Rightfully hailed as the forefathers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath set the blueprint for the genre with their thunderous sound and tales woven in darkness.
Driven by the uniquely disquieting guitar work of Tony Iommi, their music and aesthetic became synonymous with the very fabric of the movement and influenced countless bands to follow.
From the stark, bell-tolled gravity of their eponymous debut to the apocalyptic warnings of “War Pigs,” Sabbath laid down a foundation upon which the edifice of metal was built.
The band’s albums with seminal frontman Ozzy Osbourne are considered foundational works of the genre, adored by fans and critics alike. But it was the arrival of Ronnie James Dio, with his powerful, soaring vocals, that breathed new life into the group after Ozzy’s departure.
After Dio’s exit, Black Sabbath faced a tumultuous period both commercially and artistically, producing albums that are often hit-or-miss among their discography. Amid this era of experimentation and fluctuating success, Headless Cross stands as an unsung masterpiece that remains relatively under the radar but nonetheless stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the band’s most cherished work.
Headless Cross was released on April 17, 1989, and it marked the second album with Tony Martin at the helm as vocalist, Cozy Powell’s debut on drums, and the sole venture with bassist Laurence Cottle.
Iommi and company faced a major setback when Black Sabbath was dropped by Warner Bros. Records in 1988 after a longstanding eighteen-year relationship, and even their original label Vertigo Records had also let them go. In spite of these industry hurdles, Miles Copeland of I.R.S. Records saw the potential and persuaded the band to come aboard his label, setting the stage for Headless Cross to take root.
The material for the album began to take shape at Tony Martin’s house, with him and Cozy Powell spearheading the writing process after Martin’s brief hiatus from the band. At this critical juncture, Tony Iommi briefly considered attempting to reunite with Ronnie James Dio, but Powell ultimately convinced him to stay the course with Martin. The ensuing creativity led to an album defined by Martin’s distinct presence.
With Tony Martin’s commanding approach leading the charge, his dynamic range delivers the foundation for each track through powerful howls and hauntingly beautiful melodies. Amidst this intimidating vocal delivery, Iommi’s iconic guitar performance cuts through with his well-known heft and intensity. Cozy Powell’s vigorous and prominent drumming infuses the songs with a sense of grandeur, while Geoff Nicholls’ atmospheric keyboard playing envelops the music in a brooding aura.
The album’s tracklist boasts epic anthems, notably the title track with its commanding riffs that echo the band’s pinnacle moments from the Dio era. Other standouts include “When Death Calls”, featuring a guest solo courtesy of Queen guitarist Brian May, and the somber “Nightwing”, where Iommi intertwines the use of classical guitar to great effect, layering the music with depth and texture.
Interestingly, Headless Cross had to undergo last-minute title changes for two tracks due to Ozzy Osbourne’s concurrent releases of the No Rest for the Wicked album. What Black Sabbath had initially called “Hero” became “Call of the Wild”, and “Devil’s Daughter” was retitled “Devil & Daughter.”
While Headless Cross offers much to admire, the one point of contention for some might be Tony Martin’s overt use of satanic themes within his lyrics. Although not necessarily detrimental, they present a more on-the-nose approach when contrasted with the subtler, often satirical lyricism of Geezer Butler. Despite this, such a detail feels minor compared to the overarching achievements of the album.
In the end, Headless Cross stands as an extraordinary achievement that confirms the band’s enduring legacy while seemingly no one was looking. With this record, Black Sabbath proved that their creative well was far from dry, delivering a work that deserves to be recognized alongside their finest.