The impact that Black Sabbath has had on the world of heavy metal is undeniable. While discussions of whether or not they are the first metal will inevitably descend into semantics, it goes without saying that they pioneered a brand of rock and roll that was all their own, one that has served as a template for countless doom, stoner, sludge, and otherwise crushing bands to this day and beyond.
While Ozzy Osbourne’s records with Black Sabbath are cultural staples and Ronnie James Dio’s spectacular work with the godfathers of gloom is well documented, much of the band’s mid-period remains shrouded in obscurity and legend. Although not without their missteps and outright mistakes, some of Black Sabbath’s finest work occurred when the spotlight had shifted away for the moment, as we examine below:
7. Forbidden (1995)
If apathy could be harnessed to its purest form and turned into a record, it would be Forbidden.
This is the sound of a genius songwriter trying to get out of a contract, a rap-rock producer going so far out of his element that he falls off the edge of the world, a vocal powerhouse whose love and talent aren’t even close to enough to rescue the sinking ship, and, inexplicably.. Ice-T? The more I think about Forbidden, the more I just get sad. Tony Iommi is such an incredible player that a moment like “Guilty as Hell” almost conjures the illusion of inspiration, but even a cursory listen to everything else will quickly show you that it’s a fluke.
Tony Iommi is trying to get out of his contract so that he can do shows with Ozzy. Producer Ernie-C is trying to make a Nirvana album. Tony Martin is doing his best but he’s constantly looking over his shoulder because the record company wants Ice-T to have creative license over the vocals on the finished product. Ice-T is being Ice-T and regardless of how bad Forbidden is, being given free reign over a Sabbath record and deciding to just to take one short verse is a pimp move if there ever was one.
6. Seventh Star (1986)
What a shame. It’s not that Seventh Star is a bad record, it’s that Seventh Star is decidedly not a Black Sabbath record.
After the disastrous Born Again touring cycle, Black Sabbath went their separate ways. Tony Iommi, the man with the metal fingertip who single-handedly created the doom genre, wanted to try his hand at a traditional hard rock record. He recruited Deep Purple’s Glenn Hughes to sing, and rounded out the lineup with relative unknowns, including keyboardist Geoff Nicholls, who would become a longstanding fixture on future Sabbath albums. The result was a fairly tepid, pop-oriented rock affair that Tony intended to be his first solo record.
The record company and band manager Don Arden balked at the absence of Sabbath branding and convinced Tony to release Seventh Star under the moniker Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi (and in later pressings just Black Sabbath), hoping the name recognition would bolster sales. The record was a moderate success. The touring cycle was uniformly hilarious (Glenn Hughes was kicked out after only a few shows), everybody made a little money and it set the band up for The Eternal Idol. Still, it’s an odd mark on Sabbath’s discography. Forbidden might have sucked but at least it’s a metal record. This is… not.
5. Cross Purposes (1994)
The 1990s were a rough time for Sabbath.
Just as things were looking up with the reunion of the Mob Rules era band for the bone-crushingly heavy Dehumanizer, Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice left Tony and Geezer yet again.
After a few shows with Rob Halford singing, the ever-talented Tony Martin stepped back behind the microphone, and Cross Purposes was to follow. Like several albums on this list, it wasn’t intended to be a Sabbath album but a one-off Tony Iommi/Geezer Butler project. Yet again, the label stepped in and forced the band to take up the Black Sabbath mantle.
It’s a solid record: The riffs are heavy and the lyrical subject matter is darker than Tony Martin’s usual fantasy fare, this time focusing on the Waco siege and serial killers. The album’s only sin is that nothing really stands out (outside of the appearance of an uncredited Eddie Van Halen on “Evil Eye”). After the hammer to the face that was Dehumanizer, Cross Purposes feels a little limp. A completely presentable affair that makes for decent enough background music while you are doing your taxes or something.
