Album: Born Again
Artist: Black Sabbath
Released: August 7th, 1983
Highlights: Disturbing the Priest, Zero the Hero, Born Again
For a band whose nineteen albums are uniformly grounded on the same tight niche – the one of menacing and plodding doom-laden heavy metal riffs – Black Sabbath sure has an unexpected number of phases; and that nature, consequently, causes the band’s discography to feature a whole lot of works that could qualify as landmarks. A good portion of the credit for that characteristic can obviously be attributed to the fact that, after the departure of Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, the group went through a large amount of vocalists, but the separation points go beyond who was holding the microphone. “Sabotage”, for instance, is the last chapter of Black Sabbath’s classic period; “Never Say Die!” is the final breath of the original lineup; “Heaven and Hell” is their first encounter with Ronnie James Dio as well as their reconnection with the art of making good music; “Headless Cross”, in a similar vein, would later show the veterans still had fuel to burn; “13” marked a return to their pioneering sound; and the list goes on.
In that sense, “Born Again”, their 1983 release, could be seen as the first chapter of a relatively obscure run of albums that would extend all the way to “Forbidden” in 1995. With Osbourne having success in his solo career and Dio, whose two-record stint alongside the band revitalized their music, also out of the building, Black Sabbath would go on to struggle to maintain relevance, not only because they would embark on a frequent switching of vocalists that would all fail to give the group a distinctive personality, but also because – for a myriad of reasons not exclusive to the writing itself – guitarist Tony Iommi would be unable to put out enjoyable songs with the same consistency he did during the group’s heyday.
On paper, the lineup of “Born Again” is a heavy metal dream. The instrumentalists of the classic Black Sabbath period – Iommi, Butler, and Ward – are joined by another demigod of the genre: Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan. Unfortunately, a group that seems just about perfect in theory does not necessarily translate into good results; there is, after all, a very important variable to that equation called chemistry. And “Born Again” shows how critical and mysterious that little detail is, because regardless of the camaraderie that existed between the parts out of the studio (as Gillan famously agreed to join the band after drinking too much in a pub with both Iommi and Butler), in front of the recording equipment the always elusive artistic magic escaped them.
It is ridiculously limiting for one to dictate what a band should be about; therefore, saying that Iommi, Butler, and Ward plus everything that Ian Gillan brings to the table does not qualify as Black Sabbath would be to unfairly shove the group into a corner of shackling expectations. There is, however, a sense of incongruity emerging from many parts of “Born Again”. Gillan’s writing is light and somewhat more earthly than that of Dio and Butler – who was responsible for the lyrics during the band’s classic era. As such, the supernatural and slightly philosophical style of the two men, which had dominated Black Sabbath’s discography up to that point, ends up – in “Born Again” – being largely replaced by fun lyrics about cars, women, love, fame, and drinking.
Approaching matters such as those is certainly not a crime, but it creates a problem for Black Sabbath – and, more specifically, for the album – in two points. By “Heaven and Hell”, Iommi had already abandoned a little of his signature slow guttural riffing for a more traditional and crunchy heavy metal approach to the guitar; in “Born Again”, that tendency is still present in some tunes, and when it meets the mundane – though well-penned – subjects of Gillan, the members of Black Sabbath stop being the lords of the most sinister brand of hard rock and start sounding like a common metal band, as it happens in “Trashed” and “Digital Bitch”. On the other front, that is, when Iommi is summoning guitar lines that appear to have come out of the darkest furnaces of hell, the songs seem to be made up of parts that do not gel entirely, with the instrumentation pointing to utter doom while the lyrics nod to easily relatable topics and the high screams of Gillan recall a much looser and faster brand of metal, a mismatch that is very visible in “Zero the Hero”.
Issues like those mean that “Born Again” is one odd creature, lending it a stylistic confusion that – in Black Sabbath’s canon – can only be equaled by the mess seen in both “Technical Ecstasy” and “Never Say Die!”. As a consequence, many are the tunes it has that sink due to that characteristic: “Digital Bitch” boasts blistering Iommi solos all over it, but its lyrics and chorus are ridiculous; “Hot Line” packs an irresistible – albeit slightly commonplace – riff that could have done without Gillan’s high-pitched vocal inflections, which drive the tune to campiness; and “Keep It Warm” threatens to go the same way thanks to its overly melodic chorus, which turns one otherwise heavy track into a power ballad. Despite those faults, “Born Again” is not exactly one monolith of uninspired moments. For instance, although sounding like middle-of-the-road heavy metal, opener “Trashed” – which describes how a drunk Gillan destroyed the car of drummer Bill Ward – is a very good specimen of the breed, as it is fun, fast, energetic, and catchy.
Ultimately, however, three are the tunes in the album that could stand beside the band’s best work, if not in terms of sheer quality, at least as far as atmosphere is concerned. “Disturbing the Priest” is horror-movie material: ridden with sinister effects, a dark gothic-like keyboard that emulates a Gregorian choir, and – of course – a riff that seems to come with a knife on its hand at the listener, the song sees the band transforming the humorous real event of a priest complaining about their loud music into a ominous religious experience. A similar darkness emanates from the seven-minute “Zero the Hero”: one of the heaviest tracks of the Black Sabbath discography, it carries a hypnotic doom that takes it rather close to the group’s debut album. Finally, and perhaps more significantly, there is the title track: the band’s best shot ever at creating a ballad, it merges beauty, haunting terror, and melancholy into one powerful number whose challenging and dramatic vocal lines could not have been more ideal to Gillan’s incredible reach.
Truth be told, “Born Again” might have been improved if the record was not riddled with such lousy mixing, which gives birth to a terribly muffled sound. Without that issue, its nearly flawless good moments would have gained extra power; meanwhile, its bad tunes, which are usually carried by solid riffs and instrumentation in spite of the bitter result brought by the junction of their different ingredients, would have been more pleasant to the ear. Yet, even if that enhancement would have made it clearer that under the suffocating wrapping lies one of the heaviest albums of the band’s catalog, the fact would remain that the one shot Gillan and the Black Sabbath instrumentalists took at putting together a record was far from successful. What seemed like a glorious match made in hell on paper came off as a confused and mostly heterogeneous substance. As it turns out, chemistry of the artistic kind is very far from being an exact science.