The Story So Far:
Using their love of heavy blues music and a newfound appreciation for the vibes and iconography of horror, four working class lads from Birmingham came out of nowhere to bring the darkness to a generation of disaffected and disenfranchised kids in the 1970s. After five well-regarded albums bridged by an unfocused, messy record (Vol 4) they subcumbed to infighting and substance abuse. Two more albums followed with the original lineup before the other three got sick and tired of Ozzy Osbourne’s antics and threw him out of the band. While Ozzy holed up in a hotel room and drank an excessive amount of liquor / snorted an impressive amount of cocaine for three months, the rest of the band swirled in chaos, trying to figure out if they would ever record or be relevant ever again.
HEAVEN AND HELL
Released April 25th, 1980 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Martin Birch
Peaked at # 9 UK, #28 US
The 1978 Never Say Die! tour was a hard one for Black Sabbath. They were joined on it by a new L.A. metal band, Van Halen, and it was very clear to everyone who attended that Van Halen was blowing the old guard out of the water. Eddie Van Halen was flashy and played like quicksilver; David Lee Roth was the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll frontman, a dynamo of sex and flamboyance. The band played with the strength of youth, and Sabbath just couldn’t keep up. They were exhausted and drugged-out. Iommi’s trademark riffs seemed lumbering and sleepy by comparison. Ozzy was incoherent and seemed like he had completely checked out. After the tour, they decamped to L.A. to record and spent eleven months doing nothing at all. Ozzy would skip rehearsals and writing sessions, and when he did show up he was completely out of his gourd. Eventually enough was enough and they told him to pack his bags.
Unsure of their direction after Ozzy, the band began to splinter apart. Geezer Butler went through a divorce and Bill Ward’s alcoholism intensified. Their manager’s daughter, Sharon Arden, stopped by one day to introduce Iommi to a new singer who had made a name for himself with Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow: Ronnie James Dio.
Dio was a completely different frontman from Ozzy. His vocal range was much greater and he approached his melodies in pretty much the opposite way. Instead of singing along with the main riff, Dio preferred to write a complementary melody to the riff that Iommi was playing. The result is a completely new Black Sabbath, a band that sounded very little like the Black Sabbath of the Ozzy years. What it sounded like was a fresh, new band at the spearhead of vital new movement in heavy rock music: The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal. Suddenly, Sabbath were competing with and complementing bands that had grown up worshipping them: Iron Maiden, Tygers of Pan Tang, Mercyful Fate, Diamond Head (whose classic “Am I Evil?” borrowed liberally from “Symptom Of The Universe”), Saxon, Witchfinder General, Girlschool, et al. Long-time Sabbath fans were put out by the stylistic shift, but a whole new host of fans came in as a result, and so the band not only regained their relevancy but regained a place in the charts.
And why not? “Neon Knights”, kicking off the album, barrels ahead at light speed and appropriates more than a bit of the speed and attitude of classic Judas Priest. “Children Of The Sea”, a ballad that turns into a crunching doom rocker halfway through, was originally written with Ozzy during those go-nowhere sessions of 1979 but is made into something chilling and epic with Dio at the helm. “Heaven And Hell” is the epitome of doom metal circa 1980 and Iommi’s solo in it proves that he had the chops to compete with the rest of the New Wave. “Lady Evil”, “Wishing Well”, and “Die Young” are all hard, flashy rock songs that Dio cuts through like a stiletto through cloth. “Walk Away” is the sole misstep here, in that it’s a pretty rote heavy rock song without much to recommend it either way. “Lonely Is The Word” ends the album on a sprawling epic note with a synth-laden coda and another lengthy metal guitar solo from Iommi.
Heaven And Hell was a massive revitalization for Black Sabbath, an album that not only breathed new life into them but also brought them up to speed with the contemporary rock scene. While life seemed to be on track at the dawn of the 1980s, they would never again capture the heights of this record. While they would come close at times, Heaven And Hell is the last truly great Sabbath record and the only bona fide classic released by the Ronnie James Dio lineup.
Released November 4th, 1981 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Martin Birch
Peaked at #12 UK, #29 US
“Turn Up The Night” (#37 UK, #24 US Mainstream Rock)
“Voodoo” (#46 US Mainstream Rock)
Despite the critical and commercial acclaim of Heaven And Hell, not everything was peachy keen in the world of Black Sabbath. Partway through the tour behind the record, Bill Ward left the band. This actually is a fairly mild way of putting it. Soused 24/7 on high-tension booze, missing his former bandmate Ozzy fiercely, and reeling from the death of both of his parents, Ward packed up and called Dio at the band’s hotel to tell him “Well, Ronnie, I’m off then.” Dio, confused, said, “Well that’s nice Bill, where are you off to?” to which Ward replied that no, he was done with the band, and was at the airport on his way home. The band quickly replaced him with an American, Vinny Appice, who also is the drummer on Mob Rules. Thankfully Vinny’s biggest influence was in fact Bill Ward, so the changeover was minimal, but the loss of another original member put an increasing strain on an already fractious band relationship.
