BLACK SABBATH: NEVER SAY DIE! (1978)
1) Never Say Die; 2) Johnny Blade; 3) Junior's Eyes; 4) Hard Road; 5) Shock Wave; 6) Air Dance; 7) Over To You; 8) Breakout; 9) Swinging The Chain.
This album has always had such an awful reputation, and this awful reputation has always confirmed itself so efficiently upon first listen, that it took me quite a while to appreciate some of the record's redeeming qualities. Indeed, under a different set of circumstances it could have been shaped up into something much better — it has all the makings of a really intriguing, stylistically experimental album. Unfortunately, few of its original ideas managed to outgrow the embryonic stage, and for every such idea there is a swamp of boring dumbness surrounding it.
The thing is, Never Say Die! was originally to be something completely different — a «Black Sabbath featuring Dave Walker» album, conceived in the wake of Ozzy's brief departure from the band (of his own free will). Dave Walker was a veteran blues-rocker who'd probably only joined up with Sabbath for financial reasons (Tony invited him over as an old Birmingham pal); prior to that, he'd been a member of Savoy Brown, and then briefly a member of Fleetwood Mac, with whom, incidentally, he released one of the band's blandest albums ever (Penguin). Naturally, the «match» with Black Sabbath was a disaster, as were most of the songs that the band recorded with him — once Ozzy came back, he refused to sing on any of the Walker material, and not just because his pride was hurt or anything, but also because the songs sucked. A good example of just how badly they sucked is ʽSwinging The Chainʼ, a Walker-era leftover that was eventually given to Bill Ward — a lumpy slab of blues-rock with lots of socially conscious pretense but no subtlety or catchiness whatsoever. It does happen to be the first song after ʽThe Wizardʼ (I think) to feature a harmonica part, but it's a boring harmonica part, and it does not fuse well enough with Tony's distorted, mushy rhythm parts.
Anyway, once the Walker disaster was over and Ozzy was back in the band, they decided to recut the album in a hurry — and it feels hurried: nine tracks, most of them overlong, yet relatively low on ideas. Even the similarly structured titles, flashing before your eyes — ʽHard Roadʼ, ʽShock Waveʼ, ʽAir Danceʼ — convey a feeling of being rushed and undercooked. Worse, the primary flaw of Technical Ecstasy, namely, the attempt to cross over to a cruder, headbangier, more boogie-based platform, is still very much in action. As the title track kicks in with its power chords and «ass-kicking» airs, you suddenly realize that Black Sabbath have begun to sound like Thin Lizzy — ʽThe Boys Are Back In Townʼ, that sort of thing. But where Lizzy had a sort of natural street-wise attitude, with Lynott's quasi-working-class charisma doing its thing perfectly, Sabbath never had it in them. Even though their early years were spent close to the «slum kids» format, none of the band members had any good idea at how to become the champion of the blue-collar guy. This weird «social conscience» that you see in the title track and especially in the immediate follow-up, ʽJohnny Bladeʼ, a dark tale of an outcast underdog, feels wasted.
What is not completely wasted are some of the band's experimental ideas. Let the record sink in a little bit, and you will see that ʽJunior's Eyesʼ is the first time that Tony has cobbled together a riff that depends on a wah-wah pedal and an echo effect for completion, and it fits in well with Ozzy's almost tearful delivery of the lyrics that relate to the passing of his father. Skip over the yawn-inducing intro riff to ʽAir Danceʼ and see how Don Airey's keyboard work actually contributes to the song — there are some lovely passages here, both in the «ambient jazz» and even «jazz fusion» styles. Actually, jazz seems to have been this album's chief inspiration after boogie rock: ʽBreakoutʼ is a bona fide jazz instrumental with flashy saxophone solos and a big band arrangement orchestrated by Will Malone. It is nothing to write home about, but remember at least that bad post-Ozzy Sabbath albums do not have big band jazz arrangements on them, meaning that even at its relative worst, the pre-1980s Sabbath was still a band that regarded «risk taking» as a prerequisite for going into the studio — something that was gone for good once Dio came on board two years later.
Of course, stuff like ʽHard Roadʼ, ʽShock Waveʼ, ʽSwinging The Chainʼ, etc., is beyond redemption — all these songs sound like they were written in about two minutes; their riffs are either non-existent or «unresponsive», since Tony probably did not have enough time to work on them. At least the title track has a catchy anthemic chorus, meaning that it worked well enough on tour during their last concerts with Ozzy, but I'd rather have the album end than start with it, because, as it happens, Ozzy-era Sabbath waves us its last goodbye with ʽSwinging The Chainʼ, which is probably in the Top 5 worst Sabbath songs ever put to tape (Seventh Star excluded, because otherwise the entire Top 5 would be occupied with songs off that one).
To top it all off, the album cover was once again provided by Hipgnosis, and this time it is even more ridiculous than in the case of Technical Ecstasy — all you want to say when glancing at those air pilots, perplexed and confused, is «...which one's Ozzy, I wonder?» The bottomline is that an album like this simply does not call for a symbolic / enigmatic cover; one might just as well have slapped those pilots on top of Back In Black or The Beach Boys' Party!. Just one more confusing detail to add to this pitiful disaster of an album — and yet I refuse to complete this critique with a thumbs down rating, since I believe it should at least be instructive to take a listen to Never Say Die! and try and figure out for yourself what, how, and why went wrong here and whether there might have been a chance of a different outcome.