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The turn of the decade saw the continued glory of metal in various forms. Bands such as Judas Priest and Riot were ushering a different speed metal answer to the established thrash genre that had dominated the mid 80s, while other artists such as Dio and Yngwie Malmsteen completely revamped their bands in order to continue the evolution of their sound. In the middle of it all is this forgotten classic, the album which truly captures the spirit of true Viking metal, despite the fact that it was penned by musicians on an island a bit west of where the Norsemen originated.
It can be plainly stated that Sabbath’s influential status in the 70s and early 80s was obvious, but what is not as well known are the precedents set by this band in the later 80s and the early 90s. Although song by song “The Headless Cross” has a slight edge, the progressive themes and the ambitious approach to songwriting on here takes this album up to near equal standing with its predecessor. Geoff Nicholls’ keyboard textures, Tony Martin’s voice, Neil Murray’s active bass lines, Cozy Powell’s beats, and maestro Iommi’s riffs all line up perfectly, each linking together to create a grand dragon boat of sound.
This album begins amazingly with the highly progressive and mystical sounding “Anno Mundi”. The opening riff is slightly reminiscent of “Children of the Sea”, but is accompanied by a choral chant that sounds like it could only have been accomplished by Freddie Mercury. What follows is a set of hard edged riffs that flirts with sounding like both “Zero the Hero” and “The Eternal Idol”. Although we don’t have a guitar solo to speak of on this track, as was the case with the title track of the first album with Tony Martin, the amount of different themes and ideas going on here completely make up for it,
“Law Maker” and “Jerusalem” follow, the former being a solid speed metal song that cooks equally as fast as “Turn to Stone” on the Seventh Star release, the latter being a solid mid tempo track with a killer signature riff and plenty of amazing vocal moments. “The Sabbath Stones” is a song that reminds more of classic Sabbath during the Ozzy years, going through a barrage of contrasting sections. You get a quiet acoustic guitar section with keyboard fills that sounds a bit similar to the quiet part of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, while the slow verse riffs remind of “The Wizard. Everything kicks it up a notch towards the end with a drastic tempo change which has that rhythmic triplet feel of the closing to “Black Sabbath”, but with a sense of triumph that also reminds of the closing section of “Heaven and Hell”.
“Feels Good to Me” is the album’s single and has the most obvious hooks to it. The lyrics are about a troubled relationship, the guitars are mostly quiet during the verses, following with a powerful yet simple chorus riff. Unfortunately if you happen to run into a copy of the single for this song, you will discover that the highlight to the song, the guitar solo at the beginning has been cut. “Heaven in Black” closes off the album on an up tempo note with plenty of wah pedal dominated guitar soloing. It mostly sounds like a less blues driven version of “Black Moon”, although the vocal lines remind a bit of “Devil and Daughter”.
The highlight of this album is obvious as it contains the concept of the album. “The Battle of Tyr/Odin’s Court/Valhalla” is a glowing example of Sabbath’s progressive roots, going through some rather intricate musical changes and ideas. The first track is an instrumental keyboard prelude that could easily be included in a 80s Sci-Fi/Fantasy film score. The middle track is an acoustic and atmospheric ballad with a very exposed yet perfect vocal performance, sounding essentially as any Viking Folk Metal outfit should sound. The 3rd and final track of the opus is where all the best aspects of this album culminate. You have an unforgettable main riff, a riveting guitar solo, and probably the most triumphant chorus ever composed by Black Sabbath. No matter how much praise you steep this song in, it will remain underrated, and it is in a class completely by itself.
In conclusion, this is Black Sabbath’s musically progressive and melodic answer to the changing world of metal. Although it will probably never get the credit it deserves, this album represented an alternative to the road that metal was going down, one that has still yet to be fully explored. It comes recommended to any fan of Power Metal, Progressive Metal, Traditional Heavy Metal, or any other genre that deals in the concept of Norse myths and legends. I still listen to it once every few weeks, and it stays fresh, forward looking, and a cut above the rest.