Critically panned 28 years ago, Black Sabbath's bizarre 11th album, Born Again, has gone on to earn a cult following of its own.
When Born Again, Black Sabbath’s 11th studio album, came out 28 years ago this month, it was regarded by many as a complete shambles. The legendary British heavy metal progenitors were with their third lead singer in four years, and the new guy, famous as he was, was a strange, strange fit. The album was a weird, eclectic mix, comprised of seven songs – not counting two time-filling instrumentals – that ranged from fun rock ‘n’ rollers, to blues-drenched ballads, to strange excursions in atonality, to arguably the heaviest song Black Sabbath has ever recorded. The mix was absolutely abysmal, a sludgy mess had three band members pointing figers at the others as to whose fault it was. And that cover. Oh dear lord, that cover.
Some fans dug the record, or at least tolerated it enough to buy enough copies to make it peak in the top five in the UK and barely crack the top 40 in the United States. However, it seemed that most people at the time were divided: the older crowd strongly preferred the classic Ozzy Osbourne-helmed albums from 1970 to 1975 and the excellent Ronnie James Dio era from 1980 to 1982, while the younger crowd simply stopped caring. Yours truly was in the latter boat. With so many great new bands coming along in 1983, 1984, 1985, why on earth would we waste any time on Black Sabbath? They might have been a major influence on everything we listened to, but back then, a lot of us kids considered “present day” Sabbath to be somewhat of a joke.
One of the coolest things about music, or any kind of art for that matter, his how every once in a while you get a work that’s universally panned when it first comes out, only to hang around and hang around year after year, slowly building its own audience and gaining respect. Despite being the only Black Sabbath album to not have any RIAA certification in the US, a full generation removed from its original release, Born Again, despite its flaws, now has a great number of admirers. Martin Popoff’s massive worldwide poll for his 2004 book The Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums of All Time lists Born Again at a very admirable #83, between Toys in the Attic and Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll. Cannibal Corpse and Godflesh both delivered memorable, very different extreme metal takes on the album’s most famous song.
Rolling Stone revised its original Album Guide rating from an apathetic two stars to three in 2004, including a very positive write-up. Hell, both Guns N’ Roses and Danzig even stole a classic Born Again riff to use in a couple of their most popular songs. A fresh perspective from the passage of time can allow us to view works of art in a new, different light, and in the case of Born Again, nearly three decades after it came out with barely a whimper, it deserves to be viewed as a minor classic. Even yours truly came around. With all apologies to fans of the Tony Martin era, I consider Born Again to be the last great Sabbath record.
The trouble is, to this day Born Again is still out of print on this continent, having never been released on CD here, so unless young listeners find used vinyl copies of the album or download it on a torrent site, it’s going to remain somewhat overlooked in North America. That’s not the case in the UK, though, as Sanctuary/Universal UK has recently put out a swanky, two-disc deluxe edition. Featuring unreleased tracks, a live set from 1983, and a remastered version of the album, it presents a great opportunity to take a closer look at the record. And besides, with the world being so much smaller in the internet age, what’s stopping Sabbath fans on this side of the Atlantic from ordering the reissue from the UK?
Before delving into the tar-pit thick morass of riffs that is Born Again, one needs a little historical perspective. After an extraordinarily successful two year period which saw Sabbath experience a rebirth with new lead singer Dio – yielding two very popular albums – the band suddenly found itself in tatters yet again. The mixing process of the Live Evil double live album in 1982 was a calamity, two separate factions, bassist Geezer Butler and guitarist Tony Iommi, Dio and drummer Vinny Appice, quarreling pettily about how the record should sound. In the end, Dio left in a huff, taking Appice along to form his own eponymous band. Butler and Iommi, on the other hand, were left to pick up the pieces once more. Original drummer Bill Ward, who had left Sabbath in 1980, was back in the fold, despite being on rather shaky personal ground, attempting to live clean and sober for the first time in ages. But the big question was, who would they recruit as the new singer?
Having taken months off to recover from vocal problems, former Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan was looking for work, but had originally turned down an offer to front Black Sabbath. A second meeting was arranged in early 1983, and after a legendary 12-hour sit-down at a pub, Sabbath had found its third singer. That summer the band hightailed it to Richard Branson’s The Manor studio in Oxfordshire, England, and with typical excitement from the presence of a fresh, positive new face, the foursome knocked out a new record with co-producer Robin Black. What’s so strange about the resulting album is how four guys seemingly having such a positive, productive time writing and recording could have put together a record so dense, so dank, so brazenly uncommercial.