That fractious relationship played out in the songwriting. Dio took over more of the writing duties, bringing in a lyrical vibe that was much more fantasy-nerd than Butler’s old doom-and-gloom political statements. The Dio-led recordings make it clear that the band had decided to see if lightning could strike twice and re-made a bunch of the Heaven And Hell songs. “Turn Up The Night” opens the album up in the same fashion as “Neon Knights”, only not as good. “Voodoo” makes for a less impressive “Lady Evil”. “Sign Of The Southern Cross”, on the other hand, is just as good as “Children Of The Sea” was and the title track is a blazing (and, in 2016, sadly timely) warning about following populism into societal destruction. The first side of the record is good, if not as good as the album’s predecessor. The second side is a much more ho-hum affair. “Country Girl” rides a mid-tempo stomp riff into nowhere; “Slipping Away” could have fit into a dozen other contemporary metal records without raising much of a fuss. “Falling Off The Edge Of The World” is reminiscent of “Heaven And Hell”, although it lacks the latter’s epic doom rock chorus (while still keeping a great riff going throughout, to be fair). “Over And Over” is a rewrite of “Lonely Is The Word”, complete with another lengthy Iommi guitar coda.
Mob Rules is generally well-regarded, and I’m no exception in this, but I feel as though it’s a weaker, more craven imitation of Heaven And Hell. With the exception of “The Mob Rules” and “Sign Of The Southern Cross”, there isn’t anything on Mob Rules that wasn’t done better on its predecessor. They’re all fine songs, but they feel oddly diminished in the end. The record would be the last studio album recorded with Dio until 1992 and the last relevant release by the band until 1998.
Released January 19th, 1983 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler
Peaked at #13 UK, #37 US
By 1983 Black Sabbath was in a precarious position. Despite regaining their footing with Ronnie James Dio and putting out a pair of well-regarded albums, they were somehow being eclipsed by their old lead singer. Their manager Don Arden, hoping to salvage something profitable out of the fallout of the breakup between Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne, sent his daughter Sharon to bring Ozzy out of his debauched funk and get him moving on something musical. The result was the launch of Ozzy’s solo career. Blizzard Of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman would be released in quick succession between 1980 and 1981, selling ridiculous amounts of money on the backs of a tight new pop-metal sound that drove the kids crazy. The madman’s antics would also help propel album and concert sales: infamous events like the time he bit the head off of the bat, or the time he took a leak on the Alamo would enter the canon of Crazy Rock ‘n’ Roll Tales and build his legend up beyond all reason.
Black Sabbath, meanwhile, were mixing their first live album and arguing over how loud Dio’s voice should be. The sessions proved to be the undoing of the Dio-era lineup. Dio was slowly dictating more and more to the rest of the band; Iommi and Butler were annoyed that they were becoming bit players in their own band. Dio and Appice were doing rehearsals for Dio’s solo album, which neither Dio nor the label bothered to tell the other two about. Iommi began referring to Dio as “Little Hitler”. The final straw proved to be when a recording engineer mentioned to Iommi that Dio had been sneaking into the studio at night to push up his vocals in the mix. A vicious argument ensued; Dio abruptly left the band and took Appice with him. He would go on to record the classic Holy Diver album later in 1983.
Live Evil, the final product of the Dio era, is the band’s first official live album but their second live album. The first, Live At Last, was released in 1980 by former manager/perpetual gadfly Patrick Meehan out of concert recordings that he owned the rights to. Live Evil is obviously a much punchier, more professional affair than Live At Last, but the latter features one thing that puts it over the top: it has Ozzy singing on the classics. When Live Evil is on the Dio lineup material, it’s stellar. The band is at its arguable peak and the songs come out flawlessly. When Dio gets onto the classic material, however, it’s a different story. For some reason, he felt the need to go over-the-top and theatrically flamboyant on the old stuff. His introduction to “Black Sabbath” feels like he’s actually making fun of his band’s older days. His over-emoting on “Iron Man” ruins the entire song. “War Pigs” requires no soaring metal melisma, yet here we are, with Dio going operatic over it. “Paranoid” gets a good treatment, probably because it’s already fast enough to keep up with Dio, and “Children Of The Grave” could be worse. It’s a middling sort of record – like a lot of live albums – and it seems like a rather perfunctory end to the last truly great era of the band.
Released August 7th, 1983 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Tony Iommi and Robin Black
Peaked at #4 UK, #39 US
Out went Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice. In came Deep Purple’s Ian Gillian and a newly sober Bill Ward. Originally the addition of Gillian was supposed to be for a new supergroup that wasn’t Black Sabbath. Don Arden, who thinks the average rock fan is so dumb that if they aren’t hit over the head with the name they won’t get it, convinced them to stick with Black Sabbath as the band’s name. The result was an awkward fit; Gillian was not the sort of frontman that jived well with the Sabbath atmosphere, and beyond his trademark banshee shriek there wasn’t much else that he could do to fit in. He couldn’t get into the lyrics and had to have lyrics sheets plastered all over the stage during the Born Again tour. Ward, meanwhile, fell off the wagon by the end of the recording sessions and had to be replaced with ELO drummer Bev Bevan for the tour. It would be the last album that Ward would record with the band. That makes it sound like he’s dead. He’s not. He’s just in no shape to drum because…well, we’ll get to that in time.
