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Rank and File

Rank And File: Black Sabbath

Remember, Tony Martin had more albums than any other singer besides Ozzy.

Black Sabbath is a bit of a weird band to rank, for no reason other than how many different styles and vocalists they have had. Some are so different that it almost feels like stacking albums by different bands up against one another. On the other hand, that makes their discography all the more fun to run through, especially considering how many people just stopped paying attention to them after the early ‘80s. They’re also one of the few bands that I listen to that doesn’t have a single album that is out-right bad, despite the sizable discography of twenty. Today I’ve decided to take a closer look at all of them, and hopefully open some peoples’ eyes to the records that they’ve overlooked.

20) Cross Purposes (1994) “Sometimes I wonder what goes on there, behind those eyes.”

In case if you missed it in my introduction, there isn’t a single bad Black Sabbath album; only some that are, well, just alright. Cross Purposes leaves me wanting more, even after multiple listens. Nothing presented here is very interesting, and I feel like the beginning of it tried to capture the intensity of Dehumanizer. The issue is that it couldn’t, and as the songs progress, they abandon that. I do dig “Cross Of Thorns,” and the foundation here is solid enough. But that’s all I can say about it.

Final Grade: C-

19) Never Say Die (1978) “Panic, silver lining, writing’s on the wall; children get together, you can save us all.”

The biggest problem with Ozzy’s exit from the band was that the songwriting was flat as hell, and the variance was either not present or too annoying. In fact, the second side has a lot of interesting jazz sections but hardly fitting. What saves it is a few standout numbers. The title track is easily a strong classic, and I love how pretty “Air Dance” is with the piano and strings. It also ends on a heavy note fronted by Bill Ward titled “Swinging The Chain.” Again, nothing too horrible, but the band’s issues were all too evident.

Final Grade: C

18) Tyr (1990) “Can you hear me crying out for life?”

Tyr could almost be considered a rock-opera just based off of how the songs are structured and the concept behind it. Some of the vibes are quite soothing, like what’s given off on “Jerusalem.” I also love “Odin’s Court” because of how nicely the acoustic and soft guitars are delivered. Really, it reminds me of a throwback to “Planet Caravan.” The sudden and explosive shift into “Valhalla” is quite incredible, and I truly can’t say much against this disc. My issue is that it just doesn’t resonate with me the way it should, and ultimately it’s neck-and-neck with Never Say Die. I’ve tried many times to love this the way that some do, but I don’t see the magic.

Final Grade: C

17) The Devil You Know (2009) “My sunshine is wind and rain and thunder!”

I was debating whether to include The Devil You Know or not since it’s labeled under the band name Heaven & Hell, but at the end of the day it’s the complete Dio-era lineup, and I went for it. Recorded shortly before the late singer’s death, it made for a doomy and gloomy album that served a similar dish as Dehumanizer. The big difference is that the content follows a lot of religious and biblical themes darkened to extreme levels. Despite that, “Double The Pain” breathes a lot of life, and “Fear” has great riff-work and writing. The synth and trudgy-feeling of “Follow The Tears” are super heavy. My issues with this are simply that it’s a bit too long for its own good. I don’t find the overall disc to be as essential as some say but still recommend listening to at least once.

Final Grade: C+

16) 13 (2013) “The voices echo in my head, is God alive or is God dead?”

The similarities drawn between 13 and the band’s debut album are quite large in numbers. “End Of The Beginning” starts us off with a slow, bassy build into a guitar lead song; sound familiar? The single “God Is Dead?” is structured similarly, but if you ask me is written way better. The gallops in “Love Forever” is solid and the song has a memorable chorus. “Zeitgeist” is packed with more florescent melodies, reflecting the early Ozzy-fronted ballads. My main issue with this is Ozzy Osbourne’s voice, which was the same reason I dislike his newer solo albums. But Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler back him with such great foundation that half of the songs are pretty wonderful anyway. When this came out, I was skeptical, but I’m glad I gave it a fair chance.

