Ah, Tony Martin: the best singer Sabbath have ever had. I'll wait for the laughter to subside, shall I?
Well, here we are kids.
After nineteen years, a dozen albums, and a career that scaled the heights and plumbed the depths of both critical and commercial success, we arrive at the thirteenth studio album in the Black Sabbath canon.
Unlucky for some? Perhaps. But for you, the dedicated listener, it’s luckier than a leprechaun wearing a horseshoe truss because finally, after the Ozzy Era, the Dio Era and the frankly confusing Guess Who? Era we get to bask in the radiant splendour of the Tony Martin era.
Ah, Tony Martin: the best singer Sabbath have ever had.
I'll wait for the laughter to subside, shall I?
Oh, sure, you’ve got the icon in Ozzy Osbourne, the horn-throwing legend in Ronnie James Dio and the rock veteran in Ian Gillan, but Martin is something else. He exudes a rightness for the band that is difficult to describe.
Granted, he’s not the showman that Ozzy is. As impressive a set of pipes as he has, he can’t match Dio for strident vocals. He was never going to be on any teenage metalhead’s bedroom wall. Hell, in the promo video for ‘The Shining’ (the first single off this album) he looks likes Robert Palmer auditioning to join The Damned, but his voice... dear Lord.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. There’s a reason Tony Martin joined the band in the first place, and it’s a tale worth telling. Gather around the campfire, kids, and let Uncle Kevin tell you a story...
When we last left the boys in black, they had just released Seventh Star under the moniker Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi. This iteration of the band was fronted by Glenn Hughes of Trapeze and Deep Purple fame.
Following injuries incurred in a fist-fight with the band's production manager, Hughes had to pull out of the resulting tour. This, at least, was Hughes's story at the time. In truth, his health had been deteriorating for a while due to his overindulging in--well--pretty much everything. Food, booze, drugs... you name it. Whilst his backstage injuries may have been the impetus to quit, the man was already in no condition to perform.
His replacement for the tour was Ray Gillen, who would reach semi-notoriety in bands such as Badlands and Raging Slab. He acquitted himself well at the live gigs and was offered the position as Hughes’s full-time replacement. He accepted, and the band entered the studio to record the album we're discussing today: The Eternal Idol.
Behind the scenes, things were not going well. With the album recorded and in the bag, a combination of financial burdens, artistic differences, and the general mismanagement and miscommunication which had plagued Sabbath for much of the eighties, caused Gillen and drummer Eric Singer to quit out of sheer frustration.
It was an awkward state of affairs. The album had been recorded, and was waiting to be mixed, edited and produced to the band's satisfaction, only now there was no band. Gillen was gone. Singer was gone. Hughes was still recuperating and was involved in the Phenomena supergroup (for which Gillen also recorded tracks). Bassist Dave Spitz was being nudged out by Bob Daisley who was also writing some of the songs.
Into this tumultuous scene stepped the man of the hour... Tony Martin.
With neither the time nor the resources to re-record the entire album, Martin had a matter of weeks to reconstruct the vocal tracks, as laid down by Gillen. It is a testament both to him and producer Chris Tsangarides that they were able to meet this challenge.
Remember, the rest of the band's instruments had already been laid out: practised, rehearsed, timed and pitched to correspond with then-resident vocalist, Gillen. Now the new boy had to match that backing track exactly, filling the spot left by Gillen so that the scansion of each song worked with the backing track. All the while he was expected to add his unique spin to the material, making it his own.
Martin was a neophyte at this point: The Eternal Idol wasn’t just his first album with Sabbath, but his first album... ever. Think on that for a minute. This monstrous merging of the cover song and the karaoke session would be daunting to a seasoned veteran. Renowned substance-abuser Ozzy couldn't have done it. Pint-sized prima donna Dio wouldn't have done, and Deep Purple warbler Glenn Hughes was in no condition to do it, but this new guy?
Granted, there are a couple of moments where you can tell something isn’t quite right: ‘Hard Life to Love’ seems to cry out for some of his trademark strident tonsil work, but it’s not to be. ‘Born to Lose’ is another track where he doesn’t sound comfortable with the restraints he’s been set. Then there’s ‘Lost Forever’ which, with the best will in the world, just isn’t a very good song.
The rest of the album is great. From ‘The Shining’ to ‘The Eternal Idol’ (or ‘Some Kind of Woman’ if you’re listening to the deluxe edition of the album), it’s a blast. Tracks like ‘Glory Ride’ and ‘Ancient Warrior’ showcase what Martin would be capable of once the leash was taken off, and if you’ve ever heard them performed live you’ll notice that extra potency in every line, as the band morph the music around Martin’s lead.
It’s fine stuff. Of course, not being an Ozzy or a Dio album, none of the songs ever make it onto any Greatest Hits albums, or career retrospectives, which is a shame. It also makes one wonder what might have been achieved if Martin had come in at the ground floor and been involved in the writing and the composition.
I guess we’ll never know.
And what of Ray Gillen’s efforts?
Well, the 2010 deluxe edition I mentioned above comes with the full sessions featuring Gillen on vocals. Naturally it’s a rougher mix, not having been through the spit-and-polish of the studio engineers, but it’s well worth a listen. Gillen’s voice suits the songs perfectly well, as you’d expect. Of course, being more familiar with the ‘official’ Martin recordings, they still sound like cover versions to this listener’s ears.
Who knows the direction the band might have taken with Gillen at the helm? He was by no means a bad singer, but would he have stayed the course like Martin did (at ten years, five studio albums and one official live album, he is the longest serving Sabbath vocalist apart from Ozzy himself)? Who’s to say? All we know is that Tony Martin took the gig of a lifetime and made the role his own... for a little while.