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.