Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The final three studio albums Black Sabbath released with Ozzy Osbourne are not highly rated by fans & critics, especially the last two, and none of them have made much of an impression on me whenever I’ve listened to them in the past. The first time I played them last week, before wrapping up my previous post, I had the same reaction, and I didn’t expect that to change much when I played them again this week. But oh how wrong I was, because by about the third or fourth listen I was hooked. Although each album has its flaws, I was impressed by how they were stretching themselves during this period instead of simply following the heavy metal template they had created. I can understand why a lot of fans don’t like these records, especially those who like their heavy metal to remain unchanged, but anyone going into these with an open mind would find a whole lot of impressive music.
The most well-regarded of these albums is Sabotage (1975), which starts off with a bang: “Hole In The Sky” is a relatively brief opener with a big splashy sound courtesy of Bill Ward’s drums & crash cymbals. Tony Iommi’s guitars have a meatier sound than before but they’re not as oppressive, and Ozzy sounds more confident than ever, most notably when he sings “through it I flyyyyy…” The song ends abruptly, and is followed by the brief, multi-guitar instrumental, “Don’t Start (Too Late).” I love Iommi’s playing here, and I wish this could have been expanded. Ward’s manic but controlled drumming and Geezer Butler’s pounding bass line really drive the rhythm for “Symptom Of The Universe.” Ozzy’s vocals are once again powerful, singing at the peak of his abilities, especially when he channels Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant (“Oh my child of love’s creation…”) during the slow, percussive jazzy outro. Iommi’s acoustic (nylon string?) guitar adds a nice feel, making it one of my favorite segments in their catalog so far. The nearly 10-minute epic “Megalomania” begins quietly with Ozzy’s phased vocals, and slowly builds in volume and intensity. The theme here is repeated in the line “Why doesn’t everybody leave me alone?” It shifts to a faster groove at 3:20, with a riff that possibly influenced Mötley Crüe’s “Looks That Kill.” The vocal hooks here are “How I lied, went to hide, how I tried to get away from you now…” and “Feel…it…slipping away, slipping in tomorrow.” Could this song have influenced Led Zeppelin the following year on their epic album opener, “Achilles Last Stand”?
“The Thrill Of It All” is a partial misfire for me, a mostly pounding rocker with a gigantic drum sound and evocative religious lyrics (“Won’t you help me Mr. Jesus, won’t you tell me if you can? When you see this world we live in, do you still believe in man?”). The verses are okay, but I do really like the alternate sections (that end in “Oh yeah, OH YEAH!”). “Supertzar” is a cool instrumental with electric guitar and vocalizing by the English Chamber Choir. It’s not amazing, but I like the change of pace and that climbing guitar pattern that Iommi uses a few times. “Am I Going Insane (Radio)” offers another change of pace, with the synthesizer leading the melody instead of the guitar. The verses sound like an updated late-60s psychedelic “Nuggets” song, and the chorus “(“Tell me people, am I going insane?”) is very catchy. The crazy laughing at the end segues into the final song, “The Writ,” another epic track. It starts quietly with an oily bass line, but then kicks in with Ozzy really wailing. Each verse ends with a variation on the catchy refrain, “For you…just for you.” There’s a slight rhythmic shift at around 3:30 (“Cats…rats…the search is on so you just better run”), and again to a faster pace a minute later, but neither of these changes is drastic or gimmicky. They offer a nice pastoral section as well (“My life it started some time ago”), but each section flows smoothly into the next one. The song fades out before the silly hidden track “Blow On A Jug” appears, with Ozzy & Ward mock-singing. I’m not sure I can say that this is the best (or my favorite) Sabbath album, especially compared to a classic like Paranoid, but I’m amazed by how much I love this record, and it’s every bit as essential as the five albums I previously discussed.
According to many reviews I’ve read, Technical Ecstasy (1976) is where the wheels started to come off, but to my ears this couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, they had moved pretty far away from the original doom-and-gloom metal of their acknowledged classics, but honestly that sound had started to wear thin and I’m glad they chose to change things up. The album opens with “Back Street Kids,” a bass-heavy song with a great chugging groove (reminiscent of Heart’s “Barracuda”) and a fat guitar riff. It’s about the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, with silly but fun lyrics, and each verse ends with the line “Nobody I know is gonna take my rock ‘n’ roll away from me.” Iommi also offers a very melodic guitar solo. The hypnotic keyboard melody accompanying Ozzy’s vocals on “You Won’t Change Me” offers a nice change of pace. I like how the first few lines of each verse are sparse, and then the band kicks in for the remaining lines. They stray as far from the classic Sabbath template on “It’s Alright,” a piano-led power ballad with Bill Ward on lead vocals. Not only is his singing surprisingly strong, but his drumming style reminds me of Queen’s Roger Taylor (one of my favorite drummers). Iommi rips a nice solo and adds some tasty nylon string acoustic as well. Ward once again channels Roger Taylor on “Gypsy,” one of the highlights of the album with a fast & creative drum pattern. Iommi gives us some power chords and the chorus is very “AOR/melodic rock,” a new genre that hadn’t been given a name yet. I especially love the vocal melody during the “She took me through the shadows…” section, as well as the memorable chorus of “So you wanna be a GYPSY.”