As though the misfit between Gillian and the band wasn’t enough, the tour was a logistical nightmare. The bit in This Is Spinal Tap about the miniature Stonehenge set design comes directly from the 1984 Born Again tour. The real set was ridiculously oversized; the designers took Butler’s ideas about a Stonehenge set and ran them wildly out of mind. The set couldn’t even fit into many venues, was hilariously over-the-top with crying babies, suicidal dwarfs, and black-hooded monks, and was eventually abandoned partway through the tour. Then there’s the album cover. To say it’s hideous is to understate it. It has been long been considered one of the worst album covers in history and Ian Gillian told the press that he vomited the first time he ever saw it. Kerrang! readers voted it the second worst album cover in metal history and it shows up often on clickbait slideshows of bad metal cover art. Don Arden, always a charmer, told Ozzy Osbourne that his children (Don’s own grandchildren) looked like the cover of Born Again.
What of the album itself, though? A large number of critics have trashed Born Again over the years and there’s a lot to trash. The production is muddy as hell; the band and Robin Black wanted to get a really heavy tone going but what ended up happening was an oversaturation of the low end, such that it can be hard to really separate the lower frequencies at times. Terrible production isn’t always a killer for albums – see …And Justice For All – but the songs aren’t all that great, either. The opening track “Trashed” is one to keep, and “Zero The Hero” and “Disturbing The Priest” are okay, but the rest of it is warmed-over garbage, lacking the punch of earlier Sabbath or overwhelmed with the misfit of Ian Gillian’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics. It’s a bad album that was followed up by a terrible tour, and it marks the end of Black Sabbath being a viable cultural force in heavy metal.
Released January 28th, 1986 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Jeff Glixman
Peaked at #27 UK, #78 US
When the dust of the 1984 Born Again tour ended, Tony Iommi was the last member of Black Sabbath standing. Ward went back to trying to dry up, Gillian was only ever a mercenary anyway, and Geezer Butler had finally had enough with the whole thing. Assuming that the band was more or less finished (save of course for a one-off show with all of the originals at Live Aid in 1985), Iommi set out to put together his first solo album, tapping a crew of studio musicians and poaching another Deep Purple singer, this time Glenn Hughes. The resulting sessions reveal an experimental mood on the part of Iommi: these are songs that are much bluesier than post-Ozzy Sabbath were, with inflections of jazz and, on the single, the sort of power balladry that was in vogue on American rock radio at the time. “In For The Kill” is like pretty much every lead-off track Sabbath had released since Vol 4 – it kicks off in high rock ‘n’ roll fashion, although here Glixman’s production renders it a little too slick and professional, like Iommi had been playing fast-paced rock like this for too long and had gotten it down too well. “No Stranger To Love” is an out-and-out power ballad, a little more nuanced and gritty than “The Flame”, to be sure, but still in the same league. “Seventh Star” is a heavy blues song that wants to be the midway point between Led Zeppelin and Whitesnake (that’s a joke, people), “Danger Zone (Chance On Love)” is about as cliche an Eighties rock song as you can imagine, and “Angry Heart” is actually kind of a headbanger.
It’s an okay album, especially when you take into context the time it was written and recorded in. The big problem of course is that it’s not a Black Sabbath album. It sounds exactly like what it was recorded as: a Tony Iommi solo album. Don Arden, again, believed the average rock music fan to be denser than lead and urged him to keep using the name Black Sabbath so that people would buy the album (also, to back this up with some muscle, he started throwing “contractual obligations” around). Eventually they settled on “Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi”, which is about as bullshit a name as you can imagine. Isn’t all Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi? Given he’s the only consistent figure in the band’s history yes, yes it is. Of course, if it had been a traditional Sabbath record Glenn Hughes would have suffered the same fate as Ian Gillian on Born Again – his voice might sub in somewhat for Ronnie James Dio but it’s nothing like Ozzy Osbourne – so the rather more pop-oriented sound of Seventh Star fits his voice quite a bit better. Still, if the band was going to keep going – and Don Arden was insistent that it do so, perhaps due to the runaway success of his hated son-in-law – they needed someone who could perform the hits better, and consistently. Hughes ran into sinus problems shortly into the Seventh Star tour, fell into a worsening drug problem, and then got into a backstage fist fight with the production manager. He was replaced with Ray Gillen, who finished the tour competently enough. Gillen, however, proved to be another victim of the constant mismanagement and lack of communication in the band, and left with drummer Eric Singer partway through the recording of the next album. His replacement would prove to be one of the most dependable characters in the Black Sabbath legend.
