Forgotten Hard Rock Albums: Black Sabbath, "Seventh Star" (1986)
Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi - SEVENTH STAR (Warner Bros., 1986)
Black Sabbath invented Heavy Metal and ruled the 1970s hard-rock scene with their ear splitting, doom-laden odes to War Pigs, Sweet Leaves, and Paranoia, but drugs and egos tore them apart when they should've been enjoying their greatest success. By the early 1980s, Sabbath had all but fallen off the musical radar. Instead of commanding their due respect as Elder Statesmen of the genre they'd helped forge, the legendary Brits were considered "washed up" or "irrelevant" at the time. While former Sabbath frontmen Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio had both moved on to solo careers which were outshining their Blackened former home, guitarist Tony Iommi was struggling to keep the Sabbath flame burning - with mixed results. 1983's Born Again featured Ian Gillan of Deep Purple fame on vocals and enjoyed some mild chart success, but it failed to vault Sabbath back to the forefront of the Metal movement. Gillan jumped ship for a Deep Purple reunion as soon as the Born Again tour was finished, and after a brief reunion set by all four original Sabbath members at the massive "Live Aid" charity concert in the summer of '85, the band was officially put "on hiatus" and Tony Iommi began work on his first-ever solo album, which was to be titled Seventh Star.
With Sabbath on ice, Iommi was intent on exploring new musical ideas and he hired a crew of high-powered studio musicians to help bring Seventh Star to fruition, including bassist Dave "The Beast" Spitz (older brother of Anthrax guitarist Dan Spitz), drummer Eric Singer (who would later go on to successful stints with Alice Cooper and KISS) and long time Sabbath keyboardist Geoff Nichols. Tony's original plan for Seventh Star was to feature a variety of guest vocalists, each singing one of the album's tracks. However, scheduling conflicts eventually led him to scrap that idea and utilize Glenn Hughes (ex-Deep Purple and Trapeze) on vocals for the entire album. (Tony would later revisit the "one album with many singers" concept on his 2000 solo disc Iommi, which featured vocal contributions from Henry Rollins, Peter Steele, Serj Tankian and Phil Anselmo, among others.)
When it was completed, Tony's Seventh Star was a slicker, much more melodic disc than most Sabbath platters....which became a problem when the suits at Warner Bros. Records refused to release it as an Iommi solo album, and insisted that Tony attach the Black Sabbath name to it. D'OH!
"No Stranger To Love"
Trouble In Paradise
Iommi knew that it would be a mistake putting the Sabbath name on an album that sounded nothing like Black Sabbath, but he was forced to bite the bullet. Seventh Star was released in January of '86 with the unwieldy heading "Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi" splashed across its front cover...and the album was pretty much doomed from the moment it hit record store racks. Long time Sabbath fans scoffed at the unfamiliar faces in the "new" lineup, and assumed that Iommi, being the only original member left, was simply trying to squeeze the last bit of juice out of the Black Sabbath name for his own benefit. To make matters worse, Warner Brothers chose to release the album's bluesy ballad "No Stranger To Love" as the first single; the track's synths and commercial pop-metal/AOR vibe absolutely mortified Sabbath diehards. (Useless trivia: the moody, black and white video for "No Stranger..." starred a young Denise Crosby, of future Star Trek: The Next Generation fame.) Seventh Star debuted in the top 30 in Sabbath's native U.K., but came in at a paltry #78 in America before it slid off the U.S. Billboard chart altogether.
Given the amount of behind-the-scenes drama that went into the album's creation, it should be no surprise that the Seventh Star concert tour quickly developed into a disaster of Spinal Tap proportions as well. Glenn Hughes only performed five shows with the band before he got into a fight in a bar that broke several bones in his face, leaving him swollen and unable to sing. Sabbath sent Hughes home to recuperate and hastily recruited a then-unknown New Jersey singer named Ray Gillen to fill in for the remainder of the tour. (Gillen would go on to a measure of fame several years later as frontman of the blues-rock band Badlands, with former Ozzy guitarist Jake E. Lee.) The vocalist switch was probably for the best, because Hughes has famously said of his brief Sabbath experience, "Glenn Hughes singing in Black Sabbath is like James Brown singing in Metallica. It just doesn't work." By all accounts, the Gillen-fronted version of Sabbath turned out to be a surprisingly strong musical unit that put on some tight live shows, but In the end it really didn't matter who was out front. Even with then-hot young opening acts like W.A.S.P. and Anthrax added to the bill in an attempt to boost ticket sales, the Seventh Star tour was met with massive fan disinterest, half filled venues and numerous cancellations.
