Not the least fascinating thing about Black Sabbath is that there have been no fewer than three very different bands in its history, conveniently separated by the singers who shaped them: Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio and Tony Martin. (And one can even add Sabbath No. 4 and Sabbath No. 5, for one experimental album each, since "The Seventh Star" with Glenn Hughes and "Born Again" with Ian Gillan, both from the mid-1980s, neither of which has anything to do with the other three "eras".) I confess that the Martin-era is my least favourite one, but this may well be because I came to these albums after I had been quite familiar with everything recorded with Ozzy and Dio during the 1970s and early 1980s. However, personal taste is a poor excuse to neglect the years with Tony Martin. After all the man recorded five studio albums with the band and they all range from good to very good, with occasional sparks of greatness:
The Eternal Idol (1987)
Headless Cross (1989)
Cross Purposes (1994)
For some rather mysterious reason "Cross Purposes" is my favourite of these. Even though I have a great deal more affection for "Forbidden" than most people do, and in any of the three albums from the 1980s there are terrific songs (say, "Ancient Warrior", "Headless Cross" and "Anno Mundi", to name but three), it is "Cross Purposes" that I most often return to when I am in the mood for Sabbath with Tony Martin.
The album is considerably lighter and somewhat less complex than his predecessors, one might even say a trifle monotonous, but it is probably the most consistent one and it has a compelling drive. Ironically, for those guys who bark the wrong tree constantly whining that the Martin-era was the most un-Sabbath one, there are here songs ("Psychophobia", "Virtual Death", "Evil Eye", the last one with first solo played by Eddie van Halen, reportedly) that are more reminiscent of the original Sabbath with Ozzy, rather than to anything that came later with Dio. On the other hand, there are few fine ballads ("Cross of Thorns", "Dying for Love") and several dazzling tracks ("I Witness", "Immaculate Deception", "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle") that are highly original for the Martin-era and owe nothing to the old times.
The album features great musicians in top form. Even though it has always been the leading singer who shaped most Sabbath's musical outlook, it was Tony Iommi who remained the only constant member through the years. One of the most fascinating things about him is that he is vastly different with Ozzy, Dio or Martin. In a way, the three Sabbath eras had three different guitarists. As for Tony's top form here, the solo in "Immaculate Deception" is enough to prove it. Tony Martin may not be among the greatest vocalists in the history of rock music, but he is a fine singer none the less: powerful voice, impeccable technique, and solid range, what more can one want? Besides, try to put yourself in Martin's place. He had the awesome task to step into the shoes of legends like Ozzy and Dio. He's done a really fine job. The bass guitar here is in the hands of Geezer Butler himself and, as might be expected, his playing is top-notch. It is rather a pity that the bass got somewhat lost during the mixing - my only minor complaint about the otherwise excellent sound of the album. Last and least, but not to be neglected, there are the fine drummer Bobby Rondinelli, quite devoid of the childish show-off typical of a Vinnie Appice, and the well-known Geoff Nichols at the keyboards which are quite prominent in few of the songs.
All in all, a vintage and unjustly neglected late Sabbath, perhaps because it came after the stupendous "Dehumanizer" (1992) with Dio, a one-album affair alas. Everybody who has enjoyed other Sabbath albums with Tony Martin is well advised to give this one a careful listening, if he hasn't already.