Black Sabbath – Master of Reality / Vol. 4

Although perhaps not as consistent as their seminal album “Paranoid”, Black Sabbath took new steps forward with “Master of Reality”. In the year since their self-titled debut, the band had received their share of fame and notoriety for their unprecedented heaviness and perceived ‘Satanic’ themes. As such, the band’s third record seems to poke fun at these notions, showcasing a more laid back approach, and even praising the merits of Christianity. Although these new innovations don’t always shine brightly, there is a still a hefty slice of the classic Sabbath sound here. Once again, Black Sabbath have not failed to impress.

Beginning on the iconic note of a sampled cough, the band erupt into “Sweet Leaf”, a drug- addled tune that’s become a fan favourite over the years. Picking up where they left off on “Paranoid”, “Sweet Leaf” is pumped full of Tony Iommi’s distinctive guitar fuzz. Barring that, “Lord of This World” and “Into The Void” harken back to Black Sabbath’s traditional sound. There is still a trace of the downtempo bluesy grime in their songwriting, but it becomes apparent later on that ‘Master of Reality’ has progressed past what the band was doing the year before. In addition to “Sweet Leaf”, “Solitude” is the other ‘known’ song from the album, an atmospheric ballad that sounds as if it would feel less lonesome on a prog rock record than anything. Here, Iommi showcases his flute and keyboard playing abilities, a far cry from the sludgy riffs he’s best known for.

“Master of Reality” also features a pair of ‘interlude’ tracks that work best as experimental sketches. ‘Embryo’ is an eerie violin observation that may have worked well to space out the album’s first side were it not so aimless. “Orchid” on the other hand is a nostalgic bit of acoustic plucking that works well to separate bouts of the band’s typical heaviness. Without a doubt, the most controversial track here is “After Forever”. Musically speaking, it’s not such a departure from Black Sabbath’s typical sound, sounding a touch more upbeat than their trademark gloom. Lyrically however, bassist Geezer Butler writes about his devotion to Christianity, even ridiculing those who may not agree with the Church. Whether or not this is a tongue-in-cheek jab at the accusations of Sabbath being Satanists, the preachy approach makes one wonder.

“Children of the Grave” is my favourite song off “Master of Reality”. Although it shares the same style of sludgy riffs and over-the-top occult atmosphere with much of Sabbath’s work up to this point, it stands out for its relatively intense rhythm, a gallop that would later be mirrored in Maiden’s work. Pair that with an added layer of drums that sound like they could have been plucked out of a Voodoo ritual, and you have one of the album’s hardest rocking tracks.

“Master of Reality” is an excellent continuation of what Black Sabbath were doing on the previous two records. Although not everything works to expectation, the more progressive edge they have here has opened plenty of doors for the band to explore. Overall, “Master of Reality” does not share the consistent string of ‘essential’ songs that “Paranoid” or even the self-titled did, but there is more than enough on Sabbath’s third to give justice to their legacy as the godfathers of heavy metal.

Each album that Black Sabbath released up to the point of “Volume Four” had showcased some sort of development. After all, most great bands are rarely satisfied with staying in the same place for so long, and it would be natural for these Birmingham gents to want to explore their ‘heavy metal’ invention in different ways. Although the diversified approach of “Master of Reality” surprised me when compared to what came before it, “Volume Four” is an even greater leap forward for the band, at least stylistically speaking. Here, the progenitors of heavy metal are embracing the progressive rock movement that was reaching its peak around 1972; if not accepting it with open arms, then at least acknowledging it with a nod and a wave. For all of the new possibilities that Sabbath open for themselves here however, I cannot help but miss the heaviness of their earlier work.

Although I do not hide my love for progressive rock, much of the reason that albums like Black Sabbath’s debut and their masterpiece “Paranoid” appealed to me so much was due to Tony Iommi’s mastery of the almighty riff. Not only that, but his guitar tone was heavy and thick, even by today’s standards. While “Volume Four” has not entirely lost these traits, it’s clear from the uncharacteristically mellowed intro to “Wheels of Confusion” that Black Sabbath are trying to do something different with their music, for better and worse. While “Volume Four” may not be as heavy as what came before, the incorporation of prog rock and American psychedelia is an exciting change of pace. The eight minute rocker “Wheels of Confusion” and beautiful mellotron-laden “Changes” are major tips of the hat to prog, which was reaching its artistic peak that year with albums like Yes’ “Close To The Edge” and Genesis’ “Foxtrot”. Among the other unconventional pieces on the album is a listless sound experiment in “FX”, and “Laguna Sunrise”, an acoustic piece accompanied by full-blown string orchestration that could easily score the happy ending to a Spaghetti Western film.

“Supernaut” has Tony Iommi evoke the spirit of Jimi Hendrix with a playful central riff that ranks among the band’s best. “Snowblind” is a rocking fan favourite involving the band’s love of the Businessman’s drug. Although the instrumentation generally feels less defined and powerful than it did on earlier albums, Ozzy Osbourne gives one of the best vocal performances of his career here, his distinctive voice complimented with a trembling vibrato and greater range than previously expressed. The result is an album that often feels more like hard rock than metal in the traditional sense. The songwriting is layered with keyboards, and tricks that the band innovated on “Master of Reality” have been developed further here. Although this is the most musically sophisticated album the band had made yet, it lacks the same atmospheric intensity I felt so profoundly with their early work. Although they have sacrificed an aspect of their sound on “Volume Four”, Black Sabbath’s newfound progressive outlook on their music would open a world of new possibilities for them.

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