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The lighter counterpart to Headless Cross - 90%

kalervon, February 3rd, 2013

It's often been said that this is a conceptual album about Norse mythology. But the bulk of this album is pretty much Judeo-christian. Side A alone (1-4) could have made a decent concept album on the Bible if not the Torah; Law Maker is almost about Moses, Jerusalem could be about King David or Jesus. The concept of Anno Mundi is related to the creation of the world as expressed in the Judeo-christian scriptures, and the Sabbath Stones conjure the images of tablets of stone. Both songs are also about fulfilling prophecies. Those references aside, Anno Mundi conveys an anti-war message not unlike War Pigs (generals..), Sabbath Stones was the third ever song to feature the word Sabbath in the title (and second one to actually feature the word Sabbath in the lyrics) but the first one in a long-time (17 years). This is to mean that Martin, who wrote the lyrics, was consciously trying to maintain a certain level of familiarity and continuity with the band's previous work. Another example of this is the mention of Lucifer in Heaven in Black (N.I.B). Not attempting to sound sinister with every sentence allows Martin to come up with some pretty fine lyrics.

About the Norse part of the album, the song Valhalla must be directed to Tyr (otherwise there is no reason for the album's name) and is loosely about Ragnarök, the final battle at the end of the world, which Loki indirectly triggered (he who has the skill of deceit). The version which Martin referred to here is probably the Germanic one which inspired Wagner for Der Ring des Nibelungen (Götterdämmerung, or Twilight of the Gods) because it refers to a ring.

Now, about the music. Not unlike Headless Cross, Iommi has been recycling some patterns from Sabbath's earlier glorious days. Anno Mundi's acoustic intro is eerily similar to that of Children of the Sea; and the riff is reminescent (though in a lesser capacity) of Zero the Hero's (and Guns'N'Roses' Paradise City to some extent, but this is GnR's fault originally). The verse part of Sabbath Stones is built on the War Pigs model; a riff with lyrics sang in between. Heaven in Black is built on a Children the Grave pattern (listen to the riffing during the verses). Still, aside of the Anno Mundi intro, these borrowings are quite subtle and if anything, serve to give a continuity feel.

The album has very fine moments, such as the contrasting acoustic passages in Sabbath Stones, whose lyrics are ambiguous and evocative enough not to make anyone cringe. Anno Mundi has beautiful vocal overlays and works very well on all levels. The heavier, fast-paced songs (The Law Maker and Heaven in Black) provide a good contrast to the album which otherwise contains several soft parts. Jerusalem and Valhalla have extremely catchy, and yet not cheesy, choruses and very good build-ups. Cozy Powell's power drums on Valhalla mark the transition from Odin's Court to that song very well. The Battle of Tyr is perhaps a little cheap (keyboard orchestra?) but nevertheless provide a Wagnerian feel to this ~8 minutes song which culminates as Valhalla.

One can't blame Sabbath here for playing it safe and trying to apply a recipe; it was very uncommon for a metal or rock band back then to have orchestral passages on an album (I'm not talking about orchestrating certain songs like Queensrÿche or Aerosmith did with Michael Kamen). Same for the subject matter which gave the album its title; this is before the label Viking metal was crafted. Though Manowar and Bathory had sung about Nordic mythology already, I really don't think here that Sabbath were trying to jump on any bandwagon. They chose this subject probably because they had done the pseudo-satanic thing an album before, and wanted to explore other ominous fantasy subjects (as they had started with Dio); they could have chosen Celtic, Greek or Roman mythologies.. the English week days are almost all named after Norse god names, so perhaps it was just an arbitrary decision.

Odin's Court contains very nice electric guitar licks who would later turn up on the Bible Black song. As for Feel Goods to Me, it is reminescent (in its overall commercial attempt) of No Stranger to Love from Iommi's previous solo album and one can indeed wonder.. what was he thinking ? Did he really thought he would get an MTV hit with this song or video? It's not a bad song, but it affects the cohesion of this album.

Worthy of mention is that this album had the rhythm section (bass+drums) of Whitesnake, Slide it In era. Does it show in the music? No. In this type of Sabbath, bass is not very important. Headless Cross had a session bass player, and here is Neil Murray who already has a good musical relationship with the drummer. He does a fine job, but the job is not that all important, unlike in other eras of Sabbath where Butler is needed. This kind of polished-AOR rock doesn't need the Geezer Butler bass, though obviously he could also do the job.

All in all, this album is constituted of 1)a mini album whose themes revolve around Christanity and/or Judaism (1-4), 2)an EP whose theme is Norse mythology (5-7), 3)a MTV/radio-friendly ballad (8) and 4)a heavier song based about some kind of episode from the Russian Empire (9). It could have been a more credible album if better organized, were the MTV ballad removed and the Norse trilogy (one three-part song, really) expanded to make two cohesive, individually themed album sides.

It is a very good counterpart to Headless Cross. Both albums form an era in themselves, and this one is the lighter side, whereas Headless Cross is the darker.