4. The Eternal Idol (1987)
At this point the ever-underrated, underestimated, underappreciated, and infinitely patient bard Tony Martin enters the picture.
After the firing of Glenn Hughes during the Seventh Star tour, a relative unknown by the name of Ray Gillen stepped up to fill his shoes for the remaining dates. Gillen initially recorded the vocals on what would become The Eternal Idol, but monetary disagreements and compositional challenges with the music led to his departure towards the end of the sessions.
Tony Martin stepped into the fold at the eleventh hour, mimicking the Gillen takes note for note. It provided the necessary polish and even though The Eternal Idol isn’t quite the quintessential Tony Martin-era Sabbath record, there are some truly inspired moments, with tracks like “Hard Life To Love” delivering some of the biggest hooks in the entire Black Sabbath catalog.
3. Born Again (1983)
Out of 19 studio albums and countless lineup changes, Born Again is easily the most divisive record to be released under the Black Sabbath name (which, of course, it wasn’t originally supposed to be).
Love it or loathe it, it’s undeniable that Born Again marked an important turning point for the band. Craving a fresh start after the departures of Ronnie James Dio and Vinnie Appice following Mob Rules, Iommi and Butler decided to abandon the Black Sabbath name and start a new supergroup. A newly sober Bill Ward reclaimed his throne behind the drums and the three tried out countless singers (such as Robert Plant, David Coverdale, and a then-unknown Michael Bolton) before recruiting Deep Purple shrieker Ian Gillan.
As to be expected by this point in the list, Don fucking Arden stepped in and insisted the band continue with the Black Sabbath name. It’s a cool record, with tracks like “Zero The Hero” and “Disturbing The Priest” standing out as some of the heaviest material in the entire Sabbath canon. The exuberant hard rock style of Gillan’s voice never really settles with the rest of the band, though, and the whole album mix is notoriously hated by the entire band.
Regardless of what side of the fence you stand on, Born Again’s reputation as a brilliantly confused anti-masterpiece is well-earned and will be debated until the end of time. Let’s just leave that weird devil baby on the cover and Stonehenge alone, ok?
2. Tyr (1990)
In my forever humble opinion, Tony Martin doesn’t get nearly enough credit for his time, talents, and influence during his Black Sabbath tenure.
No, he is not Ozzy or Dio and at no point did he ever sing for Deep Purple. What Tony brings to the table is pure, refined ability.
His voice might not be able to match Dio’s soulful sustain, but as far as clean singing goes you’d be hard-pressed to do much better. Tony Martin is the man at the mic for what I consider to be two of Black Sabbath’s finest releases; albums that I place up there with Ozzy and Dio’s best. Tyr is the second of those albums.
Although it has little stylistically in common with what many consider the classic Sabbath sound, the dramatic keyboards and pulverizing percussion combined with some of the most crushing riffage of Iommi’s career elicit a dread just as suffocating as any band before or since. Throw on Tony Martin’s netherworldly howls and fantastical lyrics of pagan battlefields and you’ve got yourself a gothic metal masterpiece.
1. Headless Cross (1989)
The album that stands head-to-head with Ozzy and Dio on their best days, Headless Cross is a gem in the Black Sabbath catalog if there ever was one.
It is the perfect marriage of driving Heaven and Hell-era riffage, ‘80s keyboard-heavy ambiance, and possibly the most propulsive drumming in the history of the band courtesy of the late, great Cozy Powell. The musicianship here is unparalleled, the A side of the record containing an absolutely untouchable Iommi solo in “Devil and Daughter” and the haunting hand of Queen’s Brian May in “When Death Calls.”
My only gripe with Headless Cross is with Tony Martin’s heavy-handed implementation of Satanism in his lyrics. They aren’t bad, just a little too on-the-nose when compared to Geezer Butler’s satirical pen. It’s a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things, as his impeccable voice matches the level of musicianship perfectly. All in all, Headless Cross is a stellar achievement that ranks among Black Sabbath’s finest albums of all.