In Criminally Slept-On, Schuler Benson takes a look at some of the most underrated tracks from his favorite prolific bands’ back catalogs.
Black Sabbath became particularly relevant to me in the late 90’s. My dad had already introduced me to their Ozzy-era music when I was younger, so by the time the Reunion double live album was released in 1998, boasting a couple newly-minted Ozzy Sabbath songs, the original incarnation of Black Sabbath had long since made its mark on me. And that influence continues to this day. I was a kid, man, so I didn’t even bother wondering where they’d been all my life. I guess I just assumed Ozzy left for a solo career and the band broke up without him. It wasn’t until I hit my 20’s that I learned more about the band’s interim activities. I was wowed by their material with Ronnie James Dio from the moment I heard it, and later found out there’d been no fewer than three other singers on officially-sanctioned studio output. At first, these releases seemed to me to be more curios than listenable, enjoyable albums. But as I dug further, I found there was a ton of stuff to love, and that Black Sabbath (in some cases, only Tony Iommi) had been steadily cranking out records right up until the shows that were recorded for Reunion.
Following Ozzy and Dio, Sabbath plowed through a number of lineup shifts, releasing two albums with Deep Purple alums behind the mic, the first being 1983’s Ian Gillan-fronted Born Again, then in 1986, Seventh Star with Glenn Hughes. After more turbulence and instability, Sabbath returned again in 1987 with The Eternal Idol, featuring new singer Tony Martin, who’d go on to accumulate five studio releases with the band, including Headless Cross, Tyr, Cross Purposes, and Forbidden. After Martin’s dismissal to make way for the Ozzy reunion, Black Sabbath’s various management and lawyer-types realized the marketability of what had become a highly lucrative legacy act. They focused on branding, revitalizing the Ozzy-era releases with new merchandise pushes, as well as consistent touring of the original lineup over a series of Ozzfest appearances. The Martin era, as well as the releases with Gillan and Hughes, were allowed to fall to the wayside, going out of print and eventually being ignored by the band altogether.
And that’s where we pick up. Despite the band’s reputation built on the high-visibility work with Ozzy and Dio, there’s a ton of quality Sabbath output in places the casual fan may least expect. In in the final installment of Criminally Slept-On’s series on Black Sabbath, it’s time to dig in with “The Other Guys.”
1) “Loser Gets It All”
Not all Sabbath fans are acquainted with Forbidden, the 1995 final release fronted by Tony Martin. And a number of fans who are acquainted with Forbidden don’t have a ton of praise to dole out. The album features some of Iommi’s weakest riffing, Martin’s most subdued performances, and production (courtesy of Body Count’s Ernie C) that couldn’t have been more bland and washed-out if they’d tried. More on the album’s final cuts in a second, but first, let’s check out “Loser Gets It All.” This is a b-side from the Forbidden sessions, included on the Japanese release but left out of the album sequence in America and the UK. It would’ve been one of the more up-tempo songs on Forbidden, had it been included, and its verse sections contain some of the closest things to undeniable hooks that these sessions managed to yield. It’s also available on the 1996 compilation, The Sabbath Stones.
2) “Shaking Off The Chains”
Most of the rest of Forbidden is a wasteland. Even when it was released, the album was condemned for wallowing in a lack of ideas; critics said it was written by a band so desperate to stay relevant they even included in one song a spoken-word cameo by rapper and Body Count frontman, Ice T. These songs are also peppered with a number of muted, stale alternative riffs that seem to be some kind of attempt at capitalizing on grunge… but I’m getting away from myself here. The last 20 years have proven it’s exceptionally easy to shit on Forbidden, but in spite of that, I’m gonna go to bat for it. “Shaking Off The Chains” contains one of Iommi’s shreddiest, nastiest pieces of riffery. The song gets off to a stunted start, but once it hits the 1:29 mark, the Maiden-esque ripper Iommi drops in puts the band at a steady gallop and invites the ever-so-casual nod of the head. I’m not gonna spend any more time on it here, but I will say this: for all the shit the dude gets, Tony Martin is not this album’s weak spot… as much as it hurts to say so, Tony Iommi is.
3) “I Witness”
Following Sabbath’s Dio reunion effort Dehumanizer in 1992, the band reconvened with displaced singer Tony Martin for Cross Purposes, an album I think is one of their most solid on the whole that doesn’t feature Dio or Ozzy. It feels like a lot of the chemistry from the Dehumanizer sessions was still lingering during the writing of Cross Purposes, and Geezer Butler deciding to stick around definitely made an impact in how tight the songs turned out. “I Witness” is one of the band’s best album openers, its hard-driving verse chugs and thick rhythms showing off the undeniable chemistry that still existed between Butler and Iommi after so many years, and the surprise chorus/refrain proving that the dudes still had a few cards left to play.