I’ve long tried to come up with an excuse to write about Black Sabbath’s Born Again. Most who’ve heard it will probably agree with me that it doesn’t belong on any top albums list you can thing of, yet it possesses a certain strange appeal that’s as much because of its flaws (of which there are many) as it is in spite of them. As I was loading all the Black Sabbath I own onto my iTunes and got ’round to this 1983 disasterpiece, I finally said to hell with it, it’s time to devote some digital ink (not to be confused with the “Digital Bitch;” keep away from her) to one of the weirder metal albums in my collection.
What’s weird about Born Again, you ask? Everything. When you grab it off the shelf, you’re immediately slapped in the face with some of the ugliest cover art known to man. I guess a dayglo devil baby fits with the album title to a certain extent, and if most of the books written about the music industry in the ’80s are to be believed, literally everyone was on drugs, leading to some, ahem, questionable aesthetic decisions. Still, I’m not sure that’s any excuse for Iommi to greenlight one of the most appalling examples of graphic design not just in heavy metal, but in the entire history of recorded music. I mean, damn.
Now press play and prepare yourself for the most poorly produced album in Sabbath’s catalogue. It’s a damn shame, because there is some pretty great material on here (and some not-so-great material, but we’ll get into that later), such as “Trashed” “Disturbing the Priest” and “Zero the Hero,” but Born Again unfortunately sounds like it was recorded with the mics placed inside rusty metal garbage cans while the band played down the hall. Oddly enough, producer Robin Black’s botched production job would prove influential; ever heard of an album called St. Anger? I think then-Sabbath vocalist Ian Gillan summed it up best when he said “I saw the cover and puked, then I heard the record and puked.”
And that brings us to what might be the strangest thing about Born Again; the presence of Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan. Don’t get me wrong, he’s one of the great singers of metal and hard rock, but he’s a weird fit for Black Sabbath. Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio, in spite of sounding nothing alike, both have voices possessing a certain dark gravitas perfect for Black Sabbath; Gillan, not so much. In spite of this, Gillan’s vocals are the only thing on Born Again that sound as if they were recorded properly, and with a lesser vocalist the album would’ve been a complete shit show. His awesome high-pitched screams that pepper the songs, as well as the overall energy of his performance on songs like the aforementioned “Trashed,” all but force one to wonder what Born Again could’ve sounded like in the hands of a more competent producer.
Of course, not every track on Born Again is a winner. Black Sabbath have been all about pointless interludes since day one, but what purpose “Stone Henge” and “The Dark” could possibly be meant to serve here other than wasting almost three full minutes of my life every time I listen to the album is beyond me. Then you’ve got the clunker that is the aforementioned “Digital Bitch” and the album-closing quasi-ballad “Keep it Warm,” the latter featuring such lyrical poetry as “Keep it warm at the place by your side / Nobody’s gonna take away our magical ride / Keep it warm for me when we talk on the phone / Don’t forget will you pretty one that your man is coming home.” I’m not one to tell a band how they should do things, but a song by Black Sabbath should never, I repeat NEVER, feature lyrics about talking on the fucking phone.
Luckily, the good on Born Again far outweighs the bad as far as the songs themselves are concerned. “Zero the Hero” has a killer palm-muted riff that Danzig would later rip off for “Her Black Wings,” and “Disturbing the Priest,” is a classically atmospheric and evil-sounding Sabbath track with some cool guitar work from Iommi, and Gillan more or less rising to the occasion by adding a hint of menace to his vocals. “Digital Bitch” would actually be a decent song if not for the godawful lyrics; Dio probably could’ve whipped up some of his dragons and rainbows magic and turned this one into a minor classic were he still in the band. “Trashed” is about as ass-kicking an album opener as you could ask for with some great singing from Gillan, and the title track is a moody epic again only hindered by the subpar production scheme (not sure about that line about “the grey and plastic retards all floating in circles” though, ugh). “Hot Line,” isn’t really what I want from a Black Sabbath song, but it’s nonetheless a fun enough hard-rocker to keep the blood pumping through the record’s final third.
Born Again is a tragically flawed and unintentionally challenging listen. It will never be mentioned in the same breath as Paranoid or Heaven and Hell, but it’s just one of those albums that manages to keep me coming back to it, due largely to its status as a curiosity within Black Sabbath’s discography. Push past the piss-poor production and the square peg/round hole pairing of Gillan with Iommi/Butler/Ward and you’ve got an entertaining anomaly that reveals its charms only through patient, dedicated listening. It must be studied and sifted through and pored over; isn’t that what being a music obsessive is ultimately all about?