Counting Down the Discography
In 1979, mutual dissatisfaction between popular lead vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and the rest of the band led to his departure and replacement with ex-Rainbow lead singer Ronnie James Dio. Despite Sabbath's continuing success, Dio was replaced four years later with ex-Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan, and the band's sound became even more iconoclastic. After Gillan and original drummer Bill Ward departed, the band went through a number of lineup changes over the next decade, including a reunion with Dio and a long-term alliance with journeyman vocalist Tony Martin, who showed a tremendous loyalty to the group. Amazingly, they regrouped with their original lineup in the late '90s and toured intermittently for the next decade before reuniting with Dio and second drummer Vinny Appice and calling their act Heaven & Hell. After Dio's tragic death, Butler and Iommi reverted to the name Black Sabbath and recorded their first first studio album with Ozzy after 35 years and are currently touring to support it. Who knows what the future holds for this iconic band, whose tempestuous career has matched the intensity of their music.
Black Sabbath isn't just my favourite metal or rock band. For over 30 years they've been my favourite musical act of any genre (my second favourite is jazz legend John Coltrane). I've felt an incredible affinity for, and connection to, the band. I've been intending for some time to write an exhaustive article on the group and what they mean to me. It was meant to be called Black Sabbath: Reincarnations. In getting some things straight in my mind about where I stand on Black Sabbath's oeuvre before I began such a major article, I ranked 25 Black Sabbath albums and listed them in ascending order from my least to most favourite. There was no objective "best" in this countdown; it was a purely subjective exercise. Album # 25 I find to be the band's biggest disappointment while album # 1 I believe to be their finest work.
Upon perusing this list, it will likely become clear to the reader that I don't hate any Black Sabbath album, though the first three on this list I dislike a good bit (save for one astonishing track on the album Forbidden). The next five I find mediocre but they definitely have their moments. I try to point out the good qualities even of albums that as a whole I don't much care for. I deigned not to do merely my top 15 Black Sabbath albums, but instead go for broke and rank their entire official output (sans compilations). Ranking those troublesome latter ten has been extremely difficult. It's easy to say “my least favorite Sabbath albums are most of the Tony Martins and the latter day Ozzys” (which is true), but actually getting them into a discernible order took some close listening to some stuff I haven't heard in awhile since – well, it's not my preferred Sabbath material. Album #16, however, was easy, as it's quite excellent. Not quite good enough to make my top 15, but still an awesome record.
Please bear in mind this is merely a survey of 25 Black Sabbath albums. I've omitted many milestones in the group's history. There are even members that I haven't mentioned due to the fact they were only with the band for certain tours or between albums (though I've tried to mention those musicians when I could). I've included band lineups before each review as a short hand for the reviews and a scorecard for the reader (this band needs one). Black Sabbath has had numerous personnel, though it has always featured guitarist Tony Iommi and the band's best work almost always included Geezer Butler on bass and often on lyrics as well (Geezer plays on 20 albums). Bill Ward on drums appears on 12 of these albums, and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne on 12 out of the 25 (much less than most believe). Geoff Nicholls plays keyboards on 11 albums. Tony Martin holds a record as being the next most tenacious member, appearing on 6 Sabbath albums. Ronnie James Dio sings on 5. Vinny Appice drums on 4. Beyond that it is quite the revolving door. But quality should trump quantity, and my most-loved album of the band marks its lead vocalist's sole appearance in Black Sabbath. But what an appearance!
In preparing this article, I understand more than ever why I am drawn to these artists. I believe I learned a great deal myself as I wrote this – about just why I like the things I do, and what connects me to them. I've tried to convey what this music means to me and why – what makes this band unique and so affecting in their compositions, their sounds, their words. This is not always easy, as I find it extremely difficult to write about music. I anticipate criticism but there are only so many ways to state certain things and I've tried to be as varied as possible without being terribly verbose. I'm sure this piece will galvanize and polarize the few folks who may read it, and that's okay. We all have our favourites – band, album, song, vocalist, etc. I simply proffer my own opinions on all things Sabbath. These opinions, however, have been honed by over three decades of following this band and its music in all of its varied incarnations. At the very least I hope to impart as much information as possible about the phenomenon that is Black Sabbath.