THE ETERNAL IDOL
Released November 23rd, 1987 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Jeff Glixman, Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, Chris Tsangarides
Peaked at #66 UK, #168 US
After four years of band turmoil, a revolving door of lead singers (and other musicians), and a sharp decline in respectability, Tony Iommi finally stumbled upon something good near the end of the 1980s. Rock ‘n’ roll unknown Tony Martin was tapped to replace Ray Gillen, who had abandoned the initial recordings for The Eternal Idol partway through. Working closely with producer Chris Tsangarides, Martin painstakingly re-recorded the vocals Gillen had laid down. The effect was – for Black Sabbath in 1987 – startlingly solid. Martin’s vocals are reminiscent of Ronnie James Dio in the best way, only with less of an ego-driven need to dominate the songs. Propelled by some stability, Iommi churned out some of the best riffs he’d written since Mob Rules. “The Shining” is a lost hard rock classic, with a guitar line that ranks among Iommi’s best and a stellar example of Martin’s strengths right out of the gate. “Ancient Warrior” and “Hard Life To Love” continue in that vein of hard bangers that strike just the right balance of Dio-driven metal hijinks and full-band humility. “Glory Ride” is exactly what it says on the tin, a high-flying metal anthem complete with standard-fare late-80s guitar heroics. “Born To Lose” kills the momentum a bit with a ho-hum sort of effort, but the shifting crunch of “Nightmare”, the high-octane push of “Lost Forever”, and the haunting atmosphere of the title track bring the album to a satisfying close.
The Eternal Idol is a great throwback to the Dio era, but the sad fact of it was that by the end of 1987 no one wanted to return to the Dio era. The album was a complete non-starter, only making it (barely) onto the charts because of nostalgia and name recognition. Media outlets refused to review it and a lot of it has to do with the fact that the late Eighties were a bad time for the sort of metal that Sabbath traded in at the time. The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal had faded out into the same sort of tired pop-glory-chasing that marred the Sunset Strip hard rock scene. Power ballads and urban pop were in; soaring metal vocals and crazy guitar solos were on their way out. Ironically, the biggest thing going in the underground at the time was the Pacific Northwest grunge scene, which was by 1988 ramping up toward changing the face of rock ‘n’ roll forever. Many of the bands lumped into the grunge movement – especially Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Melvins – were in part mining Black Sabbath, but it was the Ozzy-era sludge-rock they were after and not the more contemporary Sabbath offerings. The Eternal Idol, then, gets lost in the shuffle despite it being something of an artistic renaissance for the band.
Released April 24th, 1989 on I.R.S. Records
Producer: Tony Iommi and Cozy Powell
Peaked at #31 UK, #115 US
At long last, after eighteen some-odd years and countless change and turmoil, Vertigo Records dropped Black Sabbath from their roster in 1988. In swooped Miles Copeland and I.R.S. Records, who were famous at the time for being the home of some of the most influential bands of the punk and alternative movement of the 1980s (most notably R.E.M.). While they were an odd fit for the label, Copeland had told Iommi that he was confident that Sabbath wrote songs people still wanted to hear and was willing to give them room to do so. At the same time, Iommi also managed to score drummer Cozy Powell, whose work with hard rock landmarks like Rainbow, Whitesnake, and the Jeff Beck Group had introduced everyone to his signature pounding sound. He almost got Geezer Butler to rejoin the band, but got beaten to the punch by Ozzy Osbourne, who recruited Butler for his No Rest For The Wicked tour. Still, the bassist that joined the recording process, Laurence Cottle, was no slouch and the touring bassist after the fact was another Whitesnake alumni.
The album itself is a continuation in the strong style that marked The Eternal Idol, only with a more visceral sound befitting metal production at the end of the Eighties. The title track kicks off the album with a bang, and stands toe-to-toe easily with anything produced in the Dio era. A lot of the album is built around top-notch headbangers: “Devil and Daughter”, “When Death Calls” (which features a guitar solo from Brian May), and the almost poppy energy of “Call Of The Wild” anchor a sound that did the first Martin album, but louder and better. Critics actually managed to pay attention, and it sold marginally more than before (although it still sold relatively poorly, which Iommi at one point attributed to I.R.S. not sending out enough copies to record stores). Some have gone so far as to call it one of the best hard rock albums ever made; while that might be going overboard a bit, it is easily the strongest of the Sabbath albums made without either Ozzy or Dio.
Released August 20th, 1990 on I.R.S. Records
Producer: Tony Iommi and Cozy Powell
Peaked at #24 UK
Tyr, the band’s second album for I.R.S. Records, turned the lyrical reins over to Tony Martin. To an extent Martin was involved with the lyrics for Headless Cross, but he constrained himself by writing what he thought was supposed to be “Black Sabbath” lyrics. This ideal of what the band was supposed to be was gloomy and death-obsessed; while this is exactly what the band’s image was, Iommi and Powell told him to ease off a bit and the result was…a weird song cycle about Norse mythology that was almost, but not quite a concept album. This was not the only problem that Tyr suffered from. The band chose to add more keyboard layers into the mix which, along with the drum-heavy production, made it sound poppier and cheesier than anything that was a going concern at the time (even Iron Maiden). The worst point of this is “The Sabbath Stones”, which suffers from a pace that’s just slightly too slow and a bite that’s just slightly too toothless. It’s also a slog at nearly seven minutes in length. Running a close second in this regard is the dashed-off “Feels Good To Me”, an obvious marketing track that the band later admitted was written to be exactly that. There are good tracks here, like the hard-charging “The Law Maker” and the churning “Valhalla”, but unlike the previous two albums there just aren’t enough of them to make it completely worthwhile.
