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Thirty Years Later: Black Sabbath – Headless Cross

The 1980s would be a decade chock full of chaos for Black Sabbath, as they’d have recruited four singers within a decade’s time, latest being Tony Martin. By 1989, Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio had achieved success in solo careers, while Tony Iommi was essentially the only thing desperately struggling not to let Black Sabbath’s flame die out. Thus, a follow up to The Eternal Idol, a record that would yield beefy song-writing and a promising kick was greatly in order. The result was Headless Cross, an occult loaded effort reflecting horror, doom riffs, and ever so slight glam hints. More importantly, Headless Cross is celebrating its thirtieth birthday.

Tony Martin

Heading into the second record with the latest frontman, another significant addition was brought to the lineup. Recruited to take charge behind the kit was Cozy Powell, known best for his work with Rainbow, Whitesnake, and Jeff Beck. Laurence Coddle would handle the bass duties for the studio sessions, and Geoff Nicholls would return to take on the keyboard licks which played a significant part in the spooky aura that coincides with the melodic and friendlier tones displayed here. If this wasn’t a solid enough lineup already, Headless Cross also features a guitar solo provided by Queen’s Brian May in “When Death Calls.” You might think that it’s the perfect formula to resurrect the band that once ruled the world that was mostly tucked behind the shadows in the ’80s.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. Although the writing here and song construction might be superior to anything they’ve put out since the Dio fronted albums, it didn’t fare super well due to poor marketing tactics. Headless Cross wasn’t particularly distributed very well either, and this was also where Black Sabbath would sign with a new record label known as I.R.S. Records which was an indie label not typically known for heavy metal bands. It may or may not have been a factor in distribution, but being dropped from Warner Bros/Vertigo certainly didn’t help.

Musically though, Headless Cross is an anomaly of its own. Not exactly a concept album, it follows a theme of evil spirits and tales around Satan. It wasn’t uncommon for Black Sabbath to take on such topics, but it was the first time they would focus an entire record around it. Naturally, that’s what brought in the spookier auras in the keyboards, but even the title track still had a bit of a welcoming feel, despite being lead by “The Gates Of Hell,” a chilling entrance to the ride. “When Death Calls” leads in with softer licks to work up a level of suspense, which eventually breaks into a booming chorus crafted around stomping power chords and thunderous kicks by Powell. Although it’s a slow build overall, it picks up full momentum before May delivers his solo, making this one of the longer tracks. On the contrary, “Devil & Daughter” is direct with its delivery. One of the prominent features here is how it glazes so much finishing over top, giving off an echo in the output, birthing drums with an even stronger effect behind the riffs. A sensation of actually being out in an empty plain of blackness that’s shown on the cover is achieved.

My personal favorite track “Kill In The Spirit World” is uptempo and welcoming yet still manages to fit into the groove. Glam metal leaks heavily into this tune which greatly boosts the soothing vibes, save for the dissolving melodies that paint a darker tint after the chorus is repeated again, which is followed by one of Iommi’s incredible solos. But the resolution of returning to that vibrant energy is magical, with “the seal is broken” line. “Call Of The Wild” and “Black Moon” take a similar approach with less major tones, but without a doubt load in the sharp hooks, which help the flow of the record wave between the haunting passages as well as the warmer sounding ones. The chorus in “Call Of The Wild” is a very recognizable one after just one spin, which was originally meant to be called “Hero.” “Black Moon” has a lot of ‘70s metal intertwined which hones in on layouts similar to that of Rainbow or Deep Purple.

Truly what I love about this is that it takes an evil entity and practically romanticizes it; this isn’t based around love, but the chord progressions and keyboards together have such touching level of emotion that when combined with Martin’s voice is just so compelling. It makes sense though; the concept of Satan is ridden with temptation and desire, so caking on these layers fit just as well, if not better than the extreme metal acts that would take similar routes. The closer “Rightwing” exits with softened guitars mixed with power chords, and an acoustic descent, which leaves a lasting impression of the occult always lurking in the shadows.

Headless Cross is an amazing work of art that got greatly overlooked. Naturally, it would gain a cult following over the years and eventually be something that younger generations would dig up, causing a slight resurgence. In my eyes, it’s essential listening and tops even some of the Ozzy records. If you haven’t given this a listen yet, I highly recommend sending it to the top of your priorities.

Headless Cross was released on April 24th, 1989 through I.R.S. records and is available in various presses in vinyl, with different colors on the album art depending on the country. It also has cassette and CD releases. There aren’t many CD reissues and no vinyl ones that I’m aware of, but any format can be found over at Discogs as usual.

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