REVIEW: Black Sabbath – Headless Cross (1989)

BLACK SABBATH – Headless Cross (1989)

This is one of the last Sabbath albums I got, because it was pretty scarce in the mid-90’s.  I paid about $25 for a US import, thanks to Orange Monkey Music in Kitchener, the only store that was able to get it.  (They were not, however, able to get me Seventh Star, then only available from Japan.)

While Headless Cross is lopsided to keyboard-heavy melodic numbers, I consider it a really underrated album.  I like it a lot better than the previous one, Tony Martin’s debut as Sabbath singer, The Eternal Idol.  I can’t say I adore it as much as Born Again, my favourite album of all time by anybody.  I can’t say I prefer it to Seventh Star, but it’s pretty close.

It’s a short one, a mere 7 tracks plus intro “The Gates of Hell”, but most of the songs are in the 5-6 minute range.  The intro then segues into one of the most powerful Sabbath songs of the entire catalog:  “Headless Cross” itself.  Cozy Powell kicks this one in the nuts.  If you love Cozy’s drumming, you will love “Headless Cross”.  It pulsates before it explodes in the chorus with Tony’s youthful scream.   In the 1980’s most bands needed a singer who could shatter glass and Tony M delivered.  If that’s not your thing, then just walk away, because you won’t like the rest of this review.

Another riffy number shows up next, “Devil & Daughter”, which also showcases Tony Iommi’s underrated soloing.  Martin scorches through the song with bravado and lung power to spare.   Its only flaw is that Geoff Nicholls’ keys are mixed way too high, as they are on almost every song on Headless Cross.

“When Death Calls” is a slow burner that I witnessed Sabbath perform live in 1995 on the Forbidden tour.  It has three distinct sections:  the mellow verses featuring Lawrence Cottle’s chiming fretless bass, the heavy choruses, and the scorching “Don’t look in those sunken eyes…” section.  This one section, as far as I’m concerned, makes the song.  Take it out and you don’t have enough to keep it interesting.  And best of all, who shows up to play the guitar solo?  Does he sound familiar to you?

I should hope so.  It’s Iommi’s mate Brian May!  A heavier Brian May than you were hearing at that period of the 1980’s, and his solo totally makes the song that much more special.  By the time Martin proclaims that there’s no tomorrow, “just an evil shadow” at the end, you’re probably exhausted from rocking so hard.

And that’s side one, a decidedly dark affair.  The mood brightens a little on side two.  The hard rock song “Kill In The Spirit World” boasts song damn strong verses before it melds with a spooky chorus.  Then Tony nails it with a hauntingly bluesy solo.  I’m sure this song was derided by skeptics at the time for its pop tendencies; meanwhile Dio got away with songs like “Mystery”.  I think there was definitely a double standard in how fans treated Sabbath in the late 80’s.  Their albums were a lot better than given credit.

Another hard rock song follows:  “Call of the Wild”.  It’s not as good as “Kill In The Spirit World”, but it  has a good pulse and it’s pretty decent.  Reportedly this song was to be called “Hero” until Ozzy released one with the same title a few months prior.  The lyrics are pretty lame:

In this last macabre hour, witches cry

And turn to dust before the moon

Many spirits are lost forever but one survives

To call the tune of Lucifer

There’s one pretty-much universal criticism of Headless Cross, and that’s the lyrics.  The above is a glaring example of Martin specifically trying to write “Satanic” lyrics, something he admitted to.   It feels contrived because it was, and in fact it loaned Sabbath less credibility than when Ronnie was singing about neon knights, and Ian was singing about getting trashed.

“Black Moon” is next, actually a re-recorded B-side from The Eternal Idol.  As such, it’s not that remarkable.  The riff is cool, as Tony wrings out something bluesy while Cozy pounds out a passable groove.

The album closes with the haunting, acoustic “Night Wing”.  This is where Cottle’s fretless bass really plays a role.  I love fretless and this song has some strong sections with great bass.  It’s odd to hear fretless bass on a Sabbath album, but I like different.  Tony’s guitar solo is a scorcher, as he seemingly loses control and then reels it back in.  And then as if to make a point, he composes a simple but appropriate acoustic solo.  And then another electric one.

You know, looking back, 1989, it was the era of the guitar hero.  And nothing wrong with that.  I love Van Halen, I love Satriani, Vai, Morse, all those guys.  But it truly is a shame that in the 80’s, the guitar kids ignored Tony Iommi.  A guitar hero — nay! legend! — was playing better than ever and the kids didn’t buy Headless Cross.

‘Tis a shame.

