After 1983’s relative misstep, Born Again, with Ian Gillan on lead vocals, Black Sabbath essentially disbanded until a one-off reunion with Ozzy Osbourne for the 1985 Live Aid concerts. The following year, Tony Iommi recorded a solo album with former Trapeze/Deep Purple singer Glenn Hughes and future Kiss/Alice Cooper drummer Eric Singer (along with Dave Spitz on bass and frequent Sabbath keyboardist Geoff Nicholls), but record company pressure forced him to release it as “Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi.” Seventh Star (1986), therefore, should not be judged against the Sabbath catalog but as an Iommi solo project. Although it doesn’t bear many of the traits I usually associate with Sabbath, it’s a surprisingly solid mid-80s hard rock record. The secret weapon is Glenn Hughes, whose powerhouse vocals carry even the most generic tunes. His voice often reminded me of Gary Moore, the brilliant hard rock guitarist whose ‘80s albums (like Wild Frontier and After The War) were very similar to this one. The album opens with “In For The Kill,” a fast and furious rocker with a chugging guitar riff and one pummeling groove throughout. I love the vocal hook in the chorus (“In for the kill, no quarter be shown. Live for the thrill of battle alone”) and Iommi’s fiery and fierce guitar solo. “No Stranger To Love” is a power ballad with a keyboard-heavy arrangement and a bluesy, emotional guitar figure. Hughes really brings out the hurt and sadness in the lyrics.
[Black Sabbath - "In For The Kill"]
“Seventh Star” is a real gem, with the classic plodding Sabbath groove and a slightly Middle Eastern feel (reminiscent of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir”). I like the way Hughes doubled his vocals for “It’s the call…of the seventh star.” “Heart Like A Wheel” takes us on a roller coaster ride through several incredible Iommi solos. It’s basically a slow blues (similar to the aforementioned Gary Moore’s later blues-rock records) with a fantastic guitar tone, and must have been a showstopper in concert. A couple of songs remind me of Rainbow’s early-‘80s radio-friendly, melodic hard rock: “Turn To Stone” (Eric Singer’s driving groove is the highlight for me) and “Angry Heart” (which has a nice arrangement but is ultimately forgettable). “Danger Zone” is a cross between ‘80s hair metal and AOR, which made sense at the time, and Hughes’ voice is a perfect fit. This relatively brief album closes with “In Memory…,” a very slow ballad about a lost loved one. Iommi does some nice acoustic finger picking here, and Hughes really delivers the goods, especially each time he sings “It still haunts me…” I wasn’t expecting much from Seventh Star, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much of it I enjoyed. It may not fit in with the rest of the Black Sabbath catalog, but as a collection of songs by the man who carried on the band name, it’s a winner…and I’ll be coming back to many of these songs again and again.
The revolving door of lead singers continued when Glenn Hughes exited at the start of the Seventh Star tour. He was replaced by Ray Gillen, a then unknown vocalist who would go on to form Blue Murder (with former Thin Lizzy/Whitesnake guitarist John Sykes) and Badlands (with former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E. Lee and Sabbath drummer Eric Singer). If you like melodic hard rock with amazing Robert Plant-inspired vocals, I urge you to check out Badlands’ self-titled 1989 debut. It’s an underappreciated classic. Gillen completed the tour and recorded vocals for the next Sabbath album, but when he and Singer departed after recording, Iommi recruited another unknown vocalist, Tony Martin, to take Gillen’s place (by re-recording vocals for the album and joining for the subsequent tour). There would be additional personnel changes ahead, but Martin would stay on for four of the next five Sabbath albums, a longer tenure than anyone except Ozzy.
The first album to feature Martin was The Eternal Idol (1987), which has an ‘80s Sunset Strip production sound (a la Motley Crüe, Ratt, etc). That era is not a personal favorite, but I do like the occasional song from those artists, and it’s good to see Sabbath trying to keep pace with current musical trends (even though they built their reputation by creating not just their own sound but an entire musical genre). “The Shining” starts things off with an uplifting, almost inspirational tone, especially the chorus (“RISE UP…to the shining”). Martin’s vocals remind me more of David Coverdale than Ronnie James Dio, even though a lot of reviews compare him to the latter. There’s a nice brief climbing guitar solo during the slow section. “Ancient Warrior” has a thunderous drum sound, and is held together by the recurring guitar riff. It’s a little generic, but I do like the section with “He is the king of all kings, the keeper of light.” There’s a great driving-with-the-top-down rhythm throughout “Hard Life To Love,” and I love how the drums shift in and out of half time throughout, keeping things interesting. The riff is similar to Iron Maiden’s “The Trooper,” only slower. “Glory Ride” sounds like one of those training songs from Rocky IV; the soundtrack to an epic battle with a big memorable chorus (“Let’s take a chance, as the skies will burn tonight…”).
