Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A Look Back at Black Sabbath's Headless Cross

Though it was barely acknowledged when first released in 1989, it's hard to emphasize just how significant Headless Cross is in the grand scheme of Black Sabbath's career. The Eternal Idol had previously explored a darker sound and introduced what was left of the fanbase to singer Tony Martin, but Headless Cross perfected the style and pushed its strongest elements to even further heights. It wasn't a monolith statement but it could be regarded as the first true Sabbath album since the early 80s.

For starters, there hadn't been a Sabbath lineup that showed off this much talent and chemistry since The Mob Rules. The production is clearer than The Eternal Idol's had been, giving Goeff Nicholls's keyboards room to provide some admittedly dated atmosphere and allowing drummer Cozy Powell's hard hitting barrages to give extra aggression to Iommi's signature riffs and solos. Tony Martin also seems to be more comfortable this time around, showing off a wide range and dramatic character that was previously limited by a need to match Ray Gillen. Bassist Lawrence Cottle also manages to stand out on the title track despite only playing on this as a session member.

The band's doomy power glam template also allows for varied songwriting. The title track and "When Death Calls" are easily the album's strongest tracks as the former recycles the anthemic march of "Heaven And Hell" to great effect while the latter has some climactic tempo changes and soaring vocals. Elsewhere, "Devil And Daughter" borders on speed metal, "Black Moon" effortlessly alternates between blues and power metal, and the closing "Nightwing" serves as a grand but ominous ballad.

The lyrics also opt for a darker tone though this has become a point of contention for some listeners. In contrast to the occult warnings of Sabbath's classic era, Headless Cross is much less subtle and takes cues from King Diamond. The results are about as campy and may be too cheesy for those used to grimmer insights. If anything, pointing out all the times Martin ad libs and references Satan would probably make for a fun drinking game...

Like any good 80s slasher flick, Headless Cross is a little too dated to have the scare factor it may have once had but its excellent performances give it a timeless appeal. Black Sabbath feels renewed here and the album has its share of classics even if they are frequently dwarfed by the band's more famous ventures. It's a shame that this didn't put them back into mainstream relevance but subsequent releases were enough to prove the band's staying power.

"Headless Cross"
"When Death Calls"
"Black Moon"
"Night Wing"

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