We’re well aware the original billing of this 1986 album was the awkward and humorous “Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi,” but we’ll just call Seventh Star a Black Sabbath album, and we’ll also call it worthy of that re-listen you’ve been meaning to do since about 2001 but haven’t quite got around to yet. Here’s why: on this album, Iommi and his very motley crew (ex-Deep Purple crooner Glenn Hughes on vocals; Dave Spitz, older brother of Anthrax’s Dan Spitz, on bass; future KISS skin-basher Eric Singer on drums; the ubiquitous Geoff Nicholls on keys) do something that probably never should have been done: combined bluesy sleaze rock with classic doom metal. Sure, the sleaze overpowers the doom—big time—but much like when we revisited Raven‘s The Pack Is Back and came to the conclusion that it’s a fascinating document because of the weird worlds colliding on it (in that case, crazed NWOBHM and bubble-gum glam rock), Seventh Star is indeed another interesting cultural artifact as it finds a band—well, Iommi—wanting to stay true to the band’s sound but also move it in more commercial directions.
Does it work? Sort of, and actually a bit more than you remember. Is it interesting and fun to listen to with a sort of detached academic curiosity? Hell yeah. Let’s do this.
“In for the Kill” starts out with a workmanlike take on ’86 melodic hard rock, and while it sounds nothing like Sabbath whatsoever, it’s a fun listen, Hughes going for it, Iommi laying down a great solo, the band sounding kinda like second-tier first-wave trashy LA street glam at best, bargain-bin Columbia House “gotta get one more tape” stuff at worst. All of which is to say that I like “In for the Kill”; I find it charming, even if it’s a bit low-rent and non-committal.
“No Stranger to Love” is actually awesome, because it’s got every mid-’80s power ballad trope you could hope for, with the added bonus of Iommi laying down doom-lite riffs behind it all. Sure, you can barely hear them over Hughes’ histrionics, and the sound of your own laughter if you’re watching the outrageous video, which is very much worth watching (Iommi’s acting debut really shows how well he can stare off thoughtfully into the distance, which he also is doing really well on the front cover of this album), but they’re there, the sounds clashing like the thing that should not be. Man, it just makes you cringe hearing Sabbath trying so hard to get a hit here, but I can’t deny that I seem to really like this song. Also, big balls to place this as the second song on the album, that in itself a grand declaration of commercialism.
“Turn to Stone” starts off with Singer reminding us that he’s here before the band sticks four on the floor for a song that is very reminiscent of the album opener, this one really racing past with zero semblance of Sabbath whatsoever, but the band (Iommi, whatever) showing a surprise adeptness at this sort of brisk, concise, dramatic take on G-rated sleaze rock a solid 17 and a half months before you could grab a Faster Pussycat cassette at Kmart.
“Sphinx (The Guardian)” barely exists, 1:12 of I’m pretty sure nothing at all, but the title alone speaks to so many ’80s metal concepts my head just spins every time I think of Iommi bringing this to the table. That song leads right into the title track, which is easily the most Sabbatherian tune yet, the song dragging its heels for five-plus minutes, closing off side A with a sludge mope only held back by the of-the-era stiff production, Singer using what I think is just a huge box for a snare, the song just begging to make an emotional connection with the listener but held back by the sonics, although Hughes’ vocals actually work quite well here. But the band could slide this song in a live set with all their classics and it would work just fine, which is incredible.
“Danger Zone” is another song title that just makes me weep when I remember I’m listening to a Black Sabbath album, but then I’m crying tears of joy because the music makes me think of a soundtrack to a really great ’80s movie, a throwback to a time when hard rock was king, and every band sounded like this, and life was good. And the fact that I’m listening to Black Sabbath while imagining Emilio Estevez hopping in to a white Camaro and racing off as the end credits roll is a complete mind-melt, every single time.
I don’t understand, and will never understand, what the phrase “Heart Like a Wheel” could possibly mean, but they checked off a couple things you needed to talk about in albums released in 1986 in one fell swoop there, so I’m not judging. Unfortunately, this song has a blues shuffle to it, which always means I just tune out immediately, but the tune is actually one of the doomiest on the album. After all, when Tony Iommi has six-plus minutes and a sludgey tempo to work with, things are going to get heavy. Still kinda sounds like Tuff or something, but I dig the sinister undercurrent that’s there if you listen hard enough, Iommi just finding it physically impossible to not inject a hint of doom majesty into even the most innocent moments here.
Then, more hearts with “Angry Heart,” another song that on first blush appears to be an intro-to-poodle-rock color by numbers, and it kinda is, but it’s also a sort of bashing, dark, Deep Purple/Black Sabbath (that was easy, but it’s true) metal cut, Iommi’s guitar work way more brooding and, well, doomy than most bands doing this sort of sound at the time.
“Angry Heart” leads into the album’s final song, “In Memory,” a concise but powerful closer about Iommi’s father. Although the production and tones can’t pull this too far away from the Sunset Strip, this makes me think of how Crowbar might end an album; it’s a slow dirge, with polite doom riffs competing for space with Hughes’ powerful vocals. As an instrumental, and with a different production sound, it’d be a huge, monolithic doom cut. As is, it’s the godfather of doom taking a stroll down a sunny California street, overdressed and slightly out of place, but still taking a moment to smile at the wonder of life. It’s a weird scene, man. But I like it.
And I like Seventh Star. We don’t need to pretend it rules, but it’s fun, a bit wacky, and definitely its own beast. On Seventh Star, Iommi brought us to the sphinx, he took us through the danger zone, and he reminded us that hearts can be like wheels. He clashed doom riffs against bluesy stripper rock. The least we can do is remember this album now and again, when we just can’t bear to listen to “Iron Man” and “War Pigs” one more time. You might find, if you squint your eyes just enough and suspend disbelief for a few quick minutes, that “No Stranger to Love” will do just fine.