Review Summary: Astonishing. Simply astonishing.
Black Sabbath past 1983 is not a topic you generally see brought up in discussions about the band and their 40+ year history. For a number of reasons (the negative critical reaction to Born Again, the bumping up of Tony Iommi solo record Seventh Star to Sabbath album and its subsequent tour falling to pieces, the constantly rotating lineup from the points Bill Ward and Geezer Butler quit in 1983 and 1984 respectively up through the first original lineup reunion, among others), for nearly 15 years the band was critically and commercially ignored save 1992's Dehumanizer, which featured fan favorite vocalist Ronnie James Dio fronting the classic Mob Rules lineup, which later went on to form Heaven and Hell in the mid-2000s. Amid the bedlam of lineup changes in the lead up to 1987's The Eternal Idol, Iommi enlisted the services of Tony Martin, who would go on to be the longest running singer in the band's history aside from Ozzy Osbourne. With Martin at the forefront, the band would release a string of criminally underrated albums, none moreso than 1989's Headless Cross, an album that combines the majesty of Ronnie Dio's albums with the evil, black magic overtures of Ozzy's albums, dumps a big fat pile of "80s" on it, and gives us an absolutely magnificent album in the process.
When you think of Black Sabbath, generally what comes to minds of most are stripped down production values, Iommi's proto-doom riffing style, heavy, thumping bass lines, and Ozzy's signature crooning, right? Well throw all that out the window, because Headless Cross is, for the most part, the opposite of the classic Sabbath sound. What we've got instead is an album that strives to be as grandiose as it possibly can be, what with Martin's impassioned, powerful wailing soaring over Tony Iommi's guitar work which, while still being very clearly Tony Iommi, takes a more epic, rocking turn. The music here, as a rule, is driven primarily by the vocals, with the rest of the music serving as the backdrop for Martin's voice to sail above it. Some songs are more active than others, with special mention going to the catchy as all hell swing of "Devil and Daughter" and "Black Moon Rising". Nods to classic Sabbath exist here, such as the title track's heavy resemblance to the "Heaven and Hell" from the eponymous album, the chorus riff of closer "Nightwing" still retaining that doomy, proto-stoner feel to it from old Sabbath, and the song "Black Moon Rising" practically being a classic-style Sabbath song, but for the most part this is a new sound performed with the passion of a group that's trying as hard as they can to make a great record.
Bass here, while prominent, isn't as much a driving factor to the music as it was on the older material. This is alright for me, as the music doesn't really call for super active bass lines as it did in the older, significantly more stripped down material from the band. The slack is picked up by the heavily increased use of synthesizers and keyboards, courtesy of then-longtime unofficial member Geoff Nicholls. The keyboards help give the album the incredibly "80s" feel it has along with the production style, rich in reverb and echo just as you'd expect a mid-to-late 80s rock or metal album to be. It could be considered "overproduced" for the time, but the music found here, excellent as it is, wouldn't be nearly as grandiose sounding if it had the production style of the older Sabbath records or even the style of contemporary bands like Iron Maiden. The legendary Cozy Powell's drums pulsate through the songs, rarely taking the forefront yet still active enough to not be boring. In other words, they fit the music perfectly.
Lastly, there's Tony Martin. I cannot imagine a more fitting voice over top this material than his, and he delivers the performance of his life here. As mentioned previously, Martin's vocals are the main focus of the music on Headless Cross, and considering he was on equal ground creatively with Iommi for this album, it's understandable why he would make it so. Martin was also for all the lyrics on Headless Cross, which take a decidedly darker approach than even the albums on which Ozzy Osbourne was the singer. Devilish themes had always been a main topic of the band's songs, but this was the first Black Sabbath record to be almost entirely about Satan, with "Nightwing" being the sole exception. "Nightwing" may just be my favorite song lyrically on the album, reading as if the words came from an olden time story of the titular winged beast of the night. It's like metal music made specifically for listening around the Halloween season, and that isn't a bad thing in the slightest.
As time has progressed, the reputation of Headless Cross, as well as most of the other Martin-era Sabbath albums, has increased dramatically for the better. Those who may not have been aware of its existence have discovered, or rediscovered in the case of older listeners, the album and have had almost universally positive words for it. As one of those younger persons not initially aware of the Tony Martin-era Black Sabbath records, I can say with certainty that Headless Cross is my favorite album from all the eras of the band. I know plenty of people who would cry heresy at that statement, they having worshiped the vinyl Black Sabbath through Sabotage were pressed on since their early years, and for people like that you can't really say otherwise to change their mind. For others with a more open mind, or those not aware of the band's records beyond the Ozzy and Dio eras (and Born Again), or those just interested in ridiculously epic 80s heavy metal, you absolutely should listen to Headless Cross. It is a slab of heavy metal perfection that will not disappoint.