Classic Albums Revisited: Black Sabbath’s Born Again

By Sean Palmerston

With the recent UK deluxe reissues of the mid-eighties Black Sabbath albums Seventh Star and The Eternal Idol creating quite a buzz about those releases once again I thought it might be time to revisit my favourite under-heralded Sabs relic. Born Again, the band’s 1983 release and only one to feature noted vocalist Ian Gillan, is one of the most dividing releases ever to bore the Black Sabbath moniker. it is one of those records that you either love or loathe. There is no middle ground needed, and none provided.

It was nearly 27 years ago when I first had the chance to hear Born Again in its entirety. To tell the truth, it was a Christmas present from a cool aunt that wanted to please her finicky eleven year old nephew. That Christmas in particular, happening just before my twelfth birthday, brought me albums from both Led Zeppelin (IV) and Sabbath. It was exactly what I had asked for, although I don’t think I knew exactly what I was getting, especially with Born Again. I didn’t really know that much about the band at the time, my only other Sabs albums were an 8-track of their self-titled first and a cassette copy of Paranoid – one of the best selling heavy metal albums of all-time and about as far away from where I was about to go when I fully discovered Born Again.

Born Again was – and arguably still is – the heaviest Black Sabbath album ever released. Kicking off in grand fashion with “Trashed” and its pounding rhythms, the song is a great start to the album. Gillan’s scream at the thirteen second mark signals his arrival and his climactic scream just before the first guitar solo clearly marks his territory. As for that first guitar solo, it was about the last thing I expected from a Tony Iommi solo, as it is very in-your-face and raw, quite opposite of the regular riffs of the song. It wasn’t until years later that I discovered the band’s disappointment in the final released version of the record, claiming that the mixes they had approved in the studio to have been far superior. (It’s even been said that Gillan was completely horrified from his first listen, not liking both the album’s mix and the wretched cover, which he initially figured must have been a joke.)

After “Trashed”’s torrid pace things slow down into the haunting instrumental “Stonehenge”, a keyboard heavy track that always sounded more to me like something that would be played leading a prisoner off to the gallows. It is a creepy two minutes that then crashes into “Disturbing The Priest”, a transition that can still make the hairs on the back of my next stand on end if played loud enough. “Priest” was a song that freaked the shit out of me as a twelve year old. The throbbing bass line with Gillan screaming ‘don’t forget to say your prayers’ made me think this was one fucking evil song. Of course, I learned later that the lyrics were written by Gillan in response to the vicar that lived next door to Manor Studios, asking the lads if they could turn down for a few hours here and there while they had choir practice! Talk about deflating years of Catholic guilt almost immediately…

After a quick second instrumental track “The Dark” comes the album’s darkest, most sinister moment. “With its lurching, elongated guitar riff, “Zero The Hero” is 1983 Black Sabbath at its doomiest. Of course years later Godflesh would slow it down to a snails pace compared to what is on offer here, but the original still has as absolutely creepy feel to it that is only exaggerated if you have ever seen the official music video they made for it. That is one weird video clip. The song itself, with its depreciating lyrics and slithering pace makes for the perfect ending to the first side of the album. It also features another strange, otherworldly guitar solo by Tony Iommi. I don’t know what he was on during this time period, but paranoia just seems to rip through his leads in a way I have never heard before nor since.

The first side of Born Again is the one that has always made the most impact on me, but there are a few songs on the flip that are also worth mentioning. Side two opens with “Digital Bitch”, a song long rumoured to be written about one Sharon Osbourne. Of course at one time her father managed the Sabs and she was involved with the day-to-day long before she started to manage and then later married Ozzy. The song kicks off with a wicked guitar riff from Iommi and Gillan’s vocals on the song are some of the most punishing on the album. Born Again as a whole is one of my favourite albums sung by Gillan, up there with Deep Purple’s In Rock. He seems to have really unearthed an evil side to his vocals on this album. Just listen to his screams in the last minute of this song to see what I am talking about.

The other song on the album that really stands out is the other fast song on side two, “Hot Line”. Despite having perhaps the most generic lyrics on the album, the bridge and chorus of the track are divine, especially when Gillan yelps ‘Baby throw me on the hot line / the hot line to hell’. Bill Ward’s somewhat buried cowbell work in the choruses is also worth mentioning. His drumming is pretty rudimentary on the album as a whole, there isn’t a lot of fills but he does have the odd spots on this album that stand out.

Born Again turned out to be the last Black Sabbath album to feature Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward together until they did the Reunion live album in 1998 with Ozzy. Ward was somehow talked into coming back to the band – he quit during the Heaven & Hell tour of 1980 and said he wouldn’t play in Sabbath again without Ozzy but he did track this Gillan fronted album. It’s a really strange record for his playing, with loads of snare attacks and, as previously mentioned, very few tom fills at all. It really does feel like this album is the Gillan and Iommi show, as both give the most spirited performances of the quartet.

I don’t know if the album is even being considered, but I’d love to see Born Again reissued in a deluxe, two-disc package as well. There is more than enough material that could be used for the second disc: they could either use the original band sanctioned mixes of the album, which includes an unreleased song called “The Fallen”, or they could use one of the Gillan era performances that were professionally recorded, one in Worcester MA for the King Biscuit Flower Hour and another by the BBC of their Reading Festival performance (the Marillion set that preceded them that day was recently reissued by EMI in a live box set).

Born Again was originally released by Vertigo in Europe and by Warner Brothers in North America. The album has never officially been released on CD in North America, but was reissued in a remastered format by castle Communications in the UK in 1996.

Sean Palmerston

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.