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Album Review: 35th Anniversary of Black Sabbath Born Again

Black Sabbath Born Again Album Art

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the release of Born Again by Black Sabbath on the Vertigo/Warner Brothers Label. While there is no question of the huge influence Black Sabbath had in defining the early heavy metal scene, their recorded works in the 1980s and 90s were not as commercially or artistically successful. Constantly changing lineups, poor management, and substance abuse issues unfortunately tended to dilute some of their original power as the record company was always pressuring for the next “big hit.” This particular album did chart to #39 in the U.S. and #4 in the U.K. charts, though, thanks to anticipation of a new creative collaborator – Ian Gillan, former lead singer for legendary U.K. favorites Deep Purple, had joined Black Sabbath!

The original Sabbath lineup, formed in late 1969 with guitarist Tony Iommi, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward, was a juggernaut of dark, ominous riffs – arguably some of the very first “heavy metal” music ever created. Early albums such as their self titled debut Black Sabbath (1970), Paranoid (1970), and Masters of Reality (1971) were simply must haves in the record collection of any self-respecting hard rock fan (and seemed to inspire a particular hatred among parents when played really loud!). The band toured incessantly both in the U.S. and Europe establishing a solid and loyal fan base. All appeared well –  albums were released throughout the 1970’s, tours got bigger and longer than ever – but the end of the 1970’s brought the departure of front-man Ozzy Osbourne for a solo career – and the search for a  new singer began.

Black Sabbath came into the 80s with Heaven and Hell featuring Ronnie James Dio (ex- Rainbow) on lead vocals. With quite a following of his own from his work with Ritchie Blackmore, Dio meshed well with the original members’ heavy sound, and added his own mythical edge and presentation to the music. Unfortunately, two years and one more album later, Dio was out due to his own solo career. Guitarist Tony Iommi was determined to carry on even as bassist Butler and drummer Ward were suffering the consequences of 10 years on the road and struggling with their own demons – Which brings us to Born Again.

Cool trippy cover – a bright blood red satanic devil baby always catches your eye in the record bins. Hype and anticipation were up for this first collaboration with new singer Ian Gillan. Deep Purple had enjoyed huge U.K. success with Gillan and fans of his vocals anxiously awaited the album. Unfortunately the critics were not kind, and despite decent sales and an accompanying tour, this would be the only recorded studio work done by this particular line up, which didn’t even stay together long enough to tour it – drummer Ward played on the record, but not the tour dates for this album.

There are definitely some good moments on this release; some flashes of the old-style thunder and roar, but in my opinion overall it’s not one of the best in the extensive Sabbath catalog. The production seems to have been filtered through some version of the typical LA” big hair” band sound of the early 80’s. There is a rumor (denied by the band but persistently hanging on), of some clandestine “remixing” of the album before release by a band member, resulting in a muddier bass heavy sound. (There is a remastered CD version but I was referencing the album as originally mastered for CD format).  At any rate, the guitar tones are not Iommi’s best and have a grating bite, unlike the creamy thick distortion of some of his other recorded sounds. Gillan has more of a bluesy rock vibe to his vocals than some of the other Sabbath singers, and it works well on pieces like the title opus “Born Again” with its slower pace. The up-tempo tracks seem like riffs fleshed out with some quick party and boogie lyrics – perhaps trying to entice some love from early 80’s rock radio? More than one song could be by any one of a number of bands originally influenced by 1970s Sabbath and now charting hard rock/metal hits of their own throughout the 8’s. Judas Priest came to mind more than once. Repeated listening over the course of a couple weeks and I still couldn’t tell you the names of any songs except the title track and “Zero the Hero,” the latter mainly because of its 7+ minute length.

Black Sabbath Born Again Album Art
Black Sabbath Born Again Album Art

Not to offend any hardcore fans or invite personal abuse , but I wouldn’t consider this a must have – I’d say it’s worth a listen if you are Gillan fan or if  you are unfamiliar with it but I wouldn’t recommend this one to a new fan looking for an intro to the music of Black Sabbath. Stick with the classics first, dip into the Dio era, and then explore the wide range of “live” albums available covering all the line ups and you can’t go wrong.

Black Sabbath made it into the 2010s with founding guitarist Tony Iommi as the only constant from the beginning, and he has “officially” performed the “last” Sabbath live show (but you never know…). The lineup changes throughout the bands history could and have filled an entire book, along with the endless stories from life on the road. Kudos to Tony for longevity and always trying to stay true to the Sabbath legacy.

References / Further Readings:
Black Sabbath FAQ by Martin Popoff, 2011
For the Record. Black Sabbath, an oral history by Mike Stark, 1998
The Story of Black Sabbath: Wheels of Confusion by Steven Rosen, 1996
Black Sabbath Born Again – Wikipedia

Track Listing

    1. Trashed  4:17
    2. Stonehenge  1:58
    3. Disturbing the Priest  5:49
    4. The Dark .45
    5. Zero the Hero 7:35
    6. Digital Bitch 3:39
    7. Born Again 6:34
    8. Hot Line 4:53
    9. Keep it Warm 5:36

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