In Memory….. of a 20 year old Star

Thunder shattered the dawn
Raging with fury, the king has come
The power of terror will reign
There is no mercy in pleading

So begin the lyrics to “In for the Kill”, the first track from the 1986 Black Sabbath album, “Seventh Star”. Seventh Star just recently passed it’s twentieth anniversary (it was released Jan 28, 1986). It’s a rather misunderstood album, and one that if you’ve never checked out, you should.

After Ian Gillan left Black Sabbath following the Born Again tour around March 1984 or so, that left Black Sabbath in a quandary. They were back again to just Tony & Geezer, as Bev wasn’t around anymore. They briefly toyed with Ron Keel & Dave Donato as vocalists (while bringing Bill Ward back again), but nothing substantial came out of those dalliances. After that, the band essentially broke up, and began what is considered by some fans to be the “dark years” of Black Sabbath. After Geezer also quit Sabbath to do his own thing, Tony Iommi was left alone. For awhile nothing happened. There was a brief reconciliation for the 1985 Live Aid concert with the original four, but the brief talk of carrying on from that point broke up, and Tony was left alone. Somewhere in here, Tony bought up the legal rights to the name Black Sabbath and became sole owner of that legacy (from a legal standpoint), something that remains to this day. At the time Tony did that, any future of the Sabbath name looked pretty bleak, and according to an interview at the time, he “didn’t want the Sabbath name to die”.

This is most definitely a period that most “Ozzy only” Sabbath fans consider Iommi solo time, assuming they even recognize it at all. And that’s how this began, actually. Tony started work on a solo album at some point in 1985. At the time Tony was engaged to Lita Ford, and when he began the work, he used some musicians from Lita’s band, those being Eric Singer & Gordon Copley. Eventually, Glenn Hughes was brought in to handle vocals, and Dave Spitz played bass, and longtime Sabbath keyboardist Geoff Nicholls handled keyboards. I’m not going to discuss the Fenholt story here, you can read about that elsewhere. As 1985 carried on, record company pressure forced Tony to formally name the band “Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi”. From a musical construction standpoint, Seventh Star is “lighter” in feel than other Black Sabbath albums. It eventually came out in the US on January 28, 1986, and in the UK in February. But I’m not here to detail all the bits of Seventh’s Star recording, just to recall some memories of it. :)
To this day it remains an album that most Sabbath fans tend to ignore, and it routinely rates at the bottom of fan polls of popular Sabbath albums. That’s a shame. While I will admit up front it is by far NOT the best Black Sabbath album, it’s not the worst. In fact, I have a seriously hard time calling ANY Black Sabbath album bad.

Even the “lesser albums” have some stellar tracks, and in the case of Seventh Star, that is served by “Heart Like a Wheel”. Heart is a spectacular track, one that deserves a lot more attention than it ever got. It was revived once, some of it was played on the Tyr tour a few years later with Tony Martin. But Heart isn’t the only good track on here. In for the Kill is a good, fast song, and Seventh Star is a good powerful driving piece, as is Turn to Stone. And then there’s No Stranger to Love. Stranger is what a lot of folks consider an anti-Sabbath song. You listen to that, and then something like “Wheels of Confusion” off of Volume 4, and go “is that really the same band?”. Well, no it isn’t, and to be honest, I love bands that take musical gambles. No Stranger is up there with the soft side of things, but it’s not like that was the first time that had been done – there’s plenty of slower songs in the Sabbath catalog up to this point, going all the way back to the original. I think that this album is now 20 years later, time has worked against it. Seventh Star’s reputation is a “light” album that fans ignore, and I think that reputation alone keeps people from digging deeper and finding some great music here. Is it as killer as their early stuff? No – but that’s my point. Not everything has to be some screaming loud riff that will melt the paint off the walls and make your ears bleed. If you approach Seventh Star with an open mind, and not with the attitude of “this will suck”, then you might find a good album.

