BLACK SABBATH: BORN AGAIN (1983)
1) Trashed; 2) Stonehenge; 3) Disturbing The Priest; 4) The Dark; 5) Zero The Hero; 6) Digital Bitch; 7) Born Again; 8) Hot Line; 9) Keep It Warm.
Tony Iommi certainly knows a great singer when he hears one, but the flipside is that Tony Iommi never really knows when the singer in question is thoroughly incompatible with the basic idea of «Black Sabbath». At least when they got Ronnie, they got themselves dungeons, dragons, kings, and queens, which was not that far removed from taking Lucifer's hand or playing the role of a repenting megalomaniac. But when, on manager Don Arden's suggestion, after the Live Evil fiasco they invited Ian Gillan, the result was... comical.
No, really, Born Again is, in fact, the most unintentionally funny Black Sabbath album ever released. Tony, honest and hardworking guy as he was, came up with the usual dark, hellish melodies, but you couldn't find a less dark, hellish lead singer than Ian Gillan unless you went directly to the Sha Na Na training grounds. So he used to be the frontman for that «heavy metal» band, Deep Purple, but all those years he was just a reckless rock'n'roll singer, not even close to a prophet of doom or something like that. And now here he was, writing lyrics and contributing vocal melodies for Satan's household band! If you think this sounds ludicrous on paper, just wait until you hear the album.
This mismatching is so hilarious that it pushes the «camp» value of the album sky high. Never even mind the surrounding paraphernalia — such as the snarling red baby on the front sleeve, or the grotesquely massive, miscalculated Stonehenge stage sets that the band took on tour along with dwarves and mushrooms (inspiring one of the most famous bits in Spinal Tap) — the record is grotesquely campy all by itself, although some context knowledge is probably necessary to assess and savor that campiness in full.
A good example is the opening number, ʽTrashedʼ. Formally, it is just a fast rocker commemorating a special event in Ian's life with the band (getting drunk and trashing his car). But there is no way you could listen to it without associating the song with the melodically similar ʽHighway Starʼ, one of Deep Purple's biggest hits. Similar, but different: where ʽHighway Starʼ exuberantly celebrated the art of dominating the road, becoming one of its generation's most arrogant rock'n'roll anthems (hooray to the power of youth, brute force, ambition, and desire), the hero of ʽTrashedʼ is the victim of the ʽHighway Starʼ lifestyle a decade later. Older, balder, sleazier, whinier, far more miserable, and sort of down on his luck — the most memorable line in the song is the twice-repeated "...but there was no tequi-i-i-i-ila!..", as if that was the most tragic aspect of the situation. Needless to say, it is also one hell of an anti-climactic opener after the Dio-era blitzkriegs of ʽNeon Knightsʼ and ʽTurn Up The Nightʼ, especially if you throw in the argument that Gillan's voice had already begun to deteriorate by that point, getting higher and whinier.
Ironically, Iommi seems anything but spent. It is clear that he did listen to some Deep Purple, as an homage to Ian (in fact, he was even gallant enough to add ʽSmoke On The Waterʼ to the setlist), but he must have also been intently listening to the New Wave of heavy metal, and perhaps even to some first offshoots of the emerging thrash metal scene, although there is certainly much more Judas Priest in the air here than Metallica. As long as it's heavy and doomy, there is quite a bit of melodic diversity in the songs — not that it always helps the particular melody, but the man was still searching, that's for sure. Abysmal production, though: the guitars frequently sound as if coming from the bottom of a medieval well, and Gillan's vocals are mixed in from a different well a couple dozen yards away. If you are going to play like Judas Priest (ʽHot Lineʼ), couldn't you at least produce your records like Judas Priest?
Still, the album produced at least one classic metal tune: ʽZero The Heroʼ is an atmospheric masterpiece, and possibly Iommi's highest point of the decade — after the spooky, screechy introduction (with guitars that sound like a cross between whining red babies and a beehive gone mad), comes a simplistic, terrific riff, totally on par with anything on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and not at all spoilable even with the song's rather dumb-sounding chorus or the fact that Ian prefers to rap rather than sing through the verses. Tony's extended soloing is also a highlight — in fact, the song might have worked even better as an instrumental, but, on the other hand, the song's social message (essentially, it's all about the power of brainwashing) agrees with the scorched-earth onslaught of the main riff as being symbolic of the dehumanization process, and Ian likes these songs that stir up righteous anger emotions, so let us forgive him the lack of a strong chorus.
I wish I could tip my hat in a similar manner to any of the other songs, but this just does not seem possible. A few are messy beyond repair, such as ʽDisturbing The Priestʼ, with idiotic fits of «evil» laughter; vague, scattered metal chords that never come together in a meaningful riff; and a lot of vocal posturing without any particular reason (allegedly, the words were written by Ian after some local priests had complained of the band's rehearsals disturbing their peace, and it does seem like the truth). The title track is a slow, draggy power ballad — a direct precursor to the disaster of Seventh Star lying ahead; boring, murkily flanged guitar sound and a lead singer who once used to sing effortlessly with tons of soul, but now has to basically kill himself in the studio to achieve the same effect, and still the effect is not achieved. And songs like ʽDigital Bitchʼ are just gross ("keep away from the digital bitch, she's so rich, the digital bitch" is the kind of a chorus where even Ozzy would have ended up with a facepalm).
A total critical disaster upon release, Born Again has been reevaluated over the last couple of decades — with the original shock at the Gillan/Iommi mismatch overcome, people have begun praising some of the music, recognizing at least the fact that this is far from Iommi's worst half hour as a composer. Indeed, the novelty value alone should earn the album some points, but other than ʽZero The Heroʼ, the songs just do not seem to have any replay value. The singer is not only mismatched, but his voice is shot as well, most of the time. The production is gray and murky (and even though Bill Ward has been restored to the drum seat, I wouldn't ever know by myself, because his skins now have a glossy electronic coating that was all the rage back then, and ended up reducing most of the drummers' individualities to a uniform pulp). And the melodies, diverse as they are, seem way too lazy way too often, as if Tony were content to adopt one or another style without taking any time to bother about the substance.
All in all, even though I no longer hate the album like I used to, but rather just feel amused about it, this is not enough to shift the final thumbs down evaluation — a curious failure, this one. Not that the band was too tight-assed to admit it: Gillan himself has since then acknowledged that he was probably the worst singer Black Sabbath ever had (even though he had a great time with the band); I'd say he is doing a huge favor to Tony Martin (not to mention Glenn Hughes), but sometimes self-criticism is not merely a form of humility, you know.