I've long been an advocate of the non-mentioned, non-Ozzy Sabbath albums. Mob Rules, Heaven and Hell (to a lesser extent), Eternal Idol and in particular Headless Cross get the same attention that an orphan from China gets from non-celebrity parents. Even on my own blog I've been adamant about the lack of attention given these releases dating back to 2009 when I did a quick article reviewing several albums rather briefly including Black Sabbath's Headless Cross and as recently as a couple weeks ago upon Sabbath's release of the abhorrent God is Dead? music video starring the vocally impotent Ozzy Osbourne. I digress however as I'm not interested in proving how terrible Ozzy is in comparison to every vocalist Sabbath has had since and prior. Rather, Headless Cross deserves mention and awareness because of a slough of great songs, great performances and to hopefully cut through the plague of individuals out there that attempt to sully the work Sabbath did after Ozzy's dismissal and after the impeccable vocal marksmanship of Ronnie James Dio on Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules.
I originally owned the CD Version of Headless Cross which I neglected in my youth. I traded it away for a copy of The Puritan's Lithium Gates. Doom for doom at least but I lost out on three of the greatest Sabbath (Headless Cross, Devil and Daughter and When Death Calls) tracks in favor of one immense extreme Dooooom track (It Is Your Own Decision To Respect Life). I picked up a copy of the album vinyl as soon as possible to overcome this self-imposed wrongdoing. While both albums retain minimal artwork, I must admit, the cover to Headless Cross is one of the most immediate and definite representations of Doom and of Heavy Metal which has ever been inked onto a one square foot record sleeve. The ominous cemetarial cross harkens the subject matter within, the black and white colorless manifest to this day is reminiscent of so many of the albums covers employed throughout metal, especially within the underground and the backside of the album, featuring the broken cross headstone, symbolizes the heavy metal stance - agreed upon by so many - of an anti-religion, anti-establishment credo which has become ingrained in the minds and imagery of the genre. But looking closer there are subtleties. There is no image of the musicians or mention of them on the outside of the release. The Black Sabbath moniker appears small on the cover and the album title appears only on the reverse. The emphasis is on the Cross and the hidden moon, small in an ebony sky behind cimmerian clouds.
Everything here is precisely effectual starting from the ominous introductory piece "The Gates of Hell," straight through the final track, "Nightwing." There is a definitive 80's production here which is not to be supplanted but it's one of the album's strengths. The atmosphere created by Geoff Nicholls' keyboards at pivotal moments through tracks like "Call of the Wild" maintain that horror-like motif of 70's films. Those that claim the album is an 80's glam album need look no further than the lyrics which are morbid and demonic. If anything, what could be perceived as an attempt towards 80's accessibility could actually be deemed a clever and devilish propaganda trick. Ignorant vagrants looking for an album to enjoy could be seized unwittingly and thrust into the darkest and deepest throes of the Devil's malice. It happened to Brian May of Queen fame -he appears on the album's most powerful and emotive track, "When Death Calls," - at the behest of Satan and even the acoustic moments of album draw thee in. I've been lost for a long time.
The four best tracks are the irreplaceable title track which, with it's steady drum beat and iconic clear yet muffed guitar tone, lead the way through a story which - at least after listening to this album so many times - I could imagine no one else narrating other than Tony Martin. One of the least talked about aspects of this album is Laurence Cottle whose direct and particularly syncopated style comes across well on this album. His bass lines are notably driven on the album and while he rarely does anything of particular technical prowess, without the momentum of his bass lines, songs like "Devil and Daughter" would be nothing but a collection of well intentioned riffs over a metronome-like Cozy Powell. He pulls the rhythm section from beyond and ties it to the surface with one big subtle knot noticeable only after direct contact for long periods of time such as I have been known to enjoy with this album. Ultimately the three best tracks are the A-sides on this album though and after the title track, "Devil And Daughter" is fun and naughty, pleasurable and painful. Memorable to infinite ends. "When Death Calls" ends the A side with a menacing, discomforting and powerful. When Death Calls... There's no tomorrow. For me, when Martin proclaims "For I Believe, Satan lives in the souls of the dying," I get shivers at easy it is to hear that on a record and know that line would freak 90% of the world out. Awesome riffs and Brian May's lead is one of the best ever put on a record.
The B-sides are less engaging. "Kill in the Spirit World," while momentarily strong during the choruses and pre-solo instrumental sections reverts constantly to an unfittingly optimistic verse. The solo is excellent but that verse... "Call of the Wild," also suffers from a similar fate though less pronounced as that encouraging vibe is dashed after the intro for the most part. Another notable lead. Recognize the pattern here? "Black Moon," is notable for it's stop start main riff and strong finale of leads and big chords complementing Tony Martin's croons. "Nightwing," starts with some killer fretless bass work, acoustics and keys before following a similar structure as "When Death Calls," with the heavy emphasis on the refrains. While a strong track, the A-sides are just so good they make the B-sides seem less than they probably really are. Great album through and through even with some small flaws on the follow through side. It's hard to find an album with no flaws though, and I'm not one to ignore them to prop up a previously acknowledged opinion on what Sabbath's best era is. I think the music itself backs that up and it sure as hell came after 1979.