With “Volume Four”, Black Sabbath developed upon the progressive themes they had planted in their previous record, “Master of Reality”. Although their sound was still well- rooted in the heavy metal grit they introduced themselves to the world by, Sabbath exchanged some of their less refined sensibilities for more sophisticated arrangements and a generally more artsier approach than what they had gone for prior. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” continues this development, albeit to a lesser degree of evolution than witnessed by their last step forward. Although the cover art implies something ripped from the bowels of hell, Black Sabbath had never sounded so refined, their style creeping ever closer to the world of prog rock. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” may be less of a surprise than “Volume Four”, but the band’s firmer grasp of their ‘new direction’ results in a slightly superior realization of the ‘prog’ Sabbath.
Proggers will be quick to point out that Yes key wizard Rick Wakeman plays keys here. Indeed, he backs up the band with some inventive piano work on “Sabbra Cadabra”, but it’s nothing that would have been beyond the talents of Tony Iommi. Although the light timbre of the piano would have stuck out like Michael Jackson at a Klan meeting on “Paranoid”, Black Sabbath had steadily built up an openness to using this and other ‘pretty’ sounding instruments in their work. The excellent instrumental “Fluff” is ample demonstration of the band’s fully realized ‘softer side’. Of course, the majority of this and any Black Sabbath album still resorts around their brand of thick, heavy rock.
This may be the first album of Black Sabbath’s career where I cannot identify a true standout track that could be promised a place on a best-of compilation. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” still triumphs over its predecessor for the fact that it manages to pursue these progressive sounds with consistency. Sabbath have still not entirely regained their doomy heaviness, but it’s certainly a harder rocking effort than “Volume Four”. “A National Acrobat” is my favourite from the album, a slower track with a beautiful dual harmonized guitar lead that foreshadows the music of another legendary British metal band. “Who Are You” is a gloomy throwback to Black Sabbath’s doom roots, glorifying the synthesizer and featuring some of the band’s most sophisticated orchestrations to date. “Spiral Architect” (the namesake of an excellent Norwegian prog metal band, by the way) is an upbeat and fitting way to close the album, with acoustic and electric guitars backed up with a Beatles-esque string arrangement. Excellent stuff.
Although I did remark that Ozzy Osbourne’s vocals had never sounded so powerful and evocative on “Volume Four”, there is the constant feeling here that he is attempting to go past what is comfortable for his vocal range. Although some of his ‘high notes’ don’t sound too bad, there are points where the strain in his voice is well evident, and it leaves him with less room to explore the emotion of his singing. Of course, it’s that sort of adventurous spirit that largely defines this stage of Black Sabbath’s development. Not everything was prone to work perfectly, but they did it anyway. In the case of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, it’s very clear that they learned some things since “Volume Four”. The sound is a little more focused, the compositions more consistent, and the orchestrations more sophisticated. It could have been easily expected given the band’s impressive track record, but Black Sabbath’s fifth instalment is an excellent album.
1. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (5:42)
2. A National Acrobat (6:16)
3. Fluff (instrumental) (4:10)
4. Sabbra Cadabra (5:55)
5. Killing Yourself to Live (5:40)
6. Who Are You? (4:10)
7. Looking for Today (4:59)
8. Spiral Architect (5:29)
* Ozzy Osbourne / vocals
* Tony Iommi / electric and acoustic guitars, steel guitar, piano, harpsichord, organ, flute, bagpipes.
* Geezer Butler / bass, fuzz bass, mellotron, synthesizer.
* Bill Ward / drums, tympani and percussion
* Rick Wakeman / Keyboards (4)