Blood and Thunder: Black Sabbath’s ‘Sabotage’ at 40

In 1975, with lawyers in the studio and a financial empire crumbling, Black Sabbath fought back with their last classic album of the decade.

The original idea for the cover of Black Sabbath’s sixth album was a great one. The four members of the band were going to be dressed all in black suits, standing in front of full-length mirrors in a big, creepy corridor of an old castle with stained glass windows. According to drummer Bill Ward’s assistant Graham Wright, the image would be “reversed like a Magritte, so it was their image being sabotaged.” Something classy, foreboding, iconic. The cover photo that resulted was something completely, bizarrely, hilariously different.

When it comes to stories of drug-addled excess and lunacy, there is no shortage when it comes to Black Sabbath, from Geezer Butler being held back from leaping out a hotel window after someone spiked his drink with acid, to Tony Iommi standing in a recording studio naked banging his cross necklace on a guitar and putting it on Vol. 4 as the instrumental “F/X”. However, the Sabotage album cover story is a personal favorite.

As the story goes, the inmates were running the proverbial asylum as everyone gathered at a London studio. Nobody was prepared, the label wanted one thing, management wanted another, and nobody had bothered telling the band what they were supposed to wear. In the resulting photo Ozzy Osbourne is wearing a long kimono, hiding the fact that he has nothing on below. He’s “commando” because he’s lent Bill Ward his checkered underpants. Ward is wearing Ozzy’s underwear because he hadn’t bothered to show up wearing pants. To look a little more presentable Ward has borrowed the red tights his wife Mysti was wearing at the shoot, with the checkered underwear clearly visible on the back cover photo. So in the end you have a stylish, very mid’70s-looking bassist, a businesslike guitarist sitting with a stern expression, a kimono-clad singer with nothing on underneath, and a drummer wearing his wife’s tights over the singer’s underpants. And a leather jacket, because after all you had to complete the ensemble somehow.

In 1975 Black Sabbath had much bigger fish to fry than worrying about wearing pants to a photo shoot. Their empire was in tatters thanks to a vicious and expensive legal battle with their former manager Patrick Meehan. The band had left Meehan and replaced him with Don Arden, and Meehan sued the band, and the band sued Meehan back, and the battle had spilled over into the studio, as the tracking for the follow-up to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was constantly interrupted by lawyers with subpoenas. They were hemorrhaging money, the band was a wreck, Ward was trying to get the band’s finances in order on his own while falling deeper into alcoholism, and they were trying to keep the business afloat by writing an album that would hopefully recoup some of those massive losses. The pressure was extraordinary, enough to break the will of the strongest-minded person.

What resulted, though, was the most focused Sabbath album since Master of Reality in 1971, and best of all, their heaviest and most uncompromising to date. Sabotage might not be the most canonical Sabbath album by mainstream media’s arbitrary standards, but ask any longtime fan and they’ll say it’s one of the band’s finest moments on record. Seven vicious, maniacal, acid-tongued songs, a lean, very mean, not-at-all subtle visceral response to all the forces that were trying to sabotage this band’s career.

What an opener in “Hole in the Sky”, too. With jazz/blues master Ward leaning on that beat but staying just a smidge behind it to give it that loose quality, the song swings right in with supreme authority. Whatever chemical or chemicals Ozzy was on at the time, it had a glorious effect on the man’s voice, because on the entire album he adopts a psychotic upper-register snarl that he’d never duplicate on record ever again. For the self-professed madman, this is the one vocal performance where he truly lives up to the billing. In addition, Iommi’s tone is massive, with more bite than it ever had.

The song comes to a shocking, abrupt end, interrupted by 49 seconds of plaintive acoustic guitar plucking (“Don’t Start (Too Late)”), and then the menacing crunch and speed of “Symptom of the Universe” begins. If “Hole in the Sky” exuded swagger, “Symptom” is all about force, Iommi’s staccato riff driving the beat forward, Ward delivering crazed drum fills that sound like, to use the old expression, a drum kit being thrown down a flight of stairs. The energy of the track is palpable and irresistible, the entire band on the attack. It wouldn’t be until Judas Priest’s Sin After Sin two years later that heavy metal would sound this intense and overdriven, and in retrospect you can practically envision the entire New Wave of British Heavy Metal coming to life in the wake of this massive beast of a song. At nearly ten minutes the epic “Megalomania” opts for a more brooding, mysterious tone as Butler’s lyrics take on the subject of astral travel. It kicks into a wicked little groove midway through – “Suck me!” Ozzy sneers malevolently – as the song cruises the rest of the way.

