“Hello. I am an Ogier and I am a Sabbathoholic.”
This is a line I could very well use in meetings with other hairy cave-dwellers, having an obsessive problem of being overtly in love with Black Sabbath, or – duh – THE GREATEST BAND OF ALL TIME, as we Sabbathoholics tend to put it. To my ears, they very rarely did anything wrong, and in the course of 19 studio albums they only managed to record two really weak ones. I could ramble on forever and ever about what makes them the greatest, but we would run out of space and you, dear reader, would run out of patience.
Even though the mighty Sabbath might never release a new studio album again, we fortunately have several Sabbath-related solo albums still surfacing. Their singers come to mind naturally at first, but also guitarist Tony Iommi, and bass player Geezer Butler have recorded their share, and these efforts are always greeted with joy and great interest. At least in the Prog Cave.
The subject of this review is the latest solo record by criminally underrated Tony Martin, who sang for Sabbath from the mid 1980’s to 1991. He was dismissed to make way for the returning Ronnie James Dio, and shortly reunited with Sabbath when things with RJD did not work out. The 2nd Tony Martin era of Black Sabbath lasted from 1992 to 1997, when he was once again dismissed to make way for the return of Ozzy Osbourne.
The Tony Martin era of Sabbath is often considered, as far as the popular consensus goes, to be the weakest of them all, but this is where I would really like to beg to differ. There were many things preceding his time in Sabbath that led the public to simply ignore the music the band made during that time. It had very little to do with the material, or Tony Martin.
Before Martin joined Sabbath, the most legendary of all bands had become a revolving door of musicians, especially singers. After Ronnie James Dio replaced Ozzy Osbourne in the recording line-up, and after the somewhat acrimonious split between the aforementioned parties, Ian Gillan and Glenn Hughes both took short turns with the band, each recording one album. During this tumultuous era of comings and goings, there was also Dave Donato (White Tiger), Ron Keel (Steeler), Jeff Fenholt (Bible Black) and Ray Gillen (Badlands) all taking turns fronting. Needles to say, none of them lasted too long.
So, it was quite obvious that despite the unmistakable quality of albums like Born Again, or Seventh Star, Sabbath had become a bit of a laughing stock in the press. A real-life Spinal Tap, if you will. When Martin joined the band he not only brought stability, but also a voice that was directly comparable to the greatest singer of all time – Ronnie James Dio.
The other big reason why the Tony Martin era is often dismissed in the media and among the fans, is the fact that in the 90’s – when he was in Sabbath – Metal’s popularity was at an all time low. It would not have mattered who was fronting the band, people would have still dismissed them as sad dinosaurs of bygone decades in the stranglehold of Grunge and Rap music.
What many people also remember about Tony Martin is the fact that Sabbath recorded with him what is often considered to be their weakest album – Forbidden. This was in 1995. But what is more rarely heard is the fact that they also recorded an album just as bad with Ozzy, in the shape of the utterly miserable Technical Ecstasy, so the “worst album” scenario cannot be pinned to Tony Martin alone. Even the Prince of Darkness was not entirely almighty, after all.
So, as I am now telling you to go and listen to albums like The Eternal Idol, Headless Cross, and Tyr, I say it slowly and in a highly understandable tone. Like talking to kids. Pay attention now! These are all classics, and if you have not even heard them, you should fix that… or stop calling yourself a Metal fan. Do it! Now! I am bringing us to the present day here, and will say that after you have checked out these three Black Sabbath albums, you should point your collective ears in the direction of the third Tony Martin solo record, Thorns. Or, why not to start with it? As it is unbelievably good. Mind-blowing ear candy to Sabbathoholics, and to any Heavy Metal fan in general.
Musically, Thorns is very close to the albums Martin did with Sabbath. There are a couple of more hard rocking numbers (“No Shame At All,” “This Is Your Damnation”), which he has always done really well, molded together with a heavy and doomy Black Sabbath crawl in “Black Widow Angel,” “Book of Shadows,” “Damned by You,” and “Nowhere to Fly,” from which the latter would be my pick for a song one should start with to get into this album. That tune is so marvelous, perfected by the emotional vocal delivery of Martin, and I think it would sit with great ease alongside the masterful song writing on Headless Cross, for example.
With Thorns, Tony Martin is not afraid to shake the listener up a bit either, and can really take us by surprise with a couple of almost Pantera-esque heavy hitters. This album is amazingly versatile and loaded with dynamics. Above all, Martin’s fantastic vocals soar, and I have to admit that he sounds as fantastic in 2022 as he did in 1989. Not many vocalists can say the same, I’m afraid.
I am obviously very much in love with this record. Let’s keep repeating that. I have been playing it weekly – many times daily – since it came out and I can’t get enough of it. If you really want to find criticism in it, the riffs might not always meet the dark finesse of Tony Iommi, but shit – Iommi invented the whole game! That comparison would be unfair to any guitarist on the planet, so the guitarist here (Scott McClellan) is certainly not to blame. Former Hammerfall and Jorn bass player Magnus Rosén also needs to be mentioned for his effortless work with the drummer Danny Needham (Venom). Together they play with a careful ear, supporting the music without any egoism involved. Professional delivery shines through the whole album.
It is rather easy to say that Thorns is something highly enjoyable. It is the best Sabbath-related release since, shit, Dehumanizer in 1992, and sounds more like Black Sabbath than the Heaven & Hell album with Dio. In the current extreme Metal dominated environment, this album is a breath of fresh air, with music that I don’t like to call old. I would prefer the term “ageless” instead. And if you have got this far in the review and are still suffering from the widely spread Anti-Tony Martin-Syndrome, you should remember what they say in the Led Zeppelin tune – “there is still time to change the road you’re on.” This album is one of the cases that can turn people around.