Sabbath Stones: Tyr Turns 30

In 1990, the Tony Martin-led Black Sabbath beat a generation of Scandinavian bands to the punch by celebrating their gods

Black Sabbath 1990 (Art: Ron Hart)

Black Sabbath boldly entered the 1990s by conceptually distancing itself from the devil.

Vocalist Tony Martin had come on board in time to rescue the troubled Eternal Idol sessions, then had the opportunity to write lyrics for its follow-up, Headless Cross. Iommi and co. deemed that album’s almost comedically dark themes to be a bit much. So for Tyr, Martin beat a generation of Scandinavian bands to the punch by celebrating their gods, albeit from a ham-fisted British perspective.

Martin lent his multi-octave sense of melody and harmony to a band that built its reputation on rough edges and a wall of sound. Twenty years after its debut album, the only standing original member was founding father of metal, guitarist Tony Iommi. And truly, Iommi’s riffs and solos are the primary reasons anyone revisits Tyr today.

The touring lineup for Headless Cross included the two Tony’s, longtime keyboardist Geoff Nichols, legendary drummer Cozy Powell, and ex-Whitesnake bassist Neil Murray. Many short-term members who did stints with Iommi throughout the 80s were American, including Ronnie James Dio; this restored all-British lineup was in fine form to enter Rockfield Studios and create a new album in the first half of 1990.

Black Sabbath Tyr, IRS Records 1990

Iommi and Powell co-produced the album, which explains why the drums are so loud in the mix. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem except that the percussion production style of the day was so compressed and artificial. Nevertheless if you’re gonna blast the drums, at least Powell plays hard and never drops the beat.

“Anno Mundi” kicks things off with an acoustic intro that clings close to the blueprint from “Children of the Sea”. A chorus of Tony Martins enquire, “Can you see me? / Are you near me?” Then the heavy riff churns in like the rowing of Vikings in search of gold. Financially, none was to be found. As it turns out, Tyr and Forbidden (the 1995 album featuring this same lineup) are the only two Sabbath albums that failed to crack the Billboard Top 200. Ultimately “Anno Mundi” is a strong lead track, and one of the better songs on the album, though how a title and refrain in Latin fits on a Norse-themed album is a question that may not be answered until Ragnarok.

“The Law Maker” follows, picking up the pace and giving Iommi a chance to lay down some blazing leads over Powell’s steady double bass work. “Jerusalem” features some great false harmonics that keep it from sounding too much like Rainbow (or Journey).

Fourth song “Sabbath Stones” is the real keeper from this album, at least if you like Sabbath for its doom pedigree. If you’re short on time, check this tune out first. It boasts soft/loud dynamics that give the song the girth that one expects when picking up an album that bears the Black Sabbath name. It’s clear that trad-doom acolytes Solitude Aeturnus were listening to this song and taking it seriously.

 

VIDEO: Black Sabbath perform “Sabbath Stones” in Japan 1990

“The Battle of Tyr” is a minute of digital synth ambience from Geoff Nichols, immediately followed by “Odin’s Court”; an atmospheric guitar interlude with emotive vocals about “misty horizons” and “raven’s eyes” that serves as an intro to the proper metal tune “Valhalla.” Once again, Iommi’s lead is worth its weight in Kroner.

The lone single from Tyr is the ballad, “Feels Good To Me.” If you’re not too jaded to appreciate this kind of schmaltz, it’s a pleasant callback to Seventh Star’s “No Stranger To Love.” Not so easy to defend is the music video that features a narrative non-sequitor of a motorcycle babe following her heart toward inevitable doom. So gross, so good.

 

VIDEO: Black Sabbath “Feels Good To Me”

“Heaven In Black” gallops into the sunset, this time with lyrics about a cruel Czar who blinded his own architect. Lucifer’s name is invoked in this one, because you know, what could possibly be more Norse than a Czar or The Devil?

Regardless of the muddled concept, Tyr is a glimpse into an oft-ignored era of Iommi’s career. In fact it was the commercial failure of Tyr that inspired the reunion of the Mob Rules lineup, which recorded Dehumanizer with Dio, Vinnie Appice and Geezer Butler only two years later.

Even if all you take away from Tyr is “Sabbath Stones” and “Anno Mundi” they’re classic Iommi riffs from the lean years when the gods of metal were slumming it on indie label I.R.S. and playing in small theaters, taking bands like Circus of Power out as support. There’s something quaint, endearing, and Viking-strong about the fearless voyage with little support, little hope, and only archaeological remains left in its wake.

 

AUDIO: Black Sabbath Tyr (Side A)

 

 

 

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Nathan Carson

Nathan Carson is a writer, musician, and MOTH StorySlam Champion from Portland, Oregon. A founding member of the international doom band Witch Mountain, Carson is the host of the FM radio show The Heavy Metal Sewïng Cïrcle, owner of boutique booking agency Nanotear, and author of the weird horror novella Starr Creek. More about his music, music writing, fiction and graphic novels can be found at www.nathancarson.rocks.

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