Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Tony Iommi continued to produce a barrage of powerful guitar riffs on Master Of Reality (1971), Black Sabbath’s follow-up to the heavy metal classic, Paranoid. Although they continued to be the standard-bearers for the relatively new genre, the songs on this album don’t always fit that description. You can hear the influence of this music on numerous artists, from the obvious hard rock & heavy metal bands (like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden) to grunge (Alice In Chains, Soundgarden), stoner rock (Kyuss, Queens Of The Stone Age, Masters Of Reality…I wonder where they got that name) to dance pop, believe it or not (I’ll explain below). The album opens with “Sweet Leaf,” their ode to marijuana, which begins with Tony Iommi coughing before giving way to one of their most monumental riffs. This is one of the defining songs in their catalog, not just for the riff and subject matter, but also for the sludgy midtempo stomp that gives way to a rollicking upbeat section (with excellent tom-tom groove and guitar solo) before returning to the sludge. This is a pattern they would eventually use as a crutch when the musical ideas began to dry up, but during this golden era it still sounded fresh and adventurous. “After Forever” follows with a bass-heavy intro section that leads into a fast five-note riff that’s instantly memorable. The lyrics are unusually deep for them, and would be controversial in today’s politically correct climate (“When you think about death do you lose your breath or do you keep your cool? Would like to see the Pope on the end of a rope, do you think he’s a fool?”). In the end it’s clear that this song is pro-religion (“They should realize before they criticize that God is the only way to love”). I wonder if critics at the time who feared or hated Black Sabbath ever took the time to listen to the lyrics, which are often more uplifting and thought provoking than they’re given credit for.
“Children Of The Grave” returns to the anti-war theme of some of their earlier songs, with heavy lyrics like, “Show the world that love is still alive, you must be brave, or you children of today are children of the grave.” Although the guitar & bass sounds are super heavy, I believe the same groove was used by dance music producer Giorgio Moroder for the Blondie song “Call Me.” These two songs could make for an interesting mash-up.
[Black Sabbath – “Children Of The Grave”]
Iommi delivers a pretty acoustic guitar instrumental called “Orchid.” Then, like their first-album classic “N.I.B.,” the devil seems to be the narrator for “Lord Of This World” (“You made me master of the world where you exist. The soul I took from you was not even missed”). This one’s got an amazingly dark guitar tone, and although they utilize a few different grooves, it’s mostly slow and heavy. “Solitude” is moodier and more atmospheric, with a dark, deep bass line and a clean guitar sound, and sad lyrics about a lost love (“Crying and thinking is all that I do, memories I have remind me of you”). Ozzy’s vocals are so subdued that it really doesn’t sound like him. The addition of flute puts this in Moody Blues territory, which is a positive for me, but I’m guessing a lot of fans skip this one. This quickly became a new favorite of mine, though. The album closes with the epic “Into The Void,” beginning with an extended instrumental section that’s highlighted by a phenomenal extended riff (like a long, dark melodic line). Ozzy doesn’t enter until around the 1:40 mark (“Rocket engines burning fuel so fast…”), and continues with sci-fi lyrics about people fleeing earth before a coming apocalypse. The inevitable fast section arrives at around 3:00 with “Freedom fighters sent out to the sun…,” and once they leave Satan behind they’ll “make a home where love is there to stay, peace and happiness in every day.” Yet another positive message, which is followed by a great guitar solo through the outro. It’s hard to find any fault with this album, and even its brevity (less than 35 minutes) makes it a record worth playing over and over again.
Their next album, Vol. 4 (1972), was cut from the same cloth as its predecessor: monster riffs, numerous tempo changes, and a few stylistic left-turns. “Wheel Of Confusion” starts things off with a slow bluesy intro, sounding like early Robin Trower, but during its 8+ minutes they give us a typical sludgy groove, a fast section with Bill Ward’s swinging cymbal and hi-hat work, and an extended instrumental outro (entitled “The Straightener”) that adds tambourine, some light Mellotron embellishment, and a searing Iommi guitar solo. I like the lyrics, where the first verse is about being young & carefree, the second is about aging and disillusionment, and then finally, in the last verse, acceptance (“The world will still be turning when you’re gone”). “Tomorrow’s Dream” is a standard midtempo Sabbath tune. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but I love the double hits at the end of each line in the verses. “Changes” is a rare ballad, based around a piano motif and Mellotron accompaniment. I was surprised to read that they never performed this live with the original lineup, since I think it would’ve gone over extremely well, providing some relief from all of the pummeling riffs. The lyrics may be a little simplistic but they’re effective, and the song really hinges on Ozzy’s excellent reverbed vocals. “FX” is barely worth a mention, just sound effects (on guitar?) that I will likely skip in the future, but it leads into one of the best songs they’ve done so far: “Supernaut.” What a guitar tone and powerful melodic riff, and the big splashy drums make this brighter than anything on the last two albums. There are some positive lyrics (“I want to reach out and touch the sky”), and I love Ward’s 16th note pattern on the closed hi-hat during the main riff. After the percussive middle section, Iommi returns with a fat guitar tone before the final verse, with a return to geeky, sci-fi lyrics (“I’ve seen the future and I’ve left it behind”).
