THE FORGOTTEN SABBATH STONES…AND A HEAVEN IN BLACK
It has been nearly 25 years since the mighty and unrelenting force that was and is Black Sabbath released the masterpiece entitled "TYR", which came out in August 1990. Why do I bring this up? Well, the fact is that the Tony Martin-era of Black Sabbath, which encompasses the "TYR" album, is criminally underrated, and that is a damn shame if you ask me. In my humble opinion, "TYR" stands tall and proud as one of the finest and most brilliantly arranged heavy metal records of all time, but you never hear it mentioned along the lines of such diamonds as "Heaven and Hell" or "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath". Most so-called fans of Sabbath that I encounter tend to ignore "TYR" or deem it inessential, but do keep in mind that their opinions are worth exactly shit to me. I worship records such as "The Eternal Idol" (1987), "Headless Cross" (1989), and "TYR", and I have done so for years, so deal with it! Anyway, I digress, so let me get back to why I love and cherish the "TYR" record…and why it deserves a tribute of sorts given that it turns 25 this year.
While most fans of heavy metal are familiar with the three masterpieces fronted by the divine and sadly missed Ronnie James Dio that came out in the early 80s, namely "Heaven and Hell" (1980), "Mob Rules" (1981), and "Live Evil" (1982), most people seem to lose track of what Sabbath did following the aforementioned live album. Following the departure of Ronnie Dio (who in turn founded his own band upon leaving Sabbath, simply naming it DIO), Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler engaged in a dialogue with legendary Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan and he agreed to front Sabbath for the "Born Again" (1983) album and tour. Not only that, but original drummer Bill Ward, who first quit Sabbath during the "Heaven and Hell" tour, came back into the band and did the drums on the "Born Again" album, but eventually came to the conclusion that he would not be able to tour the album, hence drummer Bev Bevan (Electric Light Orchestra) joined Sabbath and off the band went on tour. Gillan jumped ship in 1984 due to the reunion of the classic Deep Purple Mk. II line-up, and Iommi and Butler were once again on their own. Given that the intention of this article is neiter to bore the reader nor lose focus on the "TYR" album, let me just state that the years 1984-1988 were extremely unsettled and that quite a lot of highly talented musicians made their mark on the band’s music during that time, either on record or on stage. Hell, I will just list a few of them here for good measure: Eric Singer, Dave Spitz, Jo Burt, Bob Daisley, Ray Gillen, and Terry Chimes. The album "Seventh Star" (1986), which featured Glenn Hughes on vocals, and "The Eternal Idol" (1987), the first album being graced by the vocals of Tony Martin, were mindnumbingly awesome and state-of-the-art, but they sold rather poorly. Iommi, who had been the sole original member of the band since 1984, was derided in the press for not laying Sabbath to rest, and, unfortunately, a lot of people seem to share or have shared that opinion. On a personal note, this is where I think some so-called fans and critics lose a bit of their perspestive. To me, the fact that so many members have passed through the ranks of Sabbath adds a lot of color, flavor, and variety to the whole story and mythology of the band, which makes not only makes for very interesting reading years down the line, but also a bunch of thunderous live shows and sickeningly brilliant albums backed by some of the very best musicians ever to grace the face of this annoyingly large zit we call earth. As I stated earlier on, I do not wish to go into too much detail regarding the years 1984-1988 as I could go on and on about that for hours, but I strongly urge you to read Garry Sharpe-Young’s biography entitled "Never Say Die", which primarily chronicles the years 1979-1995.
