Black Sabbath – Sabotage / Technical Ecstasy

Like most great bands, Black Sabbath have tweaked and changed their sound gradually, maintaining a distinctive core sound, but experimenting with the way they choose to approach it. Everything since “Master of Reality” witnessed Sabbath moving ever closer to a more mellowed, progressive sound. While I felt invigorated as a listener to hear the band transform their heavy riffs into something refined and sophisticated, I could not help but miss the grit and ugliness that made the band’s first two releases so great. By the point of their fifth album “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, I could have sworn that the godfathers of heavy metal had distanced themselves from metal permanently.

Of course, a masterpiece like “Sabotage” was enough to change my mind.

I had heard alot of great things about Sabbath’s sixth album before finally giving it a listen. Many fans of the band would even go as far as to tell me it was their favourite Sabbath album. Although the winning streak of excellent albums would allegedly end after this, “Sabotage” is a glorious return to the heavy metal crunch, all the way keeping their more recent prog sensibilities in mind. Although the idea of a ‘return to roots’ intrinsically means to take steps back and regress, the progress Black Sabbath made with sophisticated rock arrangements has not been lost. Here, the synths are subdued in exchange for a rekindled devotion to Iommi’s almighty riff.

Although Ozzy Osbourne and his vocal melodies still reach for the high notes (as was the case for “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”) his vocals feel more accustomed for it. I have never considered Ozzy to be the most technically proficient vocalist, but his dynamic performance on “Sabotage” demonstrates he is capable of much more than his solo career lets on. The incredible closer and highlight “The Writ” has his vocals fit whatever mold the music warrants. The song is first filled with some classic Iommi riffage, and Osbourne’s performance matches it with an intense, belting voice. Keeping in line with their progressive side however, the song then breaks into a soft, unsettling moment where Ozzy sounds almost like some of Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters’ more psychotic moments on “The Wall”.

“Hole In The Sky”, “Symptom of the Universe” and “Thrill of it All” are all powerful, rock- oriented songs driven by Iommi’s thick riff mastery. At ten minutes long, “Megalomania” is a step above most hard rock in terms of its sophistication, fitting in crunchy guitars with piano and eerie soft spots. Although less than a minute long, “Don’t Start (Too Late)” is an ample demonstration of Tony Iommi’s skill with acoustic guitars, a haunting piece that sounds like a rendition of something Igor Stravinsky would do. “Am I Going Insane” is the obvious choice for a radio single here, despite being led with prog-canon moogs. Ozzy’s vocals are schizoid and quirky, making it one of the catchiest tracks in Sabbath’s discography.

Geezer Butler once said that “Sabotage” was so titled because the band felt that they as a band were being sabotaged by other people ‘ripping them off’. Perhaps this concept may be seen as a heavy metal equivalent to Floyd’s cynical dissection of the music industry in “Wish You Were Here”. Although it’s well-known that Black Sabbath weren’t getting along too well at this point, “Sabotage” is among Sabbath’s best work, perhaps rivaled only with “Paranoid” as their crowning statement. It’s unfortunate that things would go downhill from here for the godfathers of metal, but I can’t think of a better way for Black Sabbath to wrap up their classic era.

Wow. In spite of the poor acclaim and ambivalence I have seen aimed towards “Technical Ecstasy” and her equally unappealing sister “Never Say Die!”, I was still a little shocked to hear the great Black Sabbath default on such mediocrity. Although I may have preferred “Paranoid” and “Sabotage” over the rest, there was no denying that the first six albums of this band were something to behold; it was if the band could do no wrong. As would be the case with a little band called Metallica almost three decades later with “St. Anger”, the arguments and duress would lead to a decidedly sub-effort from the band. Sabbath have not completely festered here, but considering how great they were before this, there’s no way to feel satisfied with this.

It’s not often that fans are so united in their disappointment for a band and album. It seems like everyone plus their mothers, mailmen, and neighbourhood general practitioners can agree that “Technical Ecstasy” was a slip-up. In short, the band’s style is once again robbed of its metal crunch. Unlike “Volume Four” however- which traded heaviness in exchange for sophistication- “Technical Ecstasy” comes up without any benefit, as were it an old lady whose handbag was stolen by a street vagabond. Sabbath’s musical tightness pulls the album through, but at the end of the day, hearing the almighty Black Sabbath resort to generally bland rock music is a tough experience.

All disappoints aside, “Technical Ecstasy” is not necessarily a ‘bad’ album. In fact, it appears to be a victim of circumstance. Perhaps if listeners had not become used to Sabbath churning out record after record of inspired excellence, this album would not be looked down upon. Regardless, through the sea of mediocrity defined by songs like “Backstreet Kids” and “Rock N Roll Doctor”, there are a handful of songs that distinguish themselves, for better or worse. “You Won’t Change Me” is a great seven minute track with some great blues soloing from Iommi, and a piano progression reminiscent of The Beatles’ “Abbey Road”. “She’s Gone” is nothing compared to some of the band’s earlier ballads, but Ozzy Osbourne’s passionate vocal performance and a lush string arrangement makes it stand out from the monotony.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have “It’s Alright”, sung by drummer Bill Ward. Frankly, it really isn’t ‘alright’, in fact, it’s arguably the worst track Sabbath had ever done up to this point. Disregarding Ward’s tonedeaf voice, the ballad is saccharine enough to put a child off sugar for life. Considering that this is the band that once rocked our balls off with some of the most influential heavy metal ever made, it’s a long ways to fall.

For the most part, “Technical Ecstasy” is fairly harmless. Besides “It’s Alright”, it’s even listenable. The songwriting runs flat, but Black Sabbath retain enough of their progressive elements to give the listener a surprise, if only occasionally. Taken out of context, “Technical Ecstasy” is a run-of-the-mill, albeit inconsistent hard rock album. For those- like me- who are infatuated with the band’s six album winning streak, it may be a good idea to save hurt feelings and skip right to “Heaven And Hell”.

Tracklist (Sabotage):

1. Hole in the Sky (4:00)
2. Don’t Start (Too Late) (0:49)
3. Symptom of the Universe (6:28)
4. Megalomania (9:40)
5. The Thrill of it All (5:52)
6. Supertzar (3:42)
7. Am I Going Insane (Radio) (4:15)
8. The Writ (8:09)

Line-up (Sabotage):

* Tony Iommi – Lead Guitar
* Geezer Butler – Bass
* Ozzy Osbourne – Vocals
* Bill Ward – Drums
* Gerald Woodruffe – Keyboards

Tracklist (Technical Ecstasy):

1. Back Street Kids (3:46)
2. You Won’t Change Me (6:34)
3. It’s Alright (3:58)
4. Gypsy (5:10)
5. All Moving Parts (Stand Still) (4:59)
6. Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor (3:25)
7. She’s Gone (4:51)
8. Dirty Women (7:15)

Line-up (Technical Ecstasy):

* Tony Iommi – Lead Guitar
* Geezer Butler – Bass
* Ozzy Osbourne – Vocals
* Bill Ward – Drums, Vocals on It’s Alright
* Gerald Woodruffe – Keyboards

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