Ginger Nuts of Horror
Okay, Sabbath fans, enough time has passed – over two decades, by my reckoning – and I think we can admit it now... we all thought this was the end.
Released in 1995, Forbidden was the last studio album from Black Sabbath for 18 years. If you flicked through your well-thumbed copy of The Great Rock Discography (one for the old school fans, there), this was the cut-off point.
It was not a good album to bow out on.
In many ways it is the most experimental album the band ever produced. In a post-grunge world, they try their best to sound contemporary, but they were never a group that thrived on reinvention. Line-ups might change, cultural tastes might evolve, but Sabbath have always sounded like... well... Sabbath.
Here we are treated, if that’s the word (SPOILER: it’s not) to bursts of Tony Martin doing what can only be described as rapping between the choruses of opening track ‘The Illusion of Power’. I say rapping is the only description, because ‘having a nervous breakdown’ is a bit harsh.
‘Get a Grip’ follows more familiar lines, sounding a lot like ‘Zero the Hero’ from the Born Again album, and featuring a blistering mini-solo from Iommi about halfway through.
‘Can’t Get Close Enough’ is a fine song, but like ‘The Illusion of Power’ it doesn’t sound like Sabbath.
This is the problem with the album as a whole. None of the songs are terrible – the band are too seasoned for that – but they suffer from a case of mistaken identity. They all contain traces of that classic Sabbath sound, be it a strident burst of vocals from Martin, a killer riff from Iommi, or a thunderous drum blast from Powell, but somewhere along the way they try to sound like something they’re not.
On one track they sound like Biohazard, on another we hear hints of Alice in Chains. We might get a snatch of Aerosmith-tinged blues rock here, a Maiden-inspired middle-eighth there. Fine bands all, but it leads to a very schizophrenic experience for the dedicated listener. Hell, during ‘Rusty Angels’ you could be forgiven for thinking you’d bought a Bon Jovi album.
Truly, it’s only on ‘Guilty As Hell’ and ‘Kiss of Death’ that they sound like the Sabbath of old. Both tracks are worthy successors to their forebears, neither are justification for sitting through the rest of the album.
So what lead to this sorry state of affairs?
It seems the blame can be laid at the feet of two men: Ernie C and Ozzy Osbourne.
Ernie C, erstwhile of rap-metal monsters Body Count, was the producer for the album, and his contract stated that he had complete control over recording, producing and mixing the album. Black Sabbath were a band infamously protective of their production, as we’ve already discussed during this Summer of Sabbath, so one can only assume that some record company pressure was judiciously applied for them to agree to such a state of affairs.
Doubtless the attempt at sounding contemporary was Ernie’s idea. Certainly it was the result of his work behind the mixing desk. Perhaps he thought he could achieve with Sabbath what Run-D.M.C. had achieved with Aerosmith a decade previous. Or maybe he just wanted to put his own stamp on a band he must have idolised given his performances in Body Count. Who knows?
Not that it would have mattered in the long run. Both Iommi and Martin have stated in interviews that Forbidden was a filler album, knocked out to fulfil contractual obligations for the singer (although Martin wasn’t aware of that at the time).
Yes, if Forbidden sounds like a rushed job, it’s because that’s exactly what it was. Iommi and Ozzy had already been in talks about getting the band back together and plans for a reunion tour were being hatched. For that to happen, they needed a Martin-free zone, and Forbidden was the unfortunate result.
The album was a disaster, both critically and commercially. It was the lowest-peaking album in Sabbath’s history, hitting a lamentable number 71 in the UK charts and not even making it onto the charts Stateside. No tracks were pulled as singles (indeed, one would be hard-pressed to think of a track that would be suitable) and the band that had once been so mighty limped away into the darkness.
Until Ozzy came back... but that’s another story.