Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

BLACK SABBATH Part 6 – Musical Chairs And Diminishing Returns In The ‘90s

After some pleasant surprises on the last few Black Sabbath albums I revisited (as discussed in my previous post), I was looking forward to finding out whether or not they would continue this trend into the 1990’s. Unfortunately, the three albums I’m covering here did not live up to those expectations. It’s not that they’re bad, but other than a handful of standout tracks, these albums have very little to distinguish them from numerous other hard rock and metal bands of that era, especially the ones with Tony Martin on vocals.

Tyr (1990) featured essentially the same lineup as the previous album, Headless Cross, with Tony Iommi, Cozy Powell, Tony Martin and Geoff Nicholls returning, and Whitesnake’s Neil Murray taking over bass duties. Many of the songs are loosely based on Norse mythology, but this was not the progressive metal concept album I was hoping for. “Jerusalem” is probably the most radio-friendly song, with an infectious chorus (“Where will you turn if it all goes wrong and you’re on the run? Jerusalem!”). “Odin’s Court” has some lovely acoustic guitars and synth washes with softer vocals from Martin. At well under 3 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but it’s essentially an extended intro for the next song, “Valhalla,” which is a heavy chugging tune with bland verses but a fairly enjoyable chorus (“When the winds of Valhalla run cold”). The instrumental section with the guitar solo is one of the strongest things here. This is one that will probably continue to grow on me whenever I return to this record. “Feels Good To Me” is a power ballad that doesn’t really fit in here, but they were probably aiming for a hit record and it does have a tasty guitar solo. One of the darkest songs is “The Sabbath Stones,” starting off sparse and heavy before giving way to the midtempo main section. It’s probably the most Sabbath-sounding tune (and not just because of the title), but it’s a far cry from their career highlights. I should probably like “Heaven In Black” more, considering Cozy Powell’s awesome drumming, but lyrically and musically it’s a little bland. That pretty much goes for the entire album. There’s not a single song that comes close to the heights reached by the previous album’s “When Death Calls” or the mighty “Nightwing.”

Tony Iommi must have realized that something was missing, which would explain why the next album, Dehumanizer (1992) featured the return of the Mob Rules lineup: Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Terry “Geezer” Butler and Vinnie Appice. Dio’s usual sword-and-sorcery imagery is mostly absent, replaced by angrier, more personal lyrics. The album begins on a high note with the absolutely huge sound of “Computer God.” Not only are Dio’s vocals less operatic, but Iommi returns with classic-sounding riffs and Geezer displays some nice bass flourishes. I love the creepy guitar pattern in the intro to “After All (The Dead),” which brings to mind the soundtrack of an old horror movie. The lyrics are instantly memorable (“What do you say to the dead…?”), and the music eventually goes into a plodding “Black Sabbath” (the song) tempo. “TV Crimes” is their angry commentary on televangelism, with Iommi soloing and riffing like a man possessed. It also has one of their catchiest choruses: “Jack is nimble, Jack is quick; Pick your pocket, turn a trick; Slow and steady he’s got time, to commit another TV crime.” My favorite song here is “Too Late,” a true epic whose moody & atmospheric intro owes a debt to Queensrÿche’s “Silent Lucidity.” I enjoy how they shift from the quieter section to a slightly fuller (but still subdued) sound until the second chorus (“It’s too late, you’ve said the word…”) when it gets monumentally heavy, and Iommi delivers a wonderful guitar solo (love those high squeals). “I” is another noteworthy track, starting off like Yes’ “Roundabout” but getting much heavier and sounding more like Mob Rules than anything else here. The rhythm in the quieter guitar section sounds like a slowed down version of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” and Dio’s voice is incredibly powerful when singing “I, I, I.”

The remainder of the album is hit-and-miss. I love Iommi’s guitar tone on “Letters From Earth,” but even the strong vocals and drumming don’t help when the melody isn’t terribly memorable. The insistent rhythm in “Master Of Insanity” is a dead ringer for Led Zeppelin’s “The Wanton Song,” and it has a great chorus (“Behind the lies…you will see…the master of insanity”). There are two versions of “Time Machine” included on the CD, and although neither of them did much for me, I prefer the version from the Wayne’s World soundtrack, which has slightly more studio sheen. The rest of the songs didn’t register much with me. There’s not much here that matches the high points of the previous two Dio-fronted albums (Heaven And Hell and Mob Rules), but there are at least 5 or 6 songs that are worthy successors to those records. Even though I wouldn’t consider it essential, it was a nice return to form after the disappointing Tyr. Dio didn’t stick around very long. He left the band shortly before the Dehumanizer tour ended, briefly replaced by Judas Priest’s Rob Halford. I’ve read that there are audio and video recordings of those performances which are supposed to be legendary, so I will seek those out at some point.

Iommi, Butler and Nicholls remained for the next album, Cross Purposes (1994), and were joined by returning frontman Tony Martin and new drummer Bobby Rondinelli (from Rainbow’s ‘80s commercial heyday). Martin’s voice sounds huskier and less impressive here compared to his work on The Eternal Idol, Headless Cross and even Tyr, and it’s especially noticeable compared to Dio’s still-amazing vocals on Dehumanizer. For the most part this album has nothing that separates it from the countless other modern metals bands of the time, and only a handful of songs made a significant impression. “Virtual Death” has a cool bass-led intro and a massive, sludgy, old-style Sabbath riff, but the dark vocal harmonies owe more to Alice In Chains. It’s probably my favorite song here. “Dying For Love” is a slow, bluesy, anti-war song with piercing guitar over layered keyboards and a pretty guitar melody in the 1-minute intro. Martin’s vocals have a lot of authority, and the lyrics are quite strong (“Take a life and steal its shadow, all that’s left is humanity; Take a man and steal tomorrow, all that’s left is you and me”). The staccato 3-note riffs in “Cardinal Sin” remind me of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” but this song is not in the same class as that masterpiece. “Evil Eye” is a rare highlight. I love Iommi’s guitar tone from the first note, and the way he wails on top of a very cool riff. The lyrics are an angry rant about a “woman with the evil eye.”

Rondinelli delivers some lightning-quick double-kick-drums to the chorus, bridge and guitar solo on “Immaculate Deception,” which is a pretty good song that I enjoyed more with each listen. “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle” has some elements I like (such as the soft, pop-music keyboard in the intro and Martin screaming “Tonight”  before the heavy sections kicked in), but I wish they took more risks with the arrangement. The predictable soft-loud-soft-loud dynamic made me feel like I already knew the song before I ever heard it. The other songs don’t warrant special mention, as they’re all generic hard rockers. Even separating this from the Sabbath catalog, and listening to it as a completely separate band, there’s still not much that sets this apart, and it’s my least favorite Sabbath album so far.

For my next (and final) post on Black Sabbath, I’ll check out their last album with Tony Martin, the double live album they recorded on the reunion tour with Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward, and a later studio album with Ronnie James Dio that was released under a different band name. The only one I’ve heard before is the live album, which I remember enjoying a lot when it was released, but now that I know their catalog so much better it’ll be interesting to see how it holds up. As for the other two, I don’t have high hopes for that final Tony Martin album now after listening to Cross Purposes, but perhaps they’ll surprise me. The record with Dio has an excellent reputation, so that should be a good one. My fingers are crossed (when not flashing the devil sign, of course).

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