CD Review: WhoCares: Ian Gillan, Tony Iommi & Friends

WhoCares: Ian Gillan, Tony Iommi & Friends
Armoury Records
All Access Review: B

Across the WhoCares marquee, in big, bold letters, read the names Ian Gillan and Tony Iommi, icons of a bygone time in rock history. Any pairing of the groundbreaking Black Sabbath guitarist and, for all intents and purposes, the voice of Deep Purple — with apologies to David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes — is bound to raise a few eyebrows, just as it did in 1983 when Gillan joined Sabbath for heavy metal's version of "Plan 9 From Outer Space," the laughably awful LP Born Again and its "Spinal Tap"-like supporting tour.

Long considered the worst album in Black Sabbath's otherwise awe-inspiring monolith of a catalog, Born Again was a debacle — Gillan's hairy-chested bluesy vocals ill-suited for Sabbath's trademark gloom and doom, a problem made even worse by lackluster songwriting. Even the album cover, that demonic infant born with devil horns, fangs for teeth and sharp claws, proved to be comic fodder. And yet, here we, almost 30 years later, with Gillan and Iommi back together to rewrite the wrongs of the past — or at least trying to get by with a little help from their friends — and make some money for charity. Again into the abyss, the two legends gain a measure of redemption with the WhoCares project, whose purpose is to raise money for the music school of Gyumari, Armenia, an area still struggling to recover from the devastation wrought by a horrendous earthquake in 1998.

A two-song digital single, WhoCares features the tracks "Out of My Mind" and "Holy Water," the former an epic, heavy-duty collision of the thick, crushing riffage of Iommi and HIM guitarist Mikko "Linde" Lindstrom, the insistent, surging keyboard swells of Gillan's old Deep Purple mate Jon Lord and the monstrously huge rhythmic wrecking ball swung over and over by Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain and former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted. As for Gillan, he doesn't sound as out of place here as he did on Born Again. There's a seething undertone of menacing madness in his vocals that rises and falls with every pummeling sonic wave, with a seething Gillan dramatically expressing the scrambled thoughts of a man losing his grip on sanity as nightmarish imagery flashes in his brain. Unexpectedly, Gillan seems to have picked up on that undefinable "it" that made Ozzy Osbourne's vocals work so well with Iommi's unique hammer-of-the-gods guitar work.

"Holy Water," though, is more tailored to what Gillan does best. The star power dimming on "Holy Water" — as the supergroup of "Out of My Mind" gives way to less prominent musicians, like guitar duo Steve Morris and Michael Lee, drummer Randy Clarke, bassist Rodney Appleby and keyboardist Jesse O'Brien — Gillan gives a more reflective, contemplative performance, finding solace and comfort in that "Holy Water" that drowns so many alcoholics. An exotic, dreamy, Middle Eastern intro, perfect for a movie about the politics of that war-torn region starring George Clooney, wafts through the air until smashing headlong into a powerful, bluesy train of Hammond organ, noisy guitars and steely bass and drums that slows in the verses, riding on golden rails of acoustic guitar, and then chugs full-steam ahead toward its destination. It's a song that looks ahead, while still managing to seem full of regret and haunted by a troubled past. And Gillan perfectly captures that combination of hopeful yearning and  twinges of repressed pain in thoughtful singing that can only come with years of bold living.

Still, neither track would ever approach the proto-metal classics that Gillan and Iommi recorded with Purple or Sabbath. There's a slow, but strong, current that pulls "Out of My Mind" along that is magnificent to behold,and while able to roll along through one's mind like the Danube, the song labors and meanders to the finish, despite some beautifully drawn twin guitar work from Iommi and Lindstrom near the end. And while there is character, grace and guts in "Holy Water," it's a fairly bland offering that lacks a memorable melody and doesn't seem to notice it is traveling down a road to nowhere. Still, with Iommi and Gillan both drifting outside their comfort zones, the pair seem energized by their reunion and willing to explore new horizons, even as they bask, somewhat, in the glories of their respective histories.

The enhanced CD is fleshed out with a 30-minute, behind-the-scenes documentary of the recording sessions — plus a video for "Out of My Mind" — and it offers interesting insight into the project, inspired by Iommi and Gillan's trips to Armenia to see the damage and recovery for themselves. In a way it perhaps mirrors the motivation Iommi and Gillan might have had in trying to fulfill the potential they saw in their partnership the first time they joined forces back in 1983.

-Peter Lindblad

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