Erstwhile Black Sabbath vocalist Tony ‘The Cat’ Martin is back with Thorns, his first solo venture since 2005’s Scream and his third effort overall following a studio hiatus of almost a decade, having last appeared on outings with Silver Horses and Giuntini Project (among others). The unjustly underappreciated singer on such late 1980’s Sabbath gems as Headless Cross and The Eternal Idol (and some more, er, ‘forbidden’ efforts in the 1990’s, the still excellent Tyr notwithstanding) has all too often been condemned to skulk in the shadows of Ozzy Osbourne, and more emphatically, given the proximity of their voices, of Ronnie James Dio. Much of this has to do with the bone-headedness of purists, record company and management mishaps during Martin’s Sabbath tenure, a broken culture that worships the art of value over the value of art, and Tony Iommi’s own curiously coquettish relationship with the singer he employed for almost a decade. It certainly has nothing to do with the man’s pipes – which remain in stellar condition – nor his well-earned reputation for being a diamond geezer, as many a fan will attest.
Though Martin’s post-Sabbath career has often been at cross purposes (ha!) with the “official” Sabbath legacy, then, his undervalued but glistening pedigree is nevertheless unquestionably plastered all over the metal firmament. It is, too, on Thorns, an adventurous and thoroughly eclectic album that provides a not negligible share of welcome and sometimes startling surprises. Martin lives up to his nickname on this outing, prancing around like an elegant if frazzled tomcat upon this hot tin roof of an opus on which he is joined by co-composer Scott McClellan (of notable Pantera tribute band Cemetery Gatez) on guitar, and luminaries Magnus Rosén (ex-Hammerfall) on bass (with additional bass contributions from distinguished rock ‘n’ roll journeyman Greg Smith), and Venom drummer Danny “Dante” Needham. And as proceedings reveal, Martin’s soaring voice is still fit to carry an album of heavy metal gravitas sprinkled with golden doom-dust, but which also showcases speed, folk, and various other influences, with the timbre of the singer’s voice having grown slightly thicker and, if anything, even richer with age.
First up, first surprise. The aptly titled “As The World Burns” is a speed shellacking that crosses over Martin’s more traditional vocal grandiosity onto a dolloping of double bass-subtended speed/thrash, underscored by McClellan’s Dimebag-ish solo leads and a thumping chorus that evokes a neanderthal with a club in one hand and his cavewoman’s tresses in the other as Martin bemoans the impending end days thanks to men in devils’ hands. Mid-tempo rocker “Black Widow Angel” continues the doom-laden atmosphere but is one of several tracks throughout the album that suffer from slightly maladroit sequencing (later barnstormer “Run Like The Devil” would have been better placed as the second track to maintain the momentum established by “…World”). Unfortunately, “…Angel” is something of a missed opportunity, as it would have acquired the sludge ‘n’ slough of a veritable, bona fide early ‘70’s Sabbath track at half its already lurching pace. The somewhat middling composition as it stands is saved, however, by a sick slap bass solo, which is another early unexpected reward on an album chock full of them.
Ah, but along come the apostolic choral strains that introduce “Book Of Shadows” to put things right and return us to profane qua hallowed ground, this time with a track that probably wouldn’t be out of place among the classic Martin-era Sabbath, uh, stones. An eerie, almost lachrymose camera obscura of a track with Martin at his crystalline best and replete with a psychedelic mid-section keyboard solo and the frappe obligatoire of a creepy conclusion (children are creepy, in general), this is what earns the price of admission. Happily, the zenith is sustained by the quasi-tango en minor of “Crying Wolf”, another standout track with a Latinesque shuffle that sees Martin confronting this cold, callous world and wrestling it to the ground with the warm strains of his vocal conviction – totally brilliant and a guaranteed ear-xenomorph on one listen.