Tyr takes the sound of the first two Tony Martin albums and tries to cross-breed it with the aforementioned sound of Iron Maiden circa 1990. The biggest drawback to this is that Iron Maiden circa 1990 was no great shakes either. It’s a definite lowpoint in the Black Sabbath discography, even more so because of the two promising albums before it, but as the Nineties wore on it became obvious that Sabbath could always go lower.
Released June 22nd, 1992 on I.R.S. and Reprise Records
Producer: Reinhold Mack
Peaked at #28 UK, #44 US
Tony Martin took some time off to record his first solo album (1992’s Back Where I Belong) and Iommi decided to make a concerted effort to get Geezer Butler and Ronnie James Dio back into the fold for an album. Cozy Powell began the recording sessions but then broke his pelvic bone riding a horse (because that’s what British rock legends do) and so the band called up Vinny Appice, cementing the Mob Rules lineup again eleven years after the fact. Dehumanizer, however, is not as nimble or as effective as that previous album had been. The overall tone is much heavier and angrier than previous Sabbath albums had been, perhaps in response to the tonal shift that rock ‘n’ roll had taken between Tyr and Dehumanizer. 1989-1990 had been the peak of pop metal, where shiny guitars mixed with keyboards and expansive songcraft had ruled the rock charts. 1992 was a much different era: in the wake of the atomic blast that was Nevermind, dark and heavy ruled the airwaves. Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and Pearl Jam had replaced Motley Crue, Iron Maiden, and Poison, so it makes sense that the newest Black Sabbath record would at least nod in the direction of them by shying away from the keyboards and flourishes that had characterized Tyr.
The directional shift would produce some decent tracks: “Computer God” was a headbanging way to start the affair; “TV Crimes” features a great chorus from Dio; “Master Of Insanity” and “I” showcase some great riff work from the newly reunited Iommi-Butler combo. The album begins to fall apart, however, when many of the songs get examined too closely. The riffs are mostly good, not great. The dynamic shifts seem forced, and “Sins Of The Father” seems like a blatant attempt to rewrite something like “Sign Of The Southern Cross” or “Children Of The Sea” without hitting the highwater mark of either. “After All (The Dead)” has some great guitar lines but the lyrics go over the top with regards to morbidity and disdain. This is actually a general complaint over all of Dehumanizer. Dio’s lyrics seem bitter and misanthropic, rather than thrilling and doom-laden, and there is a weird distaste for technology present in songs like “Computer God” and “TV Crimes”. The latter was echoed by Dio’s interviews during the press junket for the album where he disparaged the use of samplers in music production at the time. Of the Dio-fronted Black Sabbath albums, Dehumanizer is definitely the worst, although it wouldn’t be the last album from the lineup; in the late Oughts they would reunite under the name of Heaven & Hell and make some very decent heavy rock. Dio himself would leave shortly into the tour behind the album, after refusing to play shows opening up for Ozzy Osbourne on his “retirement” tour; Dio in fact called Ozzy a “clown” and quit rather than play second fiddle to him.
Released January 31st, 1994 on I.R.S. Records
Producer: Leif Mases and Tony Iommi
Peaked at #41 UK, #122 US
By 1994, the old rock ‘n’ roll template that kicked off with Led Zeppelin in 1969 had run aground completely. In the late 1970s Black Sabbath had been shown up by the flash and youth of Van Halen, but the Alternative Revolution had put the brakes on both bands and the movements they represented. Ironically, the Seattle grunge movement’s DNA was riddled with Ozzy-era Black Sabbath sounds (the usual formulation is Black Flag + Black Sabbath) but the 1994 iteration of Black Sabbath was hokey and behind the times. Even the metal underground didn’t really have much in common with the sounds Sabbath were trading in; 1994 was the year that the insanity of Norwegian black metal broke out of its local intrigues and Pantera’s Far Beyond Driven redefined what heavy meant in an American sense.
Cross Purposes responded to the times by trying to go in both directions at once. “I Witness”, “Back To Eden”, and “Cardinal Sin” make for good Eighties-style headbangers while other tracks take strides into the unfamiliar new world. “Psychophobia” scrapes out the same cross-bred dank sludge that Soundgarden built their early days on, and “Virtual Death” slows the riffs down back to the old days, which if nothing else shows how indebted Alice In Chains was to the Ozzy days. “Evil Eye” tries to go both ways and the result is unfortunate, an overlong chug through a clumsy Eternal Idol/Headless Cross riff that strains Martin’s skills. More unfortunate are the tracks “Cross Of Thorns”, “Immaculate Deception”, and “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”, where Martin makes like it’s still the septic days of 1987 and there are hair metal bands on MTV. They’re tired attempts at recapturing long-gone glory, made even more jarring by the year they were released in. Most unfortunate of all is the overwrought power ballad “Dying For Love”, which is doubly embarrassing given that power ballads were severely out of fashion by 1994 (ie the year of “Glycerine”). While the willingness to play with some of the contemporary conventions was nice, their general inability to get out of their Eighties rut was depressing, and the album sold poorly. The Tony Martin-led lineup of the band still had one more studio album in it, however. Unfortunately.
