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The third of five albums recorded with Tony Martin on vocals, released a decade after Heaven & Hell and roughly twenty years after Black Sabbath's debut, Tyr is not only an underappreciated classic and a cult favourite, but also a pivotal moment in Sabbath mythology. If you went decade by decade (1970, 1980 and 1990) and just listened to Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell and Tyr, you could get out of them a fairly good idea of what Iommi and his many associates were up to during that thirty-year period, as well as all the necessary indicators for the remaining three albums. Tyr is the last point at which Black Sabbath, under that name, really pushed themselves to define new elements of their sound as well as crystallize what they had worked towards during their rocky '80s. Not that everything afterwards is fluff (ha!) but nothing that followed was challenging in quite the same way.
Black Sabbath had flirted with the, at the time, embryonic genre of Power Metal with Heaven & Hell and Mob Rules, with Ronnie James Dio incorporating many of the songwriting ideas he had brought to Rainbow - a band whose first three seminal albums continues to influence Power/ Symphonic Metal bands to this day. Tyr is a different animal however, showing the wisdom Iommi had accumulated from his years dabbling in different areas of the genre on albums as diverse as Seventh Star and Headless Cross, and even on parts of Born Again - in a far more rugged form of course. Tyr is the penultimate Black Sabbath Power Metal album (with this line-up's divisive swansong Forbidden falls more in AOR/ Hard Rock territory), and it boasts a very sophisticated implementation of Viking themes and epic songwriting into the Black Sabbath mythology. Yes, that's right, Tony Martin was singing about Vikings and Valhalla way back in 1990, you whelps.
Vocally, this is the best performance Tony Martin put in for Sabbath, and by extension his best for anything ever. His hasty firing at the prospect of Dio's return remains one of the less glorious moments in the annals of the band, especially considering that Dehumanizer was pretty much a disappointment when compared to this album, Mob Rules and Dio's own solo career until then. But here, he had come a long way from his restrained efforts on The Eternal Idol, screaming, wailing and catawauling with career-topping finesse and character. Each word is entirely audible, enunciated with enough enthusiasm and fire to make his less-than original lyrics sound, well, really really cool. I don't know who this Lawmaker fellow is, but if Martin's siren-like chorus on the song is anything to go by he's fucking badass. On ‘The Sabbath Stones’ he really brings the menace. Elsewhere, intoning the mighty chorus to 'Anno Mundi', or crooning the bard-like tale of 'Odin's Court', Martin sounds almost mystical. Not Ronnie Dio mystical, like an evil elf poring over the Necronomicon and imparting its secrets in an authoritative howl, or Ozzy mystical, like "how much do you think he had?" Mystical like a bald eagle perched proudly atop a mountain, observing some lost valley where the ghosts of noble warriors tread. Along with Cozy, Martin thoroughly holds his own in the company of Iommi.
The late Whitesnake drummer Cozy Powell, one of my personal favourite musicians, puts in an absolutely defining performance behind his set, easily the best to feature on a Sabbath album since Vinny Appice's for Mob Rules, and far surpassing Appice's impending return on Dehumanizer. Mixed just above the bass track so that the drums are keeping your attention alongside the guitars instead of the rhythm section, everything is sounding clear and heavy while not distracting. Making the most of this wonderful production, Cozy combines the heaviness of Headless Cross with the engaging complexity of his days in Rainbow. It is Cozy's drums that turn the power ballad 'Feels Good To Me' into more than just a Sunset Strip hangover. While Iommi does with Martin everything he did with Glenn Hughes for 'No Stranger To Love', and as stirring as Martin's wails are here, the power of this song comes from Cozy's emotional, driving drumming.
Iommi's guitarwork here presents one of the more complex issues raised by the album. His songwriting, aided by Martin, is stellar, the latter's singing hair-raising, and Cozy's drumming bloody awesome, as mentioned. Neil Murray was there, too. But Iommi's riffs seem to skid between his characteristic doom-laden ball-squeezers and a more eclectic, melodic vibe culled from the '80s acts Sabbath had matured among in the decade preceding this album's release. Once everyone is over their Black Sabbath pupatory stage, refusing to accept anything post-Ozzy as worthy (while they probably secretly listen to like, Audioslave and stuff. Bastards!) and we can move on, Tyr can be unpacked and recognized as a quite deliberate meshing of Iommi's past experiments.