Similar to what the band did on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, “The Thrill of it All” is a bizarre combination of shade and light, bleak jamming and upbeat rock ‘n’ roll (including handclaps, for crying out loud) making for a surreal mood lightener. Instrumental “Supertzar” brings the mood right the hell down with his miserable lead riff and Wagnerian vocals courtesy the English Chamber Choir. “Am I Going Insane (Radio)” is an oddity, but one of Ozzy’s best solo compositions. Written on his Moog synthesizer (like “Who Are You” on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), it’s dominated by a strange synth melody, Iommi’s guitar playing a rare supporting role. Ozzy has always excelled at the theme of an everyman losing touch with his mind (see “Paranoid” and “Crazy Train”), and this track fits neatly between those two classics. Interestingly, the use of “Radio” in the title is Cockney slang referencing a Birmingham business called Radio Rental. Instead of “mental”, a local would be called “radio rental”, and eventually the phrase would shorten to “radio”.

The first half of side two is all a set-up for the gigantic closer “The Writ”. On an album where Ozzy truly shines as an artist, he comes through with some truly incredible lyrics, not only wryly referencing the fact that they were recording an album with lawyers literally in the studio with the band, but he takes sharp aim at Meehan: “You bought and sold me with your lying words / The voices in the deck that you never heard came through.” The song is all Ozzy; instead of acting as Iommi’s foil, Ozzy drives the entire song with his impassioned singing, Iommi’s mighty guitar taking a back seat. Ozzy, and the band for that matter, have important things to say on this song, and if that means toning down on the monumental riffs, so be it. With a flourish of theatrics similar to Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare, which interestingly enough was released as Sabbath was putting the finishing touches on this record, Ozzy concludes the song and the album on a sardonic note: “But everything is gonna work out fine / If it don’t I think I’ll lose my mind.”

Sabotage might have aged extremely well, but at the time of its release it was a flop, becoming the first Sabbath album to not achieve platinum status, stalling at 28 on the US album chart. Only would playing the nostalgia card help soften the blow, as the compilation We Sold Our Soul For Rock ‘n’ Roll would prove to be a big hit, ultimately outselling Vol. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Sabotage. But like any other slow-burning album, Sabotage‘s influence would grow with each passing decade, to the point now where it’s just as revered by fans as any other classic Sabbath album. It might have been miserable to make, but like a man named Lime once said, great art can come from suffering:

“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Albums Out This Week

Iron Kingdom, Ride for Glory (Tridroid): Iron Kingdom might hail from the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, but don’t hold that against them. This is some enjoyable, epic sword and sorcery heavy metal, with fun galloping songs about Vikings, samurai, knights, and many other swashbuckling warriors. It might feel a little clunky at times, but the DIY feel of this record, along with Chris Osterman’s crazily high-pitched nasal squeal, make it a mildly pleasant experience.

Kataklysm, Of Ghosts and Gods (Nuclear Blast): Considering how often they put out records, and how they have a habit of lapsing into churning out repetitive death metal, it’s not exactly easy getting excited about a new Kataklysm album. However, on this their bazillionth — by my accurate calculation — album, they’ve thrown in just enough touches to keep listeners interested, highlighted by “Soul Destroyer”, “The Black Sheep”, and “Carrying Crosses”. While not exactly a scintillating comeback, it’s a better than expected result.

Krallice, Ygg Huur (Nuclear Blast): Krallice are extreme metal’s Beyoncé, I suppose. From out of the blue the Brooklyn geniuses announced the arrival of their fifth album Thursday morning, which for many was a very nice surprise to say the least. Interestingly enough this is their leanest record to date, comprised of six songs in just over 35 minutes, and it indeed has more of a sense of urgency than past sprawling work. The attack is more direct, and at times the band leans more toward heavier, more spacious arrangements than ever before, but before long the guitar interplay between Mick Barr and Colin Marston, which we’ve all become so accustomed to over the years, kicks in just like old and we’re off to the races. Familiar as those moments seem, this is still a crazily unpredictable band, and although the journey is much shorter this time around, it’s no less exciting than their previous work. (Bandcamp)

Opium Lord, Eye of Earth (Candlelight): This is quality sludge/doom by the Birmingham, England band on their debut full-length but better yet, here’s a big, slow doom band smart enough to know when to say when! Clocking in at a very economical 32 minutes, it’s concise and gets its message across quickly while maintaining a deliberately lumbering pace. And the music itself is good, at times excellent, as on the pounding “Pink Mass”.

