Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Featuring Tony Iommi

This has to be the goofiest title of a band ever. Seeing “Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi” is like if “The System Has Failed” had the title “Megadeth  featuring Dave Mustaine. There is no one else anyone would expect being associated with these groups so I can imagine the bewilderment or laughter when metal connoisseurs saw this record when it first came out. It is understood this was supposed to be an Iommi solo record, but Warner Bros. wanted the Black Sabbath stamp on it. With that fact, this is not your typical Sabbath affair with heavy guitars and doom laden lyrics. It actually has more an eighties feel which works at times and also does not while also showing Iommi’s blues background. The addition of another former Deep Purple singer, Glen Hughes, is welcomed and delivers a great performance. A deluxe edition was made available in 2010 and features a concert from the Hammersmith Odeon in England with Ray Gillen on vocals and it all bundles up as a nice package capturing a tumultuous period in Black Sabbath.

In addition to Hughes, Iommi armed the rest of the band with a couple of young guns in drummer Eric Singer and bassist Dave Spitz as Geezer Butler had enough and Bill Ward could not be found. The combination of the four all lead to this varied selection of songs on “Seventh Star.”

To all the hardened fans that keep a skeptical eye on this product, I urge to remove the veils and take this for what it is. This album is not going to conjure up memories of “Sabotage” or “Heaven and Hell”, but it holds up well in the lengthy and varied Sabbath discography.

“In for the Kill” is quite literally the killer opener with a low riff and Hughes declaring his prey by commanding “Thunder shattered the dawn.” This bit of lyric tingles the senses and I love the way Hughes delivers the lines. In fact, Hughes delivers an awesome performance on this record. The way he laments on “In Memory…” and conjures up images of ancient Egypt in the title track is remarkable and is attention grabbing.

This is all possible because of the other major player and who this record features in the guitar god himself with Iommi. It is hard not to appreciate the riffs on display and the song arrangements leave plenty of room for Hughes to do his magic. The title track stands out as a top song because of the gloomy atmosphere and once the background hymns kick in with the chorus; it never fails to send a shiver up my spine. Iommi lets his blues background shine in “Heart Like a Wheel” and the combo to round out the album in “Angry Heart” and “In Memory…” leave memorable guitar parts. The former also has some acceptable keyboard parts provided by Geoff Nicholls and the build-up of the riff to the vocal lines is impressive. I love the contrast provided as it segues into “In Memory…” with the depressing acoustic guitar and the way Hughes says “It’s still haunting me” really makes the listener feel his pain and regret.

The only clunker is “No Stranger to Love” with its cheesy synths, cheesier lyrics, and sounds very eighties. This has no place on a Sabbath record, Iommi record, or any record for that matter. The guys are much more capable than this. Funny enough, this deluxe edition includes a bonus track of this song presented as an alternate version. The song is worthless in both formats, but the music video is good for a chuckle.

The other songs that resemble the eighties are “Turn to Stone” and “Danger Zone.” They are both straight ahead rockers that some would say have a glam edge, but the songs have some delicious riffs. “Danger Zone” is the stronger song due to some awesome drumming by Singer and complimented by a trademark solo by Iommi. The way the guitar jumps out the riff in the middle is a nice touch added.

“Seventh Star’s” second disc is a concert taken from the Hammersmith Odeon with Gillen on vocals along with Spitz and Singer. Gillen took over for Hughes because of his massive drug problem and he suffered an injury which caused him to not be able to sing very well. This concert is basically a glorified bootleg, so the sound isn’t strong, but it is nice to have Gillen featured on a Sabbath release and the guy has a great voice.

Gillen has the energy and passion of Ronnie James Dio, but he also can conjure up demons and doom like Ozzy Osbourne could. He sounds more natural on the Dio songs as songs like “Mob Rules” and “Neon Knight” seems more suited to his style. However, on the tracks “War Pigs” and “Black Sabbath” he sings with a higher tone because of his wide range, but he makes it work and keep the spirit of the original intact. In fact, his performance on “Black Sabbath” is remarkable because he sounds strangely similar to Osbourne in the beginning and the way his voice changes with a slight growl in when the song picks up shows he can be very diverse.

This extra concert is also a neat extra because you can hear two songs that will most likely not be heard in concert again in “Danger Zone” and “Seventh Star.” They work well in the live setting, especially the latter song. The keyboards are also more prominent in these songs as well as the whole concert.