By 1988 Iommi signed up with I.R.S. Records and decided to rebuild the Black Sabbath and regain some credibility by means of a stable line-up consisting of great and dedicated musicians, and he did just that. Geoff Nichols (keyboards) and Tony Martin (vocals) stayed on board, and world-renowned drummer Cozy Powell (R.I.P.) who had previously been with Rainbow, ELP, Michael Schenker, and Whitesnake joined Sabbath. Given that Sabbath was officially without a bass-player, the band hired Laurence Cottle to handle bass-duties in the studio as a session-member. The resulting album entitled "Headless Cross" is a timeless classic and a masterpiece that defies all words. Iommi was hoping that Geezer Butler would return to the fold in time to tour the aforementioned album, but that never happened and Geezer instead joined Ozzy Osbourne’s band. Luckily, Neil Murray (Whitesnake, Brian May, Snakecharmer, etc.) came onboard and the puzzle was now complete. Black Sabbath once again consisted of extremely talented and dedicated players who had all been around the block a few times and were determined to reclaim the throne that Sabbath once held. The "Headless Cross" tour was a major succes in Europe and the album turned out to be one of the band’s best-selling albums ever in that territory. As Iommi himself stated in his "Iron Man" biography:
In Europe the way they [i.e. I.R.S. Records] worked that album was was fantastic. In fact, Headless Cross did better there than the original Sabbath albums with the old line-ups had done. We went: ‘Bloody hell, finally!’ (Iommi, 272)
Actually, the band went to the US at first, but the "Headless Cross" album couldn’t be found in any of the record shops over there and the shows were so badly promoted that the Sabbath organization simply had to pull the plug on the whole thing after a mere few dates, which, according to Iommi, pissed Cozy Powell off:
Off we went to America ro do a tour and, as you do, we went round the record shops and there wasn’t a fucking album in sight. There wasn’t even a poster up, nothing. Cozy blew his top: ‘What the fuck’s going on, there’s no advertising, there are no albums in the shops!’ (Iommi, 272)
Thank Odin the European tour was a completely different affair and a success. The band was extremely tight (as evidenced by a lot of bootlegs from that tour) and the European fans loved that whole album/tour-package. "Headless Cross" was a statement and a true return to form, thus the only logical choice was to enter Rockfield & Woodcray Studios once the "Headless Cross" tour was officially over and done with and lay down the tracks for the band’s next album. By February 1990 the band members were back in the studio and spend the next 4-5 months arranging and recording the songs. The resulting album, "TYR", was nothing short of brilliant. It was released in August and come September the band was back on the road in Europe touring in support of the album. Now, if you do not mind, I would like to talk a bit about the musical and lyrical content of "TYR" itself. It will not take long, but there are a couple of things I need to get off my chest. In my opinion, the album is probably one of the most varied, captivating, and brave records ever put out by Black Sabbath. The Norse Mythology-themed trilogy that is "The Battle of Tyr", "Odin’s Court", and "Valhalla" rules beyond belief. The way that whole thing just builds and intensifies and then eventually explodes in your face is mesmerizing. As much as I like Ronnie Dio’s lyrics, or Geezer Butler’s and Ian Gillan’s lyrics for that matter, I consider it a brave move that Sabbath re-thought that whole aspect of the band and instead opted for lyrics that focus on Norse Mythology, the Ten Commandments ("The Sabbath Stones"), the St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square ("Heaven in Black"), and so on and so forth. The vocal melodies are out of this world and the rhythm section comprised of Murray and Powell is so hard-hitting and spot-on that it borders on the surreal. Keyboard-maestro Geoff Nichols is more present on this record in that the keyboard parts and string arrangements are much more prominent than earlier on. Just listen to his work on "The Sabbath Stones" or "Anno Mundi (The Vision)"! As to Tony Iommi…well, what can I say that hasn’t been said already? "TYR" is a riff-feast. I simply do not know how I can put into words just how excellent the riffs on this record are. Everything is perfectly varied, everything is dynamic, the production is nearly flawless in my opinion, and the whole damn album just oozes musical class.
As Garry Sharpe-Young so brilliantly summed it up,
‘Headless Cross’ and ‘TYR’ can, and often are, viewed together in much the same way as the original Dio era studio records. There is a significant set of Sabbath fans that proclaim the pair to be amongst the very best from any band that bore the Black Sabbath name. (Sharpe-Young, 234)
Have any of you sorry fucks ever glanced at the set-list from the "TYR" tour? It is unbelievably cool and strikes the perfect balance between old and new. Have a look here:
Speaking of the "TYR" tour, have you ever heard any of the bootlegs that surfaced following that particular tour, for instance the "Dies Irae" bootleg? Rarely has Black Sabbath sounded THAT tight. I can only hope that a remastered and expanded version of "TYR" will one day hit the record shelves, preferably with lots of live bonus tracks. Wouldn’t that be something?
If for some pathetically lame reason you have never listened intensely to "TYR" and paid close attention to its many nuances and layers, I suggest that you go hunting for a vinyl or CD copy somewhere and then go home, put on the record, sit back in your favorite armchair, close your eyes, and let the music take you to distant shores where the cold winds of Valhalla blow.
"TYR" track listing:
1. Anno Mundi (The Vision)
2. The Law Maker
4. The Sabbath Stones
5. The Battle of Tyr
6. Odin’s Court
8. Feels Good to Me
9. Heaven in Black
Tony Iommi – guitars
Tony Martin – vocals
Neil Murray – bass
Geoff Nicholls – keyboards
Cozy Powell – drums
Produced by Tony Iommi and Cozy Powell.
Recorded at Rockfield and Woodcray Studios (February-June), 1990.
Bibliography and references:
Iommi, Tony (2011). Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath. Da Capo Press
Sharpe-Young, Gary (2006). Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – The Battle for Black Sabbath. Zonda Books
http://www.black-sabbath.com/ by Joe Siegler