Tony's work on this album is stellar as always, and considering his various ailments, it's all the more remarkable. His solo on the opener hearkens to some of his finest moments. There are some great solos on this album, but then Iommi always delivers on his lead work. There are also some wince-inducing passages throughout the album from Osbourne. Geezer's lyrics are quite good (as usual). Rick Rubin's much-touted production is adequate. There is a sameness throughout – no attempt to experiment with sound or melody as Sabbath at their best have always done – just an attempt to stay stark and heavy and to keep Ozzy in key. The hype surrounding this release is completely out of bounds with its content. Lyrically the album is more than up to par, but musically, the songwriting is not much more inspired than the output of most latter Iommi, Butler, or Osbourne works, i.e. not much to my liking. This fact, along with Brad Wilk's drums (Bill Ward couldn't come to terms with the plan for a full-on reunion of the band's original members), and Ozzy's waning voice, spoil 13 for me.
The album's major highlight for me is a radio friendly power ballad (though not one on par with No Stranger to Love from Seventh Star) called Feels Good to Me (which received a rather cheesy accompanying music video). This cut is surely a semi-guilty pleasure of mine, and may be the only track contained herein imbued with any greatness. It's definitely one of my very favourite Martin era tracks. I almost wish this incarnation of the band had tried to do quality power ballads instead of pedaling tired riffs adorned with earnest but unsatisfying lyrics devoted to either demons and devils or Norse gods. Martin nor Nicholls have the lyrical prowess of Butler or Dio, who would've surely tackled the mythological subject matter with more aplomb.
Tony Iommi, guitars
Regarding Never Say Die, many folks slag off this one, but I personally enjoy it a great deal. It just happens to be my least favorite of the original eight studio albums featuring Ozzy Osbourne. Ozzy actually had quit the band after their previous LP and was replaced by Savoy Brown vocalist Dave Walker. Ozzy soon returned and Dave was let go. However, a song Walker penned with the band, Junior's Eyes, sounds fantastic and I much prefer Dave's version to Ozzy's. The version with Ozzy (which Ozzy asked Geezer to write new lyrics for) appears on Never Say Die.
Tony Iommi, guitars
Tony Martin, vocals
Geoff Nicholls, keyboards
Eric Singer, drums
Bob Daisley, bass
Ancient Warrior is another interesting and rather moody track, while much of The Eternal Idol is more straight ahead rocking, an approach which partially follows on from Seventh Star, though that record had much more to recommend it than headbanging tunes. One of the rockers on this record, Hard Life to Love, has elegant choruses and an exquisite solo from Iommi that ranks among his very finest. I would love this song if it just consisted of that solo. Glory Ride, Born to Lose, Nightmare – all feature indelible riffs and superb vocals by Martin, whose voice has in it an echo of Ronnie James Dio. Lost Forever is really the only duff track on the album and Some Kind Of Woman, recorded for the album but not originally included, is frankly awful. The album closer, its title track, is another Sabbath classic - a gloomy epic filled with atmospheric power and cautionary apocalyptic lyrics in the vein of Geezer Butler's work.
I used to hold The Eternal Idol as a whole in even higher esteem and I still really enjoy it. I'm just more acutely aware of its flaws now. However, this is definitely the finest of the Sabbath albums featuring Tony Martin on vocals. He does some amazing work here, and the rest of the record thooms along with some classic riffs and fascinating lyrics from then bassist Daisley (who sounds tremendous on bass here). This album was originally recorded with Ray Gillen on vocals, then his work was scrubbed when he exited the band and the vocals were rerecorded with Tony Martin. Martin's voice has more character, and he hit heights beyond what Gillen achieved (I've compared both versions of the album). Unfortunately he never quite delivered on the promise he held on this record.
14. Live Evil (1982)
Tony Iommi, guitars
Geezer Butler, bass
Ronnie James Dio, vocals
Geoff Nicholls, keyboards
Vinnie Appice, drums
Live Evil is not my favourite Black Sabbath album, but it is the most important one to me. Live Evil broke me into Sabbath. It was my gateway into an entirely new world of musical experience. It was the album currently on the shelves when I first became very interested in the group. I had been seduced by the song Voodoo, which I heard once on the radio when Mob Rules was released. Soon after I heard Paranoid and Iron Man on the radio. Then my local station played Children of the Sea from Live Evil which was about to be released. I was engrossed and begged my mother for the album when it was released. Thence I was given Live Evil and spun it obsessively. Bear in mind that I'd not heard the original studio versions of any of the songs on here except the first three that I mentioned.
