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Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
The title track from the band’s fifth album does not sound like too much of a departure, at first. The muddy riffing and martial beat: same and great as it ever was. And then the chorus hits: a sprinkle of acoustic guitars and multi-tracked electric punctuations. The band members had already shown they were masters of tempo shifting and inimitable segues, but this is an obvious and arresting step in the group’s ongoing evolution. Although he had already established himself as the preeminent metal singer (and/or screamer), the dramatic clarity and nuance (yes, nuance!) of Osbourne’s vocals signified another weapon in Sabbath’s arsenal. This is the ideal opening statement for an album that found the quartet incorporating synthesizers (Rick Wakeman from Yes), strings (!), and a generally more ambitious compositional approach that never crosses over into pretension.
It was on Sabotage that Tony Iommi looked backward and (once again) invented the future. After the successful experimentations of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, it was obvious that the band was ready to once again turn things up to eleven. It would seem improbable for Iommi—or anyone—to expand or improve upon the once-in-a-career sonic assault of Vol. 4, but Sabotage features some of the cleanest, hugest, and most immortal riffs in Iommi’s unparalleled repertoire. Take “Hole in the Sky”: now this is how you begin an album! Ward and Butler are in typically fine form, while Osbourne’s vocal range continues to mature: his words are easy to understand—and a joy to listen to. But this is Iommi’s show, and he is less interested than ever in taking prisoners. While his obvious perfectionist streak (the one that would eventually drive Ozzy to distraction, facilitating his ouster from the group) is intensifying—much to our delight—above and behind the wall of sonic embellishments is the central guitar track: it cuts through the song like a dark laser, sparks and notes falling like stars crashing into the sea.
Vol. 4 (1972)
Fueled by booze and Bolivian marching powder (not for nothing was the album almost called “Snowblind” after the track of the same name), there is an aggressively defiant air that permeates every second of Vol. 4. On an album chock-full of indelible riffs, “Supernaut” warrants special mention. Not one to hand out praise lightly, Frank Zappa himself allegedly declared this one of his favorite songs, and it remains one of the ultimate adrenaline rushes in rock. The entire band is locked and loaded: Ward and Butler playing as though the world might end any moment (and who knows, it may have seemed that way in the studio), Ozzy turning in one of his most ferocious vocal turns (the near-mocking boasts he spits out might make this the first—or at least whitest—gangster rap song of all time), and Iommi’s solo is the soundtrack for the coolest action movie never made. It ends with one of the most delicious verses of the decade, a middle finger to fashion and conformity: “Got no religion, don’t need no friends / Got all I want and I don’t need to pretend / Don’t try to reach me, ‘cause I’d tear up your mind / I’ve seen the future and I’ve left it behind.”
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
To be certain, Black Sabbath is never going to be for everyone. Still, there are certain tracks, like the already-discussed “It’s Alright”, as well as “Planet Caravan”, “Orchid”, “Embryo”, “Laguna Sunrise”, and “Air Dance”, to put on for the uninitiated listener and then give them five guesses to name that band. “Spiral Architect”, the pinnacle—and finale—of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, showcases multi-tracked vocals from Ozzy, acoustic guitars galore, and… strings? Simply put, as brilliant (and in some ways innovative) as Sabbath’s blues-drenched debut was, the growth and expansion demonstrated between 1970 and 1978 is as impressive and ambitious as that of just about any other group. “Spiral Architect” is a high water mark at a crucial juncture of Sabbath’s evolution: after it pulled this off, it could—and did—begin to further experiment in the studio (resulting in longer, more complex compositions like “Megalomania” and “The Writ”), and as the band incorporated strings and brass into the mix, it eventually made work that even die-hard fans have a hard time getting their heads around (see: Never Say Die!).
Black Sabbath (1970)
This is it: the song that launched the debut, and a billion puny imitators, clinging like insects to the monolith they could never become. It’s hard to argue with the uncomplicated symmetry of this opening statement. Band: Black Sabbath. Album: Black Sabbath. Song: Black Sabbath. And yet… the all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn shame, it is enough to make one wish it had simply stuck with its original name (Earth, as the group was initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising ensemble). Certainly wizards, warnings, and wickedness abound on its debut, but it sounds today exactly like what was recorded: a ferocious and opportunistic young band putting everything on the table, fully aware it might never get a second shot. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about Sabbath was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music. Blah, blah, blah; the less said trying to explain, or even consecrate this song—and the group that made it—the better: it speaks for itself loudly and proudly. More than four decades has done nothing to diminish the devastating impact of that final solo, a speed drill aimed directly at your brain; if you survive the experience nothing is ever the same.