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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Black Sabbath: Master Of Reality

BLACK SABBATH: MASTER OF REALITY (1971)

1) Sweet Leaf; 2) After Forever; 3) Embryo; 4) Children Of The Grave; 5) Orchid; 6) Lord Of This World; 7) Soli­tude; 8) Into The Void.

Black Sabbath invented the image; Paranoid made it a part of the popular (sub)conscious and the general «rock idiom», if such a thing could be defined altogether. In comparison to those two records, the scope of Master Of Reality, the band's third and, up to that point, shortest record, seems to be more limited and concentrated — yet, as many agree, it is probably the single album in the history of music that is most responsible for the emergence of «heavy metal» as an auto­nomous genre. And, even more importantly, like quite a few of these daring progenitors, it is at the same time an album that sounds like no other heavy metal album ever recorded. Its ambitions are limited; its impressions, unparalleled.

This is where Tony began downtuning his guitar «in earnest», three semi-tones down, at first, just to ease string tension and save his chopped-up fingers some pain, and then, because it turned out to give such an awesome effect. Even without this decision, the riffs he came up with on Master Of Reality would have been among the band's best; with it, they come dangerously close to over­riding the band's «cartoonish» image and dragging your mind with them into some perilous, pre­viously unexplored abyss — ʽInto The Voidʼ indeed. If there is one particular subgenre of metal that this album should be associated with, it would be «stoner metal», because this is the kind of music capable of inflicting a brain meltdown. «Doom metal» would be a close second, though, since no other Sabbath album conjures up such a vivid apocalyptic panorama.

Lyrically and emotionally, Master Of Reality is, of course, a conceptual album. Most of the songs deal with sin, temptation, impending doom, catastrophes, and possibilities of redemption and salvation — essentially, as it is well known, Sabbath's heaviest and most musically brutal re­cord is also their most authentic «Christian rock» record, for which Geezer intentionally designed a set of lyrics that would help rid the band of their «Satanic» image. Of course, it did not help: with riffs of such impact and power that only Lucifer himself could have imprinted in Iommi's mind, who gives a damn about the lyrics? Oh, there's something about the Pope on the end of a rope in ʽAfter Foreverʼ, and we're really much too busy to explore the context of that line...

...but the fact is, the lyrics are way too dissonant with the music. Look at this song called ʽChil­dren Of The Graveʼ, where the title alone suffices to conjure an association with George Romero. Its basic message: "They're tired of being pushed around and told just what to do / They'll fight the world until they've won and love comes flowing through". Now think what sort of music this message would be accompanied with in the hands of, say, Jefferson Airplane. (You might need to relisten to Volunteers for that). Now look at the quintessentially «necromantic» guitar/bass riff duo that accompanies it in Black Sabbath's vision. Believing Geezer that the song glorifies young peaceful idealists is about as easy as believing that George Romero's zombies have really come to save the world from corruption and sin. The mercilessly galloping music, crushing everything in its path, seems to be more fit for the Horsemen of the Apocalypse — and the only thing that re­mains once the riders have trampled out everything in sight are a few eerie, ghostly wisps in the graveyard, providing a horror-movie coda to the song.

Or take ʽInto The Voidʼ. The verbal message: Earth is doomed, ruined by mindless slaves of Satan and destroyed by their mishandling of the ecology, but maybe some of us will be able to find peace and happiness somewhere out there in space some day. The music: First part — yes, yes, and yes, second part — where??? Is there anything in the song's iron melody that gives even the faintest glint of «peace and happiness»? It is simply one brutal beating after the other, an in­cessant queue of terror-inspiring melodic lines where the last instrumental section could be a musical interpretation of somebody being slowly tortured, stretched out on a rack, held over a burning flame, flogged, then finally decapitated in a last act of mercy. "Peace and happiness in every day", in this context, is like a faraway dream, an illusion in the inflamed mind of a slave that has no grounding whatsoever in reality.

Speaking of ʽInto The Voidʼ, I have to add that this song begins with my own personal favorite guitar riff of all time in the «complex» variety (as opposed to simpler, shorter phrasing). Nick­named ʽDeathmaskʼ, in actuality it has always generated one and only one image in my mind: that of a slowly awakening Great Serpent, lazily unwrapping its coils as it prepares to embrace and crush the whole world in them. In all the history of heavy metal that I have heard (and I've heard quite a few), no other complex riff, be it Metallica, Amorphis, Opeth, or any other thrash or art-metal act, has managed to conjure such a clear and vivid picture for me, though, of course, that is a purely personal impression. (A close second would probably be Led Zeppelin's ʽNo Quarterʼ and its horrifying Viking ships sailing out of the mist of J. P. Jones' keyboards). So much for «peace and happiness» indeed.