E5150 opened the album and I imagined it to be the perfect atmospheric accompaniment to a horror film (and I wasn't even a horror buff then as I am now). I fell in love with Dio's voice on Neon Knights and I've never looked back. This is a fantastic version, and is a great lead-in just as the studio version kicked off the Heaven and Hell album. Next came N.I.B. and its roaring heavy bass riff and tremendous groove. I actually prefer Dio's rendition of this song to Ozzy's on the first Sabbath LP. What followed was Children of the Sea, a song that was truly a revelation to me and became my favourite song of all time – and it still is. This is not the best live version I've heard – and I've heard many by now – nor is it as incredible as the studio original on Heaven and Hell, But it is an awe-inspiring variant. So iconic is this version now that it, not the studio version, was used on the compilation Black Sabbath: The Dio Years.
It's hard not to simply enumerate the tracks on this album and sing their praises one by one so ingrained is this set in my mind. But I will touch on a few more tracks. Voodoo, while not nearly as soul-crushingly heavy as the studio version I'd heard that one late night on the radio, nonetheless was great to hear again. Dio does some amazing improvising on the lyrics, coming up with some memorable lines not in the original version (“If you're sailing on a lonely ocean/ If you're out on a guilty sea...”). The song Black Sabbath opens with the soft but ominous guitar piece that only appears in live versions, not on the original. While not as chilling as the studio take, this variant nonetheless is darkly atmospheric and suitably dramatic, and Dio does an adequate job with it, though my favourite version is sung by Ian Gillan and appears on a number of bootlegs. War Pigs is bone-crunchingly heavy, with Geezer hitting insane notes under Tony's bludgeoning. Dio does a fair job on this one, but as far as singers other Ozzy, I prefer Ian Gillan once again on this tune.
Vinny Appice contributes a fine drum solo that serves as a bridge to Iron Man, which is also mind-numbingly heavy (this band is a juggernaut). Dio acquits himself well on it except for the cheesy growled version of the intro. This was remedied on the next tour this lineup undertook with vocal effects similar to those on the studio recording. Next up was my introduction to the title track of the album the band was touring in support of. The Mob Rules was used to great effect in the film Heavy Metal. I knew about the film and the song being in it but had not seen the film nor heard the track until Live Evil. The reading of Heaven and Hell found here has too much annoying 'audience participation' bits for my taste. I've never been enamored of the whole call and response crowd thing. I know Dio wanted everyone to get into the spirit of things but for me it detracts from the songs' presentations, especially the vocals. Dio was not nearly as bad as Ozzy about this, but this was another area that Gillan excelled in by his restraint in not getting the audience to sing his songs!
The monumental Sign of the Southern Cross and a decent Paranoid round out the album, and Live Evil closes with a fine rendition of Children of the Grave followed by a canned recording of the acoustic Fluff from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Overall I think the set list was okay but focused too much on a preponderance of popular songs from the first three albums and neglected not only a mountain of Ozzy era material but Dio classics like Lonely is the Word and Falling Off the Edge of the World. This album was the heaviest thing I'd ever heard when I first gave it a listen, and though it has since been eclipsed by other recordings (some by Sabbath), it still occupies a unique spot in my now-jaded brain. Sadly, it marked the end, for a time anyway, of this amazing lineup – my favourite incarnation of Black Sabbath. But they would be reborn like a phoenix more than once, as we shall see.
13. Black Sabbath (1970)
Tony Iommi, guitars
For all that, the song Black Sabbath, heresy though this may be, is slightly played out for me due to incessant spins in high school. However, its power is undeniable, and its impact legendary. I must note here that the song as interpreted by later Sabbath vocalist Ian Gillan is much stronger, and I vastly prefer that version. I know I'm in the minority on that one, alas. I'm a bit overtired of The Wizard as well. It's great fun, with its drug dealer as folk figure lyrics and rousing harmonica, but I'm a bit, er, burnt out on the song. Behind the Wall of Sleep is a pounding tune seemingly inspired by HP Lovecraft's dream cycle and segues nicely into the bass solo Bassically, which in turn is the intro to N.I.B. With its elemental distorted bass riff, N.I.B. (which doesn't stand for anything, despite long standing rumours that it's an acronym for Nativity in Black) constitutes the heaviest moments of the album and my most-cherished ones as well. I especially enjoy Geezer's lyrics with their concept of Satan pleading for love from a mortal woman and offering her “the sun, the moon, the stars.. all bear my seal”. N.I.B. remains my favourite track on Black Sabbath and one of my all-time favourite compositions by the band (though I prefer Dio's live rendering vocally).