Black Sabbath was in a time of great change in this period, but it still results in a good album. It is not Iommi’s best, but it has a lot of strong songs to take great enjoyment too. The deluxe edition also has plenty of pictures and the story of how this record came to be. The live concert with Gillen should provide extra incentive to procure this copy. The sound has been improved a little bit, though the bass could have been nudged up, but the sound levels are consistent and retain its balance. This would not the last collaboration between Hughes and Iommi as his guitar playing along with Hughes’ voice are a perfect match. The title on the cover is strange, but any Sabbath fan should take a dive into this album that features Tony Iommi.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reborn Again

Black Sabbath was back into rebuilding mode after the mighty Ronnie James Dio and drummer Vinny Appice left the band due to some miscommunication and poor handling of the “Live Evil” album. Tony Iommi went into his bag of tricks and turned heads with the announcement of Ian Gillan coming into the Sabbath fold. Purple and black mixed together sounded intriguing and it culminated in the release of “Born Again” with the one of the most infamous artwork ever created. The demon baby from hell is definitely eye catching and may also induce vomiting, like Gillan stated when talking about the cover. Finally, after all these years of trying to find a reliable copy, a deluxe edition was bestowed upon the masses in 2011 with the baby in all its glory along with a studio outtake and a live show from the Reading Festival in 1983.

The most noticeable aspect of the original release of “Born Again” was the poor production which had a very flat sound and muddy guitars. The deluxe edition remedies the problem as much as it could as the original tapes could not be found, but there are some noticeable improvements as each instrument is distinguished as the drums give a sharper snap, bass lines are  recognized, and Iommi’s guitar is clearer.

As for the songs themselves, it’s like Sabbath received a shot to the system. Ozzy Osbourne and Dio never really used their voices wildly like Gillan does here. He carries an attitude and does not use his screams judiciously. In the opening moments of “Trashed”, Gillan sends a shriek to announce that he means business. The track itself is a solid opener featuring a driving riff with Gillan seeming to enjoy himself singing about how he took Bill Ward’s car for a joyride and wrecked it.

Iommi pays back Gillan’s eagerness by conjuring up some of his most sinister riffs. The crashing cymbal and snare provided by Ward act as a crescendo to Iommi’s hellish guitar in “Disturbing the Priest.” Gillan laughs like a madman and provides some vocal theatrics to one of the standout tracks. Iommi provides another gem with the most famous song from this album, “Zero the Hero.” The song seems like the successor to “Iron Man” as they both have that signature riff, interesting characters, and are very memorable.

The meld of Deep Purple and Sabbath comes into play with the final tracks “Hot Line” and “Keep it Warm.” The titles don’t exactly seem something one would see on a Black Sabbath album, but with Gillan penning the lyrics, there are some tongue-in-cheek sexual moments, but it works well with the content. Iommi lets the blues roll on the latter track featuring a great jam at the end with him, Geezer Butler, and Ward letting it fly. “Hot Line” has the as expected energetic vocal performance and a very catchy riff to knock your head to. Iommi nails down a gritty solo to round out a very cool song.

The only truly weak song is the goofy titled “Digital Bitch.” The vocal lines are weak and the guitar isn’t as strong. It does not help both as the chorus is not memorable and hearing Gillan sing these lyrics as well as the song title is too silly to take seriously. The title track also just falls short of being very memorable as it has a slow, dooming atmosphere, but it does not go anywhere. It has potential, but a stronger chorus and more interesting instrumentation could have helped. The last bit of quibbles is the two little tracks of sound effects in “Stonehenge” and “The Dark.” “Stonehenge” has eerie effects similiar to "E5150", and then segues into “Disturbing the Priest”, but serves little purpose and “The Dark” is some low, strange noises that transition into “Zero the Hero.” This leaves only seven actual songs on the album.

Apart from the record is the gem on the second disc of this deluxe edition. There is a studio outtake of a song called “The Fallen” which shows Ward flexing his muscles on the drums and the guitar puts together competent notes when it hits the chorus. An extended version of “Stonehenge” is also included and it’s basically three more minutes of eerie, spacey sounds.

The live concert at the Reading Festival is when business picks up. All I can say is Gillan is a beast singing the Sabbath classics. His performances of “Iron Man”, “War Pigs” and “Paranoid” are stellar. He unleashes spine-tingling screams to go along with the riffs in instrumental parts and injects new life to tracks associated with Osbourne. These moments make me wish that this lineup stayed together, but then “Perfect Strangers” would not have happened.

Bev Bevan filled in for Ward on the tour and does a competent job. He does not have all the groovy fills that Ward provides, but he certainly did not detract from the performance. “War Pigs” gives the indication that he knows what he’s doing.

The “Born Again” tracks receive some good pub too as “Hot Line” comes across well, but I was not too fond of “Digital Bitch” in the set. “Zero the Hero” retains oozy guitar and a wonderful solo from Iommi. In the encore, the boys throw a nod to Gillan’s previous band by pumping out “Smoke on the Water.” I could only imagine how awesome it was seeing the Sabbath guys playing a Purple classic with Gillan. The crowd was electric during this performance and definitely gives that feeling of wanting to be there.

The deluxe edition of “Born Again” also contains notes on the album came into being and also an essay by the man who created that darn devil baby explaining its origin and how it was accepted as the design. The live show is worth the purchase alone and serves as a time capsule for that period of Black Sabbath. Any fan curious of this collaboration and looking to finally get their hands on this album should take the plunge into Purple Sabbath.