Tony Iommi

Divine Records, 2000

REVIEW BY: Roland Fratzl


As a big fan of the original Black Sabbath, which from 1967 to 1979 consisted of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward, I always look forward to all of their individual projects as well as their collaborative efforts.

It's quite amazing that after more than three decades in the hard rock spotlight, it wasn't until the year 2000 that the Sab's legendary and highly influential guitarist Iommi got around to releasing his first ever solo album. (This is, of course, highly debatable considering that all the Black Sabbath albums recorded between 1986 and 1995 were, in everything other than name, essentially Iommi solo albums, but that's beside the point).

So we come to the first "official" Iommi solo album, simply titled Iommi. The irony is that this album, which is one of those all too rare albums nowadays that is filled from start to finish with excellent material, sounds more like a classic Black Sabbath record than any of the Sabbath studio records from 1983 to 1995, but I digress.

Iommi took a cue from Carlos Santana and hired a plethora of well known vocalists from the present and the past, with each one adding their own personal flavour to each of the album's ten tracks. What is most incredible, however, is that in combination with Iommi's songwriting, all of them deliver passionate performances that in many cases outshine their own work!

When was the last time Henry Rollins sounded as inspired and dynamic as he does on the ferocious opening track, "Laughing Man In The Devil Mask"? An even bigger surprise on this song is that Iommi has updated his guitar style, playing absolutely crushingly heavy downtuned riffs that sound a lot like the typical style nowadays of "nu-metal" bands. While he practically invented this heavy sound and even the whole genre thirty years ago, it is nevertheless an unexpected surprise. But instead of coming off as ridiculous pandering to a younger and hipper audience, it sounds totally natural and genuine, showing that the old master can easily punish the young whippersnapping pretenders to his throne at their own game!

He accomplishes this by never allowing the melodies to be sacrificed in the name of gimmicks. Nevertheless, any fan of his completely unique playing style really would not want to hear a whole album like that from him; one salvo is enough to prove his point, and that's wisely what he did with the album. From the second song to the last the listener gets tossed around in a salad of vintage Iommi riffs.

That's not to say in any way that the rest of the album is nothing more than a nostalgic throwback. In fact, there are many uses of modern production techniques throughout, incorporating loops, samples, and electronic beats on occasion, but being subtle enough that they give the songs a fresh contemporary edge without ever becoming a distraction.

"Meat" features Skin, the female lead singer of British band Skunk Anansie, and she probably gives the best performance on the whole album. Her range and power are in awesome display, and with Iommi's massive riffing accompanying her, it seems they can do no wrong.

"Goodbye Lament" was the first radio single, and features a fired up performance by the Foo Fighters's Dave Grohl, who sounds surprisingly comfortable handling this much heavier material than that of his own band. Once again, Iommi shreds another dark, evil riff that instantly grabs your attention, and features additional guitar parts by Queen's own Brian May, a brilliant virtuoso in his own right, with a guitar sound as unique and instantly recognizable as Iommi himself.

"Time Is Mine" contains more great music, and so far comes closest to sounding like classic early 70's Black Sabbath, but the raspy, throaty bark of Pantera's Phil Anselmo takes much getting used to, especially in the wake of the previous three excellent displays.

"Patterns" is another great Sabbath style winner, sounding like the musical cousin of "Iron Man". This time the vocals are handled by Serj Tankian, frontman of popular nu-metal band System Of A Down, in another example of better singing and creating melodies stronger than anything that band has ever accomplished.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Ironically, the best song on the album is "Black Oblivion" which features the Smashing Pumpkins mastermind Billy Corgan. And I say ironic because his nasal delivery is not nearly as irritating here, and this song is more dynamic, interesting, and melodic than anything that band ever managed to write. It's a nine minute epic with vintage unorthodox Sabbath tempo shifts and distinct sections, showcasing Iommi's seemingly endless reservoir of memorable riffs making seamless transitions to single note creepy, clean guitar passages, while Corgan's exemplary bass work thumps away along with his boyishly twisted delivery and psychotic lyrics, before the song slowly fades out on an extended laid back blues jam. Simply excellent writing and full of surprises.