Many reasons have been cited why Born Again sounds the way it does, its overdubbed guitars reduced to a single, murky tone, the drums strangely cannonading. Gillan has said that Butler tinkered with the mix to make it more bass-heavy. Butler has said he was always complaining that the album sounded too heavy for its own good. Ward says far too much time was spent giving his drums that big ‘80s sound. Iommi offers the most interesting theory, claiming that while they were on tour that summer that not only had the original lacquers not been officially approved by anyone in the Sabbath camp, but they had been left sitting for too long before being pressed, which is why the tone on the album is so dense and distorted. Either way, like it or not, nothing sounds at all like this crazy album.
Strangely, that unconventional mix, though far from perfect, does in fact work at times. On some songs it’s merely adequate, but on others, it sounds sensational. In the end, though, good sound or no, it all boils down to the songwriting, and the seven offerings by the four members range from solid to timeless. Additionally, Gillan’s lyrics, full of whimsical wordplay and self-effacing humor, are a far cry from Dio’s bombastic fantasy topics and Butler’s doomy, grandiose lyrics on Sabbath’s early records.
No question about it, Side One of Born Again is easily the strongest. “Trashed” is a rambunctious little rocker built around a rather simple four-on-the-floor riff by Iommi (punctuated by a flitty little ascending keyboard melody) and a propulsive beat by Ward, Gillan gleefully telling the tale of how he and his mates crashed Ward’s car on a go-kart track late one night. It’s so strange to smile while hearing a Black Sabbath song, but Gillan’s account is so typically Ian Gillan, it’s just plain lovable:
We went back to the bar and hit the bottle again
But there was no tequila
Then we started on the whiskey just to steady our brains
'Cause there was no tequila
And as we drank a little faster at the top of our hill
We began to roll
And as we got trashed we were laughing still
Oh bless my soul
After that fun opener, things quickly take a turn toward the pitch black, starting with the odd ambient piece “Stonehenge”, essentially a tedious two minutes of someone striking a gong underwater. Gillan suddenly enters the fray with one of his trademark, ear-splitting screams, and the lurching “Disturbing the Priest” kicks into gear, Iommi letting loose a psychotic, atonal three-note riff that predates the noise rock of Big Black and the Jesus Lizard. After a very cool, sinister verse underscored by Butler’s creeping bass and Iommi’s feedback drones, the song explodes at the 1:49 mark with a towering riff, so economical in its four notes, but typical of the master of the metal riff, so chillingly effective. At nearly six minutes, it’s a phenomenal, moody cut.
The listener is taken even further down the rabbit hole on the next two tracks, arguably the album’s finest moment. “The Dark”, yet another ambient piece, groans away for 30 chilling seconds before the ominous groove of “Zero the Hero” slowly fades in, Iommi’s lead guitar squealing like a caged, tortured animal. Aptly described in Alexander Milas’s reissue liner notes as a heavy metal Bolero, the song revolves around the continually repeated main riff by Iommi and Butler, which churns and churns for nearly eight minutes, building more and more tension the longer it goes on. All the while Gillan spews some of his most ridiculous lyrics, which come across as the angry raving of a lunatic on the street (“Your facedown life ain't so much of a pity / But the luv-a-duckin' way you're walkin' around the city / With your balls and your head full of nothing / It's easy for you sucker but you really need stuffing”), which, considering the song, is a perfect fit. For a band known for creating some of the most truly evil sounds rock ‘n’ roll has ever heard, “Zero the Hero” is by far Sabbath’s most evil song on record, a nefarious, malevolent, devastating display of heaviness that remains a marvel to this day.
Side Two of Born Again shifts its focus to a more straightforward hard rock sound, which in the case of the perpetually gloomy Sabbath, is in itself a surreal twist. “Digital Bitch” is a similar “evil woman” song that Dio had a tendency to write, but Gillan’s continual wink at the audience makes it feel less heavy-handed than it could have been. Minus the smothering mix, the surprisingly beautiful “Born Again” could pass for a bluesy Deep Purple jam. Iommi’s ballads on past Sabbath records had a tendency to be on the saccharine side, but the title track has genuine depth to it, thanks in part to Gillan’s impassioned performance. “Hot Line” might be the weakest song on the album, but despite an opening riff that’s a little too close to Rainbow’s “All Night Long” for comfort, it’s got a contagious enough groove to make it passable. “Keep it Warm” ends things on a strangely tender note, Iommi’s sludgy central riff eventually giving way to Gillan’s sincere love song chorus.
