Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rusty Angels - Highlights from Tony Martin's Black Sabbath

The average music fan knows Sabbath with Ozzy.  The metal fan knows Sabbath with Dio.  The Sabbath fan knows Tony Martin. Black Sabbath's longest-tenured vocalist, Martin lent his vocals to five studio albums and one live album/video for the band across nearly a decade from 1987-1995 with a brief break in between for the Dio Mob Rules-lineup reunion for Dehumanizer around 1990-1992. Often ignored by the mainstream and perennially out-of-print, Martin's albums are a fascinating, essential chapter in Black Sabbath's legacy and, while there may not have been high-charting hits, even the most skeptical listener can take two tracks from each and build a "Best Of" playlist guaranteed to change your mind about where Sabbath begins and ends and pique your interest in the man known as "The Cat."

The Eternal Idol - 1987

When Ray Gillen's introduction as vocalist fell apart after the Seventh Star project, Tony Martin was enlisted to re-record the tracks Gillen had laid down for The Eternal Idol. The result was a solid, cohesive album that did not sound like anything Sabbath had done before but was decidedly Sabbath, nonetheless. "The Shining" leads off the album and, for me, remains the embodiment of all that is Martin-era Black Sabbath and easily competes with any song by any Sabbath vocalist ever. It's moody, it's menacing and it rocks.

The sixth track, "Nightmare," is just a crunching riff machine that Martin flies above and, at 2:40 in, brings Old Scratch home to Sabbath.

Headless Cross - 1989
Eternal Idol brought Black Sabbath back to the dark side. Headless Cross put down roots and stayed a while. Probably the apex of Martin's work with the band, Headless Cross is solid from start to finish. Lucky MTV viewers from the era may remember the title track video for the finest song on a damn fine album.

"When Death Calls" stretches out to nearly seven minutes of rich, dark atmosphere and showcases the only twin guitar attack I know of in Black Sabbath's discography as Tony Iommi duels with the one and only Brian May.

TYR - 1990

Sabbath didn't waste any time following Headless Cross and what came was the suprising left turn of TYR, a concept of sorts based around Norse mythology. Whether the riffs wrapped around Satan or Odin, they remained absolutely, massively heavy. "Anno Mundi" provides an epic to set the stage and "The Sabbath Stones" should leave even Amon Amarth quaking.Which other vocalist aside from Martin could have delivered this number with this power? None.

Cross Purposes - 1994

After a Dio reunion and rumored Ozzy-era reunion, Sabbath somehow got Martin to return to the band - and with Geezer Butler in tow. It is Butler's bass that ushers in the ominous "Virtual Death," at a near crawl that reminds one of Black Sabbath's namesake track from 1970's debut.

It is "Hand That Rocks the Cradle," though, that stands as the record's masterpiece and shows what a monster latter-era Black Sabbath is. I challenge you to leave the head unbanged when the mad, rotating riff kicks in at just under a minute into the song.

Forbidden - 1995

OK. I cannot pretend Forbidden doesn't stink. It does.  As an album, it fails. It reeks of a rush to close out a contract. It has a guest vocal from Ice-T, for Pete's sake. And the worst part is, I feel badly for Ice-T.

That said, it still has a few rough gems to offer. "Get a Grip" is one, if for no other reason than its resemblance to the stellar Born Again number, "Zero the Hero."  This is also its downfall as it falls short of its predecessor but remains a highlight of the album and a good performance from Tony Martin. "Rusty Angels" leaves a lot to desired in terms of its lyric but offers a solid Iommi squall at the 3:00 mark. 

Following Forbidden, Iommi, Ozzy, Butler and Ward finally reunited and Tony Martin went on to release solo work as well as albums with over half a dozen different acts. reports as of this week that Tony Martin albums are still in line for reissue "in due course." Until then, it's well worth the time for the curious metal fan to seek out these five platters at secondhand shops and flesh out their Sabbath collection.

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