Seven Essential Songs From Tony Martin-Era Black Sabbath
After their well-documented and highly visible farewell tour, Black Sabbath is finally done. Probably. Well, kind of.
Last year, Tony Iommi mentioned a desire to record some new tracks with former Sabbath singer Tony Martin to be featured on reissues of the Martin-era albums. Though technically true, it still sounds wrong to call Martin the band’s least popular singer. He has a real set of pipes, hewing closer to previous Sabbath frontman Dio’s bombastic range than Ozzy’s idiosyncratic wail. He’s also stayed active with a number of musical projects (including a short stint with Candlemass in 2004) in the years since his last album with Sabbath, 1995’s Forbidden.
Still, Sabbath in the late eighties and nineties were at a low point commercially; but, with the advent of the Internet, metal fans have been able to rediscover and reconnect with this “lost” era of the band. While nothing here approaches Master of Reality or even Heaven and Hell, there are definite highlights. Here are seven of them.
[Editor’s Note: We apologize for the lack of playable music, most of these albums have yet to make it to streaming in an official capacity. Thank god for record stores.]
“Nightmare” – The Eternal Idol (1987)
The recording sessions for The Eternal Idol were practically Spinal Tap-esque; they began and ended in completely different locations, with completely different lineups and production staff. “Nightmare” features the only recorded parts of Martin’s predecessor Ray Gillen (Badlands) that made it to the final album: some sinister laughs. The song itself – originally intended to be part of the A Nightmare On Elm Street soundtrack – finds Iommi toying with some poppy blues rock before swinging into a signature Sabbath riff and waking the song up. Martin gets a memorable hook with the chorus, and it gives the album a boost after more generic tracks like “Glory Ride” and “Born To Lose”.
“Eternal Idol” – The Eternal Idol
Closing out the album on a high note, “Eternal Idol” is a good representation of what this particular Sabbath lineup was capable of. Iommi reaches down into his well of colossal, simple-yet-brilliant riffs and pulls out some choice cuts that pair with one of Martin’s best performances as the band’s singer. His upper range recalls Don Dokken and even Chris Cornell at times – no easy feat – and he puts it to good use here.
“Headless Cross” – Headless Cross (1989)
After a brief intro, the slightly revamped Sabbath – now boasting Cozy Powell, the best drummer not named Bill Ward to ever play with the band – prove their mettle with a big, memorable title track. After providing some background flourishes on The Eternal Idol, keyboardist Geoff Nicholls takes a more centralized role here, adding depth and atmosphere. The verses are almost guitar free, relying almost entirely on Powell’s prowess, but Iommi makes up for it with a fantastic solo and some interesting turns during the bridge.
“When Death Calls” – Headless Cross
Perhaps the closest Martin-era Sabbath ever got to their heyday, “When Death Calls” is a moody meditation on death and what comes after paired with some of Iommi’s best songwriting and a solo for the ages from Brian May. Building up to a double time middle, pulling back to a coda of the chorus that hits twice as hard; it might not be stoner rock heaven, but just like “Lonely Is The Word” and “Sign Of The Southern Cross,” it’s definitely Black Sabbath.
“The Sabbath Stones” – Tyr (1990)
Tony Martin must have been getting burned out on the death and demons imagery by the time Tyr was written, as the album’s lyrics deal mostly with Judeo-Christian references and, more noticeably, Nordic legends. “The Sabbath Stones” is another slow burn that benefits from Martin’s ability to turn his delivery on a dime, from low rumbles to soaring power metal within a couplet. The mystical vibe gives the song a character that sustains its length and doesn’t get old, a consistent quality in most of the Martin era songs.
“The Battle Of Tyr/Odin’s Court/Valhalla” – Tyr
Forming a trilogy of sorts, Side B fulfills the Norse mythology promised by the album’s title and cover art. Starting with atmospheric keys, morphing into an acoustic passage and becoming a full-on metal epic, each member of the band is at peak performance. As on Headless Cross, Iommi and Powell produced the album, and their experience on both sides of the boards shines through: bright and punchy, just short of the slick pop sheen the rest of the bigger metal bands of the era had succumbed to. Tyr also came out the same summer as Cowboys From Hell, Facelift and Left Hand Path; maintaining relevance and popularity amidst such rapid change had to be in the band’s thought process.
“Virtual Death” – Cross Purposes (1994)
After a brief reunion with Dio for 1992’s Dehumanizer, Tony Martin returned for the uneven Cross Purposes. Bass god Geezer Butler had returned simultaneously with Dio and decided to stay; but other than some standout work on this track, it didn’t translate to much success. The vocal layering and riffs on “Virtual Death” beg an immediate comparison to Alice In Chains; ironic, as Sabbath is one of their most obvious influences. It’s still a quality song, though at this point Iommi sounds like he’s treading water and recycling riffs more than looking for a new angle like Tyr.