Part one of a two-parter!
When Ozzy Osbourne returned to Black Sabbath in 1997, that was undeniably a very exciting moment in heavy metal, and rock in general. By ’98, original drummer Bill Ward even returned to the band, completing the original lineup. We were rewarded for our patience with two new Black Sabbath songs called “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul” by the original lineup, but otherwise it was the beginning of a long drought. Though Sabbath toured and played festivals, it was the sparsity of new material that pissed off a few fans, this one included.
Thankfully during this Sabbath ice age, some former members kept the flame alive with new heavy metal music. Former vocalist Tony Martin, who was ousted for Ozzy’s return, recorded three albums with Italian guitarist Dario Mollo. 1999’s The Cage, featuring Don Airey (Deep Purple) on keyboards, is their first collaboration. This helped scratch the Sabbath itch during the drought.
A jagged Dio-ish guitar riff commences “Cry Myself to Death”. The doomy edge is present. Martin sounds as if in peak voice. The thirst is quenched. It’s easy to imagine a song like this could have been on a followup to 1995’s Forbidden. Dario Mollo is nothing like Iommi, being capable of heavy modern shreddery at maximum velocity. This is proven on “Time to Kill”. This time the vibe is like “Lawmaker” from 1990’s Tyr album. The pace is breakneck, but Don Airey is more than capable of keeping up on the keys. This is a stunning metal track mixing the spirit of old with the talent of new. It verges on regal Priest-isms by the solo break, blazing on to the end in a frenzy.
Don Airey plagiarizes his own keyboard part from Judas Priest’s “A Touch of Evil”, for an instrumental intro called “The Cage”. This serves as the start for a moody Dokken-esque ballad called “If You Believe”. Don Dokken only wishes he could still write a song this good, a quality dark ballad, perhaps akin to Sabbath’s “Feels Good to Me”. Then “Relax” also operates on a dark Dokken / Whitesnake vibe. Mollo’s shredding on this would would make Eddie Van Halen nod in approval. And speaking of Whitesnake and Cov the Gov, guess what they cover later on in the album? “Stormbringer”! Don makes the keyboards a bit too spacey on that one, but it is an otherwise pretty authentic cover, and the guitar solo is virtually note for note.
“Smoke and Mirrors” is pretty lame. “Some girls, they look really pretty but they tell you lies,” sings Martin. Well maybe, but some singers sing real good but struggle on the lyrics. The weakest track so far, “Smoke and Mirrors” has a sleezy rock vibe, like a latter-day Europe track. Mollo’s playing is the highlight but the song is pretty skippable. “Infinity” is more Sabbathy, reminding me of “Headless Cross”. Onto “Dead Man Dancing”, I think of Gary Cherone and Extreme. The song boasts a soaring Martin chorus and plenty string mangling by Mollo. Then it’s onto “This Kind of Love”, a dead ringer for Van Hagar.
The album closes on “Soul Searching”, (kind of similar to Sabbath’s “Nightwing”) which is something I wish Dario and Martin had done more of during the writing of this album. It would be nice to hear more of the sounds of their own personalities rather than songs that remind us of other bands. That’s rock and roll; the great struggle. It is not easy to carve out your identity among the thousands of bands who already have. The Cage is loaded with great music, and the playing is above reproach. What it lacks is originality. Even in the guitar playing, I would say that Dario Mollo owes John Sykes a debt of gratitude, though he is certainly no slouch. I just crave more originality in the tunes. Yes, part of the appeal of following ex-Sabbath members like Tony Martin into a solo career is to hear a bit more of that sound you loved. There are just too many moments on The Cage that sound like songs you already know.