BLACK SABBATH: HEADLESS CROSS (1989)
1) The Gates Of Hell / Headless Cross; 2) Devil And Daughter; 3) When Death Calls; 4) Kill In The Spirit World; 5) Call Of The Wild; 6) Black Moon; 7) Nightwing.
Hello Cozy Powell, goodbye good riffs. Many fans actually view Headless Cross as the second, and sometimes even the superior part of Tony's massive Martin-era «comeback» — freed both from the craziness of the Gillan-led Born Again and the pop metal gloss of Seventh Star, here is this new version of Black Sabbath doing exactly what Black Sabbath is supposed to do: writing and performing dark, dreary, doom-laden epics about the devil, dying, killing, going to hell, and never coming back. Tony Martin, say the fans, is the new incarnation of Dio, and now that they have legendary Cozy Powell with them on drums, they are ready to pummel us into the ground with Thor's hammer like never before.
Indeed, I think I know why Headless Cross is so popular. In all of its superficial qualities, it is the album that the more, shall we say, «occult-oriented» fans of Sabbath had been waiting ever since Heaven And Hell. Many of these songs were made to be sung at your local crossroads at midnight — and there is not a single speedy headbanger here like ʽHard Life To Loveʼ. Genre-wise, Headless Cross is a mix between power metal and doom metal, everything about it being sprawling, epic, with both Tonys trying to be as theatrically phantasmagoric as possible. No «fun» allowed as such: we are being deadly serious, as the first track already recalls the legend of the Headless Cross and Satan is always round the bend now. In fact, he's right there every time that Tony Martin sends his pitch sky high, and that's a lot of times.
Basically, Headless Cross picks up right from where ʽThe Eternal Idolʼ (the song, not the album) left off, intending to overload your senses with dark-tinged supernatural imagery. ʽThe Gates Of Hellʼ opens like the soundtrack to some creepy video game — synthesized moans, groans, and yawns of ghosts, wraiths, and demons greeting you for about a minute until Cozy kicks in with some mighty Cozy kicks, and in case you don't know it, the late Cozy Powell didn't have a lot of swing, but he did have more bada-boom than anybody else around. In a way, the fact that the music begins with a few bars of drums, before the guitar comes in, is symbolic — placing the accent on «power» over «melody» right from the start.
Actually, the title track isn't all that bad, if you overlook the fact that they subconsciously duplicated the rhythmic structure of ʽHeaven And Hellʼ — but at least it's got a couple of brand new Iommi riffs, not the best, perhaps, but memorable. Martin's efforts at getting into the character of a thunder-and-lightning heavy metal prophet of doom are not very convincing (he's still being a second-rate Dio and there is nothing anybody can do about it), and the main riff that drives the chorus sounds more like AC/DC in structure and effect than Sabbath, but I guess it might be fun to think of the song as a sort of (headless) cross between ʽHeaven And Hellʼ and ʽHells Bellsʼ. If all the album followed suit, it wouldn't be so tragic.
Alas, already on ʽDevil And Daughterʼ, with flat pomp dominating the speakers and the keyboards almost drowning out the feeble attempts at a guitar melody, Headless Cross begins its descent into total mediocrity — melody-wise, that is, because «taste-wise», mediocre power metal can be a seriously miserable experience. Bombastic mid-tempo or slow-tempo anthems with laughable lyrics, unmemorable riffs, and a singer who seems to seriously believe he can spook people into cowering and freaking out with his pathetic choruses ("WHEN DEATH CALLS!" "IT'S THE CALL OF THE WILD!" "NIGHTWING FLIES AGAIN!") — a complete victory of style over substance, which is certainly not what we usually expect of Tony.
It's not that there aren't any riffs at all, but what there is gets bogged down in bad production (Tony and Cozy are listed as co-producers) — for instance, the chorus riff of ʽNightwingʼ could have been handled in a much more distinctive way — and every once in a while, there does come along a song like ʽCall Of The Wildʼ where most of the melody is reduced to just yer basic power chords, while the chorus is dominated by Geoff Nicholls' keyboards. The melody of ʽKill In The Spirit Worldʼ could be written by just about any pop metal band at the time — or, even worse, fit like a glove on something like Yes' Big Generator. ʽBlack Moonʼ, for a change, begins with a great Iommi tone, fat and grumbly, the way we like it, but a few seconds into the song it is already obvious that we will have to do with a generic heavy blues-rocker, nailed to the ground with Cozy's bada-boom patterns. Queen's Brian May makes a guest appearance on ʽWhen Death Callsʼ, but this only counts as a bit of useless trivia — not even Frank Zappa could have saved the song from soaking in its own pathos.
Recapitulating: take Heaven And Hell, add late Eighties glossy, bombastic production, replace Dio's «roar» with Martin's «whine», throw in lots of cheesy keyboards, dumb down the riffs, and what you get is Headless Cross, an album doomed by way too much doom. You'd never think that a time would come when somebody'd pray for Tony Iommi to start boogieing, but maybe a bit of boogie could save this record — it is exactly this «ultra-serious» tone adopted by everyone involved that makes it so disastrous. Thumbs down.