Matters weren't helped with the album being released in a time where traditional metal bands like Sabbath, Iron Maiden, Motorhead and Judas Priest were being overlooked (especially in America) in favour of groove metal, nu metal and alternative rock. Ironically, Sabbath were routinely name checked by some of the hottest bands of the moment (such as Nirvana and Soundgarden), but it didn't stop the public not giving a fuck.
One wonders if the constant line up changes were a factor. In the preceding ten years (1985 to 1995), the singers had been: Ozzy, Glenn Hughes, Ray Gillen, Tony Martin, Ronnie James Dio, Rob Halford (for two gigs), Ozzy (potentially) and then back to Tony Martin.
However, this is all background text. I have always considered 'Forbidden' to be a worthy addition to the vast Sabbath catalogue, and demonstrates a band who may have been 'on the ropes' in terms of commercial success, but soldiered on with their trademark sound, regardless of fashion.
Recorded in seven days (the same length of time it took to record the legendary 'Paranoid' LP) with Body Count (pioneering rap/metal act) guitarist Ernie C in the producer's chair, it throws up a number of incredible riffs from guitarist Tony Iommi (as expected), some strong vocals from the hapless journeyman Tony Martin and one or two interesting musical ideas, showing Sabbath were still willing to experiment.
The most well known track, 'The Illusion of Power' opens the album. Some nice acoustic chiming sets the mood before the obligatory crushing Iommi tri tone riff. Sabbath may have gone through more members than The Fall, but (to misquote Mark E Smith) if it's Tony Iommi on guitar and your granny on bongos, it's Black Sabbath. And this riff proves why.
Martin's vocals always sounded effortless and impressive. He could infuse drama and pathos into the most maudlin of lyrics, despite a lack of personality and charisma in his stage persona. Listen to the way he delivers the line "I’m being chased by the sins of my past and it’s killing me now."
Controversially, it also features a rap from Ernie C's band member, Ice T. This is an interesting move. Bear in mind that, a few years previously, Body Count were being vilified by the religious right for their song, 'Cop Killer.' Was this an attempt at stirring up a bit of controversy, and making Sabbath look a bit more dangerous than they had been for a while?
While the cross pollination of rap and metal now makes people think of Limp Bizkit, there's no attempt by Sabbath to get groovy, nor is there any "yo yo Body Count bitch call the motherfuckin' police now" type lines. It's seemingly just Martin's lyrics rapped instead of sung. It works well.
'Get a Grip' was a single, and it's easy to hear why. The riff bears a passing resemblance to Guns n Roses' classic rock staple 'Paradise City' (although arguably that comes from Sabbath's own 'Zero the Hero', so maybe a combination of the two), and is suitably groovy enough for headbanging. I love the way it speeds up in the last part. Unfortunately, the music video is fairly abysmal and undoubtedly hindered the track's (ever so slight) attempt at commercial success. It looks like the animators at Cosgrove Hall trying to make a Ren and Stimpy cartoon.
'Can't Get Close Enough' won't feature highly in "50 Greatest Sabbath Songs", but it's opening riff is very bluesy and solemn, while Martin adopts a more restrained voice, and then it metamorphoses into a bone crunching up-tempo number. The lyrics are maybe a little pedestrian, but it doesn't detract from the power of the riff.
'Shaking Off the Chains' features a suitably defiant riff, and later on throws in a melodic little lick. If this had been put out by Soundgarden, it would have been hailed as a classic. Easily the best song on here.
'I Won't Cry For You' is saved from mediocrity by a stirring performance from Martin. Listen to how his notes correspond with the riff in the chorus. It encapsulates the overblown anger we feel at the end of a relationship. As an example of this, listen to how he sings "it feels like you're drowning in your tears."
If you have the Japanese version, you get a bonus in 'Loser Gets It All.' This is a mighty number which has an epic feel that could have fitted onto 1980's 'Heaven and Hell' album, and ends the album on a more upbeat note that the noteworthy (if not completely memorable) 'Kiss of Death.'
Over the years, Iommi has hinted that the album was made to help fulfil his contract with IRS Records, while Martin has suggested that the rumours of an Ozzy reunion, as well as pressure from the label to work with Ernie C/Ice T, gave the album a rushed and unsatisfactory feel.
Legendary Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell wasn't impressed with his drum sound on the album. Not long before his death, he was quoted as saying:
... they brought in a producer who’s never really done a heavy rock album before. His ideas, whether good or bad, featured on the drums, so my drum sound went out the window. I was very unhappy with the way the kit sounded and the way that I played. I couldn’t really promote ‘Forbidden’ and say it was the greatest thing I’d ever done when I didn’t believe it. I backed off from the promotional tour, because if you don’t feel that way it’s better not to do it at all.
The cover undoubtedly didn't help matters either. Although it's amusing to see a cartoon Iommi and Powell, it feels like a relic from another time (even in 1995) and was typical of the rather shoddy covers of the IRS years (1992's 'Dehumanizer', for example).
The tour to promote the album was, by all accounts, a shambles. Powell remembered the US tour as being:
... possibly the worst tour I’ve ever done. It was badly booked. The agent in America did it at the last minute, we weren’t drawing the audiences that we wanted to, the record company were not getting behind the band. It was a very difficult time.
Is this the best Sabbath album ever? Certainly not.
Would it even make most people's top 10? Probably not.
But for me, 'Forbidden' is an album that still stands up. It's the sound of a band that refused to kotow in the face of public indifference, and one that flew the flag for traditional metal in a period when these icons were being dismissed as old bastards by the new bands on the block (all of whom would probably give their left ball to go on tour with the likes of Sabbath and Iron Maiden these days).
Go back and listen to it. You might be surprised.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.