[Black Sabbath – “Supernaut”]
It’s no secret that the Sabbath guys were enjoying various substances at this time. “Snowblind” at first seems like their ode to cocaine until you realize it could be an official anti-cocaine song. Iommi’s guitar tone is fuzzy but cleaner than usual, and he provides a wonderful melodic solo that really builds while the tempo stays the same. The vocal melody reminds me of the Kiss song “100,000 Years,” from their debut album (which was released two years later). “Cornucopia” has all kinds of rhythmic shifts, literally a “cornucopia of grooves,” but it seems complicated just for the sake of it. Apparently, Bill Ward hated this song, probably because his substance abuse problems made it difficult for him to adequately tackle the various rhythmic patterns (although they sound good to me). “Laguna Sunrise” is a nice respite from the rest of the album, a peaceful and pretty instrumental with Iommi playing two acoustic guitars (one strumming and one finger picking), along with Mellotron strings. “St. Vitus Dance” has two distinct parts, one that’s peppy with tambourine (which I prefer) and one that’s typically dark & heavy (which is nothing special). The album ends with “Under The Sun,” which starts out very sinister before going into a heavy shuffle beat when the vocals kick in. There’s also a great climbing guitar lead between the verses (the main hook of the song). The lyrics are against religious freaks and evangelists, as the writer just wants to live his life in peace. The last two minutes are a steady instrumental (with guitar solo), subtitled “Every Day Comes And Goes.” I really like this album, but for me it’s a slight step down from the first three. Sure, some of the songs are among their best, but they also included some retreads of ideas they had previously done better. However, that’s a minor complaint, and this would be an essential listen for anyone just discovering Black Sabbath.
For any parents who worried about their kids being exposed to harmful messages by listening to Black Sabbath, the front and back cover artwork for their fifth album, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), must have confirmed their suspicions. Although these images feature demons, skulls, tortured souls and “666” (the number of the beast, of course), the music & lyrics were not much different than before, with a few minor exceptions. The title track, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” sets the tone with a cool riff and verses that are similar to what they’ve done before. Ozzy’s voice sounds exceptionally strong, and the alternate section (“Nobody will ever let you know…”) features their most beautiful vocal melody, especially the line, “They just tell you that you’re on your own.” It’s one of my favorite things in their catalog so far. “A National Acrobat” has a stomping beat with the harmonized guitar providing an extended riff. The sparse midsection adds phased effects on the guitars and drums, which was a nice production choice, and I love the positive message in the lyrics: “Just remember love is life and hate is death. Treat your life for what it’s worth and live for every breath.” Iommi plays guitar, piano and harpsichord on “Fluff,” a delicate and exquisite tune that’s the longest instrumental they had recorded to this point. As a huge fan of progressive rock, I was pleased to see longtime Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman’s name in the credits for “Sabbra Cadabra.” He provides a very proggy synth part as well as boogie-woogie piano, which were new sonic textures for Sabbath. This song is a fast shuffle that starts with lead guitar instead of the usual heavy riffs. Although the lyrics are simplistic and juvenile, they convey a sense of joy at finding a woman to love. I really enjoyed Ozzy’s vocal effect at “Lovely lay-ay-ay-dy.”
“Killing Yourself To Live” is a decent song, where the catchiest part occurs when Ozzy sings the title. In addition to the steady 4/4 groove that opens the song, there are two other distinct sections: “You think that I’m crazy…” (where Ozzy’s melody matches the lead guitar) and “I don’t know if I’m up or down” (a fast shuffle that recalls Deep Purple). They return to prog rock territory for “Who Are You,” with Ozzy and Geezer on synths. This leads into a very slow section that’s standard Sabbath fare, but the synths and phased drums give this a Pink Floyd-lite feel, especially the middle instrumental. I really enjoyed this one, as it grew on me with each successive listen. “Looking For Today” is a straightforward melodic rocker with a great hook when Ozzy repeats “Looking for todaaaaaay” several times. I enjoyed the acoustic guitar and flute added to the “Everyone just gets on top of you…” sections. Album closer “Spiral Architect” begins with 45 seconds of acoustic guitar before switching to a driving groove that sounds like “Question” by The Moody Blues (the one that begins, “Why do we never get an answer…?”). The verses have the standard slow Sabbath vibe, but it’s more spacey than usual. The strings added to the “Of all things I value most…” section, as well as the middle instrumental, give this an epic feel. Although nothing here reaches the heights of “Wheel Of Confusion” or “Supernaut” for me, I think this album is slightly more consistent than Vol. 4, with no real clunkers or unnecessary sound effects. It’s another essential record in their catalog, and made them 5-for-5 to start their career. Pretty impressive.
Now I’ll move on to the final three albums (along with one live album) from the original lineup. Conventional wisdom says that there’s a steep decline during this period, which resulted in Ozzy’s departure and a new beginning with a new singer in a new decade. I don’t know any of those albums very well right now, but by the next time you hear from me I will. I’m very curious to see if they’re as bad as their reputations, but as always I’ll go into them with an open mind.