Rather than feeling disappointment when a slow-burning riff suddenly crackles into self-indulgent fret-punishing, you should be noticing with appropriate awe and humility the skill of Iommi to fuse his "old style" into the album's sound while ably keeping things catchy and interesting as hell. Remember 'Walk Away' where droning Master Of Reality riffs were, somehow, incorporated into a jaunty Hard Rock song? Face it, he's a great guitarist, and great guitarists don't just do one thing. Let's resist the temptation to use that logic to diffuse some of the myths surrounding today's so-called "virtuosos" and instead focus on the guitar playing on Tyr. In its quieter moments the album strongly reminds of 'Children of the Sea' rather than, for example, 'Nightwing', Iommi once again drawing on all his inspirations past and present. He outdoes himself on the opener ‘Anno Mundi’, with addictive, grooving guitar lines and understated harmonies backed by Geoff Nicholls’ warm synth atmospheres. The guitar solos on the album are complex and passionate in the vein of Dio-era Sabbath, feeling completely relevant to the songs and shifting focus away from Martin. Like all the best Heavy Metal, you can almost see individual members of the band taking turns at the fore, and not just because these guys are such familiar figures, but because each element of the music is so striking.
Faithful 'boards man Geoff Nicholls is still about, and adds some extra flavour to the motifs of the innovative ‘Jerusalem’ by complementing Cozy's drumming rather than the usual route of following the guitar leads. Also, as much as I would amuse myself by finishing up discussing the band giving Neil Murray only a coy reference, he does actually deserve more than that. While Sabbath's procession of bassists following Geezer wasn't quite as sensational as some other members who came and went, Iommi benefited from the help of some capable strummers during the '80s and '90s. Neil Murray provides a reliable rhythm here, relying more on meticulous, descriptive playing than the sudden bounces and seemingly impromptu flourishes with which Geezer colours his basic basslines. He suffers, however, from being mixed a little lower than everything else, a sacrifice I’m prepared to make on his part.
The word 'epic' gets tossed around a lot these days. Few products of the 21st century, with its penchant for albums with budgets bigger than America's national debt, and more guest musicians than Michael Jackson's funeral, would outshine Tyr's centrepiece(s) on counts of 'epic.' Some versions of the album include these tracks as three tracks, but mine, less irritatingly, simply features 'The Battle of Tyr', 'Odin's Court' and 'Valhalla' as one long song, the way they should be heard. Building from a meandering synthy opening into an acoustic dirge and finally a fist-pumping charge to battle, it is one of Iommi's more daring compositions and one that unwittingly set the standard for many a work by Iced Earth and so on in years to come. Even if no-one really realized. About half way through the seven minutes and forty-eight seconds of this piece, when Martin lets loose a roar of “wings of Valhalla” and the band crashes in, stands as one of the most exhilarating moments in Sabbath history, period. The piece ends the first, larger part of the album that deals with Tony Martin’s favourite Norse myths and uses more forward-thinking song structures, represents the climax of the album and is possibly Iommi's finest moment alongside Martin. In fact, Iommi has since only come close to a song this ambitious is with 'I Go Insane' alongside Glenn Hughes in 2005, but he has never again attempted such a triumphant blending of Sabbath's music with the storytelling of oldies like Jethro Tull and Marillion.
'The Sabbath Stones' reinforces my point from the beginning about self-representation rather handily, a Doom-Power Metal hybrid of Norse proportions. It certainly tops the title track of The Eternal Idol and gives the Tony Martin era its best throwback to early days; his own ‘Heaven & Hell.’ Listen carefully and you will notice the guitar solo even touches on parts of the solo from that song, another bookend for Sabbath’s decade between 1980 and 1990. It is also telling of the improved songwriting skills of Iommi and the band that the transition between the stop-start sludge of the intro and the squall of riffs that brings the track blazing through its climax sees acoustic sections, epic melodies and soaring vocals by Martin, moving through the song's sections with a subtlety learned from long experience. 'Heaven In Black' sees the band regressing in style to the days of The Eternal Idol and Headless Cross' faster joints. The opening fill by Cozy will provide some pleasant nostalgia - it is very reminiscent of the one he opened Rainbow's classic 'Stargazer' with.
This is an album integral to Sabbath’s legacy, standing at the other end of the turbulent ten years separating it from Heaven & Hell, but you knew that. The point I want to get across is that it is also an album for Power Metal heads, lovers of '80s Metal with a tolerance for not-quite-Progressiveness, and an album for aspiring drummers to get to grips with. It was the first Sabbath album for years that did much more than try to make up for the absence of past members; Tyr felt like a fully planned and comprehensive release where the whole band knew exactly what they were trying to achieve, and pulled it off with grace and class. The reason for that was that each band member was bringing something excellent of their to the album. An important distinction people: Tyr is not just Sabbath’s best with Tony Martin, but also amongst Tony Iommi’s greatest achievements.