After a 30-second quiet intro, “Nightmare” kicks into a slow shuffle with a bright guitar sound. Martin channels David Coverdale and Robert Plant at “Deviiiiil” about halfway through the song, and the catchiest section is the chorus (“It’s a dream within a dream, lost and lonely, don’t be fooled by the Devil’s hand”). “Scarlet Pimpernel” is Iommi’s 2-minute acoustic guitar showcase, and is followed by “Lost Forever,” a fast 4/4 hard rockin’ tune with Martin shredding his vocal chords. My favorite part is “It’s too late to say you care when there’s evil in your stare.” The best and most powerful song was saved for last: “Eternal Idol” is darker and more Sabbath-sounding than anything else here. It’s this album’s “Black Sabbath.” Martin’s vocals are simply phenomenal (“Can’t you see what I see? SINNERS say your prayers tonight; your judgment day is here”). If anyone doubted Martin’s vocal abilities, this is the song to change their minds. There’s an ominous sparseness to this song, and the spacey e-bow at around the 4:00 mark, when everything gets quieter, was a nice touch. I can’t say this is a great album, even judging it separately from the rest of the Sabbath catalog, but they were still a force to be reckoned with and I’m glad they finally settled on a vocalist who would stick around for a while.
Former Rainbow/Whitesnake/Jeff Beck Group drummer Cozy Powell added his name to the ever-growing list of Sabbath members for the next album, Headless Cross (1989). With that title and cover art, it’s no surprise how much dark imagery is featured here. There’s a clear obsession with death, and numerous references to Satan, witches, torture and evil. At first I thought it was a little contrived, but after playing it several times I liked how this singular tone makes it a more cohesive listen than the previous album. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but there are three amazing songs…that I’ll discuss first. “Headless Cross” is the real starting point (after the ominous instrumental opener, “The Gates Of Hell”), a slow shuffle with massive power chords and booming, echo-y drums. Tony Martin sounds more like Dio here than on the previous album, and shows off his vocal chops with “At the headless CROSS!” Although this could be any number of bands from that era, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a powerful track. “When Death Calls” begins soft and slow, but kicks into high gear for the powerful chorus. There’s lots of dark imagery (“Misguided mortals you’ll burn with me. Spirit of man cannot be freed”), and it’s hard to stay positive after hearing their various scenarios for what happens when death calls: “There’s no tomorrow”; “Just an evil shadow”; “You’re gonna burn”; “Feel the heat of the flames from the souls of the dying.” With music this strong and lyrics this dark, their modern sound finally captured the essence of what made Black Sabbath great in the first place.
For me, the highlight of the album is the final song, “Nightwing.” After the quiet intro with nice fingerpicked guitar and fretless bass accompaniment, the band enters at “Tell every creature of the night,” and they’re operating at the peak of their powers. Martin is especially impressive. When he sings “Nightwing FLIES again” I get chills up & down my spine. Iommi adds a beautiful nylon string solo, which leads into a fiery electric solo. All in all, it’s one of my favorites of the post-Ozzy years so far. The other songs here don’t reach the heights of these three, but they’re all solid hard rock songs. Martin delivers a great Coverdale-esque wail at “He is the master of Hell, riding AGAIN” during “Devil & Daughter.” The verses of “Kill In The Spirit World” bring back that inspirational, Rocky IV feel, but it gets darker for the simple one line chorus (“There’s been a kill in the spirit world”). “Call Of The Wild” reminded me a bit of Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” especially in the “Hero” section at the end, and I really enjoyed the swirling melody in the chorus (“It’s the call of the wild, calling you”). David Coverdale is once again the template for “Black Moon.” The chorus (“There’s a black moon rising, and it’s calling out my name”) is pure Whitesnake, and Iommi tears through his solo, showing off various tones and styles. This is probably my favorite song after the three great ones I mentioned above. Like its predecessor, this is not a perfect album, and it won’t make anyone forget Paranoid, Master Of Reality or Heaven And Hell, but this is as close as they’ve come to recapturing what made those earlier Sabbath albums so essential.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from this era of their career. Other than the few huge Sabbath fans I’ve met who feel that they can do no wrong, I’ve never read many positive things about these albums…although I always heard that Tony Martin had a great voice, and now I know how true that is. Martin continued recording with Sabbath throughout the ‘90s, with the exception of one album featuring a reunion of the Mob Rules lineup and, later on, a triumphant reunion of the original Ozzy-era lineup (which, unfortunately, only resulted in one double-live album that I’ll discuss in my final Sabbath post). I don’t expect any all-time classics in those remaining albums, but if each of them contains a few standout tracks I’ll be pretty pleased. I’ll return soon with my thoughts on the next few records. Thanks for reading about this often-forgotten portion of the Sabbath catalog.