As a guy that’s been a Black Sabbath fan since high school, I’m thankful that the band is no longer solely judged by the albums featuring Ozzy Osbourne. Whether it was spearheaded by the Heaven & Hell reunion with Ronnie James Dio or just a gradual opening of minds over time, there’s much more interest in the band’s more obscure albums these days. But with two albums that have Deep Purple singers on them and five featuring Tony “your dad has never heard of him” Martin, it can be tough to tell what is the best that 80s-90s Sabbath has to offer.
Since I seem to be the Indy Metal Vault staff’s “Sabbath guy,” I’ve picked ten songs that best represent the albums that don’t feature Ozzy or Dio on vocals. If you’re curious about this era but don’t know where to start, these are the songs that I would recommend checking out first. Also, there’s nothing from Forbidden on here; I actually like that album but I don’t like it that much…
10) “Heart like a Wheel” from Seventh Star
Black Sabbath may be the world’s first heavy metal band but they owed quite a bit to the blues in their early years. “Heart like a Wheel” is much more polished than the Cream on downers jams that make up their iconic debut but it does feature a pretty cool blues rhythm, ripping leads by one Tony Iommi, and an incredibly passionate vocal performance by Glenn Hughes.
9) “Heaven in Black” from Tyr
Tyr is the closest that Black Sabbath ever got to releasing a power metal album. This is most apparent with the closing “Heaven in Black.” The track makes excellent use of a “Children of the Grave” guitar gallop, pounding drums by the late Cozy Powell, and a particularly engaging chorus hook. Also, the lyrics are about a czar who commissioned the construction of a church and then had the architects’ eyes gouged out so they could never make a more beautiful monument. Metal as fuck, I dare wager.
8) “The Eternal Idol” from The Eternal Idol
A post-Dio Sabbath wouldn’t truly find steady footing until Headless Cross but The Eternal Idol was an earnest attempt at recapturing their former glory. The closing title track is a clear echo of “Black Sabbath” (The song, not the band) with its soft/heavy dynamics and slow burn structure. In addition, the lyrics are the most existential ever associated with the band until Dehumanizer took them straight into all-out nihilism. It’s not as iconic as the song that inspired it, but it is still a really good one.
7) “Disturbing the Priest” from Born Again
“Disturbing the Priest” may have haunting guitar/keyboard chords and an ominously thumping bass line, but there’s one thing that truly makes it the most evil Sabbath song ever written: Ian Gillan. I don’t know if he was just hamming it up or possibly expressing some subconscious darkness within himself (Probably the former. He is a very goofy fella), but this Deep Purple singer really knew how to combine his signature banshee screams with the wickedest laughter ever heard in 80s metal. Who would’ve thought the “Smoke on the Water” guy had it in him?
6) “Virtual Death” from Cross Purposes
One of the things that makes Cross Purposes feel like a “legitimate” Sabbath album is the inclusion of bass legend Geezer Butler alongside those persevering Tonys. “Virtual Death” highlights him the most as the song starts with a sinister bass intro that transitions into one of the slowest Iommi riffs ever written and Martin’s hauntingly layered vocals. Its release in the early 90s strongly suggests influence from Alice in Chains, but I’ll not worry too much about crosspollination when it turns out this strong.
5) “The Law Maker” from Tyr
“The Law Maker” is one of the most straightforward songs of the Tony Martin era. The vocal lines are more drawn out, but the drums and guitars are fast paced and the chorus features more effective vocal lines. I’d be very curious to see how this song would sound in the hands of a band like Grand Magus. There might not be as much to say about this one as some of the other songs from Tyr but it’s probably one of the easiest to get a feel for.
4) “Zero the Hero” from Born Again
I’m pretty sure “Zero the Hero” is the best known song from this era. Cannibal Corpse covered it and everyone from Guns & Roses to Danzig has admitted to ripping off the main riff. While eight minutes may seem a little too long, the main riff is hypnotic, the chorus is pounding, and the buildup is dynamic enough to make one not notice the length too much. The whole thing has an almost tribal feel that I can really get behind. Add in some of the most nonsensical lyrics ever associated with a classic metal band (“With their magic in their music as they eat raw liver”) and you’ve got a certified classic.
3) “When Death Calls” from Headless Cross
“When Death Calls” is too heavy to be a power ballad and not long enough to be a traditional epic, but it is one of Sabbath’s more theatrical numbers. The first half mixes somber verses with bombastic choruses while the second half rides a series of up-tempo gallops, all while Tony Martin delivers some interesting musings on mortality (“Don’t laugh in the face of death or your tongue will blister”). Also, it has a guitar solo performed by Brian May on it. If that’s not enough of a sell for you, I’m not sure if we can be friends anymore.
2) “I Witness” from Cross Purposes
Sabbath’s knack for excellent opening songs was still present in this era, but “I Witness” was the band’s biggest kick in the pants since the days of “Neon Knights.” With a brief drumroll, it goes straight into a driving beat that is soon accompanied by tradeoffs between Iommi’s grimy guitar chords and one of Tony Martin’s more attitude filled performances. There’s also a lyric in here that I’m honestly surprised no one has ever used as a band name; I’m not gonna say what it is because I call dibs…
1) “Headless Cross” from Headless Cross
The title track of the most well-known Martin Sabbath album could best be described as a Hammer horror version of “Heaven & Hell.” Both songs share a near identical bassline, but while “Heaven & Hell” boasted winding tempo changes and lyrics detailing the ambiguities of faith, “Headless Cross” adheres to the mid-tempo march set up by Cozy Powell’s drumbeats, Iommi’s triumphant riff set, and Geoff Nicholls’ choral effects as Martin wails a wicked tale of witches, talismans, and the power of Satan. It does a pretty good job of summing up all these “lesser” albums that don’t have Ozzy or Dio singing on them: it may not be quite as influential but it’s still a hell of a good time for fans of all things dark and riffy.
I went to Ball State University and graduated with a BA in Creative Writing. Currently specializing in writing album reviews when I should be working at my day job.
My Grading Scale
A: An essential classic regardless of genre preference
B: A good album recommended to fans of a given genre
C: A flawed album with elements that are still enjoyable
D: A dull album that may only be redeemable for fans
F: It is a goal of mine to never review an album like this
I also play in a couple different bands and take it as much as I dish it out. Feel free to check them out!