whole is a good album but totally forgettable. So forgettable in fact that when the album ended I just kept working wondering where the next song was. I guess in some ways I could’ve listed all the songs as “indifferent” but I’m not. I actually liked them. They just weren’t nearly as memorable or awesome as the songs on the previous two albums. This would be the last Tony Martin album before recruiting Ronnie James Dio back into the fold to do Dehumanizer but Martin would return in 1994 for Cross Purposes. Will this era pick up and progress where it left off? We’ll see.
Black Sabbath – Cross Purposes (1994)
Release Date: January 31, 1994
The Good: I Witness, Cross of Thorns, Psychophobia , Virtual Death, Immaculate Deception, Dying For Love, Back To Eden, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Cardinal Sin,
The Indifferent:, Evil Eye
For the most part, Cross Purposes is a much better album than TYR yet a completely different album from the previously released Dio era album Dehumanizer. Iommi really fucked up by thinking that Dio era Sabbath should open for Ozzy’s last show back in ’92. What the fuck was he thinking? The band had just put out an amazing album and did a great tour. My thought is that he was banking on an Ozzy reunion that wouldn’t happen for another few years. He went running back to Tony Martin who was just standing by waiting to come back and the result is a pretty fucking awesome album. It’s a much better and mature sounding album than TYR yet it still captures the bottled lightning of Martin/Iommi. Instead of being so riff heavy, he really expands into some of his most melodic playing. The production on this album is much better and less dated sounding that the previous Martin era album and Martin’s voice seems to have a rougher edge to it which I found myself digging a lot more after listening the 2nd time around.
“I Witness” is a great album opener and “Cross of Thorns” is probably my favorite song on this album. I love the classical guitar intro which I really wish Iommi would’ve done more of. Psychophobia is a killer, angry sounding song and after listening to it a couple of times, it sounds like a slight stab at the departed Ronnie James Dio as he sings, “It’s time to kiss the rainbow goodbye.” I love it when people use song to fight. It’s like artistic dart throwing. “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” reminds me of Iron Maiden. It’s really cool to hear Iommi stretching out of his comfort zone in these later era Sabbath albums. The biggest bummer of this album is the last track. It’s a real bummer that this album had to close out with such a weak track. This sounds like a leftover Dio era song that never made it past the rehearsal room. I mean, it doesn’t flat out suck but man, what a bummer of a track. As a whole, I would put this album in the 3rd position just behind Eternal Idol and Headless Cross. Matter of fact, after listening to this album it showed me just how forgettable TYR was even though I did enjoy it. This is a much better release.
Black Sabbath – Forbidden (1995)
Release Date: June 8, 1995
The Good: Sick and Tired, Forbidden,
The Bad: The Illusion of Power, Get A Grip, Can’t Get Close Enough. Shaking the Chains,
The Indifferent: Guilty as Hell, Rusty Angels, Kiss of Death
Holy shitty production Batman. This think sounds terrible. How is it possible for a band like Black Sabbath to be so inconsistent with their production? I can’t even begin to believe just how shitty this album is. I was literally making stink faces with every passing song. The songs that I listed as “indifferent’ probably would’ve been listed as “the bad” on other albums but because this album is so chock full of shit, these songs actually sounded GREAT in comparison. Uggh. Tony, why did you do this to us?
The opening track “The Illusion of Power” features Ice T. Why? Please. Someone tell me why? The album was produced by Ernie C of Ice T’s Body Count which makes sense as to why the fuck Black Sabbath would even attempt a somewhat rap/metal song like “Get A Grip.” Talk about atrocious. “Shaking The Chains” has Martin literally sounding like he’d rather be scrubbing a shitter than singing this song. “Rusty Angels” literally sounds like they ripped off a Dokken song. If you’re Tony Iommi, why are you trying to sound like Dokken? Here’s what I don’t get. There are two really good (not great) songs on this album. “Sick and Tired” and “Forbidden” both sound like they could’ve been on either TYR and Cross Purposes. Both are great songs just stuffed inside of this giant shit empanada. “Kiss of Death” which closes out the album is definitely a close but no cigar moment. I felt that this was a decent song but not a great one. As a whole Forbidden is an absolute waste but does have less than a handful of redeeming qualities. It simply sounds like Iommi and Martin had literally run out of ideas. This was an album that would’ve been better off never seeing the light of day as even the good songs on this album can’t undo the crap that has been done.