Final Grade: B-

15) Seventh Star (1986) “Living on the street, I’m no stranger to love”

The closest that Black Sabbath ever came to making an AOR album was this one. Basically, a Tony Iommi solo effort, Seventh Star featured Glenn Hughes on vocals and was the first to bring on Eric Singer behind the kit. Naturally, it led to a glammier album mixed with doomy riffs that took a while to grow on me. “Stranger To Love” is such a fun number that fits in perfectly with the glam metal ballads that began to explode around this time. “Danger Zone” has a very sturdy foundation, and the opener “In For The Kill” is punchy and booming. Being the longest gap of time between albums, this is a good effort with a great overall sound, but I’ll admit that the songwriting is just a little bit lacking. But for the skeptics, it’s totally worth your time.

Final Grade: B-

14) Technical Ecstasy (1976) “I need a lady to help to get through the night!”

The two efforts to precede this brought the darkness to new heights for the period, but Technical Ecstasy steps away from that. The flow is rather awkward, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t tons of fun. A Beatles-esque number known as “It’s Alright” is stuck right in after two drastically different songs, being fronted by Bill Ward. As awkward as it is, I find it oddly pleasant. When in the right mood, “Rock ‘N Roll Doctor” is a total bop, as well as “She’s Gone,” despite feeling out of place. Ozzy’s high energy in “Back Street Kids” over Iommi’s galloping riff is a banger that molds quickly into an organ-filled slow-burner called “You Won’t Change Me.” The quality of this is quite wavy, but closer “Dirty Women” is easily the highest point on the album. The vocals in the outro always reminded me of Ozzy’s first solo track “I Don’t Know,” but maybe that’s just me. Do not overlook this album!

Final Grade: B

13) Mob Rules (1981) “If you listen to fools, the mob rules!” 

This is a bit of a spicier take, as Mob Rules is a widely praised album, but I just found others to be better. Kinda interchangeable with Technical Ecstasy, it’s a very top-heavy and more abrasive follow-up to Heaven And Hell. But in my opinion, it’s a far cry from that despite having some great digs. The title track is absolutely immaculate, and I could never turn it down. “Voodoo” is also very fun, and “Turn Up The Night” is a powerful song that starts the record off in a very familiar fashion. As good as “Sign Of The Southern Cross” is, I feel it tries to recapture the energy of the previous album’s title track, and it just doesn’t have the juices flowing as nicely. Again, do not read me wrong; this is a fantastic album. But there are plenty of others I deem superior.

12) Forbidden (1995) “You took it all, left me standing here with nothing.”

You may hate me for how high I put this, but frankly, I think Forbidden is underrated as all hell. I find a lot of alternative rock hints, and some obvious rapping in “The Illusion Of Power,” which actually features Ice-T. There’s a lot of emotions in “I Won’t Cry For You” that’s comparable to “Anytime” by Mcauley-Schenker Group. “Rusty Angels” is a total banger with loads of riffs, and “Can’t Get Close” has a calm and wavy intro the falls into a heavy song with tons of harmonies. It reminds me of something The Obsessed would have done. I’ll admit, that Tony Martin’s indifference at the time does poke through; otherwise, this would rank even higher. “Guilty As Hell” sounds extremely phoned in along with some other spotty areas. But as a whole, this is very under-appreciated. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself!

Final Grade: B

11) Dehumanizer (1992) “Computer god, it’s the new religion; program the brain, not the heartbeat.”

Dehumanizer is easily the angriest effort that Black Sabbath ever coughed up, and the first Dio-fronted album that was a sincere doom disc. There’s an overall feeling of hatred towards the direction the world was headed, attacking technology as a songwriting basis. Case in point, “TV Crimes” is a furious song with a faster pace and a hooky chorus. The bass and drum duo in “Master Of Sanity” is stellar from the beginning of the song to the entire rhythm support. Songs like “Computer God” take the slower approach, this one specifically being an incredibly hard punch to the throat. “After All/The Dead” ups the power even more and coats on extra thickness in the atmosphere. This is a little long and could have been trimmed, but it’s a very strong record that I recommend every fan hear.