I played this tape an awful lot that summer. I was working on an auto parts warehouse, and my walkman was pretty much occupied by my tape of Seventh Star for a very long time. Didn’t listen to much else, as this was only the second new studio album Black Sabbath released after I started listening to them. I still have this tape in 2006, although it’s condition isn’t the greatest. :) At the time I remember being enthralled with the entire album, and especially in memory. Now I don’t know what that song is truly about, but at the time my personal interpretation was that of Tony pining for what had been lost with Black Sabbath over the years – the original was gone, and “In Memory” was his tribute to “Classic Sabbath”. That could be complete bullocks, but that’s what I thought at the time as a kid listening to the album.

Going into the live arena, the Seventh Star tour was one that was fraught with problems. Depending on who you talk to, Glenn Hughes was either messed up on drugs, damaged his vocal chords by getting into a fight at the end of rehearsals, or just ate too many candy bars and was too overweight. Whatever the story, he was generally regarded as awful on the live dates and was fired after only five dates. A friend of mine actually saw them with Hughes in Detroit, and his rendition of War Pigs proved that he was having problems – he forgot the entire last verse of the song. There were other stories that he wasn’t singing at all at points, and it was really Geoff Nicholls handling vocals (but I can’t prove that). No matter how you look at it, the live dates on the Seventh Star tour with Glenn Hughes were not good. Enter Ray Gillen, who came from relative obscurity to be thrust into the limelight as Black Sabbath’s singer. I personally saw Sabbath on this tour with Gillen on vocals, although at the time I thought I was seeing Glenn Hughes – I wasn’t aware of the vocalist change at the time. What I was was fine – the tour ended without further personnel problems. The band went back into the studio to start work on what would eventually become The Eternal Idol in 1987, but that is an even more convoluted story, and one for another article.

Misc Stuff

Here’s a few interesting bits about the Seventh Star album…

  • The music video for “No Stranger to Love” features Denise Crosby, granddaughter of music legend Bing Crosby. Denise was most notable for playing Tasha Yar on the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.
  • This album has never formally been released on CD in the United States, it’s only been available here as an import. There was a German print back in the mid 80’s, as well as the 1996 Castle remaster, but never a US domestic release on CD.
  • The artwork for the cover has an interesting story. Thanks to Antony Aristovolou for sending this in..You probably know this, but since you haven’t mentioned this on your site, (maybe you don’t see the info as being too important), I thought, just in case you don’t, I’d let you know that the back cover artwork on ‘Seventh Star’ is a copper-plate engraving print by the German painter and engraver Lucas Cranach the Elder. It is the appropriately titled ‘The Torment of Saint Antony’, and was made in 1506. St. Antony the Great, (otherwise known as St. Antony of Egypt), was a 4th century Egyptian, who first developed Christian monasticism, leading the ascetic life of a hermit in the desert, in his endeavour to rid himself of the temptation to sin and attain spiritual peace and oneness with God. It seems that Mr. Iommi himself was going through much torment by record company execs to call his solo project a Sabbath album, and also, maybe, due to more personal reasons. Seeing Iommi looking quite distressed on the album cover, standing in the middle of a desert, one cannot help but see striking parallels with the mental torment faced by Iommi’s holy namesake in the deserts of Egypt. ‘Sphinx (The Guardian)’, and ‘Seventh Star’ seem to be Iommi’s tribute to St. Antony and Egypt, where both he and his namesake await the end of this world, (“…let my spirit go, lead my burning soul to rest…a thousand chanting souls, waiting judgment from God’s hand…the pyramids will fall…), and the coming of the new, (…the star will rise again, until destiny is done). I hope I have demonstrated that the relationship between the front cover photo of Iommi, the Cranach engraving on the back, and the two feature tunes on the album, are more than just co-incidental.