[Black Sabbath – “Gypsy”]
“All Moving Parts (Stand Still)” is a decent song that I should like more. It has a crunchy, glam-rock vibe that reminded me of early Alice Cooper, not just in the groove but also the lyrical similarities to Coopers “School’s Out”(“Teacher’s burnt the school, he’s had enough of sticking to the rules”). “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” was probably the most radio-friendly song at the time, but I found it to be a little monotonous and unoriginal. “She’s Gone” (not the Hall & Oates song) is a really nice ballad with strong vocals from Ozzy. It opens with strings (can’t tell if they’re real or Mellotron), then Iommi joins in on slow-picked acoustic. The strings and light synths that accompany the vocals give this an almost psychedelic folk vibe, while also reminding me of Pink Floyd’s “Welcome To The Machine.” The album ends with “Dirty Women,” a mostly midtempo song about searching for a prostitute, with a great 6-note riff and a solid drum pattern. Right from the beginning, Ozzy draws us in (“The neon lights are shining on me again…”), and Iommi’s various guitars (acoustic and electric) all sound amazing. He really wails throughout this song. My favorite part might be Ozzy’s high vocals at “Walking the streets I wonder will it ever happen.” This must have been a highlight of their live shows. So other than a couple of clunkers (which aren’t terrible), there are several songs I absolutely fell in love with on this album. I always thought this was a record that was destined to sit on my shelf untouched, but I will definitely be coming back to it again, and I’m pleasantly surprised by how much it exceeded my expectations.
Their final album with Ozzy, Never Say Die! (1978), seems to have the worst reputation of anything by the original lineup, so I expected it to go in one ear & out the other. Instead, I found myself at times thinking this was my favorite Sabbath album, or at least every bit as good as their classics. Like its predecessor, there are a few missteps, but the good songs are absolutely incredible. “Never Say Die” is a perfect kick-ass album opener, sounding like a slightly faster “Detroit Rock City” (by my first musical love, Kiss). There are great vocal hooks in the chorus (“ Don’t they ever have to worry? Don’t you ever wonder why?” and “Don’t you ever, don’t ever say die”), and a cool psychedelic guitar sound in the bridge. “Johnny Blade” begins with a prog-rock synth intro, like sci-fi sound effects, until the fast snare-drum pattern kicks in. Ozzy’s vocals move from full and deep (“Tortured and twisted, he walks the streets alone”) to a high scream (he gets up there when he sings “Johnny BLADE”). Things slow down at “Well you know that Johnny’s a spider,” which sounds musically and lyrically like David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” character. Ward’s drumming shines throughout this tune, and my only complaint is that it goes on a little too long. The same issue plagues “Junior’s Eyes,” which could’ve used some editing. However, I love Geezer’s funky bass line and the sly, subtle groove, as well as Iommi’s distorted guitar and the shift to a steady beat at “They’re coming home again tomorrow…”
“A Hard Road” has a very radio-friendly chorus (just “Oh, it’s a hard road” sung twice), and the feel is similar to The Beatles circa “Sgt. Pepper,” especially the vocals and bass line (although the groove also recalls Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit In The Sky”). Iommi shines again with various guitar tones (smooth, crunchy, psychedelic and more). Once again they needed an editor, but I still like it a lot. “Shockwave” is the only unmemorable song here. The performances are good, but it’s a little shapeless and unnecessary. Fortunately, it’s followed by two monster songs that blew me away. “Air Dance” has a light jazzy feel, Ozzy comes in with a great melody (“She sits in silence, in her midnight world”), guest musician Don Airey adds some wonderful piano tinkling, and Iommi introduces an incredible guitar sound between the verse and chorus (and into the chorus). After a spacey midsection, the band comes in with a heavier start-stop rhythm before delving into jazz-tinged Allman Brothers territory with brilliant lead guitar. This song is awesome from start to finish, and unlike the earlier songs I wish it were a lot longer. “Over To You” is another new favorite, beginning with a big, splashy, plodding rhythm before veering into jazz territory (with great piano runs) at “Traveling endlessly, I’m searching my mind…” These two songs are an amazing one-two punch, and truly a highlight of their catalog. It’s followed by the interesting but completely un-Sabbath instrumental (complete with brass arrangement), “Breakout.” The album concludes with the nadir of their catalog, “Swinging The Chain,” a faceless, slow, heavy rocker with Ward on lead vocals. It’s a truly awful way to close out the Ozzy era, but it doesn’t take away from the numerous astounding songs on the album. Like Technical Ecstasy before it, this is an incredibly pleasant surprise. I’m glad I kept an open mind.
[Black Sabbath – “Air Dance”]
Nearly every popular artist in the ‘70s released the obligatory live album, but Sabbath was a rare exception. It wasn’t until Ozzy was out of the band, and their new incarnation (with Ronnie James Dio on vocals) was a success, that their record company released Live At Last (1980), an old recording from 1973’s Vol. 4 tour. As the only officially released document of the original lineup it’s worth hearing, but sonically it’s nothing special even though the performances are solid throughout. “Killing Yourself To Live” appears in an early version, as it wouldn’t be released until later that year. The centerpiece of the album is the “Wicked World” jam, which goes on for nearly 20 minutes and includes snippets of other songs (like “Into The Void” and “Supernaut”) as well as a swinging interlude with some jazzy lead guitar and a brief drum solo. But mostly it’s a showcase for Iommi, who’s in full “guitar god” mode throughout. They closed the show by blasting through “Paranoid,” with Ozzy exclaiming at the end, “You’re beautiful…we love you” (he yells the latter half of that phrase numerous times during the concert, a peace-and-love attitude from the future “Prince Of Darkness”). This is by no means an essential album, but the fact that they were a great live band shines through the murky sound quality.
Sabbath parted ways with Ozzy by the end of the decade and began the ‘80s reinvigorated with a new lead singer (the aforementioned Ronnie James Dio). Next up I’ll revisit the three albums (two studio & one live) they recorded with him in the early ’80s, and maybe one subsequent release. As a fan of Dio from his solo work and especially Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, I’m looking forward to hearing these albums again and really getting to know them.