When the smoke cleared, Seventh Star was denounced as one of Black Sabbath's worst albums, if not THE worst, and it regularly ranked at or near the bottom of their catalog in fan and critic polls for years after its release.
Live With Ray Gillen:
When I first heard Seventh Star as a teen in 1986, I didn't know what to make of it. I was still pretty much a noob when it came to Black Sabbath at that time, anyway. I owned Born Again and I knew a couple of the Ozzy-era songs that got play on classic rock radio like "Paranoid" and "War Pigs," and that was about it. Even to a clueless adolescent like me, Seventh Star certainly didn't sound much like Black Sabbath -- or at least, it didn't sound like what I thought Sabbath should sound like. I was expecting big, doomy, depressing slabs of Birmingham steel and what I got was slick, Sunset Strip sounding hard rock with some occasional dips into AOR. I decided that the album "sucked," pawned it off on my local used record store, and I didn't bother investigating any more of Black Sabbath's rich catalog till many years later. (I know, I know...sometimes I wish I could reach back in time and slap myself.)
In the more than a quarter century since its release, however, a strange phenomenon began to arise. Just as KISS' disastrously-received 1981 rock opera Music From The Elder slowly built a cult following over the years, the passage of time was similarly kind to Seventh Star, and its stock slowly began going up amongst retro-metal geeks and melodic rock fans. Those who missed out on it the first time around are now checking Seventh Star out thanks to reissues and the Internet, while old fans who dismissed the album back in '86 are re-assessing it and saying "Y'know what? This isn't as bad as I remembered." I include myself in that second group. On a whim I recently re-acquired Seventh Star on CD after not hearing -- or even thinking about -- the album since I was in high school. Now that I've had 25 years to become more well versed in Sabbath lore and I know about the strange circumstances regarding its creation, I can listen to Seventh Star without the lofty "Sabbath" expectations attached to it ... and I'm digging the album much more than I expected. Glenn Hughes turns in a strong performance throughout and the album has a number of catchy tracks like the driving opener "In For the Kill" and "Turn to Stone." Yeah, "No Stranger To Love" still sounds like a Whitesnake B-side, but Iommi turns in some awesome six string wailing throughout the otherwise lightweight song. The title track is probably the most "Sabbathy" song on the album with its ponderous themes of cosmic extraterrestrial doom, while "Danger Zone" and the Deep Purple-esque "Angry Heart" are both strong '80s style hard-rock songs. "Heart Like a Wheel" runs a bit too long at 6:35 and the two and a half minute closer "In Memory" feels like it was tacked on at the last minute to pad things out to album length, but aside from that I have few complaints.
"In For the Kill"
Iommi and Black Sabbath survived the Seventh Star debacle, but just barely. When Ray Gillen left the band during pre-production for the next album, The Eternal Idol, Iommi cleaned house yet again and assembled yet another all new Sabbath lineup fronted by vocalist Tony Martin, who completed the vocals on Eternal Idol (released in 1987) and then remained in the Sabbath camp for four more albums (89's Headless Cross, 90's Tyr, 1994's Cross Purposes and 95's Forbidden) and one live disc (1995's Cross Purposes Live box set). Martin's five studio albums with Sabbath make him the vocalist with the second longest tenure in the band, right behind the mighty Ozzy Osbourne himself!
Like Seventh Star before it, The Eternal Idol was ignored when it was first released but over the years it has slowly climbed the ranks to become another one of Sabbath's "underrated" albums. Recent re-issues of Seventh Star and Eternal Idol expanded them to two-disc sets. The Seventh Star bonus disc features a live recording from the ill-fated 1986 concert tour with Ray Gillen taped at London's Hammersmith Odeon, and the second Eternal Idol disc features album cuts with Gillen on vocals that were recorded prior to his departure from the band. Sadly, Ray Gillen passed away in 1993.
I don't know how Tony Iommi looks back on the Seventh Star experience these days, but in my humble opinion it's an underrated album that's deserving of another listen. If you happen to come across it in the five-dollar CD bin at Best Buy like I did, give Seventh Star a chance...you may be surprised at how good it sounds after all these years.
© 2013 Keith Abt