Lawrence Cottle was a studio cat, and arguably never an official member of Black Sabbath, but Joe Siegler’s got him listed and that’s good enough for me.  You could hardly see him in the music video for “Headless Cross” as he is always in the background, blurry.  But Sabbath fans were soon in for a treat that many did not appreciate:  the arrival of Neil Murray on bass.  Neil and Cozy had become a formidable rhythm section in Whitesnake, and now they were back together, the two guys who did Slide It In (the US version anyway).

The Black Sabbath lineup of Iommi/Martin/Powell/Murray/Nicholls bears the dubious distinction of being the third-longest lived behind the classic Ozzy and Dio (with Appice) lineups. They did three tours and two albums (Tyr and Forbidden).  The hiring of these musicians was hoped to bring the credibility back.   Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.

As mentioned, this lineup recorded the next album, Tyr, before breaking up in the face of the first reunion with Ronnie James Dio, and it was this lineup that I saw in 1995, thus far the only time I’ve seen the band.

If Headless Cross were remixed today, to just tone down the keyboards a tad, I think it would help a lot.  But I do like this album.  Sabbath had written some great songs (all songs are credited to the band), and Tony Martin was at the absolute peak of his voice.

4/5 stars

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34 comments

  1. Mike, you make a great case for “Headless Cross” as a great Sabbath album, even though I get the feeling you hate the keyboards and would like to see them eliminated (or at least mixed down so low that you can’t hear them). When I revisited Sabbath’s catalog earlier this year and heard the post-Dio albums for the first time, this album and “Seventh Star” were the two that had the most impact on me. Although the latter is probably a better album start-to-finish, “Headless Cross” has more of a typical Sabbath vibe…even though the “evil” lyrics are definitely a bit contrived. However, the three monster cuts make the album for me: “Headless Cross,” “When Death Calls” and especially “Nightwing.” I know Martin was trying to live up to Dio, but he sounds more like David Coverdale on most songs, and “Nightwing” is up there with anything Coverdale did with Purple or Whitesnake. Sadlly, his voice didn’t hold up for too long, but that song is a masterpiece and should be more well known.

    On a semi-related note, which Sabbath album was the one where Ray Gillen was originally brought in for vocals but was subsequently replaced? I’ve heard the Gillen recordings were included on the deluxe edition, and since I still don’t own any of this era on CD, that’s one I should probably get.

    Rich

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  2. That was The Eternal Idol Rich, and the deluxe does have both versions — Tony’s and Ray’s. Plus the B-sides which are otherwise very expensive to obtain. In addition you can get a live Ray show on the new Seventh Star deluxe.

    You’re right, I think the keyboards date this album. I don’t think I’d like to have them so low that you can’t hear them, but on some tracks (“Devil & Daughter” being an example) I feel that the compete too much with Iommi’s guitar. And Iommi’s sound is a such a beautiful black beast that I really just like to hear it on its own.

    And agreed on those three songs! It is a shame that Sabbath only did one video for this album. Perhaps a video for “Nightwing” would have gained them some fans.

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  3. I’ve been looking for a decent copy of this album for so long… when is someone going to reissue this?! Anyway, I’ve only heard this once or twice but I really enjoyed it. Totally understand your view on the keyboards, I thought Tyr had a much better band sound in that regard (although even that gets a bit washed over with them at times). I always liked Tony Martin’s voice. It’s easy to compare him to predecessors but he really had a recognisable sound of his own. His stage presence left a little to be desired though I hear?

    I’m going to have to haunt eBay again looking for this on vinyl…

    P.S. Born Again? Favourite all-time album by anyone? Brilliant choice! (Mine’s is Lick It Up for the record)

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    1. I would like a deluxe edition of Headless to come along. Throw in a live show on the bonus disc! Tyr too…Tyr had some 12″ singles with live B-sides, and Headless also had a B-side called Cloak & Dagger.

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      1. I wonder if it’s the label ownership that is holding these up. They were on, I think, the IRS label. It’s possible they want to much money to license the recordings or something like that? Very annoying. I remember Classic Rock magazine reissuing them way back but they were just “vanilla” versions. Better than nothing I suppose! I bought the Tyr one but I’m kicking myself that I didn’t get this one too. Win some lose some.

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      2. Yeah, that could be it. But with today’s acquisition of Lucasfilm (and therefore Star Wars) by Disney, it has been proven that Hell is indeed has frozen over. Perhaps IRS Sabbath Deluxes are next!

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        1. Now that I think about it, Dehumanizer got “deluxed” and that was on IRS right? Someone needs to pull their finger out… I’m not sure Disney can do a worse job with Star Wars than George was doing! Maybe they’ll release good versions of the original trilogy without all the tinkering! HAN SHOT FIRST!

