Empire - The raven ride 3.5/5

Reviewed: 5-18-07


1. The raven ride
2. Breathe
3. Carbon based lifeform
4. Satanic curses
5. Al sirat - The bridge to paradise
6. What would I do
7. Changing world
8. Maximum
9. I can't trust myself
10. The devil speaks, the sinner cries

With Ronnie James Dio back at the helm, Black Sabbath (Heaven and Hell, whatever) are enjoying a resurgence in the public eye, sweeping through a successful amphitheater tour of the United States while breathing new life into the 'Heaven and hell'/'Mob rules'/'Dehumanizer' gems that are so beloved by many veteran metalheads. But there's another non-Ozzy incarnation of Sabbath that remains largely overlooked, virtually forgotten by all but a few who hold the Tony Martin era of Sabbath dear. In this writer's opinion, the 'Headless cross', 'Tyr' and 'Cross purposes' CDs, all of which feature Mr. Martin on the mike, are among the Birmingham brummies' finest output ever. The song "Headless cross" still sends shivers down my spine after all these years, and much of the material on those recordings is of comparable quality. Even the much-maligned 'Forbidden' CD from 1995 has redeeming qualities, if one is willing to overlook the ill-advised Ice-T collaboration in the opening song. Martin may lack the sheer godliness of Dio, and the quirky lunacy of Ozzy, but he is an outstanding vocalist in his own right, lending a certain nobility to Tony Iommi's typically sturdy riffing.

Following his final ouster from Sabbath circa 1995, Martin has kept himself busy with a number of projects, most of them stylistically ranging somewhere between AOR and his Sabbath material. Some of those efforts have been quite good (most notably the Giuntini Project stuff), while others have not, but all of them have been lacking the magic of Martin's CDs with Sabbath. Until now. With this 'The raven ride' CD released last year, Martin and his bandmates in Empire have gone a long way towards rekindling his past glories. Before discussing the songs, a word of praise is appropriate for the high level of talent assembled in this multinational outfit. Aside from Martin on vocals, Empire features the versatile Rolf Munkes (Majesty, Razorback, Vanize) on guitar, Neil Murray (Black Sabbath) on bass, and the fine drummer Andre Hilgers (Rage, Silent Force). With a line-up this strong, 'The raven ride' is almost guaranteed to be good.

From a directional standpoint, it is apparent that Munkes and Martin went into the songwriting sessions for 'The raven ride' with the intent to adhere to the style of 'Headless cross' and 'Cross purposes'. They have achieved this goal in spades. If I didn't know better, I would have sworn that many of these songs were forgotten, lost tracks from that magical Sabbath era. Martin sings as well as or better than he ever has, with his smooth, impassioned, emotional delivery lifting the songs to superb heights. He may strain a bit on some of the higher notes, but fans of Martin's past work will surely be pleased with his vocal performance here. As for Munkes, he has studied the master well, as he displays a collection of towering, doomy chiseled riffs that would make Mr. Iommi proud. And the Hilgers/Murray rhythm section is totally locked in, propelling the music forward with the required solid backbone. As for the songs, I'll spare you a track-by-track breakdown, but suffice it say that most of the cuts are high-quality, semi-doomy, catchy affairs strongly reminiscent of Black Sabbath during the Martin years. To my ears, the only misfires are "Carbon based lifeform" (which has awkward lyrics and some electronic effects reminiscent of those used by Queensryche on the 'Promised land' CD) and "Maximum" (which is just too repetitive and is rendered out of place by the aggro, almost industrial feel).

Bottom line: If you admire Tony Martin's work in Black Sabbath, then 'The raven ride' is an absolute no-brainer, mandatory purchase. It's unquestionably the best thing he's put his voice on since 'Cross purposes'. If you've never heard the Martin epoch of Sabbath, then start with those CDs (minus 'Forbidden'). And if you're a speed-freak, power metal maniac, please move along as there is nothing for you here.




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