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”).
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.
I’m with you almost entirely on Sabbath- first three are my faves. Slight step down on “Vol. 4”, though I do think that album is a good bit better than “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, despite the mighty title cut. I like “Sabotage” better than “Bloody Sabbath” actually.
I like how their sound continued to develop with each album, since it would’ve gotten old if they kept doing the same thing. I’m guessing you lost interest in Sabbath after “Sabotage,” but I think you’ll find some real gems on the last two Ozzy-era albums. I’m curious to hear what you think about the Dio era.
I have “Never Say Die” and recently re-listened to it (within the past year). I’ve always liked the title cut and there are some other good cuts on it but it’s still by far my least fave Ozzy Sabbath album. I don’t have “Technical Ecstasy” though so don’t know about that one.
Growing up at I had “Live Evil”, but that’s the only Dio Sab I know. Dio has a crazy good voice but I’m not wild about a lot of his stuff- maybe a bit too dungeons and dragons for me. I do like the cuts “Heaven and Hell” and “Mob Rules” as well as “Holy Diver” off of his first solo record. I should probably listen to the full albums though- sounds like I might be surprised.
I’m so much less of a completist than you are (can you tell 🙂 ). I respect that you’re able to get the full scope of a band. There are only a few groups/artists that have had really long careers where I own every release.
I enjoy how we’re both music nuts, but in completely different ways. In order to really enjoy “Never Say Die” &/or “Technical Ecstasy,” you would really have to be a completist and give them each numerous spins. Also, since they add a lot of jazz-fusion and prog-rock into the mix, those albums were right up my alley.
I completely understand people not digging Dio (either solo, with Rainbow or Sabbath), and most detractors cite his Dungeons And Dragons imagery. I wasn’t a fan of that game, but I tend to enjoy those references in music. “Live Evil” is a decent representation of that era, but I don’t like the production, so if you’re ever interested in checking out more of the Dio lineup, I would highly recommend “Heaven And Hell.”
I was surprised that I liked “Never Say Die” (the album) as much as I did when I listened to it again so I totally understand what you’re saying. The thing about consuming SO MUCH music is that much of the even very good stuff falls through the cracks. That’s a great thing about your blog- not much falls through the cracks with you. You really do a thorough job covering each artist.
Thanks for the recommendation. I ironically was a fan of D&D until about 8th grade. I also liked Dio when I was in 8th, 9th and 10th grade. His solo stuff just didn’t wear very well with me for the most part. I have a feeling I’d like at least some of the Dio/Sab stuff though. Thanks again!
I hear you, regarding “consuming so much music” and “very good stuff falls through the cracks.” I often feel like I want to live to the age of 200 just to have the time to hear all the great music that’s out there.
I can’t imagine you being into D&D. I figured you were listening to Black Flag and Husker Du, and fantasy games were as far from that as possible. As for Dio, I agree that a little goes a long way. If I’m not in the mood for his voice, I will shut off the record and return to it later (except during the last couple of weeks, when I’m specifically revisiting these records to get to know them). Ironically, I’m listening to his last album with Sabbath, 1992’s “Dehumanizer,” as I type this. I’ll be posting about it, and a couple of other albums, next week.
Didn’t listen to Husker Du until late in college and Black Flag wasn’t until NYC. The only punk I was really into in high school was the Clash & Pistols. Even the Ramones wasn’t until college for me. In 6th and 7th grade I listened solely to top 40- didn’t know any better. I had no older siblings and neither of my parents were very into rock music….Always loved music but my first LOVE was Metal in 8th grade. I was all metal all the time. Then I moved on to Zep and Aerosmith. Then the Beatles, Stones, Who. Then pretty much any GOOD classic rock. Then in about 10th grade starting branching out into alternative & rap music and old school alternative- Elvis Costello, Velvet Underground etc…Reggae as well. Country music happened in my 20’s as well as Techno and House music & Jazz. But Metal was always my first love believe it or not.
I had no idea you were a young headbanger. A lot of people never move on from that style of music, so I’m glad to see you branched out to so many other genres. I love how we continue our musical exploration as we get older. I hope when I’m 90 I’m still finding great artists I might have missed.