Perversor, Anticosmocrator (Hells Headbangers): The Chilean band’s first album in seven years bridges black metal, death metal, and thrash metal all at once which, combined with filthy vocals awash in reverb to achieve that cavernous effect, makes for some delightfully evil fun. Beware of that tone, though, the frequency of some of those buzzsaw riffs can be grating at high volume.

Xandria, Fire & Ashes (Napalm): On the heels of solid album Sacrificium and a North American tour that saw them embraced by power/symphonic metal fans in every city, Xandria is smartly striking while the iron is hot, offering a new seven-song EP for fans old and new. There are three new songs (the best of which being “Voices of the Fallen”) a pair of re-recordings to showcase singer Dianne van Giersbergen, and most intriguingly, a pair of covers. Sonata Arctica’s 2004 classic “Don’t Say a Word” is a very ambitious choice, but the band pulls it off with great confidence. Meanwhile, van Giersbergen knocks Meat Loaf’s “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)” out of the park. Come to think of it, we need a symphonic metal band to do an entire album of Jim Steinman covers.

Year of the Goat, The Unspeakable (Napalm): When I first heard Year of the Goat’s new single “The Emma”, I thought, oh no, here’s another promising new band that’s lost the plot. Go beyond the plodding waltz of that track, though, and you’ll discover more of what first made this Swedish band so entrancing in 2009. This band excels at short, immediate bursts of lushly melodic heavy rock with a devilish occult slant — like Ghost without the theatrics — and tracks like “Pillars of the South”, “The Wind”, and “Vermin” do just that, hearkening back to early ’80s Blue Öyster Cult. To get there, though, you have to endure not only “The Emma” but an obnoxiously long 12-minute track called “All He Has Read”. Ambition is good, but listeners’ patience has its limits. When simplified, Year of the Goat can be gloriously good. That’s on display here, but not quite often enough.

Head Above Ground

The fallout from the Mayhem festival squabble between Kerry King, Kevin Lyman, Jungle Rot, and scores of others has offered some mild entertainment over the past week, but the bigger issue this raises is just how close mainstream metal is to falling completely off the arena circuit. Many metal fans will say, “good,” but some older folks like yours truly have fond memories of the spectacle an arena metal show brought. The bombast, the theatrics, the sense that you were attending an event. The diluted, 2015 version of Slayer cannot fill a 5,000-capacity venue, let alone headline a major tour of sheds across the country. Judas Priest are playing the odd hockey barn, but are largely playing sub-headlining spots at festivals and is even resorting to casinos on their current tour. Even Slipknot can’t pack ’em in anymore like they used to. Avenged Sevenfold and Five Finger Death Punch, while the most popular contemporary metal bands on this continent, don’t have the pull of upper-tier bands. Volbeat is climbing too, but at 5,000-range shows they might be hitting the ceiling unless they can pull off a monster new album.

With Metallica and Iron Maiden the only metal bands left that can fill large venues, this is an interesting time. Like the mid-1990s, bands are going to have to rethink their expectations when it comes to drawing power, instead now it feels permanent. The fewer icons that emerge in the current generation of heavy metal, the more that sense of grandiosity, of hero worship will shrink, whether it’s the collective perception of its best contemporary artists or the scale of a live performance. Aside from the odd appearance of Eddie, the notion of heavy metal as a spectacle is very close to going the way of the dodo bird, soon to be an unthinkable notion to a new generation of metal fans and a distant memory for those old enough to remember.

Track of the Week

The Night Creeper, the fourth album by Uncle Acid & the Deadbeats, is a strange record in that it sees Kevin Starrs and the band continuing to veer away from supercharged heavy rockers like “I’ll Cut You Down” and “Mind Crawler” towards something creepier, slower, filthier. There’s no one real “single” among its ten tracks, opting for mood more than immediate hooks. It’s a grower, a very good album, and those with no patience will be quick to pan it. But as “Waiting For Blood” proves, there’s still more than enough to prove the band haven’t yet reached their best-before date.

Blabbermouth Headline of the Week

Horns Up: The return of Kylesa, Randy Blythe, Tom Araya.

Horns Down: Kevin Lyman, Kerry King, Lita Ford and her family (who is anyone to believe in that mess?).

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Follow Blood & Thunder’s rolling 2015 metal tracks playlist on Spotify