CROSS PURPOSES – LIVE
Released April 4th, 1995 on I.R.S. Records
Producer: Black Sabbath
The band’s second official live album was released mostly to silence in 1995. It’s too bad, since (aside from the absence of material from the Heaven & Hell / Mob Rules days) it’s a much better live album than 1982’s Live Evil was. On Live Evil, Dio seemed to be mocking the old Ozzy material more than anything else, as though he thought he was naturally better than anything the classic lineup had achieved. Tony Martin, on the other hand, is under no such illusions, and as such he makes it through the material (of which there’s a blessed abundance here) without sounding as though he’s smirking through it. As such, the classic songs are the real highlight here. With regards to the newer material, “I Witness”, one of the better songs on Cross Purposes, comes off in stellar fashion, but to balance this there is the presence of “Cross Of Thorns”, which is just as awful live as it is on the studio recording. “Psychophobia” lies somewhere in the middle, sounding somehow even more Soundgarden-esque in concert. “Headless Cross” is a nice inclusion, and it actually manages to blend in well with the Ozzy-majority selection of songs. It’s telling that the single from Cross Purposes, “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”, is noticeably missing from the tracklist. It’s also telling that, aside from “Psychophobia” (which is honestly a pretty good song), every time they turn to the new album Martin introduces it and manages to sound apologetic.
At any rate, it’s a better live document than the first one and (arguably) they next one. The best thing, of course, is that they put it out on the Cross Purposes tour, and not after the next album.
Released June 20th, 1995 on I.R.S. Records
Producer: Ernie C
Peaked at #71 UK
After the Cross Purposes tour, Geezer Butler left the band again, to be replaced by Neil Murray, and Cozy Powell came back in to play the drums, resetting everything back to the same lineup that made Tyr. With hip hop ascending, I.R.S. wanted to look into ways to bring their venerable rock band more in line with the modern era. To this end, they contacted L.A. rap-metal band Body Count; guitarist Ernie C was brought in to produce and Ice-T was given a verse on “Illusion Of Power”. If this sounds like an awful idea that could only produce terrible results, you’re smarter than I.R.S. Records circa 1995.
From the start, it’s rubbish. “The Illusion Of Power” has a promising enough Ozzy-era type riff, but the sound of Martin ranting, or rapping, or whatever he’s doing in the first verse, is cringe-inducing. The Ice-T verse is terrible, bringing about the definition of terrible tacked-on rap verses for the sole purpose of trying to be edgy and youthful. The last minute of it somehow manages to be even less essential than the rest of the song, which is honestly impressive in a horrifying way. The riff of “Get A Grip” is a dead ringer for “Mr. Brownstone”, and Martin’s vocals get drowned out in the muscular din of Ernie C’s blaring production. “Can’t Get Close Enough” can’t figure out whether it wants to be a power ballad or a generic stomper. “Shaking Off The Chains” is largely incoherent, and “I Won’t Cry For You” repeats the Cross Purposes mistake of thinking a generic Eighties rock dirge would fly in 1995. The second side is no better. “Guilty As Hell” again drowns out Martin’s voice, which wouldn’t be doing much to add to any of the songs even if the guitars were turned down a little. The solo from “Sick And Tired” comes off as over-wrought and desperate, an attempt to wow the listener into thinking the keyboard-laced trash song is better than it really is. “Rusty Angels” sounds as though it was a cutting-room floor leftover from the previous album. The title track is simply tired, a limp attempt at padded power metal, and the closing track “Kiss Of Death” goes on for too long and goes nowhere.
It’s an ignominious end to a lineup of Black Sabbath that held such promise nearly ten years before. It would be the last album the band would record with Tony Martin; even during the recording of Forbidden there were rumours swirling about an original-lineup reunion, which after the complete failure of the album would coalesce into an actual fact, thrilling many fans of the band old and new and pissing off Tony Martin.
Released October 20th, 1998 on Epic Records
Producer: Thom Panunzio and Bob Marlette
Peaked at #41 UK, #11 US
“Psycho Man” (#3 US Mainstream Rock)
Except for about a year or two at the beginning of the 1980s, it was obvious to everyone that the main beneficiary of the breakup of the original Black Sabbath lineup was Ozzy Osbourne. While the band’s career stagnated after 1982, Ozzy’s solo career skyrocketed. When Sabbath struggled through a cheesy songcycle about Norse gods, Ozzy was a bona fide world-touring household name rock star. By the time the third-rate Tony Martin iteration of Black Sabbath ground to a halt on an ill-advised crossbreeding with Body Count, there were swaths of adolescents who worshiped at the feet of Ozzy Osbourne without ever having really heard his old band. I know, because I was one of them.