Final Grade: B+

10) Paranoid (1970) “Now you know the scene, your skin starts turning green.”

Ok, I’m going to try my absolute damnedest not to be bias with this, as I know that Paranoid is one of the most beloved albums in heavy metal. I’ll admit that “War Pigs” and “Paranoid” are strong tunes despite being overplayed, and basically brought the heavy metal sound to completion. But I legitimately think that “Iron Man” is an incredibly annoying song, and have felt this since day one. The only thing to break this all up is the relaxing “Planet Caravan,” my favorite from the A-side. Thankfully, the B-side to this is unstoppable and packs so much in only four songs. “Hand Of Doom” is like taking the template from the first song on the first album and making it better. The bass carries it, the chorus is explosive, and it’s magnificent. “Rat Salad” is a great segue into the famous “Fairies Wear Boots,” which is super trippy and has one of the best intros in heavy metal history. Of course, I can’t overlook the horrifying “Electric Funeral” with its melting-hot atmosphere that brought Black Sabbath’s abilities to fruition.

Final Grade: B+ 

9) The Eternal Idol (1987) “It’s a dream within a dream, lost and lonely, don’t get pulled by the devil’s hand.”

The Eternal Idol is what I call the real continuation to the Dio-era, as Tony Martin’s voice and style are most fitting to his on the early Martin efforts. Moreover, the songwriting here is tightened down and extremely memorable. “Ancient Warrior” showcases his abilities greatly, and the energy is fantastic. Despite how haunting the atmosphere is, the melodies are beautiful, and the main lick is stellar. “Nightmare” takes a similar approach as it’s dark yet majestic. I chalk that up to the progressions on the faster riffs, lyrical themes, and maniacal laughter. Tony Iommi’s solo in “Born To Lose” is very vibrant and well-written. Bob Daisley backs him on bass for the first time, which thickens the foundation quite a bit. The structure of “The Shining” is amazing; the verses are heavy, the chorus is calm and melodic, and there’s a lot of harmony in the bridge. Seem like a lot? “Lost Forever” is all but a thrash metal tune, which is very unexpected. Tony Martin’s first effort is an overlooked gem that has tons of life to it.

Final Grade: A-

8) Born Again (1983) “There was Peter in the Green Fly laughing like drains, inebriation!”

Born Again was the Black Sabbath meets Deep Purple album that I never knew I needed. Stealing Deep Purple vocalists was their thing around that time, but I genuinely love this album and all of its rough production. The aura it casts makes this potentially the heaviest album the band ever made, and “Trashed” is basically a thrash metal tune, and one of my favorite songs they ever made. This production also makes it feel so hot and sweaty, with some of the evilest vibes Black Sabbath ever summoned. See “Stonehenge” into “Disturbing The Priest” with how menacing Ian Gillan’s laughs are over the slamming guitar chugs and pinch harmonics. I’ll admit, “Zero The Hero” and “Digital Bitch” are a bit silly, but to me, they’re underrated classics that people are just too embarrassed to admit they love. The end of this does tank a bit in quality, which brings it down some, but not enough to tank the whole effort. Plus, the title track’s softer licks and boisterous punches contrast this in a great way.

Final Grade: A-

7) Black Sabbath (1970) “Sleeping wall of remorse, turns your body to a corpse.”

The debut record hailed as the first heavy metal album was as good as it was choppy, and displayed many of Black Sabbath’s abilities without hesitation. My hot take with Black Sabbath is that the title track is my least favorite song on the album. Not a bad tune, but I think the band used its general idea in other places that worked far better. The most honest masterpiece here is “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” due to the solo at the beginning, the vibrant shadow in Osbourne’s vocals, and Iommi’s riff work being the sturdiest. I also think “Sleeping Village” is the darkest sounding number that heavily draws the medieval times into the atmosphere. One must appreciate the way it shifts to a happier sound that’s backed by Geezer’s booming bass-work, using repetition to their advantage. “N.I.B.” is where the band showcased their ability to write a catchy song with tons of accessible hooks, and “The Wizard” does this similarly but hones in on the blues more. This is what I call a masterpiece of a disc that’s an obvious essential, despite how loose everything is.