Next, “Damned By You” immediately transports us to epic pastures elsewhere on this barren sphere, this time suggesting in its introduction perhaps a middle-eastern desert caravan before anchoring itself in a pulverising, deliciously meaty hook dragging itself through the sludgy quicksands of a presumably destructive relationship, dissolving in a wailing guitar solo from McClellan that, to top it all off, is transcended by dulcet tones from a wanton saxophone. “No Shame At All” marks an abrupt shift of tone, however, towards more quotidian concerns with lyrics like: “you see her screwing other guys in the car park in the mall/She says she’s only rockin’, but she’s got no shame at all” and possesses the type of st(r)ained, if bawdy, good-humoured swing enjoyed mainly by middle-aged men who listen to Deep Purple a lot (not that there’s anything wrong with that, obviously). The song’s saving grace, though, is that musically it doesn’t actually sound too dissimilar to Queen’s raunchy 1978 track “Let Me Entertain You”! So, that’s good.
“Nowhere To Fly”, intriguingly, recalls some of fellow Brummies Judas Priest’s more progressive moments, or perchance something Father Rob might have cooked up in the better parts of his own eclectic solo career. The plaintive soundscape and lyrics of clipped wings paints a portrait not miles removed conceptually from Walter Benjamin’s famous interpretation of Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, the melancholy view of both man and history caught in an unceasing cycle of despair in which the angel’s wings are forever caught in the same storms and debris of the past leaving, well, nowhere to fly – and thereby another album highlight. Unfortunately, this dark rumination is followed by the chugging but mundane “Passion Killer”, which is a bit of a, well, passion killer, Martin being cut from a far more dignified cloth (and time) than the quasi-nu-metal he impersonates in the chorus, but the song does fittingly contain a nice musical nod to Frédéric Chopin’s Marche Funèbre (!) Thankfully, matters are rectified immediately with the aforementioned, high-octane “Run Like The Devil”, which this time wouldn’t have sounded out of place on one of Bruce Dickinson’s solo albums, bearing more than a passing resemblance to “Power Of The Sun” on Dickinson’s outstanding Tyranny Of Souls opus (and the likes of which Iron Maiden certainly could have done with more of on last year’s Senjutsu…).
But the biggest – and most warmly welcome – surprise in the bag of Thorns is saved for the penultimate track, “This Is Your Damnation”, a folky yet funky acoustic number that sounds something like a cross between Marillion’s Steve Hogarth narrating Deep Purple’s “Anyone’s Daughter” topped off with a chorus whose melody, however oddly, recalls the verse in Yngwie Malmsteen’s “Rising Force”!!! While that latter hallucination is almost certainly a product of your correspondent’s Yngwie-addled brain, “This Is Your Damnation” must be heard to be believed, as Martin shrugs off the scourges of COVID, AIDS, terrorism, and other misfortunes Johnny Cash-style with musical humour, storytelling gusto, and stoic aplomb. Fantastic. Finally, title track “Thorns” offers a reflective stroll around a garden of poisoned delights before descending into a madness of introspection ensnared in an epic heaviness that has the singer baring his soul in a summation of all the album’s… thorns. Aggressive yet tender, all the pieces fall into place and Martin concludes the song, and the album, by way of a duet with none other than Pamela Moore, yes, Sister Mary of Queensrÿche’s Operation:Mindcrime (the greatest album of all time, bar none)!!!
The penny thus dropped, each track on Thorns reveals itself to represent a thorn of sorts in Martin’s psyche, which he employs a full emotional palette to portray across an extensive range of moods, atmospheres, and styles. These are sufficiently heterogeneous to invite repeated listening, showcasing as they do the man’s creativity as well as his undiminished vocal register, and a couple of very minor missteps fail to seriously dent a very strong album indeed. Tony Martin fans will love it, Black Sabbath fans will find plenty to enjoy, and metalheads in general would do themselves a favour to give this a chance, hopefully leading the younglings among us to further research the work of one of the great, yet unsung, masters of the genre. If anything, Thorns confirms how unfair that is, and how much Tony Martin still has to offer.
A mostly excellent effort from an artist whose creative integrity remains fully intact. 8.5/10
Tony Martin’s Thorns was released on January 14, 2022, via Battlegod Productions and Dark Star Records.