Same lineup as Black Sabbath.
Same lineup as Live Evil.
Dehumanizer falters a bit halfway through - Buried Alive and Too Late are decent but Sins of the Father (definitely a filler track) failed to make an impression on me. Master of Insanity took awhile to grow on me, but now I love it. 'I' rescues the latter part of the album. It's an impressive track, with Dio's ferocious lyrics belted out over an insistent riff and some wild effects-laden Iommi antics in the intro, breaks, and solo. With so many strong tracks, and the alternate versions tossed into later CDs, I can overlook the weaker cuts and place Dehumanizer in my top 10. It's an able comeback that finds the band completely rejuvenated. It was the last grand spark of inspiration for any of these musicians in my view. Not to say these four gentlemen didn't write some great songs throughout the next two decades, some even together, but no cohesive statement from any of them yielded so fine a result.
Dehumanizer is a breathtaking return to form after the tepid Tyr, and an improvement over the last few Dio solo albums that preceded it as well. The album was under-appreciated in its day, but the years have been kind, and it's looked on much more favorably now, as it should be. The sheer exuberance of hearing my most-loved iteration of my favourite band obscures any flaws this album may have. The production by Mack (of Queen fame) is spot-on – heavy, thrashing, a bit dry (though not Rick Rubin dry), and thoroughly modern with an incessantly raw vibe. The tour supporting this album was magnificent. It was not the last time these gents played together, but the last time they sounded so damned good. It's a shame they canceled their show in my city. They fell apart during that tour, with Judas Priest's Rob Halford subbing for Dio on the final shows (and he sounds amazing on the Dio and Ozzy material). Iommi and Butler reinstated Tony Martin on vocals to create the aforementioned extremely lukewarm Cross Purposes. Finally, I'm not crazy about Dehumanizer's cover; it's tied with Headless Cross as Black Sabbath's most lackluster album cover.
Same lineup as Black Sabbath.
The album opens with a soul-destroying guitar riff and bass line, air raid sirens and the group playing superhumanly tight (as they do on the entire album). This is War Pigs, a savage anti-war tract reworked from a tune called Walpurgis. That song was apparently about a black mass but Geezer changed the lyrics. War Pigs was going to be the album's title, but then the band quickly knocked out the short single Paranoid and retitled the album, and the rest, as they say, is history. And what a history it has been. That single and its eponymous LP broke the band and became the bedrock of 44 years of Black Sabbath. Paranoid possesses a great infectious bass line and an unforgettable fuzz guitar solo. Little wonder that it became a huge hit single. Paranoid was the second Sabbath song that I recall hearing back in 1981 after the then-current Voodoo. It was played on the radio quite frequently and I wondered why the station didn't play more from this haunting band.
The third Sabbath song I ever encountered, played in school by a preening bully I often ran afoul of, was Iron Man. Its heaviness honestly frightened me yet also made me more curious than ever to explore this allegedly Satan worshiping aggregate. I wondered, based on the lyrics (the likes of which I'd not heard plied by any of my favourite groups), if the tune was inspired by the Marvel Comics superhero, whose adventures I collected and loved. Except in the song Iron Man goes mad and becomes a villain. Many years later, I watched an interview with Geezer where he does state that the song is about the “comic book hero” going mad. I loved the frightening yet seductive tune and wanted the album, though it was actually three years before I added Paranoid to my growing Sabbath collection (I collected them on cassette at that point).
Tony Iommi, guitars, keyboards
Changes continues this strain of lyricism with a dreary break up song that musically disrupts the mood of the album thus far with with a stark tune comprised of Tony on piano and mellotron, and Ozzy dominating the piece and cannily conveying the suffering of the song's protagonist. Ozzy acquits himself well here, though after Planet Caravan and his peak Solitude, the quality of his voice is slightly disappointing. From here on, Ozzy's voice is better suited to belting out aggressive tunes than dabbling in balladry, with some very notable exceptions (all to be discussed as we move ahead). I appreciate the swell of feeling that went into Changes and it's among my favourite tracks on Vol 4 in part because it is a ballad and I love to hear Sabbath render ballads (remember I'm a sucker for Feels Good to Me and No Stranger to Love).
