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Tony Iommi

Iommi (Divine)

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In a perfect world, Tony Iommi's name would naturally be included in the same lexicon as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix, and Black Sabbath would have been accepted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long before Billy Joel could have even been nominated. The paradox is that if the world were perfect and people got what they deserved, then there would be no need for Black Sabbath or any of its innumerable offspring (pretty much every guitar band that's ever sported an antisocial attitude). Still, Tony Iommi, the man who created the blueprints for what would later be considered heavy metal, has never gotten his due. Maybe it's because he worked with Ozzy Osbourne, a frontman who couldn't help but hog the attention, or maybe fans resent Iommi's firing Ozzy after a financial dispute and subsequently releasing several embarrassing albums with a variety of forgettable replacements.

But Ozzy has forgiven Tony, so why can't listeners? And now that Iommi has returned with a solo album, perhaps it's time for the healing to begin. Iommi, backed by former members of Queen and Soundgarden, pairs up with some of the current scene's greatest frontmen in what might be considered the hard-rocking equivalent of Santana's Supernatural. Yet despite modern production techniques that ensure better sound quality than any prime Sabbath album ever got, backbeats that vaguely recall techno or hip-hop and a bunch of young 'uns at the mic, Iommi makes few concessions to today's rap/metal scene -- and sounds more vital because of it.

Iommi's style has always been about repetition, and most of the songs follow his basic formula: an eerie, ethereal opener, followed by a heavy riff repeated several times during each verse, a slight variation on said riff for the chorus, an explosive breakdown featuring a wicked guitar solo and a spooky, drawn-out ending. This cycle moves at a pace so slow that fans of today's hardcore/rap/punk-influenced speedier stuff might have an aneurysm waiting for things to pick up. What they don't realize is that the Sabbath sound was based on slow grooves that just got more evil as they kept going, finally bursting out when listeners least expected it.

Because the guitarist's part is set in stone, it's the vocalist's duty to add unique flavor, and most of them succeed. Serj Tankian of System of a Down's shows off his expansive vocal range on "Patterns," Pantera's Phil Anselmo sounds like one of Ozzy's illegitimate kids on "Time Is Mine" and the Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl sounds unexpectedly creepy on "Goodbye Lament."

As expected, the highlight comes from Osbourne, who teams up with Iommi and Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler on "Who's Fooling Who?" a track that sounds much more authentic than either of the new songs on Sabbath's 1998 Reunion album. Surprisingly, the second-best moment comes from none other than Billy Corgan. While some metalheads might think Corgan is too whiny or soft for Sabbath territory, the Smashing Pumpkins has actually released, albeit not as singles, some undeniably heavy tunes (see "Silverfuck" and "Bodies"). Here, Corgan leads Iommi into an extended art-rock jam and manages to please fans of both styles without embarrassing either side.

I hope this collaboration album fares well enough to inspire another, because plenty of dream pairings have yet to occur. Deftones' Chino Moreno, Mr. Bungle's Mike Patton and Tool's Maynard James Keenan, among others, seem to be natural matches for Iommi's talents, and it would be a crime if Iommi were never to record a song with Jimmy Page or Robert Plant. Still, at least Iommi chose his sidekicks wisely (well, except Billy Idol), avoiding one reunion for which few are clamoring: a second go-round with Ronnie James Dio.

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