BLACK SABBATH: THE ETERNAL IDOL (1987)
1) The Shining; 2) Ancient Warrior; 3) Hard Life To Love; 4) Glory Ride; 5) Born To Lose; 6) Nightmare; 7) Scarlet Pimpernel; 8) Lost Forever; 9) Eternal Idol.
Goodbye Glenn Hughes, and hello good riffs — and where have you been hiding all this time? Hidden in an endless sea of subpar products, The Eternal Idol is that one post-Ozzy, post-Dio album which, when placed in context, might just be the biggest surprise in Tony Iommi's entire career. The sessions were a mess, with not one, but two bass players coming and going (Dave Spitz recorded the original parts, quit, was replaced by Bob Daisley, who re-recorded all the parts, then quit); not one, but two drummers coming and going (Eric Singer recorded the original parts, quit, was replaced by ELO's Bev Bevan, who re-recorded some of the parts, then quit); and one vocalist coming and another one going (Ray Gillen recorded the original parts, quit, was replaced by Tony Martin, who re-recorded all the parts... then kinda stuck around).
But over this mess Tony Iommi remains as the anchor, and he seems intent on correcting the silly mistakes of Seventh Star. Gone are the crappy sentimental power ballads, gone is the short-lived fling with «heroic romance» filtered through power chords and synthesizers. The basic idea is to deliver an album that would be the true successor to Heaven And Hell — restoring some of that record's hellfire and putting real power back into Black Sabbath's post-Ozzy brand of «power metal». Naturally, in order to have real power, what you need is reliable powerlines — riffs that eagerly imprint themselves in your brains and trigger fist-clenching and air guitar playing on sight. In all honesty, we had very few of those even in the Dio era; the last time we remember Tony coming up with a genuinely impressive collection was in 1975, with Sabotage. Well, prepare yourself for the odd wonder: The Eternal Idol is, without a single doubt, the absolute best collection of original Iommi riffs since 1975. In fact, might even be since 1971.
Yes, the problem is that there is little, if anything, other than the riffs to recommend. The production is slightly improved over Seventh Star, but most of the basic problems typical of generic Eighties' power metal remain in place. Stiff drums, slightly synthetic guitar tones, even more synthetic keyboards, and a bass guitar that is only there strictly for formal purposes. On top of this, we have this new singer who seems to have carefully studied every trick in Dio's handbook, but who is simply not a natural like Ronnie — he knows not how to use the back of his oral cavity, only the front, and, consequently, has no way to properly scare the shit out of the listener. At least he is not trying to be a frickin' rock'n'roll opera star, like Hughes, so when his vocals drift off on you in the context of a decent song, they are not an immediate turn-off.
Ah, but those riffs. If you only have patience for one song, go along with ʽHard Life To Loveʼ, which is basically all riff — heavy, simple, threatening, jumping at you like a hungry tiger locked in its cage, and at a respectable tempo at that. Second champion is ʽBorn To Loseʼ, where the riff is a bit more complex, a bit more high-pitched, maybe even a bit more poppy, but every bit as memorable — not so much in a «threatening» way this time, but being more of an aural tease, if you get what I mean. Give these tunes a better singer, and they will both be better «fast power metal anthems» than ʽNeon Knightsʼ, in a jiffy.
They don't fare too bad in the slow department, either. ʽThe Shiningʼ, selected to open the album as well as be its only single (didn't chart) and its only video (Gothic lighting!), meanders a bit in the intro before a simple, brutal monster riff breaks out with all the verve of Master Of Reality. The big silly drums obscure it, and the production effect strips it of some of the potential power, but this is the same Tony Iommi that had almost made us forgot why the hell did we single him out of the faceless crowd seventeen years back. Martin's call-to-arms ("Rise up! To the shining!") is naïve and ineffective, but the non-vocal rumble behind it is at least loud enough to allow you to attune your ears only to the music — only to the riff — and that's what makes you rise up.
Of the two «supernatural descents into the dark and hellish», ʽNightmareʼ and the title track, it is the former that has the better riff, well adapted to the song's title; ʽEternal Idolʼ tries harder to be epic and religious, evoking a feel of doom that would make it the Tony Martin era equivalent of ʽBlack Sabbathʼ itself — not half-bad, actually, though it does lack the necessary crushing riff, and so Martin's "sinners say your prayers tonight! your judgement day is here!" rings a bit hollow no matter how viciously the drummer smites his skins. Still, it's been a long time since they tried to go for this devilish atmosphere, and it could have been much worse (and soon would be).
In conclusion, if there is one Black Sabbath simply screaming to be remade after all those years, it is The Eternal Idol, pure black gold at heart but marred with the predictable ravages of its time. I have no idea whatsoever how all these riffs came about — and why this weird comeback of Tony's chief talent only perked up for this brief moment in 1987, a year not at all benevolent to the «comeback spirit» of old rockers. But the simple fact remains — at least two or three songs off this album have made it to my personal «post-Ozzy best-of B.S.» compilation, which is far more than could be said of any of the other Martin-era records. A flawed, but auspicious beginning, worthy of a thumbs up; too bad that the future would turn out so treacherous.