Black Sabbath: Seventh Star (Deluxe Edition)

A rather timely release, considering my previous post! My opinions of this excellent album are already on record, so I will limit myself here to reviewing what’s new on this deluxe edition, and answering the question of whether owners of the previous remastered edition (ESM CD 335), would be well advised to part with their hard-earned for it. The most obvious incentive for buying this release is Disc 2, being a live set from the ‘Seventh Star’ tour recorded at the Hammersmith Odeon, featuring Ray Gillen on lead vocals. Before I get onto that, a word or two about the new remastering, by Andy Pearce and Matt Wortham. I am pleased to report that a notable improvement on the previous edition can indeed be discerned, with Mr Iommi being the chief beneficiary. Many of his solos hit home with a new freshness and clarity – the face-peeling quality of the ‘In For the Kill’ solo is wonderfully upfront, while some lovely reverb on the ‘Turn to Stone’ solo grabbed my attention like never before; it’s also a joy to hear some of the guvnor’s best blues soloing, on ‘Heart Like a Wheel, up in the mix and in your face. Further, I was struck afresh by what a great job the young rhythm section of bassist Dave Spitz and drummer Eric Singer did on this album. In keeping with the directness and intensity that Iommi required for his most commercial-sounding release, their playing is never overly busy or flash, but there is some real powerhouse work from both players, which contributes immensely to the vibrant dynamism of the album. Glenn Hughes’s vocals sound as glorious as ever (‘Angry Heart’ . . . oh yes indeed!), while Geoff Nicholls’s atmospheric synth arrangement seems to have been pushed up a notch on the title track.

Also included on Disc 1 is an alternative version of ‘No Stranger to Love’, which is chiefly notable for some ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ backing vocals on the chorus, a slightly chunkier bass sound, and Iommi’s excellent riffage in the second verse being somewhat lost in the mix. Like many bonus tracks, it’s something that you’ll listen to once out of interest, but probably won’t find yourself revisiting too often. The sleeve notes, by Alex Milas, are judicious and informative, and it’s interesting to see reprinted the five K (top rating) review that Malcolm Dome gave to the album in Kerrang! magazine, on its original release (“a montsrous work that, in terms of recent output, gives Iommi a definite edge on old colleagues Ozzy and Dio”).

And so, to the pièce de résistance, the live material with Gillen. The sound quality of the recording is not great, but eminently listenable – decent bootleg quality. The performance, in my estimation, is excellent. Included are two tracks from Seventh Star (‘Danger Zone’ and the title track), three from the Dio era (‘The Mob Rules’, ‘Die Young’ and ‘Neon Knights’), and those old stalwarts, ‘War Pigs’, ‘Black Sabbath’, (a drastically curtailed) ‘N.I.B.’, and ‘Paranoid’. Listening to these recordings, it is easy to understand why Ray Gillen was so highly regarded. In terms of vocal styling and mannerisms, he fits in with the mainstream American mode of the mid/late eighties, being assuredly one of its greatest exponents; he had a voice that truly soared, with a fantastically pure tone reminiscent of the great Mark Slaughter, perhaps the finest singer in that mold. Equally, in the lower registers, there was a Dio-esque depth and power to Gillen’s voice, ensuring that he could handle pretty much anything a rock ‘n’ roll band could throw at him. Indeed, the ‘Dio test’ is always a handy guage for assessing the raw ability of a hard rock singer, and he acquits himself particularly well on ‘Die Young’ (a performance whose poignancy cannot fail to strike listeners, in light of his tragic demise at the age of just 34). The two Seventh Star tracks sound excellent in live performance, being very well-suited to his delivery; a nice little twist to ‘Danger Zone’ is provided by the bass guitar’s following the chord change in the riff for the end section rather than hammering away on the root note, driving the song to a frenetic climax. For the original line-up material, Gillen’s delivery, prudently, is closer to Ronnie Dio’s interpretations than to Ozzy Osbourne’s performances. ‘Black Sabbath’ – the song often taken by fans as the acid test for a vocalist’s suitability for the band – might naturally strike us as the track on which his delivery would be most incongrous; however, he attacks the song with such power and commitment that the listener cannot fail to be swept along by his performance.

All in all, as with the Eternal Idol outtakes (included on the deluxe edition of that album), we are left to wonder what might have been if Ray Gillen had not been prevented by bureaucracy from becoming Black Sabbath’s singer on a permanent basis. Probably, many purists would have objected to his flamboyantly American style . . . but it is just possible that he could have taken the band to a new stratosphere of commercial success, before his life was so cruelly cut short.

Mere speculation, of course. In conclusion, I must return to the question posed at the beginning of this post. And, in short, the answer is that if – like any discerning rock fan – you love Seventh Star, then yes, you need to own this fantastic deluxe edition.

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