Master of Mediocrity: How Black Sabbath’s Worst Album Helped Them End on a High

It’s beyond fair to say that the fifteen years between Ronnie James Dio leaving and original vocalist Ozzy Osbourne returning are the most tumultuous and inconsistent years of Black Sabbath’s storied past. A string of what were essentially Tony Iommi solo releases bearing the Sabbath name for commercial value repeatedly received little positive attention from either fans or press. The old adage proclaims that things must get worse before they get better, and taking into account the mediocrity of 1995’s Forbidden and the Ozzy reunion that followed two years later, perhaps even the godfathers of heavy metal could not escape this curse.

Things would appear to be on the up when the Mob Rules-era line-up reunited for 1992’s Dehumanizer – with Dio back at the helm, Geezer Butler on bass and Vinny Appice back on drums, mainstream relevancy seemed on the cards again. The resulting album was far from the band’s worst, but it was miles short of what they needed to kick-start a major revival, ultimately failing to match the heights of 1980’s Heaven And Hell, widely considered the band’s best with Dio on vocals, and proving itself little more than an anti-climatic bore. Dio quit again and Appice wouldn’t be sticking around either, with it seeming that nothing short of an Ozzy reunion could once again prove the band’s worth.

Regardless, Iommi and co. trudged on. 1994’s Cross Purposes proved that a post-Dehumanizer Sabbath had even less to offer, but perhaps the final nail in the coffin was 1995’s Forbidden, one of few to not include Butler. Listening to the album aids in the understanding of how the band found themselves in a major career crossroads after its completion. The line-up was the same that had released Tyr five years beforehand, but the ensemble failed to reach even the less-than-lofty heights they had half a decade ago.

Produced, recorded and mixed by Body Count’s Ernie C and featuring a brief guest spot from rapper (and Body Count frontman) Ice-T, there’s an argument that the release suffers from a misguided sense of identity, but in truth there’s much more than this plaguing the album. Indeed, stylistically speaking, the full-length bore little difference from previous Sabbath releases but suffered from lacklustre songwriting, tin-pot production and a case of all filler, absolutely no killer. Described by frontman Tony Martin as a “filler album that got the band out of the label deal, rid of the singer, and into the reunion”, the release’s uninspired tracks and ultimately boring experience owes itself to a variety of issues.

Iommi has cited rushed songwriting and recording, with some suggesting the LP existed purely to fulfil contractual obligations in order to fast-forward an Ozzy reunion. The guitarist also noted that he was not present for much of the mixing process as he often would have been on previous releases, perhaps suggesting a lack of enthusiasm that is certainly palpable in the release. Lethargic opener ‘Illusion Of Power’ proved a tired effort lacking any kind of oomph, and was likely to lose many die-hard metal elitists as soon as Ice-T showed up in a verse that had been shoehorned in. It wasn’t all terrible, though. ‘Can’t Get Close Enough To You’ was a slow-building number devoid of any emotion, but its latter half held some semi-memorable Iommi riffage that proved his talents remained, even if they were subdued here. ‘I Won’t Cry For You’ proved borderline melancholic, at least mounting some kind of effort, whilst the title-track managed to earn the meaningless title of the album’s best due to its insurgence of an energy sorely lacking from the rest of the release.

In the end, though, Black Sabbath’s legacy would remain in one piece. A reunion with Ozzy, as well as Butler (and of course drummer Bill Ward, who after complications would not be in the band past 2012), eventually gave the world 2013’s 13, an album that proved the band members’ combined penchant for world-beating heavy metal. Also noteworthy, though, is 2009’s The Devil You Know, released by the Mob Rules-era Sabbath line-up under the name Heaven & Hell to avoid confusion with the reunited Black Sabbath. Though often forgotten in favour of 13, the release was a fitting one to be Dio’s last, and is arguably the superior album of the two. Black Sabbath would embark on “The End” tour several years later. Meant as a final outing for the band, the tour came to an end in the band’s birthplace of Birmingham early last year, and reviews were largely positive, allowing the band to boast a fully intact legacy that has inspired generations of bands and will continue to inspire more.

Words: George Parr

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