Black Sabbath / The Unheralded Triumph Of The Tony Martin Era

The late ’80s and early ’90s were difficult times for the press and Black Sabbath. Born Again, slated for its cover, Seventh Star, slated for its artist title, and The Eternal Idol, slated for its Dio-lite singer, had publications such as Kerrang! in fits of underserved mocking. No one felt this more than the Tony Martin era of Black Sabbath, now celebrated in the Anno Domini 1989 – 1995 boxset.

Black Sabbath – Anno Domini 1989 – 1995 (BMG)

Release Date: 31 May 2024

Words: Steve Ritchie

At the time of release, all four albums were received very well by my ears, proving that Tony Iommi was adept as a musician who still had lots of room to grow. There was more to him than the riffs that made Paranoid a hit.

The Eternal Idol was the first album to feature Tony Martin. Martin would ‘only’ sing on the album and had no part in its writing, vocalist Ray Gillen being there at its conception. But there was something there for me that really marked Martin as ‘one to watch’.

But, with Black Sabbath being dropped by labels Warner Bros. Records in 1988 after an eighteen-year deal and Vertigo Records, the future looked bleak.

Headless Cross

Not that Tony Iommi would read the script. He signed a deal with I.R.S Records, and Cozy Powell was brought in to join him, along with Tony Martin, Geoff Nicholls, and bassist Laurence Cottle. The result was Headless Cross, an album good enough to be considered one of the top five Black Sabbath albums ever.

Black Sabbath Anno Domini 1989-1995 boxset
Black Sabbath Anno Domini 1989-1995 boxset

Just like a friend you have not seen for many a year, the first listen though again to Headless Cross brought back so many memories. Sure, the title track and When Death Calls would make the tour setlists, but there are so many more gems on this album.

Cottle’s jazz bass on Black Moon joins Iommi’s riff neatly, but it is Martins’s style and delivery that elevates this song and the whole album into the sphere of something special.

One thing that surprised me was the enormous number of lyrics I still remember. A two-hour car drive listening to the album was a joyous trip down memory lane.

The deeper cuts like Nightwing and Kill In The Spirit World are fantastic. It remains a shame that the tour did not feature more songs from Headless Cross, as they certainly had the quality.

You have to play Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Children Of The Grave and Iron Man in a set, as the fans expect that. But you do wonder, with hindsight, if Iommi would approach it differently, given the chance.

However, as an album, Headless Cross really showcased Tony Martin’s wonderful melody and just how impressive Cozy was. The bonus track, Cloak And Dagger, stands out as a style mismatch. This just serves to show what an impressive collection of songs were on this album.

Tyr

Tyr followed in 1990. Neil Murray would join on bass, and right from opener Anno Mundi, you can feel the more impressive production on this album.

Tony Iommi brings even more impressive riffs, his guitar voice on the opening of The Law Maker, showing a man once again on top form.

Jerusalem is epic. With the lyrical theme being less dark than its predecessor, it makes Martin less easy to sing along to, but that is a minor critism. The Sabbath Stones is one of three Tyr songs which would feature on the tour.

The tour would open with Neon Nights, Iron Man and Children Of The Grave. Why on earth was Heaven In Black not on the list? At around 50 shows, the Tyr tour never made it beyond Europe. The Heavy Metal crash was hitting its strides, and another Martin-era classic would fail to achieve what it deserved.

Cross Purposes

With the lure of cash proving too much, a Ronnie James Dio reunion with the Dehumanizer album would follow in 1992. This would be short-lived, and Tony Martin would be back in the fold for 1994’s Cross Purposes.

Martin can be a right old tease. He has this wonderful knack of opening some songs in a lower range, giving you the feeling that you can sing along in the bath/shower/remove as necessary before the song soon vanquishes any such plans.

Black Sabbath Anno Domini 1989-1995 boxset
Black Sabbath Anno Domini 1989-1995 boxset

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the perfect album opening of I Witness and Cross Of Thorns. These two glorious tracks showcase Iommi’s wonderful art of riffing and Martins’s fantastic melody delivery. Joined by Geezer Butler for the album, his bass is a majestic match of busy and solid, while Bobby Rondinelli wonderfully fills the Cozy slot.

Psychophobia and Virtual Death follow, which at first seem a bit of a left turn but probably have something to do with Butler and Iommi working on a new style forward, matching past glories with the newer style of music of the time. Certainly, there are some similarities to how Geezer would develop his upcoming solo work.

The two openers, plus Psychophobia, would make the tour setlist.

Immaculate Deception is another standout track. It’s a classic style Sabbath riff and theme but with a superbly sung Martin melody over the top.

Said by some to span the entire style of Sabbath over the years, songs like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle would have a promo video made, while Evil Eye would have an Eddie Van Halen uncredited co-write credit.

It’s a solid album that may have been seen at the time as a collection of pieces not matched by a consistent theme. Now, with wonderful tracks like Back To Eden, it’s just wonderful to reimmerse yourself.

Forbidden

Neil Murray and Cozy Powell were back in 1995 for Forbidden. Panned by fans and critics, Iommi and co were dragged in a direction by the record company, with Ice-T for The Illusion Of Power.

Ernie C of the rap Metal band Body Count produced, recorded and mixed Forbidden. Match this to the stories around a reunion with Ozzy, and all this is was the recipe for the end of the Black Sabbath Tony Martin era.

The interesting news is that Anno Domini 1989 – 1995 features a new mix of Forbidden by Tony Iommi. It has made a big difference. The Illusion Of Power sounds immense. Can’t Get Close Enough is actually a good song, and it is wonderfully heavy now.

Get A Grip, one of four Forbidden songs that made the ’95 tour, has Martin in great form and Iommi killing it. It’s not a classic song, but it works well here.

There is not much to be heard of Geoff Nicholls on the remix.

But by the time you get to Kiss Of Death and the finish of the Martin era, the soft acoustic opening is a fitting tribute to an immense piece of work.

For Heavy Metal, these were difficult times. Tony Iommi had plenty of issues to contend with and many battles to try to win.

I read one Facebook comment recently where someone said, ‘I hate Black Sabbath with Tony Martin.’ Just a statement of his facts with no persuasive arguments.

At the London premiere of the Ronnie James Dio film, Tony Iommi talked about the singers in Black Sabbath. The fact is they were all very good. Some bands don’t get to experience that once, and the fact that Iommi has achieved that several times is just spectacular.

If you buy this box set and listen with an open heart, you will know, in the context of life and the universe, that the Tony Martin Black Sabbath era was an unheralded triumph in the bleakest of Heavy Metal times.

Black Sabbath – Anno Domini 1989 – 1995 is available from here.

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