Black Sabbath - Headless Cross
Aug 6, 2018
The Eternal Idol was somewhat well-liked when it was released and it developed a pretty sizeable following that stands by the album as one of their best. 1989’s Headless Cross didn’t quite develop the same following that its predecessor did, but it was still well-received. None of that really matters though because the actual popularity of the band was sinking faster and faster. The lineup changes were becoming more and more common with this album having a new drummer and bassist. Headless Cross also didn’t have any presence in record stores with the album being infamously hard to get now. Through a combination of lineup changes and lack of exposure, the once giant heavy metal band was now barley selling anything and the fans seemed to stop caring. Despite all of that, people who have heard Headless Cross think it’s a strong album and fans of the Tony Martin era generally see this album as one of the best of that era. Was this album any better than the fantastic Eternal Idol? Was the band’s decreasing popularity really deserved?

While The Eternal Idol’s sound could be seen as a nice melting pot of everything the band did before, Headless Cross is a much less diverse outing. It’s heavier and lacking a lot of the softer bridges that The Eternal Idol used to break the pace. The sound is also much more focused on Tony Iommi’s soloing compared to his riffing. Besides that, Headless Cross also gives much more attention to the keyboardist Geoff Nicholls. It’s often said that this album is a lot like an Ozzy era album. While not exactly wrong, it’s not entirely accurate either. Yes, the doom metal influence is much more apparent on the title track, “Nightwing”, or “When Death Calls”, however, the only track on the album that actually feels like a doom metal track is the title track. At the same time others only have traces of that sound. This album actually continues to incorporate sing along choruses with more chaotic instrumentation making it use more of the Tony Martin era stylings. This isn’t a bad thing and there is still a decent amount of variety to be seen from slower tracks like “Kill In the Spirit World” to the the faster and more intense “Devil and Daughter”. There are still a few mid-paced songs (“Call of the Wild”) that make sure the album isn’t leaning too heavily on extremes when it comes to the pacing. In general, the tracks are actually pretty dynamic and do quite a bit in their runtime with a few exceptions.

The surprising thing about the sound of this album is just how well it works with the songwriting. From a musical standpoint, the songwriting here is fantastic. Tracks change pace at great times to keep things from getting boring and there is a lot of ideas present. From the loud keyboard that makes the soloing on “Kill In the Spirit World” feel more epic (for lack of a better word) to the progression in “When Death Calls”. The dynamics are used fantastically on this album and the atmosphere present on some of these songs are the band’s best since the first half of Born Again. The atmosphere seems to focus on being dark and more threatening which plays off of the lyrics.

Lyrically, this is the only Black Sabbath album to focus exclusively on Occult and Satan as it’s main themes. While the atmosphere does benefit from this lyrical setup, these lyrics aren’t great. It’s not because of the topic since there has been several bands to play off of Occult themes really well from almost every metal genre (very early Opeth and early Kreator for example). The lyrics aren’t great because they don’t do a lot with the topic. Most of the songs just kind of exist when it comes to the lyrics and only every now and then do they actually do something interesting. “Kill In the Spirit World” isn’t bad from a lyrical standpoint and the title track has a pretty good set of lyrics. Those are kind of the exceptions though and there are definitely songs that are kind of embarrassing when you look at the lyrics. “Devil and Daughter” is one of their worst songs when it comes to the lyrics and is airlifted (from a quality standpoint) by the music behind it. They are just very okay and pretty average at most points with a few highlights and a few low points. Luckily, the lyrics never get in the way of the flow of the album.

Headless Cross is actually great from a flow standpoint. For one, while the fading out issue is still in this album, there are more songs that actually have endings. I do still wish that there were less fade out endings and I don’t like how the last track, “Nightwing” ends in a fadeout. You still have a short instrumental (like every other Sabbath album), but this time “The Gates of Hell” serves a nice purpose as the intro to the album with it’s dark and eerie atmosphere. After that, the songs all seem to set each other up nicely even the ones that fade-out. The only problem with the flow is that the atmosphere is almost entirely made by Geoff Nicholls on the keyboard with the rest of the instruments usually adding nothing to the atmosphere that he creates. The only other problem I could really find with the flow of the album is that some of the songs are a little too repetitive, but nothing hurts the flow too much. Actually, my first problem with the flow could be seen as a positive as it lets the other instruments do more than just set up the atmosphere of a song.

Tony Iommi’s guitar solos are easily one of the highlights of this album. Every single song has a fantastic solo in there with more variety than usual to differentiate them from each other. Sadly, this does come with a trade off. There aren’t as many fantastic guitar riffs which gets worse when compared to its predecessor. Of course there are still a few amazing riffs in there like the title track or “When Death Calls”, but in general the riffs don’t seem as consistently great as usual for the band. Overall, Tony Iommi is doing a great job (as always) even if this album has much better solos than riffs. Geoff Nicholls, as mentioned before, is more noticeable than usual and sets up a strong backbone for the atmosphere and tone for each of these songs. He is one of the highlights as well. Cozy Powell is one of the new members to the band and is replacing Eric Singer on the drums. While the previous drummer was indeed talented, Cozy Powell is a monster on the drumset finding a nice middle ground between power and technicality. He is actually the highlight on songs, like “Devil And Daughter” or “Black Moon”. The only problem is that his drumming has that eighties production where it sounds kind of empty. However, his drumming is impressive enough to pretty much counter the entire issue.

Another new member to the band is Laurence Cottle who is a bassist. He is fantastic and has some amazing basslines in there such as the one in “When Death Calls” or the title track. The strange thing about his performance is that he is either really easy to hear or almost absent. The biggest disappointment here is Tony Martin. Not because he is bad on this album, because he is still doing a great job, but he doesn’t really showcase his versatility. Another disappointment is that the melodies are much less memorable than the ones present in The Eternal Idol. There are still a few great melodies, however, I don’t feel like they are as interesting or catchy as I know Tony Martin’s melodies can be. The one on “Kill In the Spirit World” is only okay and doesn't really add a lot to the song. On the other hand, “Black Moon” has a melody that stands out as one of the band’s best in their eighties work. He is doing a good job, but I really do feel like he could do so much better than what is shown here.

Headless Cross is a bit of an interesting album in the Sabbath catalog. While I wouldn’t say that it’s better than The Eternal Idol, it does continue to give a great impression and shows the merits that the Tony Martin era has. The lyrics are most definitely it’s weakest point with themes and ideas that aren’t that interesting. That doesn’t stop the instrumentation from being great or Tony Martin from being a talented vocalist. It’s not as consistently entertaining as some of their past efforts and there are a decent amount of problems with this album. At the same time, the highlights here are up there with some of the best Sabbath tracks. It’s a great album and I don’t think that the band’s sinking popularity had anything to do with the actual quality of the music. If the album was properly promoted, then the band would have been able to keep being one of giants of the metal world. Overall, it capitalizes off of The Eternal Idol and the band seems to be starting some kind of streak here with the Tony Martin era.

“Headless Cross”
“When Death Calls” (Best Song)
“Call Of The Wild”
“Black Moon”
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