Ian Gillan in Black Sabbath. It’s either a superstar lineup or a sacrilege pairing between two rival bands of the 1970’s, depending on one’s tastes. Regardless of listeners’ preferences, Born Again remains something of a cult classic among Sabbath’s forgotten albums.
There are a number of peculiar things about this album. The cover, featuring a garish picture of a red baby with devil horns and pointed, yellow fingernails. The godawful production, featuring Tony Iommi’s worst guitar sound on record. Drummer Bill Ward’s sobriety leading to the most forgettable performance his career. Gillan’s banshee screams and campy, evil lyrics. And, of course, the instrumental ditty, “Stonehenge,” with its notorious links to one of Spinal Tap’s most famous scenes.
Born Again is best described as demonic cheese with the occasional dose of attitude. From the opening notes of “Trashed,” the album’s generic, fast-paced single, it’s a markedly different affair than the two albums with Ronnie James Dio. If it weren’t for Iommi’s soloing and Gillan’s unmistakable scream, you would never guess it was a team of rock veterans playing this song. The music video, covering a drunk driver’s comical effort to beg forgiveness and evade the authorities, remains a bit of a nugget in the 80’s Sabbath catalogue for its comic value.
Only two songs stand out for their positive features. “Disturbing The Priest,” in spite of its hideous, squealing harmonics intro, is a dark and heavy effort that shows Ian Gillan to be in great form, hitting notes that have been out of his range since “Child In Time.” In spite of some hammy lyrics and evil laughter scattered throughout, it’s oddly catchy. As Gillan howls, “Your life is contradiction / Because of crucifixion” atop Iommi’s pummeling guitar, one can’t help but grin. Heavy and hokey at its very best.
“Zero The Hero,” meanwhile, is the only track worthy of being labeled a classic in Black Sabbath’s extensive library of songs. Stretching nearly eight minutes in length, it features a slow and heavy riff – some fans have pointed to its vague resemblance to “Paradise City” – and Ian gives his shrieking vocals a rest. The icing on the cake is the guitar solo, where Tony ventures well-outside his usual comfort zone for a full minute-and-a-half. It’s a shame that the album sounds as if were mixed underwater. “Zero…” would be an absolute bone-crusher if there were some meat to the guitar sound.
Things take a sharp downhill turn after this glimmering highlight, though, and if it weren’t for the rest of the songs’ comedic value, they wouldn’t even warrant a first listen.
“Digital Bitch” is just awful… awful! Tony Iommi speeds along with a generic riff and run-of-the-mill guitar licks while Gillan warns listeners to “Keep away from the digital bitch," cause "She’s a greedy emotional looter!” “Hot Line” is a similarly pedestrian effort, while “Keep It [Luke]Warm” closes things on a tame note. Despite featuring a guitar solo that harkens back to the band’s 1970’s heyday, most listeners will likely have hit the stop button by this point.
Much of Born Again is outright embarrassing, it can’t be denied. But it’s great fun. The duo of Gillan and Iommi offer some bizarre musical moments, both of them appearing to be in fine shape but having little chemistry between them. It’s a memorable collaboration, for better or worse. And if fans can’t at least get a chuckle out of the title track’s absurd lyrics about “The hearts of mutant gods” and “Grey plastic retards all floating in circles,” then they need to invest in a sense of humor.
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