After the very short soundscape FX, roaring up next is Supernaut with cryptic lyrics and monotonous riffing. This is my least favourite tune on Vol 4, though I love the percussive break near the end; it's quite incredible. Even a track like this that I don't hold in the highest esteem I still find eminently listenable though. The song is popular among Sabbath fans and it was resurrected for the Born Again tour. Vol 4 picks up with the mighty riff and loping drums of Snowblind, which features excellent vocals extolling the virtues of cocaine, which the band was apparently consuming massive quantities of during this time. Snowblind has a fantastic melodious break and a beautiful solo by Tony. Snowblind retains the heavy prog stylings of Wheels of Confusion as they launch into Cornucopia, which begins with a perfect doom metal riff by Tony and Geezer and then departs into a fast break. Ward's work is, as throughout the album, exceptional. The chorus vanishes into lush sonic landscapes before settling into a straightforward jam.
I'm most passionate about the two pieces that follow. Laguna Sunrise is a glorious acoustic workout by Tony, and St. Vitus Dance, with guitars alternating betwixt twang and crunch, chronicles a relationship crushed by misunderstanding. This subject matter was only occasionally broached by Sabbath back then; the band wasn't exactly known for traditional love songs. But, come to think of it, this is actually the third tune on the album to broach the topic of hard breakups. Geezer just treated such topics unconventionally; he wasn't your typical pop wordsmith. St. Vitus Dance is possibly my favourite song on the album, and a lot of that is based on the lyrics. The epic end track Under the Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes opens with an archetypal doom riff. This tune boasts perhaps the finest example of Geezer's lyrics devoted to self-determinism. Almost a reaction to allegations of Sabbath being Satanic, Under the Sun rebuffs demonic worship as thoroughly as it does monotheism, and rejects all dogmatic belief systems (“I don't believe in violence/ Don't even believe in peace/ I've opened the door / Now my mind's been released”). This is without question my second favourite track on Vol 4. The ending is a great dirge with Iommi soloing madly over it, closing out an exceptional and important album.
A widely disliked Sabbath record, Technical Ecstasy is one of my absolute favorites. Many folks think it's too much straightforward rock 'n' roll. Some mourn for the band's progressive direction being forsaken (believe me I empathize). But I love the treasure trove of riffs, the instrumental interplay between the band and Jezz Woodroffe on keys, and Tony's lead work throughout. His solos are truly inspired and quite impassioned on this LP. First song Back Street Kids has a great riff and indeed is about, well, rock and roll. The dominant lyrical focus of the album seems to be rebellion against anything that threatens one's individuality. Doing as one wilt seems to be the whole of the law on this record, according to Geezer and articulated by Mr. Osbourne. I suppose in a sense the album is about rock 'n' roll – that original spirit of rock as rebellion and self-affirmation in a world of conformity (an attitude later codified as punk rock, which Sabbath had an undeniable influence upon).
You Won't Change Me is my second favourite track on Technical Ecstasy, and furthers the idea of self-reliance, though the song's protagonist seems to be admitting that he may need some one else besides himself (perhaps even God he admits). However, he ultimately believes in only himself and refuses to change (echoes of Under the Sun). The cut is unforgettable due to the solid rhythm section, the outstanding work by Ozzy and Jezz, and, most of all, Tony's searing fretwork – surely an example of his greatest soloing. He was obviously in a good place when this album was recorded because he is unmatchable here for metallic lead guitar brilliance. My favourite song on the album is It's Alright, which by rights should have been a hit, and Bill Ward contributes some awesome vocals on the track. This song was sung by Bill due to Ozzy giving the band a bit of trouble (he quit the band after the Technical Ecstasy tour). Bill sounds great on here; it's a very different song for Sabbath and he pulls it off beautifully. Tony has a nice lead break but that's about all that sounds “Sabbathy” about this cut. The first part of the tune is devoted to Bill's vocals and drums, and Woodroffe's piano; after the abbreviated solo, Tony comes back in and solos furiously through the rest of the track – except on a flamenco-styled acoustic guitar. This is gorgeous stuff I wish he would've done more of.