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        2. I THINK (must check back) but I am 99% sure Dehumanizer was on Warner’s over here. It made it into the Dio years box set. Of course I don’t have my original CD anymore because I have upgraded so many times! My Dio years box set now sits collecting dust while I listen to deluxe editions.

          But regarding Star Wars: You think Disney will do their own hi-quality remastering of the originals? I mean I have no doubt that will want to do it, but didn’t Lucas always claim that they were in bad shape now?

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        3. Listened to Headless Cross yesterday and got really into it! Just wish I could get a physical copy… I’ve always loved Tyr (it was in my Top 10 of the 90s!) and it looks like Headless Cross is a keeper too. Cross Purposes, I never liked. Found it really disappointing at the time although I was happy to have Tony Martin back in the band. Maybe worth another go though…

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        4. Ah, that would explain that then. I’m pretty sure it was still on IRS over in the UK. I remember having it on cassette and it had that Blues Brother-alike dude on the tape!

          I’d defer to you on the Star Wars issue but I’d be surprised if they couldn’t do something with the originals. I’m not sure I buy that from George…

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      3. Well George has lied several times. “I’m never making the sequels. Yes I am. No I’m not. There were 12 films originally. No, just 6. Well, 9, but I’m stopping at 6. No I’m not. Just that I don’t have stories for anything past 6. Yes I do. No I don’t, but I still sold them to Disney anyway.”

        Disney did buy his story notes for 7-8-9 by the way, but they don’t have to use ’em. And there’s no guarantee that it would be any good if they did!

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    2. And yes, you’re right, his stage presence was never as memorable as his predecessors. But you know, regardless of his flaws, I give him props. Three of the four Martin-era Sabs are constantly in rotation at my house: Headless, Tyr, and Cross Purposes. I think they’re really great albums.

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        1. Ahhh, cassette! Yes I had Tyr on cassette…which was promptly wrecked by my cassette deck. I must have hit two buttons at once and the poor tape got stretched and mangled right when “Anno Mundi” starts to take off.

          Also: There’s a neat live album called Cross Purposes – Live, with the lineup of Iommi/Martin/Butler/Nicholls/Rondinelli. First of Bobby Rondinelli was a perfectly fine drummer for Sabbath — he replaced Vinnie Appice once, and Cozy Powell once — and he’s great. Lots of hair! Second though, it’s neat to hear Geezer play bass on the Martin-era songs. Something tells me he wasn’t happy about it though. I hear that him and Iommi had a nasty fight in South America at the end of that tour. (Bill Ward came back to replace Rondinelli for those shows.)

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      1. No, you HAVE to pick one! Hehe. I know what you mean so I always think of it more biographically! Lick It Up is the album I’ve liked the longest and still like as much, if not more, than ever. I have a pretty wide appreciation of lots of different stuff but that’s like my musical home page! If that makes any sense…

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      2. Haha Mike, that’s not a real word!

        Shit. I gotta pick one? Just one? Man. Ummmm… well, based on the Heavy Metal Overload heavy Metal Overlord’s criteria of album I’ve liked the longest and still like as much, if not more, than ever…,” well, that would be the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street. But those criteria are not enough. I can’t just SAY that, because there’s Guided By Voices’ Bee Thousand! And Wynton Marsalis’ Standard Time Volume 3: The Resolution Of Romance, which I’ve probably had longer! And, for that matter, Miles F-in’ Davis’ KIND OF BLUE! That shit is IN MY BLOOD. And then there’s Coltrane’s Sound. And Black Flag’s Damaged. DAMAGED, ferchrissakes.!! And Sloan’s Twice Removed. And the Hip’s Day For Night. And Van Morrison’s Too Long In Exile… And don’t even get me STARTED on the f-in’ blues, man. No. NO!

        No. I categorically, systemically and personally REFUSE to pick just one album as a favourite. It cannot be done. I will not let it be done. No. No. No. And NO.

        Nope. No way. No how. Not a friggin’ chance.

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        1. HMO, both those records would probably make my top 20…top 10 even, on a good day. But my top ten fluctuates all the time. “You know what? Moving Pictures has to be in my top ten! Err…what about Signals???” You know how it goes.

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  4. Yeah you know what? I’ve been thinking on this since all this happened and it just ain’t happening. I do not have a Favourite Album. I have many albums that I love completely, but I simply cannot pick just one. It just can’t be done. CANNOT.

    No more smoke frm my ears, Mike. Just raised devil horns and a HELL YEAH to music in general. \m/

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