Our exposure to Black Sabbath was largely limited. We knew “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” because the local classic rock station played them, but beyond that was wilderness. One of our father’s had Paranoid on vinyl, but when we played it we inexplicably set the needle to “Planet Caravan” and dismissed it as “hippie bullshit”. It wasn’t until an eleventh grade English class (coincidentally, 1998) when the teacher put on Master Of Reality and we were entranced. Reunion, then, was a real treat – live and in-your-face, a thrilling live document from a band that, to paraphrase the Simpsons, we’d just learned existed.
Over the years, it’s held up okay, although not great. The band’s playing is top-notch throughout, keeping the exact right pacing and sense of dynamic that informed the studio recordings with such creeping dread. Iommi’s lead guitar cuts through the murk of the rhythm section like a switchblade in a dark alley, and Butler’s bass has his signature lumbering-yet-weirdly-graceful sound intact. The problem is, well, Ozzy. When he sticks to singing, he sounds in good form – maybe not excellent, as he sounds a bit strained here and there. The problem is his ad-libbing. He is in full-on showman mode on these songs (understandably, given that they were recorded at a series of hometown shows in Birmingham) and he feels the need to interject random things in during the parts where he isn’t singing. The worst offender in this regard is “Electric Funeral”, where he inexplicably feels the need to shout “HEAVY!” during the riff. We get that it’s heavy, Ozzy. That’s the whole fucking point. Beside this, he lets out a bunch of “come on!” and “yeah!” and “We fuckin’ love you, god bless you all!” constantly that was probably great in concert but comes off as pointless when recorded.
Still, the man was back in charge, at the head of his old band and sounding just as good as he had twenty years before, if not better. The Reunion tour wouldn’t lead to a new album – that would have to wait until 2013 – but it would lead to irregular tour dates with the classic lineup until about 2006, when the band shacked back up with Dio and toured under the name Heaven & Hell. One thing that should be cleared up about this “classic lineup” business is that, except for a couple of dates at the end of the original reunion trip in 1998, Bill Ward doesn’t factor in. During the rehearsal for the reunion tour, he suffered a heart attack and avoided the band from then on. He would cite prior commitments, difficult contract terms, and legal wrangling with the other Sabbath members; in 2015 Ozzy called him out in an open letter telling him to come clean about the fact that his ballooned weight, his shoulder problems, and his general inability to survive an extended tour were the real reason he wasn’t playing with the rest of them. Ward doesn’t even play on both of the studio tracks that were recorded specifically for Reunion. He’s on the better of the two, thankfully: “Psycho Man”, a harrowing headbanger that for a brief moment made the prospect of a new Black Sabbath album exciting. The other, “Selling My Soul”, features a drum machine and while the riff is utterly classic Sabbath and the song itself could fit on any of the better later albums, it also feels like it’s exactly calculated to do that, and that detracts a bit from it.
Between 1998 and 2013, the band would release a series of live albums, more to keep income flowing in by cashing in on the nostalgia of old fans who were now approaching – or mired in – middle age. The first of these, released in 2002, would feature something of a lost relic of the past.
Released August 20th, 2002 on Sanctuary Records
Producer: Black Sabbath
Peaked at #114 US
The first disc of Past Lives, a collection of live artifacts from the band’s glory days, is actually an interesting bit of Sabbath history. It was originally released in 1980 under the name Live At Last, but it wasn’t released by the band. The rights to the recordings – split between two days in March at two venues in London – were held by Patrick Meehan, their old manager whose legal shenanigans had caused everyone such headaches during the recording of Sabotage. They had originally been recorded with the idea of putting out a live album, back in 1973, but the band passed on it after hearing the rough recording quality. Meehan, who republished everything he had the legal right to under the NEMS Records label, released the recordings as the aforementioned Live At Last, which ended up going to #5 in the UK. As a standalone album it has it’s flaws, primarily that it’s too short and that several stone classics are missing (“Iron Man” and “Black Sabbath”, primarily) and that a track like “Cornucopia”, an ugly reminder of the bad parts of Vol. 4, is included. As half of a set of artifacts from the crazy days of the Seventies, however, it makes for a great fit. Aside from “Cornucopia” the band crushes it, and the remastering done to the recording makes it a lot more vibrant and dynamic than the original release.
The second disc is culled from a pair of live recordings that were originally meant for radio – one from 1975 in Asbury Park, New Jersey (say hello to The Boss) and one from Paris in 1970. The Paris recordings – the majority of the disc – are a top-notch document of Sabbath in their white-hot early days. The Asbury Park recordings, on the other hand, are sloppy, played a little too fast, and feature Ozzy going out of tune on a number of occasions: proof that, by 1975, the band’s mile-a-minute rock star lives were taking their toll. It’s hit and miss, to say the least, but it’s only three songs out of the disc, so overall the album still makes for a great live artifact.