Gypsy is another interesting track, with mystical-magickal lyrics on which Tony contributes some astonishing lead work. Ozzy and Jezz sound especially good on this tune. All Moving Parts (Stand Still), features a funky bass line from Geezer, and his lyrics suggest that the tune is about a kinky and corrupt politician. This is a highly enjoyable piece with a shredding truncated solo and an outro solo played through a reverse gate. One track I actually dislike is Rock N Roll Doctor (which was resurrected on the Born Again tour!), seemingly about a Dr. Feelgood type supplying the song's protagonist. She's Gone, a mournful ballad a la Changes, is the only other weaker track and even it is quite good. Ozzy's voice works well on this track to convey sorrow.
Tony Iommi really shines on Technical Ecstasy, his best solo work encompassed in three tracks – You Won't Change Me , Gypsy, and album closer Dirty Women, one of the finest tracks on the record, on which he shreds madly over Geezer's ode to prostitution. Tony is a six string behemoth on this album, and Ozzy, despite his voice beginning its decline and losing some of its power (and he himself losing interest in the band), perfectly suits the material. Technical Ecstasy is not a perfect record. But despite this, the album's strengths are so abundant it still ranks among my most treasured Sabbath documents and is too brilliant and eclectic to be merely Black Sabbath's “rock 'n' roll record”.
Eric Singer, drums
Gordon Copley, guest bassist
Glenn Hughes makes the most prosaic numbers brim with soul-inflected urgency. He is utterly convincing on all of the material here, even the more straight ahead rockers but especially on the title track; the extended blues of Heart Like A Wheel; the emotive two part album closer; and, particularly, on the “hit single” of the record, No Stranger to Love, Sabbath's first power ballad. Seventh Star opens with the battery of In for the Kill, a fine tune in its own right but definitely the weakest on the record. Then comes No Stranger to Love, a song I admit to being totally obsessed with. I actually prefer the single version to the LP version. The single is augmented with souped up choruses composed of many Hughes tracks wailing behind his lead vocals. This cut is a totally infectious tune that features Iommi, Hughes, and Nicholls in top form. The song spawned a decent though head-scratching music video. It's also my favourite cut on Seventh Star and one of my all-time favourite Sabbath numbers.
I admit to a fondness for the more straight ahead Turn to Stone and Danger Zone (the first selection I heard off the album). The title track, introduced by a keyboard piece called The Guardian, is a standout. Some of the album's finest lyrics are on display here, the solo is great, and the riff is quite hypnotic. After the marvelous extended bluesy workout of Heart Like A Wheel, a two-part track brings the record to a powerful close. Angry Heart is a surging guitar/ organ riff that finds Hughes contemplating lost love through an existential lens. The cut segues into the acoustic guitar and piano-dominated In Memory..., the most melancholy tune here and the most depressing end to a Sabbath record since Over and Over closed Mob Rules. Both of these maudlin tunes are excellent, powerful stuff to close out an album that in its way ranks as another of the band's many experiments.
Regarding Seventh Star's lineup and musicianship, the rhythm section is perfunctory. This is the biggest weakness the album has. After Geezer on bass and Bill, Vinny, and even Bev Bevan (Sabbath's drummer on and off after Bill Ward left a second time) on drums, Dave Spitz and Eric Singer are a huge step down in this department. Fortunately, the other three members of this incarnation of Sabbath more than make up for the rhythmic shortcomings. However, this is the album I hold in the highest esteem that doesn't have Butler, Ward, or Appice on it so I understand why some would question my critical acuity. Ironically the song with the finest bass line is No Stranger, but that tune features Gordon Copley rather than Spitz on bass. It's sadly the only track where Copley appears. The drums have no finesse; they're just relentless pounding (though that does work beautifully on a couple of tracks). At least the rhythm section is tight. Conversely, performance-wise, Hughes' voice is top notch on every track, Nicholls sounds fine and is more prominently featured, and Iommi is, well, Iommi – the Maestro. Seventh Star features lyrics by Glenn Hughes and Geoff Nicholls though I'm not sure who did what. Sadly the lyrics are not up to the incredibly high bar set by all of the Sabbath albums prior to this. Without question, the band playing on this album is an example of something being greater than the sum of its parts.
I suppose the bottom line is that Seventh Star is an acquired taste for Sabbath fans. It departs radically from all that came before and due to its origins as a Tony Iommi solo album, many don't even consider it a “real” Sabbath record, but as prevously noted, I'm not one of them. I am admittedly very nostalgic when it comes to this record, and without question that colors my feelings about it. However, I believe if one “listens without prejudice”, i.e. check your preconceived notions at the door as to what Black Sabbath “should” be, you will find one of the greatest melodic metal records of the eighties. If Born Again was their last masterpiece, then Seventh Star was the last Sabbath album possessed of true greatness (at least until Dehumanizer).
