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Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Black Sabbath, "Headless Cross"

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I've been an obsessed hard rock/heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.

"Headless Cross" CD cover

"Headless Cross" CD cover

Black Sabbath, "Headless Cross"

(I.R.S. Records, 1989)

The once mighty Black Sabbath was in a shambles as the 1980s came to a close. While their former frontmen Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio became highly successful solo artists during the '80s metal explosion, Black Sabbath more or less became an in-name-only showcase for guitarist Tony Iommi, who did his best to keep the band's legacy alive via a series of barely-noticed albums backed by a revolving door of vocalists and musicians. After 1987's The Eternal Idol failed to make any commercial impact, Iommi and Sabbath were simultaneously dropped from their longtime record label homes at Warner Brothers (in the U.S.) and Vertigo (in the U.K.). It was their lowest point, but Tony Iommi was determined to rise from the ashes and rebuild the band.

Iommi soon had another new lineup, and a new deal with I.R.S. Records—an indie label that was best known for releases by pop and new wave acts like the Go-Go's, the Cramps, and Wall of Voodoo. Sabbath retained vocalist Tony Martin, who'd made his debut on Eternal Idol, and scored a coup by bringing in the legendary Cozy Powell on drums, whose long resume included stints with Rainbow, Whitesnake, ELP, and Jeff Beck. With long time keyboardist Geoff Nichols and studio bassist Laurence Cottle in tow, the "new" Black Sabbath's first album for I.R.S., Headless Cross, was released in April of 1989.

"Headless Cross"

The Songs

Headless Cross wastes no time getting to the good stuff, kicking off with the spooky one-minute intro "The Gates of Hell" and then crashing directly into the title track, a mid-paced, doomy number which hearkens back to Sabbath's classic Heaven And Hell period. Cozy Powell's cannon-fire drums mesh perfectly with Iommi's masterful-as-usual riff work while Tony Martin's strong, confident vocals soar over the top. (Side note: the music video for the title track is a wonderfully cheesy trip through all things Sabbathy, as the band performs in the shadows of a castle at night, surrounded by flames and fog, while hooded figures with torches skulk about in the background. It's totally Spinal Tap, but at least it let everyone know that Sabbath was back in a sinister mindset.)

"Devil and Daughter" is a catchy hard rock number that provides a nice showcase for Nichols' keyboard skills, leading into the punchy "When Death Calls," which features a guest guitar solo from Queen's Brian May. "Kill In The Spirit World" and "Call of the Wild" are middling, melodic metal tracks but the album gets down n' dirty again with the rollicking "Black Moon" (my favorite song on the album aside from the title track) and the moody, epic closer "Nightwing," which sees Tony Martin screaming for all he's worth ("Nightwing fliiii-iiiiiiies A-GAAAAAAAAAIN!") and ends the album with a satisfactory bang. My CD ends with a bonus track, "Cloak & Dagger," which was originally only available on a rare picture disc of the LP, or the B-Side of the "Headless Cross" single. It's another fine, bluesy, raunchy metal song that deserved to be part of the album's "regular" running order.

In short, Headless Cross was a mission statement that said "Hey, everybody, Black Sabbath is back" ...but was it too little, too late?

"Headless Cross" tour lineup L-R: Neil Murray (bass), Tony Martin (vox), Tony Iommi (guitar), Cozy Powell (drums)

"Headless Cross" tour lineup L-R: Neil Murray (bass), Tony Martin (vox), Tony Iommi (guitar), Cozy Powell (drums)

The Reaction

Reviewers hailed Headless Cross as the best Sabbath album in years, with some going so far as to proclaim it their best non-Ozzy or Dio fronted album. In spite of the positive buzz, it under-performed commercially, particularly in the U.S., where it peaked at a relatively weak #115 on the Billboard album charts. The album received a slightly warmer reception in Europe, where it charted at #18 in Germany and #31 in the band's native U.K.

It may have gone mostly unnoticed when it was current, but Headless Cross has aged well and now boasts a well deserved cult following -- this writer included. When Headless Cross came out I was a teenager deep in the midst of my all-thrash-metal, all-the-time phase, so Black Sabbath barely registered on my radar. By the time I discovered the Martin-era albums years later, of course, they were all long out of print and commanding collector's item prices on the secondary market. (Sigh! That figures...)

Black Sabbath went on to release three more studio albums with Tony Martin on the mic - 1990's TYR, 1994's Cross Purposes, and 1995's Forbidden, before embarking on a cycle of reunions with both Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio (under the moniker Heaven and Hell) that took them into the 21st Century. Martin's total of five studio albums with the band make him the second longest-standing Sabbath vocalist, right behind the mighty Osbourne himself!

As of this writing, the only one of Martin's albums that is still in print is The Eternal Idol, but rumors continue to make the rounds about possible reissues of the rest of his Sabbath catalog. I hope it happens, because the Tony Martin era of Black Sabbath is underrated and deserves a second chance at life!

"Black Moon"

© 2018 Keith Abt

Comments

DarkGates on September 02, 2019:

Headless cross is one of my favorite album of all time. Some reason this album didn't receive much attention in usa. Many black sabbath fans considered this album is an average. But I like the musical style and tony martin did a good job here. This album is produced by Tony Iommi and Cozy Powell. I personally think many of the sabbath's fan didn't like the new lineup. Because Geezer Butler and Ozzy Osbourne (two of the original member) is absent in this album. Butler usually the main lyricist. Other important thing is lyrical theme is satanic and dark, which is totally different than other previous sabbath's album. Anyway, I consider this album as one of the best album of Black Sabbath.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on November 18, 2018:

Great review of an album by one of my favorite bands. An album I've never heard, but probably should get from the bay of the pirate.

These days, looking at anything from the 80s involving hit music, or just music, I think, 'oh look, white people behaving in a silly manner with synthesizers and a rock band. Badly dressed.'