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Tony Iommi Owes Me an Apology - 30%

Frankingsteins, July 15th, 2007

The later career of Black Sabbath is characterised by uneven uncertainty, and 1985’s ‘Seventh Star’ is the most significant departure of the lot. In its favour, guitarist Tony Iommi wrote the album with the intention of it being his first ‘solo’ release, the band consisting of an entirely different line-up than was the norm for Sabbath, even in the turbulent revolving door period of the eighties, and the music following a lighter, poppier and more blues-oriented direction than the sludgy heavy metal of Iommi’s previous work. Nevertheless, pressure from manager Don Arden resulted in the ‘Seventh Star’ release being credited informally as the twelfth Black Sabbath album, but credited specifically to ‘Black Sabbath feat. Tony Iommi,’ a peculiar choice of phrase considering Iommi is himself the only original Black Sabbath member present, and none apart from keyboard player Geoff Nicholls had been associated with the band prior to this.

The deliberate departure from the sound Iommi and his previous band members had pioneered and developed throughout the seventies and early eighties makes this a difficult album for long-time fans to appreciate, but the orientation towards a more commercial sounding form of rock would continue through the next three albums, assuring this record’s influential place in the canon. I should probably point out at this stage that this is my least favourite Black Sabbath album for all the common reasons, but still has enough in its favour as a release that was attempting to diversify to rate it at least equally to the albums ‘Technical Ecstasy’ and ‘Forbidden’ that capture different incarnations of Black Sabbath at their most tired and apathetic.

Glenn Hughes follows in the footsteps of Ian Gillan on the previous album as the second Deep Purple vocalist to act as temporary Black Sabbath frontman, and he performs about as well as can be expected in his capacity as third-rate sound-alike to the big names. The radio-friendly tone of most of the album, particularly the softer love songs, are sung just as anyone who’s ever heard an Aerosmith or Bon Jovi ballad would expect, while the more traditionally hard rock pieces such as the title track sound the more like Deep Purple under Gillan than the bombastic operatics of earlier Sabbath favourite Ronnie James Dio, and the whole thing is miles from the nasal shrieks of the band’s longest serving vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. Iommi’s guitar is commendably modest for what was intended to be a solo album, primarily seeming content to riff along with the rhythm section and performing the occasional solo, and if anything this album is his least guitar-oriented up to this point.

Dave Spitz takes over bass guitar duties from old timer Geezer Butler, who departed along with original drummer Bill Ward after the previous album, and he performs with complete mediocrity. Slightly better is Dave Spitz on drums, although he is relegated to providing a slow beat most of the time, while the necessary dreamy eighties atmosphere is enhanced by Geoff Nicholls’ polished keyboards, occasionally pushed to the forefront. These temporary Black Sabbath line-ups were always fairly disappointing, as a group of unconnected musicians are drafted into the studio and gradually fall off the world tour one by one, and it would take until the end of the decade for Iommi and co. to achieve a level of cooperative stability not seen since the Dio years.

A simple glance at the track-list reveals the formulaic structure of this album, boasting a mix of epic songs lasting over five minutes for the hardcore fans, particularly the enigmatic ‘Seventh Star’ backed up by its Egyptian sounding precursor, with the fast-sounding ‘In For the Kill’ and ‘Turn to Stone’ balanced by the obvious ballads ‘No Stranger to Love’ and ‘Angry Heart,’ all edited to running times of 7” perfection. While the album isn’t entirely predictable, sometimes harking back to the old Sabbath sound presumed lost and other times, such as the final two tracks, defying expectation a little bit, this is primarily an album designed to sell well rather than an artistic statement, with recycled pop lyrics avoiding the confrontational pagan and drug themes the band is better known for.

There’s still enough energy to keep things interesting for rock fans most of the time, particularly with songs like the afore-mentioned ‘In for the Kill’ and ‘Turn to Stone’ which play out almost exactly as I had imagined. The chorus vocals in the opening song are light and melodic enough to suit mainstream ears, but thankfully become a little less restrained as the song continues and Hughes starts getting into it. ‘Turn to Stone’ is even more hard-edged as the third track, keeping the energy levels up between the slower tracks two and four, but the structure and even the production sound make this sound more like classic Deep Purple than classic Black Sabbath, obviously enhanced by Hughes’ delivery. Both songs feature medium length guitar solos that aren’t particularly interesting in of themselves, but work as well as any others that escape Iommi’s stumpy fingertips.

Between these, sounding very out of place but obviously attempting to snag casual listeners as early as possible, is the single ‘No Stranger to Love.’ Iommi opens with a slow solo, sounding more like the calculated soaring melodies of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour than his usual blues improvisation, while a background of keyboards sets the scene for this Hollywood-esque ballad that wouldn’t be out of place in cheesy love scenes of contemporary films. Surprisingly, the music video isn’t a montage of such scenes, but does feature actress Denise Crosby who would soon after star in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The slow drums, Bon Jovi vocals and minimal, always melodic guitars follow the tedious template for all songs of this type, and personally I find that it can’t fade out soon enough.

