Born Again is my favourite album of all time. #1. Numero uno. Primo musico.
It wasn't always that way. When I first owned it (on cassette) I really only enjoyed two songs, "Trashed" and "Zero The Hero". But I was persistent. Soon other songs started to emerge from the muddy morass that is this album: "Born Again", "Keep It Warm", "Disturbing The Priest". Now, fully 25 years after first hearing this album, it is an indispensible part of my collection and my musical background. I don't know exactly why I love it so much. It certainly is an ugly duckling of an album, but like most ugly ducklings, even the hard-to-love aspects eventually become beautiful.
In 1983, Don Arden (father of Sharon Osbourne) recommended that Black Sabbath tap Ian Gillan (ex-Deep Purple) as new lead vocalist replacing Ronnie James Dio. Gillan had just folded his self-titled band (the excellent Gillan
which you should check out) to rejoin Deep Purple, but the reunion failed to happen. Drummer Bill Ward, at this point a hopeless alcoholic and still reeling from the death of his father, but still managed to come back long enough to record this album. (Soon, he was out again and replaced by ELO's Bev Bevan, whose picture is included inside.) The original idea was to call this band something besides Black Sabbath, but somehow it did become an official Black Sabbath album.
"Trashed", a fast smoker, kicks you in the face right from the beginning with Ian Gillan's colourful storytelling. "It really wasn't easy, the bottle took a beating, the ladies of the Manor, watched me climb into my car..." No question what this song is about. Narrowly escaping death, the drinking driver in question proclaims at the end, "Oooh, Mr. Miracle, save me from some pain. Ooof, Mr. Miracle, I won't get trashed again."
An atmospheric instrumental called "Stonehenge" (a beautiful watery piece) seques straight into the biggest butt-kicker of the whole album. "Disturbing The Priest", the most evil sounding song on any Sabbath album, is actually anything but. It's just about recording the album next door to a church and waking up the neighbors! You can't tell that from Gillan's hellish screams or Geezer Butler's fluid, lyrical bassline.
Another brief instrumental ("The Dark") acts as in intro to "Zero The Hero", the epic single, the most evil video the band ever made, and the song that Slash ripped off for a little tune called "Paradise City". Gillan sings his patented "English-as-a-second-language" style of lyrics: "Sit by the river with the magic in the music as we eat raw liver." What? Musically, this song is the definition of heavy metal.
Side 2 of the original LP began with another fast burner, but a much more straightforward song than anything on side one. "Digital Bitch" smokes from start to finish. Angry, vicious and brutal, this is a rock song for metal heads. Iommi's riffery is tops.
"Born Again" is, I guess, a ballad. More accurately it's a blues, filtered through Tony Iommi's echoey underwater guitar sounds. If I had to compare it to one, it would be Deep Purple's "Wasted Sunsets" for mood and vibe. Yet this is a much darker beast, highlighted by a metal chorus replete with screams.
Another fast rocker, "Hot Line", is up next which the band used to play live. Very similar to "Digital Bitch", this is yet another winner on an album of nothing but winners.
The final track is "Keep It Warm", a midtempo song with rich vocals by Gillan, and more of that Engligh-as-a-second-language lyricism. "Keep it warm, rat, don't forget pretty pretty one that your man is coming home." Rat?
So if this record is loaded with such amazing riffage and tunes, why is it so unpopular? Why did it almost destroy Black Sabbath as a band? Why does it rate so low everywhere? The answer is simple -- the production is horrid. Rumour has it that Geezer Butler snuck into the studio and turned the bass up so high that it couldn't be fixed in the mix. As a result, this is a muddy, bass-heavy album with non-existent cymbals or even treble. Bill Ward's drum sound is similar to a metal worker hammering on a sheet of 1/4" thick steel. Even his drum style has changed -- in the 70's he was much looser, then he got stiff and this was the first album where he sounds so stiff and relentless.
Yet, as a package, to me it works. I love this album and the sound is part of that. From the cover art, to the look of the band, to the songs & videos, this is a picture of pure evil. Sabbath is usually at their best when plying the darkest waters, and Born Again is indeed the darkest of the dark. I think this CD remaster goes a long way towards making the album enjoyable. (The liner notes are also excellent.)
After this tour, Gillan left for Purple (for real this time), and the band hired yet another singer -- David Donato who later turned up with Mark St. John (Kiss) in a band called White Tiger. Donato joined the original members for a photo shoot, but this new lineup produced no music, and Sabbath disbanded. Tony Iommi began work on a solo album
with ex-Purple singer/bassist Glenn Hughes (notice a pattern here?)...but that is another totally confusing and convoluted story!
Gillan maintains to this day that he was "the worst singer that Sabbath ever had," while Ozzy thinks this is the best Sabbath album since he left the band. But, much like Another Perfect Day
by Motorhead, it has a strong cult following.
AND NOW! Onto the bonus disc.
First up is "The Fallen", a heavy fast rocker with a great riff. It is a riff unlike most Iommi riffs but it's a good one. The song has been heavily bootlegged before, but now is its first official release. Interesting but not essential is an extended version of "The Dark", the watery intro to "Zero The Hero". Then is the live set at Reading. This is the first official release of anything featuring the Sabbath lineup of Gillan/Iommi/Butler and Bev Bevan. I have a bootleg of the Montreal show which is awful. Gillan's voice was all over the map on that one, maybe his monitors were off or maybe he was hoarse, but he sucked that night. This is much better! You have to remember that Ian Gillan, of all the Black Sabbath singers, put his own spin on these songs. He didn't always sing the words as they were wrote, and his voice is so idiosyncratic that it's hard to put Made In Japan out of mind. That's not a bad thing to me, I love Ian Gillan. It may not be to everybody's taste.
Strongest on the live stuff were "Digital Bitch" and "Hotline". "Zero The Hero" is sloppy, but drummer Bevan is solid. In fact it is Bevan with whom I am most frequently impressed here. Aside from some "percussion" sessions on the Eternal Idol album, this is the first official release of any Sabbath music with Bev Bevan on drums.
The crowd goes absolutely nuts for "Smoke On The Water", moreso than any Sabbath song before it. It's weird hearing any band that's not Deep Purple sing the story about Montreaux, but I think they had no choice. They really did have to play it or the crowds would have rioted. Sabbath play a blocky heavy metal version of the song.
Disappointingly there is no Dio-era material. On the Montreal bootleg, Gillan sang "Heaven and Hell" (gloriously screwing up the words) and "Neon Knights".
Great reissue. Wonderful packaging and liner notes, finally answering the rumours about that album cover.
5 stars! This will always be my favourite Sab platter. Plus it tends to scare the neighbors.