Someone else’s perspective

A long time contributor to my site and mailing list has also written a piece on Seventh Star. Check out this article from Mark Cloer about his feelings on Seventh Star.
It’s hard to believe that this is the 20th anniversary of “Seventh Star”, man time flies. I vividly remember rushing to my favorite record store on the day of its release and snagging a cassette. I had known for weeks that a new Sabbath album was coming because of a “Coming Soon” board in the store but had no idea who the singer was. I knew Gillan was gone but had no idea who had replaced him, no internet in those days! I remember a debate with a buddy of mine on that matter. He insisted Ozzy had rejoined because of the “Live Aid” gig but I didn’t see that happening. The guy at the record store merely said “All I know is that it’s not Ozzy, Dio or Ian Gillan. I hear it’s a well know singer but don’t know who it is.” When I was handed the cassette I was a bit confused by the “Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi” moniker. “Huh? What the hell is that about? Is Tony doing the singing???” When I tore the wrapper off the tape and looked at the credits inside I was shocked to see that Tony and Geoff were the only ones left and that the new singer was Glenn Hughes. And who were these Spitz, Copely and Singer dudes? “Holy crap!” I thought. I ran out to the old Cutlass and threw the tape into the tape deck {remember those?}. I must admit, I wasn’t too impressed with the opening track “In For The Kill”. It just didn’t do it for me and remains my least favorite track on the album although I don’t hate it. Next up was “No Stranger To Love”. Ok, that was not what I expected at all. Good ballad type song but after “Born Again” who expected to hear that? The rest of the songs were all smokin’ and I was in awe of Glenn’s vocal performance. I was liking most everything I heard but was absolutely blown away by “Angry Heart”/”In Memory”. That was the most amazing song I had ever heard and to this day it remains my all time favorite song. It gives me chills today just like it did 20 years ago and I’m constantly amazed that that song is rarely mentioned. I never could understand why it wasn’t released as a single, it could have put Sabbath back on the map. It has one of the most simple but infectious riffs and the way it drifts from the heaviness of “Angry Heart” to the sullen tranquilty of “In Memory” is sheer brilliance.
I consider “Seventh Star” to be the best work Glenn Hughes has ever done. He kept his “soul” in check and delivered a masterful performance. He might not have been able to cut it live, for whatever reason, but in the studio he was flawless, as was the rest of the “new” Sabbath. I’d have loved to have had a followup to “Seventh Star” but it all worked out because we soon got Tony Martin. I’d have liked to have seen Gillen stick around for awhile too because for whatever Glenn lacked live, Ray delivered it in spades. Anyway, I’m getting off track. I think “Seventh Star” holds up really well and doesn’t sound at all dated. It sounds fresh after 2 decades and that is what makes an album great. I know some disregard this album and there remains a lot of debate over whether it’s “Sabbath” or not. It’s a shame that it’s never gotten the respect due it because some people get too wrapped up in names and titles. Yes, it was different and not your typical Sabbath release but it smokes nonetheless. It’s amazing how some of the most turmoil filled times in Sabbath’s history produced some of the most stellar albums. Think of all the crap that was going on during the times of “Heaven & Hell”, “Seventh Star” & “Eternal Idol” and think about how great the finished products turned out. Simply amazing and Iommi & Co. deserve some serious respect for that!

To Sum Up

As you can guess from the discussion above, I like this album. I also like the Forbidden album, but that’s another story. I tend to like albums that get overlooked in a band’s history and catalogue. I think if you take the time to give it a shot, you’ll find something good that you may have overlooked in the past. This was the first in a trilogy of albums that Tony Iommi and Glenn Hughes made together. Fortunately, Glenn got over whatever problems he had live in 1986, and is now one of the best live vocalists around – he can still bring it live, which most guys of this era cannot. In addition to Seventh Star, make sure and check out “The 1996 Dep Sessions” (2004), and “Fused” (2005), both from Iommi/Hughes. There’s also more to read about Seventh Star via the links below, so make sure and check it all out.

If you own Seventh Star already, break it out, and give it a listen now that it’s turned 20 years old, and if you don’t have a copy, buy one. Do you agree with me? Am I talking out my ass?  Let me know in the comments.

UPDATE: This piece was originally written in 2006.  As I write this short update in May 2012, the album was re-released in a 2CD deluxe edition.  The second disc is a live recording with Ray Gillen, and includes a remix version of No Stranger to Love.  More info on this can be found on the discography page for the album here.