LIVE AT HAMMERSMITH ODEON
Released May 1st, 2007 on Rhino Entertainment
Producer: Black Sabbath
On New Year’s Eve 1981, New Year’s Day 1982, and January 2nd, Black Sabbath played three shows at the legendary Hammersmith Odeon in London. The shows were recorded and later released in 2007 in a limited run of 5000 copies. As far as live albums featuring Dio, it’s better than Live Evil: both band and crowd are exuberant, and Dio treats the classic material with less contempt than he did on the previous album. The newer stuff is the clear focus, though, and a couple of lesser-spun tracks from Mob Rules are included -the good-time riffage of “Slipping Away” and the throbbing rhythm of “Country Girl”. The only real poor moment is when Dio starts to ad-lib something during the air-raid intro to “War Pigs”, an act that seems akin to blasphemy.
Released June 10th, 2013 on Vertigo Records
Producer: Rick Rubin
Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US
“God Is Dead?” (#145 UK, #7 US Mainstream Rock)
“End Of The Beginning” (#38 US Mainstream Rock)
The first album from the classic lineup (except Bill Ward, anyway) since 1978 is a decent enough album but it suffers from two things: a poorly ordered tracklist and Rick Rubin.
Originally there had been plans to release a new album around 2001, but due to other projects on the go at the time the various bandmembers never finished making it. Ozzy ended up doing The Osbournes, which became a reality TV hit that ate up his mid-2000s. Then Iommi and Butler made The Devil You Know with Ronnie James Dio. Dio died of stomach cancer in 2010, shelving any further Heaven And Hell albums forever. Iommi and Butler then decided to give it another try with Ozzy which, after a couple of years, ended up bearing fruit. There were some difficulties in actually getting the thing recorded. Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma and so the recording sessions had to be moved to England so he could record and be treated at the same time. Bill Ward kept on nattering publicly about needing a “signable contract” to play with the band, and how they kept having a “failure to agree” on the terms of his rejoining Black Sabbath, which eventually prompted Ozzy’s 2015 open letter to him. Brad Wilk of Rage Against The Machine was brought in to play the drums instead and he while he isn’t quite as agile as Ward, he presents himself competently.
Unfortunately, Wilk is buried under Rick Rubin’s production, which is a major example of the problems with over-compression and the Loudness Wars in general. There’s too much compression on Iommi’s guitar, and it makes it so that none of the old open-air tube-amp type sound rattles out at the listener on 13. Instead, there’s the same flat, stodgy distortion that every other post-grunge arena band and metalcore pin-up dream has traded in since the dawn of the 21st Century. There’s no breathing room and so the riffs don’t sound oppressive in the “hand of doom” sort of way, they sound oppressive in the “these riffs ate the drums” sort of way. It’s too bad, because the riffs are as close to classic Sabbath as you’re ever going to get again. “Age Of Reason” features a coda that lumbers and stabs with the best of the Seventies material; “God Is Dead?” overextends itself but still manages to pummel the listener into the ground; “Live Forever” is as aggressive and powerful as the best parts of Vol. 4; “Zeitgeist” reminds everyone that Sabbath did, in fact, do stuff like “Planet Caravan” once upon a time.
Opening the album with “The End Of The Beginning” is a bad move, though. Clocking in at just over eight minutes, the riff is nothing to write home about and the dynamic shifts don’t do enough to move the song forward. Coupled with another lengthy sludge-rocker, “God Is Dead?” in the #2 slot, and it makes for an awkward sixteen minutes to open an album. Sabbath has always started off their albums with a bang, even during the ersatz Tony Martin albums, and the crawling pace that 13 opens with is off-putting. “Loner” or “Live Forever” would have been much better choices to lead off, perhaps saving “God Is Dead?” for later in the album. Similarly, the twin seven-minute tracks that close the album go on for too long, although “Damaged Soul” has some great lead work from Iommi. Mixing up the list and having someone on hand to tell the band “no, this is too long without any reason” would have gone a long way into turning this good album into a great one.
Released January 20th, 2016
Producer: Rick Rubin
Like it says on the tin, this is the end. The End is a tour-only EP from the similarly named “farewell tour” that is slated to end in February of 2017. It contains four leftovers from the 13 sessions and four live tracks recorded during the initial 13 tour. The leftover tracks are decent enough stuff, much as the tracks on 13 were: not up to the standard set by the initial run of Black Sabbath albums, but more than able to hold their own with modern heavy rock bands and certainly better than anything that has come out of their contemporaries. The live tracks are what they are: note-for-note recreations of the studio tracks without much in the way of experimentation or difference. The last two – “The End Of The Beginning” and “Age Of Reason” – were recorded in Hamilton, Ontario, which is neat ; Hamilton is as close to the vibe of Birmingham as you’re going to get in North America, and Canada has always been a white-hot source of Black Sabbath fandom, so it’s nice that the “final two” tracks of Sabbath’s career were picked from a concert there. Time will tell whether or not it’s an actual “final album” from a band whose lead singer once did a “Farewell Tour” in 1992, but they are all getting older and eventually the Sabbath story has to end. As of now it is supposed to end February 4th, 2017, but…we’ll see.