My preferred section of the album is the middle, where something of the classic Sabbath sound shines through and Iommi tackles bolder territory. The pointlessly titled ‘Sphinx: The Guardian’ is a one-minute intro to the title track, ominously setting the scene for the coming storm with keyboards and windy sound effects alone, while ‘Seventh Star’ sees Iommi returning to the epic style of the classic ‘Heaven and Hell’ album. The song is slow paced, based on a bluesy riff that still retains elements of Iommi’s much-imitated ‘stoner’ droning style, with Hughes providing his best vocals that sound more relaxed and casual compared to Dio’s exhaustive falsetto. The keyboard provides an effective backdrop, dark and ominous in contrast to the light and airy backing of the earlier love song, and only resorts to a clichéd Egyptian melody a little towards the end (you know the one. Every metal band has its own Egyptian song that uses the same bloody tune somewhere, almost as bad as the nine-note ditty used to evoke China). The song perhaps lasts a little too long, not featuring the interesting diversity of previous epics, but is slow and relaxed enough that this doesn’t present a problem.

The song that follows is even longer, and even more in line with the Dio era, and as such is my favourite song on the album, the only one really up to the standard of ‘Heaven and Hell.’The pop elements are still there in the vocal delivery and lack of off-putting jam sections or drastic rhythm changes, causing this song to feel a little more restricted than the long-term Sabbath fan is accustomed to, but in this case the accessibility is primarily in the song’s favour. At medium speed, ‘Danger Zone’ is a faster mover than ‘Seventh Star,’ and the heavy guitar riffs are right at the forefront. ‘Heart Like a Wheel,’ the first of two surprising non-ballads with ‘heart’ in the title, is the most traditionally blues-based song on here, based largely on a plodding bass guitar with nicely dirty sounding production throughout, though it’s a little tedious for my tastes. The good news is that Iommi really lets himself go here, breathing in the heavy stoner atmosphere and setting free those squealy, pointless, enjoyable guitar solos for much of the song. The guitars plod along to such an extent that it’s not uncommon for me to space out completely and forget the song’s even playing as it nears the end, the only clashing element being the contrasting clean vocals that sound out of place on this song only, which would be more suited to a heavy smoker or old man.

The title ‘Angry Heart’ implies something of a conflict between the style found earlier in track one with that of track two, and the end result is something like that. It’s not a ballad, that duty falls a little onto the short final song ‘In Memory...’ which is more of a dreamy acoustic song than a cheesy love song in the vein of ‘No Stranger to Love,’ but it does commit the sin of including a Hammond organ (grr!), albeit quietly. The chorus is full-on Bon Jovi pop-rock, and the drums are quite nicely catchy. Both this and the next song are joined by the conceit of simply jumping from one to the other, making me question why this wasn’t simply two halves of the same longer piece as I wondered for tracks four and five, but as the album is only thirty-five minutes long at nine tracks in any case, it was probably another stunt to attract customers to this dying band. The pace does slow down for the final song, marking a change after a few seconds, and the blend of acoustic guitar over electric is quite nice, but this song never really goes anywhere. Hughes seems intent on going out with a bang, holding and ‘warbling’ his notes (for wont of a more technical term), while Nicholls’ keyboards set a pleasant, if unremarkable atmosphere.

So there you have it, a below-par release from a great band in serious decline, but also one that was unduly over-hyped as something it was not, namely a Black Sabbath album. The deviation would be more forgiveable if ‘Seventh Star’ was a truly independent anomaly in the Sabbath discography, but essentially this set the style for all of the subsequent albums up until the short-lived Dio reunion in 1992: commercial sounding rock that can barely be classified in the heavy metal genre Iommi and co. created in the early seventies, complete with soppy ballads and watered down guitars. The next vocalist Tony Martin would at least provide some consistency from ‘The Eternal Idol’ through to ‘Tyr,’ replacing these fickle Deep Purple throwaways, while Iommi’s solo career wouldn’t really take off for some years to come, eventually evolving into a far heavier form than the stinking MTV-oriented stuff on this record.

Almost all Black Sabbath albums are greatly inconsistent, which has always acted as part of their charm for me, as the contrast between classic rock songs and embarrassing failures keep the early albums endlessly entertaining. ‘Seventh Star’ fails so often not because it tries something new, but because it sticks to boring, over-used formulas created by other people, which Iommi, Glenn Hughes and those other blokes are only capable of mimicking, instead of trying something new with. Almost every song fades out after stretching its ideas to breaking point for lack of a strong ending, and the highest praise I can give is that whoever was in charge of these fades, presumably the producer, has a good grasp of average attention span, as nothing really outstays its welcome.

‘Seventh Star’ and ‘Danger Zone’ form a nice central section of twelve minutes or so that almost makes this album worth buying, but the rest is either too unremarkable or too truly terrible to waste time with. I guess ‘No Stranger to Love’ might not seem so terrible to people who are into that sort of thing, but for me it’s a real abomination in the Sabbath discography. Apparently, this album was never released on CD in America after the original vinyl didn’t sell too well, and like much of Iommi’s output after Dio left the first time, is consigned to the vaults of the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Mediocrity.