Same lineup as Past Lives.
2. Mob Rules (1981)
Same lineup as Live Evil.
Turn Up the Night opens up the album with a thrashing rhythm laced with wah-laden leads and Dio's enigmatic lyricism. Next comes, at last, Voodoo, the song that had haunted me for many months. From the most ominous guitar riff ever devised by Iommi, the track barrels forward with pummeling drums and bass. Enter Dio's chilling delivery of “Say you don't love me you'll burn”. With lyrics like “Call me the Devil, it's true/ some can't accept but I crept inside you”, I'd never heard a song so thoroughly diabolical. Sign of the Southern Cross was a wholly different animal. A lovely acoustic opening and gentle vocals segue into a rampaging riff and pulverizing drums. From there the tune alternates between quieter parts limned with bass guitar drowned in effects to a reprise of the main guitar riff. Dio's voice climbs ever higher with more of his oblique lyrics with a mystical, didactic bent. Geezer was cautionary, and so is Dio, but Ronnie isn't quite as nihilistic, as though he finds some hope for the doomed world both men have written so eloquently about over the decades. Both men are astrologically Cancers, interestingly, and share a sensitivity that manifests in the singular worldviews put forth in their words.
After the jamming interlude Slipping Away, notable for its bass and guitar breaks, comes a flawless track, Falling Off the Edge of the World. Like Sign of the Southern Cross and Heaven and Hell, it has an epic scope, and begins with fragile vocals and a haunting keyboard melody. The shifting dynamics include a bass drum pulse that becomes more insistent until it explodes into a raw dirge, then a raging fast riff that hurtles toward a dramatic finale. With some of Dio's soul-shattering lines, final cut Over and Over is the most mournful tune on the album, and one of the saddest songs Dio has ever written (“Too many flames with too much to burn/ And life's only made of paper”). Tony's guitars come crashing in with one of his greatest melodies, alongside intense work by Vinny. The track closes with Tony' soloing, going completely off the deep end with his squalling wah throwing shapes. He scales harder and harder til he's practically careening off the fretboard. The guitar screams out in pain as Iommi manhandles it, and in the final fade out he's still going at it.
I have listened to this album endlessly for over 30 years and I never weary of it. This band has reached its summit here. They're hermetically tight and astonishingly heavy; Vinny has seamlessly assimilated into the band as a more than able replacement for the brilliant Bill Ward; Nicholls is somewhat more prominent; and Dio has his footing so solid on the vocal side of things it was as if he was always in the band, born to sing in Black Sabbath (though naysayers will differ with me on this point). The chemistry between the four main members (and Geoff) has created music that I've taken with me most of my life and that will never end. I used to believe that this album distilled everything great about Black Sabbath over their entire career into one perfect document. Almost. That honor goes to the next entry in this piece.
From the initial track Trashed with its fast, crashing chords and Gillan's trademark shriek you know you're in for something mind-splittingly heavy. Gillan goes for the throat right at the outset, segueing into a melodic chorus and back into an unholy scream, and is followed by Tony's insanely shredding guitar solo, where he makes extensive use of the whammy bar for the first time. He abuses the tremolo all through the album actually. Trashed was the LP's chosen single, and spawned a ridiculous music video (post-Ozzy, it took til No Stranger to Love for this band to actually have a classy music video). This album is unrelenting in its fury yet also touches on its progressive roots hearkening back to the band's middle period. This is embodied in the moody ambient piece Stonehenge, featuring Nicholls, which erupts into Disturbing the Priest with its down-tuned riffing and maniacal laughter. This pummeling tune has several parts – its stanzas, with Tony doing wild lead work, followed by a heavy chorus featuring a booming bass and the bruising battery of returning drummer Bill Ward. Then comes an amazing bridge with pounding bass and the lines “Good life is contradiction /Because of crucifixion/If you're ready and have the need/ I will take your soul and plant my seed”. Again Gillan's voice soars to delirious heights. He is also quite good on the quieter but no less menacing passage of the tune as he intones, “The force of the Devil is what we're all told to fear/Watch out for religion when he gets too near”.
Copyright 2014 George Henry Smathers Jr.