Final Grade: A-

6) Sabotage (1975) “Father of creation takes me from my stolen tomb!”

While Born Again may have abstractly been the heaviest album due to the production, and Dehumanizer was the most pissed off, Sabotage incorporates things from both. It’s also the spookiest album Black Sabbath has ever done, with the lyrics revolving around supernatural threat and insanity. Essentially, it takes the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath idea and amps up the intensity. The elephant in the room is the infamous “Symptom Of The Universe” with how abrasive it is, often credited as the first thrash metal song. But the following “Megalomania” is one of my favorite epics because of how calm it starts, and how haunting and creepy the bassy atmosphere is. The piano backed bridge segues into a heavier and minor-toned second half, changing the execution entirely. “Hole In The Sky” is a great way to introduce all of this, even though its sudden stop bothers me. The end of the album continues the scary vibes with “Am I Going Insane? (Radio).” It gets a lot of hate, but I think the instrumentation and layout of it are very unsettling, which brings us to “The Writ.” Molding a laughing/screaming transition into a phenomenal closer was a spectacular move, and I think Ozzy’s voice on this is top-notch.

Final Grade: A

5) The Headless Cross (1989) “The seal is broken, the oath has been crossed, and the house of the dead seeks the master.”

The Headless Cross is nothing shy of a perfect follow up to The Eternal Idol, but it’s more conceptual, with a dark theme revolving around Satan. Despite this and what the cover suggests, it’s rather glam metal influenced, and one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever made. Specifically, the song “Kill In The Spirit World” is what made me fall in love with Tony Martin’s entire era. There’s harmony, melody, loads of riffs, gorgeous synth backing, a strong solo, and some of the smoothest construction ever. The chorus even features a darker drop, and the whole thing gives me goosebumps. Other songs like the title track keep the feel welcoming, and “Black Moon” utilizes this in a chorus that’s surrounded by hefty licks. Others get a little darker like “Devil And Daughter” due to injecting speed; the heavy yet steady riffs paint a great picture of human connections to evil. And of course, I can’t forget the booming number “When Death Calls,” which features a solo by Queen’s very own Brian May. Anger pokes through just a bit on that song. You can see my full take on this album here, but to sum it up, this is one of the most beautiful interpretations of an evil entity ever made. It makes sense, as the devil is meant to be pretty and tempting.

Final Grade: A

4) Vol. 4 (1972) “My eyes are blind but I can see, the snowflakes glisten on the tree.”

Picking whether I like this or The Headless Children better was basically an impossible task, so consider the two interchangeable depending on my mood. This one goes back way further with me. Vol. 4 is another album that isn’t super consistent, but every idea is flawless. Some doom-drenched songs that hearken back to Master Of Reality show up, my favorite being the closer “Under The Sun.” It’s like a part two to “Children Of The Grave,” and a greatly overlooked classic. But the focus here also goes to a lot of up-tempo tunes such as “Supernaught.” “FX” is looked at as a worthless inclusion, but I like the gap it forces between “Changes” and “Supernaught.” Shifting from a sad and sorrowful ride to a dramatic intro like that was great. Plus, Bill Ward’s percussion in that song makes the whole progression worthwhile. Speaking of his drumming, this may be the album that showcases him the most, because his contribution to the opening epic “Wheels Of Confusion” is incredible too. Pace changes and a resolution are the names of the game, and it was a ballsy move of them to open on this note. Not enough? “Laguna Sunrise” leading into “St. Vitus Dance” is one of the fluffiest, fun-sounding duos in their discography. Definitely, a lot going on, and it broke the trend of only doing eight songs, but I can’t complain about any of them.

Final Grade: A

3) Heaven And Hell (1980) “Bloodied angels fast descending, moving on a never bending light!”

