Mixed bag is for a good cause, so be nice
Black Sabbath released just one album with former Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan, 1984’s Born Again, which was either a low point for the band following the departure of Ronnie James Dio, or an unheralded masterpiece, depending on whom you believe. In any event, it was a one-off; Gillan split soon after to pursue projects of his own with the resurgent Deep Purple, and Black Sabbath was left to muddle on with a string of less-than-stellar albums (Seventh Star, Cross Purposes, Tyr) with vocals from Tony Martin. Who? Right.
Cut to 27 years later: For whatever reason, Sabbath guitarist/songwriter/guiding force Tony Iommi finds himself moved enough by the dire financial plight of an Albanian music school destroyed in a 1988 earthquake that he records a benefit single to help out. That single, “Out of My Mind”, features vocals by none other than Gillan. The single is satisfyingly ponderous and crunching, and suggests that these guys have some rock left in them yet. More importantly, it sells a few copies and raises a little money, so hey presto! Here we are with the follow-up full-length benefit package, Who Cares, a two-disc set of B-sides, outtakes, and scraps, the proceeds of which will go to benefit that same Albanian music school. “Out of My Mind” is included, as is another new song, “Holy Water”. Apart from that, this is a mixed bag indeed, containing remixes and outtakes from the Born Again sessions, live cuts, and assorted odds and ends.
First, the new songs. With guest musicians like Jason Newsted of Metallica and Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain, you would expect some fairly high-octane performances. “Out of My Mind” at least, delivers on that expectation, with its sinister chord progressions and moody bass. Gillan’s vocals sound pretty strong as well. “Holy Water,” unfortunately, falls into the trap of showing its sensitive side and then taking it too seriously, which will pretty much kill this type of music. There is some nice guitar noodling of a faintly Middle Eastern bent, but once Gillan starts emoting, interest dwindles fast.
In additon to these two songs, there are a few tracks from the Born Again era. “Zero the Hero” flows like lava from your speakers in a welter of siren-screech guitar wailing and that classic thudda-thud thudda-thud metal rhythm. It’s all entertaining enough, if hardly crucial. (Admittedly, there is nothing post-Dio that rates as “crucial” Sabbath—and possibly nothing post-Ozzy.) Come to that, it’s an apt description for the album as a whole: entertaining at times, but never crucial.
On the entertaining side of the ledger are some of the more unexpected tunes—unexpected, because their connection to the Gillan-Born Again era of Black Sabbath seems tenuous if not nonexistent. So we have “Slip Away”, a previously unreleased midtempo rocker, and “Let It Down Easy”, a faster-paced number, both of which feature Gillan’s post-Born Again replacement Glenn Hughes on vocals. Both of these songs are as good as anything Gillan contributes. Of course, there’s always room for one more live version of “Smoke on the Water”, especially when this one has a contribution from Ronnie James Dio. Album closer “Dick Pimple” appears to be an in-studio jam by Deep Purple circa the 1970s. Get past the opening minute or two of chatter, and it’s a sweet, swinging little tune.
That said, there are numerous offerings from Gillan side projects both previously released and otherwise. Some of these are fairly awful, such as the pseudo-soul/gospel of “Can I Get a Witness” and the tedious B-side “She Thinks it’s a Crime”. The bloated “Don’t Hold Me Back” could serve as an example of everything wrong with phony, cliché-ridden arena rock. The biggest criticism I can offer: It would sound perfectly at home on American Idol.
So then, there’s plenty of music here, both good and bad. None of this is likely to alter your perception of either Black Sabbath or Deep Purple, then, but fans of the band are likely to find some enjoyable nuggets. This one is for hardcore fans only, though. Casual listeners would be better off trawling through the first four or five albums by both bands to get a sense of why they are held in such high regard, even now.
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// Notes from the Road
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