I remember reading/hearing as a teenager that rock music/heavy metal was largely a teen phenomenon and that most people move on from it once they reach adulthood. I knew that wouldn’t be the case with me. I vowed that would NEVER be the case. You will continue to find more stuff no matter how old you are. I will as well. If I stop I’m as good as dead- that’s the way I look at it. It’s such a huge part of the way I enjoy life, that I’d rather be dead than not obsess about music. People are another passion of mine and I think an open minded music collections helps you be more open minded with people as well. You always have something to talk about with them as well. It’s VERY rare that I meet someone who doesn’t have some overlap in musical taste.
In 9th grade I had a collection of about 15 Metal t-shirts that I would just rotate. I basically wore them every day. Including a red W.A.S.P. tie-dye. Ouch!
Do you still have any of those t-shirts? Most of mine wore away, but I’ve kept a couple of them in the drawer with my sleep shirts, as well as my denim jacket with Cream’s “Disraeli Gears” painted on the back. I remember wearing it to an Eric Clapton concert in 1983 thinking I was the coolest guy there. I wasn’t. The jacket still has all the buttons on it, including the obligatory “Disco Sucks” button (a sentiment I no longer agree with).
Unfortunately no. I forgot to mention that my bedroom was covered in metal photos- everything but the ceiling. Eddie door poster (with Eddie bursting through the door). Not an inch of wall space showing. I left it all the way through senior year. My little bro did away with it when he moved into my room later….
Forgot to mention disco. I fell in love with it when I fell in love with my now wife in ’96. Amazing amount of craft and musicianship to a ton of disco songs. I think a lot of the disco hate was reactionary and/or homophobic. And then some of it was just that disco was so omnipresent that people were sick to death of it. I wasn’t too psyched to hear more grunge either by the late 90’s 🙂
I didn’t come around to Iron Maiden until around ’98 when I bought a few of their albums on vinyl. From the moment “Killers” started playing, I thought “where has this band been all my life?” Within months I owned their entire catalog (even the Blaze Bayley ones, which I eventually traded away), and got to see them a couple of times when Bruce rejoined.
As for disco hatred, you’re probably right about it being reactionary and homophobic. I briefly liked it (Donna Summer, Saturday Night Fever) around ’77-’78, but once I got into rock ‘n roll I turned my back on disco. Compared to more modern dance & club music (which you seem to enjoy a lot more than I do), disco was so much more organic; real people playing real instruments. Last year I got a great 2-CD Chic anthology and marveled at the musicianship, especially Bernard Edwards’ bass lines.
very true about disco music (most of it anyway) being more organic. Though it was certainly a antecedent to club music and even some techno, much of it really wasn’t that much different than funk. Chic I think was the best of the best. At least as far as musiciahship goes. Unbelievable!
Top 5 disco songs (not in order)
Chic- Good Times
Diana Ross- Upside Down
Chery Lynn- Got To Be Real
Donna Summer- I Feel Love
Bee Gees- Night Fever
Edwards is one of my all time favorite bassists. Rodgers isn’t too shabby either.
Yep, disco was like funk whittled down to its rhythmic essence. “Got To Be Real” is probably my favorite disco song, so I’m glad it made your Top 5. I played “Night Fever” on drums with the band at my bar mitzvah. I’m very glad there weren’t any video cameras present for that. In fact, I don’t remember seeing a photograph of that either, so maybe I just dreamed it.
The only “recent” dance song that I think comes close to exuding the joy of the disco era is Dee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart.” I’m not a dancer, but that one always gets me on my feet.
“Groove Is in the Heart” is a classic. That whole Dee-Lite album (World Clique) is really great.
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Great post on Sabbath I liked through Sabotage and the Dio albums including Dehumanizer…a few random things in between
Hi Mike. Thanks for stopping by & commenting. I know a lot of fans think that the post-Sabotage albums during the Ozzy era weren’t very good, but I was surprised by how much I liked them. Most of the Dio material is excellent, and I agree about the “few random things in between.”
You mention the cover art for Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, which is quite interesting as I just watched a fantastic documentary on the artist, Drew Struzen. He stated that the front is a depiction of an evil man dying, and the back is of a good man dying. Both men depicted are self portraits of Drew.
By the way, he also did the great cover of Welcome To My Nightmare by Alice Cooper, and even though he is mostly remembered for his movie poster artwork (which is just incredible), this album cover artwork is highly coveted by fans of his work.
Ian, thanks for that info about Drew Struzen. I knew nothing about him but now I’m glad I chose to include both the front & back covers in this post. I had no idea he was the same guy who did Welcome To My Nightmare. I have been enlightened and it’s much appreciated.