"Flame On" has an almost industrial feel about it, and the riffs, while still fine, are not quite as interesting as up to this point. Ian Astbury's (The Cult) vocals are almost hypnotic due to his excellent control and emotion, but the chorus is a tad weaker than you would come to expect...the tension is built up well in the verses, but the chorus itself really sounds like it still continues to build on this and never satisfactorily delivers a melodic conclusion. A very strange break of techno beats occurs in the middle of the song for no apparent reason and never appears again, making a rather gimmicky impression. While it's certainly not a bad song at all, it's guilty of excessive simplicity and repetiton, which is not something typical of Iommi, as any fan of Black Sabbath could tell you.

"Just Say No To Love" is another good song, but not great. Some of the riffs and melodies don't really sound much different than what we've heard before, and the song (with Type O Negative's Peter Steele) feels more like an Iommi guest appearance on a Type O Negative album than the other way around. This is not surprising, seeing how that band is one of the most obviously Black Sabbath influenced ones out there.

Just when it seems that the album has run out of steam, Iommi unleashes an absolutely colossally heavy, sludgy riff that pours out of the speakers like molten lava...and it's no coincidence since on "Who's Fooling Who" he is re-united with none other than Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward, making up 3/4 of the original Black Sabbath!

With Osbourne's unmistakable presence and Ward's ever fascinating off-kilter drumming style, the listener is privy to experience an excellent teaser of what 21st century Black Sabbath might sound like. The power is unbelievable and the way Tony bends the notes and adds vibrato makes the sound so full and monstrous. I swear that this track would not sound out of place on Sabbath's 1971 landmark album, Master Of Reality.

The final track "Into The Night" is a hilarious parody of the gothic metal cliches that were directly or indirectly created by Black Sabbath itself, with an outrageously over the top performance by 80's rock idol Billy Idol! His voice is in top form, belying the fact that he hasn't done anything in nearly a decade, and his high camp approach to the song is refreshingly self-depreciating. It's great to see that they didn't take themselves too seriously to include it on the record. Brian May makes another appearance here.

There you have it; this is just about as consistently solid of an album that you're likely to get in today's unfortunate musical climate, which places an emphasis on a few singles and allows the rest to be filler.

Most people have a pre-conceived notion that solo albums by guitarists are nothing more than self-indulgent, egotistical, hour long technical wankfests with endless soloing; that may be true in the case of players like Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, or Yngwie Malmsteen, to name a few, but do not make this mistake about Iommi. Like Santana, he has concentrated here on writing an album of actual songs with a host of different collaborators.

What impresses me the most is the very fact that throughout the whole album there is not a single instance where you get the impression that he's just trying to show off his chops. If anything, his solos are all very short and to the point. He should be commended for this totally unexpected amount of tasteful restraint on his part. The solos never even fully take center stage because they are quite low in the mix in most cases...seems like he was really determined to just write great songs, and he gets my full respect for that.

On a less positive note, I think the album would really have benefitted if it had been more experimental. It shouldn't sound so much like Black Sabbath the way it does...too many of the riffs, while all great, sound similar, all the songs are for the most part slow to mid tempo, and the arrangements are often more conventional than you would expect from him. Some acoustic guitar and other instruments would have been a nice addition, and maybe a stab at different styles. He did it on Sabbath's Technical Ecstasy, so I was expecting at least some of those elements of experimentation here.

But these are minor gripes when you hear the power and passion contained here, and we'll forgive him for not mixing things up more this time! It's one of the best albums of 2000 in my opinion. Any Sabbath fan would really love the hell out of this album, and fans of newer heavy music could take more than a few pointers from Iommi on how to do things right.

As of right now, March 2001, the original line up of Black Sabbath has surprised everyone by heading into the recording studio to make their first album of all new material since 1978's Never Say Die, and if Iommi is any indication, it's bound to be an instant classic.

Rating: B+

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© 2001 Roland Fratzl and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Divine Records, and is used for informational purposes only.