My narrator in the Master of Reality
book talks at length about Black Sabbath's Born Again
at one point, and when he does so, you're partly young John D. in his idle hours asking himself stupid/important questions like, "Are you really a fan of a band if you like the singer who replaced their 'real' singer better?" I used to spend hours thinking about this sort of thing: are there people who prefer Doug Yule to Lou Reed? Tim "Ripper" Owens to Rob Halford? Annette Olzon to Tarja Turinen? (Sorry, I'm kinda geekin' out at this point.)
Born Again is from the non-Ozzy years, when Sabbath had a revolving-door policy with vocalists. First there was Dio, who helmed the band through Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules, and quit or was fired after he did or didn't sneak into the studio at night to raise the level of his vocals in the mix for the live Live Evil. Sabbath auditioned several vocalists and finally settled on Deep Purple's Ian Gillan, and this is where the story gets most interesting to me.
Why? Because at this point in rock history, Black Sabbath has never been less cool. They have a fanbase, so it's not like they're going hungry ? the albums still chart ? but they belong to a different era now. Without either their charismatic original vocalist or his somewhat-known-quantity replacement, they're left hiring a guy who's respected by genre partisans but whose name would elicit an immediate "who?" from casual listeners. Only dedicated Black Sabbath fans are likely to even correctly identify the band playing this music as the Sabs, or to name any of the album's highlights. ("Trashed"; "Zero the Hero"; "Disturbing the Priest"; "Stonehenge.")
In other words, a band which began as the property of their fanbase is gradually returning to its original state. They are also being forced by circumstances ? personnel shifts and changing times ? to adapt, which means that they sound different now. In short, they sound kind of lost, which is the very state of mind that Sabbath's music has always existed to address; and Born Again, therefore, in all its messy glory, is something of a hidden highlight. Sometimes they sound like blues rock on Born Again; sometimes they sound like a late-seventies new wave band with a big budget and some trucker speed.
What emerges from an audibly confused band searching for direction is a pretty dark, cavernous, jittery submarine-ride of an album. Choruses sound pasted hastily onto verses; solos drop in as if recorded on by a different engineer, in a different studio, during a different year and on an entirely different board from anything else on the track; the opening number rhymes "there was no tequila" with "there was no tequila" in a song about crashing an expensive car while drunk. There is a woozy accidental perfection to it; the synth/guitar/SFX interludes on the first side succeed in trying to tie everything together. "Great" albums try to make a coherent statement about something; really great albums, like this one, know that most coherent statements are damned lies.