As for the sound of the album on the 2011 reissue, the difference between it and the previous Sanctuary remaster is minimal, with perhaps the noise levels increased the slightest bit. In the end, the deluxe edition of Born Again still needs to be turned up twice as high as your average new metal CD. While in most cases that would mean the album has good dynamic range, being forced to turn up the volume so high only makes this album’s overall mix seem all the more bludgeoning. Fans have been clamoring for a full remix, but personally, the dicey sound has grown on me over the last quarter century; it’s part of its quirky charm. Besides, if you want a cleaner sounding Born Again, an “unmixed” version has been floating around the internet for years.
There’s plenty to interest listeners on the second disc of the new reissue. Previously unreleased outtake “The Fallen” will be familiar to Sabbath aficionados, having surfaced in bootleg form, but to be honest there’s not much to get excited about the track. A swaggering boogie in the same vein as Led Zeppelin, the song is not inept, but if it had been included on the album it would have made its latter half sound tedious.
The real draw on the second CD is a spruced-up official release of the 1983 Reading Festival performance originally aired on BBC Radio. Its inconsistency is remarkable, but is also what also keeps us compelled to keep listening. The performances of the Born Again tracks are terrific. ELO drummer Bev Bevan was quickly recruited after Ward became too ill to tour, and he helps propel tracks like “Hot Line” and “Digital Bitch” with more energy than Ward ever could have.
Meanwhile, Gillan sounds in fantastic form on the “new” stuff, the affable frontman coming off as charismatic as ever. Conversely, he sounds absolutely atrocious on the older Sabbath cuts. Trying hard to impress, he sounds like a self-parody on “War Pigs” and “Black Sabbath”; in fact, a colleague of mine was asked by a passing listener if it was Jack Black singing, and the more I hear it, the more dead-on the comparison is. Gillan is over the top and ham-fisted, and his screams are a terrible fit on those classic songs. While it’s weird to hear him sing on Ozzy’s calling card “Paranoid”, it’s even weirder to hear Iommi play Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” as if he’s part of an anonymous pub cover band. “The Reading gig killed the band, although I didn't mind doing 'Smoke On The Water' with Ian,” Iommi told Raw magazine years later. “We'd had to bring in Bev to replace Bill at the last minute, and he hadn't played that kind of heavy stuff since he was in The Move! It got much better as we went through America, but nobody saw that.”
Indeed, the Reading performance was not the brilliant return to form the band had hoped. The subsequent European and North American tour might have had its moments, but didn’t exactly set the hard rock and metal worlds afire, and was beset with poor production decisions, stories about which Gillan has told to hilarious effect. Epitomizing the Born Again era for Sabbath was the Stonehenge incident, which served as direct inspiration for the similar debacle in Rob Reiner’s classic satire This is Spinal Tap. While Spinal Tap mistook feet for inches, resulting in a comically tiny stone arch, Black Sabbath’s problem was the opposite: the life-size reproductions of the monoliths were far too big for a concert stage, the band forced to ship the ridiculous structures to arenas only to have them not fit in most of them.
Still, it’s an experience Gillan to this day insists he enjoyed (despite claiming he threw the record out the window once he saw the infamous “baby devil” cover), even though he left the band soon after the tour to work on Deep Purple’s great 1984 reunion album Perfect Strangers. While Gillan’s career was on the upswing, Sabbath proceeded to truly hit rock bottom, as Butler would depart and Iommi’s 1985 solo album The Seventh Star would be released as “Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi”, only to receive an even worse critical shellacking than Born Again did. After playing to half-empty arenas with a backing band of unknown hired hands (including future Badlands bandmates, drummer Eric Singer and vocal phenom Ray Gillen), Iommi would right the Sabbath ship somewhat with singer Tony Martin and a string of decent-but-not-great albums. While many Sabbath fans regard the Martin-era output as strong, none of those albums have withstood the test of time as well as Born Again has. Sure, sonically it's awfully tough to penetrate, but it is one resilient record, and is absolutely worth buying today, even at the import price.