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I'm something of a latecomer to Black Sabbath. To be sure, I 'grew up' on heavy metal, but Sabbath were never one of the bands that I took a liking to; my tastes inclined more towards Uriah Heep and Blue Öyster Cult. This isn't to say that I rejected them, but rather I felt that perhaps early Sabbath were too much akin to Led Zeppelin - a band for which I have very little love - for my liking.
My thinking in this area has changed in recent years, owing mostly to my exposure to the later entries in the Sabbath category. As a rule I prefer those records which tend towards the more experimental end of the metal spectrum from this band; for example, I prefer Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage to their 'classic quadrilogy' of the eponymous debut, Paranoid, Master of Reality and Volume 4. Again, this isn't to say that I dislike those early entries, but rather that there is little in the music I can readily identify with.
Not so with this album. As I mentioned above, I wasn't reared on Sabbath, and so I don't have a particular dog in the fight between various line-ups and manifestations of this band. For what it's worth, however, I prefer Dio to Ozzy and Gillian, and Tony Martin to all of them, as heretical as that may be. And it is this album with Martin which marks one of the high-water points of Sabbath's career, a plateau mached only by the aforementioned progressive metal epics and the later Dehumanizer.
Things kick off in a big way with the mystic opening riff of "The Shining", and at once it's apparent that Iommi is continuing to refine the melodic techniques he began on Seventh Star. Unlike that album, however, this record refuses to denigrate into pop-metal fare, and instead seems to synthesize the harmonic strains of the preceding record with the more standard doomish Sabbath material of years before. This is most apparent in the incredibly riffy second cut, "Ancient Warrior", which possesses the same tonal qualities as the material from Mob Rules but with a far superior production. The blues influence made famous in the band's early days returns on "Hard Life To Love", and it is with this track that Martin proves himself every bit a match for Dio, transitioning from melodic wails to a soulful croon with ease. "Glory Ride" features a powerful galloping bassline and more and evocative vocals by Martin, as well as a stomping mid-eighties break halfway through the song, but might be too 'happy' for the 'serious' metalhead. The following track, "Born To Lose", is probably the fastest on the record, but nothing ever seems to go beyond a comfortable and fairly atmospheric mid-pace. This track also features one of the best vocal lines ever written by this band, and includes some excellent bluesy riffage that hearkens back to the earlier years of the band.
Lyrically, the band seem a bit more mature here than elsewhere, and this seems to be a trend that would continue throughout the Martin years until Forbidden. While there's still the typical quasi-Satanic lyrical themes, they're handled with a bit more panache here than in several of the previous releases, and Martin helps to carry them to a level which might otherwise not be achieved. The rest of the band is as on top of their game as ever, and Iommi seems to have gotten somewhat more comfortable in his role as de facto leader of the band. One slight issue I had with the record was the drumming; Eric Singer has never been great, and occasionally it seems that he cannot keep the pace with Iommi.
The rest of the album follows suit, and, while there's not a great deal of diversity here, that's not really what one expects from Black Sabbath. While this isn't the best album by this line-up - that would be the following record, Headless Cross, one of the finest examples of melodic doom metal ever recorded - it's nevertheless one of the best ever laid down by this band, and, fanboy purism aside, is almost better than most of the material they recorded with Ozzy. It's unfortunate that this same line-up would go on to record the awful Forbidden, but that, as one says, is the way the Sabbath crumbled. Recommended, especially for fans of early power metal.
Standout tracks: "The Shining", "Ancient Warrior", "Born To Lose", "Lost Forever"
Originally posted on The Metal Crypt.