Many see Ronnie James Dio’s entrance to Black Sabbath as not only a comeback, but a return to form. Things just got so weird with the two predecessors that Dio more-or-less redefined Black Sabbath instead of returning it to anything it was before. That shows immediately in “Neon Knights” with its faster and more powerful riff structure. The rhythms, lyrics, solos, and flow of this are perfect, and it remains one of the best songs the band ever made. But the title track is a great example of burning down the template used on “Black Sabbath” and reforming it to something better. Lead guitars are omitted during the verses (at first), the calmer chugs erupt into a massive solo, and it ends with powerful vocals. “Lady Evil” is a great lead in to this, as the riffs are a bit meaner but less in your face, while “Children Of The Sea” is built on softer guitars. That allowed Dio’s vocals to shine brightly overtop of the calmer tone. Side B takes about a micro-step down mostly because “Wishing Well” is inferior to everything else. But it also contains “Die Young” which captures a heavier bulk with a cooled down center. “Lonely Is The Word” is a cleaner note that they go out on, and “Walk Away” is a fun but softer song that wouldn’t be out of place on a KISS album. This record is honestly perfect, it’s just that others were more perfect, and this is undoubtedly an essential listen.

Final Grade: A

2) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1975) “Dreams turn to nightmares! Heaven turns to Hell!”

Similar to what I said earlier, this one is also interchangeable with Heaven And Hell, mood pending. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was the band’s first step into abnormal construction and an even better version of its follow-up. Ozzy hits new ranges, and the fear factor comes into play all over again. In fact, the end of the title track is one of the heaviest, most terrifying moments in the entire discography. To make things weirder, “Sabbra Cadabra” is a love song with so much life thanks to its synths, pianos, punches, and the transition left from the acoustic instrumental known as “Fluff.” The harmonies and riff work in “A National Acrobat” are more accessible, but the proggy passages may fool you. Side B is a little more typical in construction, save for one outlier: “Who Are You?” This one has such an uncomfortable feeling with a dreary soundscape that it’s almost painful. But once you adjust to that curve-ball, it’s loads of fun. The other three, “Killing Yourself To Live,” “Looking For Today,” and the closer “Spiral Architect” are easy to get behind and revert to a more digestible sound. The last of those three is especially great because of how upbeat it is, making for the perfect exit. Again, you can find my full take here. A flawless and essential listen.

Final Grade: A

1) Master Of Reality (1971) “Is your mind so small you have to fall within the pack wherever you run?”

It’s truly amazing how such a short effort can do so much and has become one of my favorite heavy metal albums of all time. Master Of Reality not only solidified everything prior to it but cemented the truest doom metal sound ever crafted to this day. The tones and tuning here are legendary, and even the overplayed opener “Sweet Leaf” doesn’t get old to me. The transition songs are beautiful themselves even as stand alones, those being “Embryo” and “Orchid.” The former is such a calm and peaceful weave into “Children Of The Grave,” my personal favorite song by them. The mood is all aggressive and pissed off but doesn’t lose any focus. Tony Iommi’s riffs are face-melting, and Bill Ward adds so much to it with the drum-toppings. And that outro? Talk about creepy! A similar approach is used with “Orchid” falling into “Lord Of This World,” except that song is far slower and capitalizes on demonic themes and the occult rather real-world issues.

The rest of this disc holds a couple of surprises, the first one being “After Forever.” Touching on righteous themes among all of this darkness worked so well. The harsh tones were still present, just with a happier overtone. I also like the hidden message about shallow people who only move with trends. The other surprise is “Solitude,” which is one of the most relaxing songs ever created. It’s so depressing, and Ozzy’s vocals here beat that sadness firmly into the surface, which is glittered up with woodwind leads. The snug placement between “Lord Of This World” and closer “Into The Void” breaks things up perfectly. The latter rehashes the doomy presence of the former and chugs on with themes about Earth’s life ceasing to exist thanks to war. Geezer Butler’s strongest bass moments are here, if not on “Children Of The Grave.” Black Sabbath’s third record isn’t perfect; it exceeds perfection, goes above and beyond, and should not only be heard by metal fans but anyone passionate about music.

Final Grade: A+

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