But the discrepancy does not end there. ʽSweet Leafʼ is the only heavy rocker on the album whose lyrical theme has nothing to do with the concept — it is, as is also well-known, the band's sentimental (and still somewhat brave in those days) ode to the joys of smoking pot, initiated with a looped recording of Tony's cough (apparently Ozzy brought him a pretty strong joint one of those days). That's understandable, but what of the music? Not being a dope smoker, I couldn't really vouch for it, but based on all sorts of outside evidence, the crashing, thrashing riff that drives the song is hardly typical of a pot smoker's sensation, unless we're talking some really bad trip, certainly not one that would cause you to sing "my life is free now, my life is clear". For what it's worth, the riff of ʽSweet Leafʼ also gives me a clear vision — huge ocean waves brea­king on the shore in steady rhythmic succession. Should have been a song about a thunderstorm or a tsunami or something like that.

For some reason, ʽLord Of This Worldʼ is the only song on the album that never made a com­parable impression on me — maybe because its riffs have seemed more «traditional», in a heavy blues-rock manner, to me than any others on the album (I used to think of this song as the only one here that early Led Zeppelin would be able to come up with just as well); which is not to say that it does not kick its own major ass, just in a slightly less mind-blowing way than everything else on here. At least it's one of those songs where the lyrical content does fully match the music, as Ozzy sings it from start to finish from the straight perspective of the «Master of Reality».

In between those ultra-heavy, earth-rattling monsters the band has inserted several rather worth­less «breathers» — two brief acoustic instrumentals and one dark folk ballad (!), ʽSolitudeʼ, which, frankly speaking, sounds more like Country Joe & The Fish than Black Sabbath and is not even all that interesting from a «novelty» point of view, like ʽPlanet Caravanʼ from the last al­bum. But, of course, this kind of structure became quite influential in heavy metal, too, with the idea of quiet acoustic interludes attenuating the ferocity of the heavy distorted riffs and serving as «book­marks» to help distinguish one heavy metal anthem from another. If anything, the band did not really have the intention of coming across as the proverbial one-trick pony, particularly when the songs threatened to merge together into one gigantic devilish monolith.

But as great an album as Master Of Reality is, perhaps its greatest greatness is in the fact that Sabbath never tried to make another one just like it — most metal bands, had they been blessed with the fortune of falling upon such a rich sound, would have probably milked it to death a dozen times over, running the formula into the ground and debasing it to self-parody status. In the case of Black Sabbath, though, there is only one Master Of Reality, spawning a million pale imitations from everybody except its own authors. Which easily makes it the heaviest album ever recorded in the history of popular music, bar none — from the crashing storm surge of ʽSweet Leafʼ to the thundering horsemen of ʽChildren Of The Graveʼ to the dreadful serpents and iron maidens of ʽInto The Voidʼ, no other collection has managed to match its simple, but stunning vision. So, clearly, a big thumbs up here for this unmatched show of brutality.

7 comments:

  1. "yet, as many agree, it is probably the single album in the history of music that is most responsible for the emergence of «heavy metal» as an auto­nomous genre."
    But only in retrospect. As I can witness until about 1980 heavy metal and hardrock were synonyms. In 1976, when I got interested in rockmusic, Mr(s) Serious Critic was very happy to declare hardrock/heavy metal dead. Punk had come to the rescue. I have always thought it slightly ironical that the "revolutionary" punk bands got the approval of the established critics, while five years before the four Founding Bands of hr/hm actually did challenge that establishment of critics (overblown bluesrock, if this band is gonna make it I'll have to commit suicide and the likes - DP and BS received their share as well).
    But in 1976 they had a point. Also everyone who recognized the genre as a valid one agreed that the genre was way beyond its prime and there were hardly successors in sight. Sure, there was Status Quo, but despite them being the 2nd most successfull band in Europe directly after ABBA nobody (but me; hey, I was 12) took them seriously. So it was time to look back and reflect. And everybody, including me, agreed as well that Master of Reality was a disappointment. Of course the idea of tuning the guitars down (but on three songs only) was recognized; just nobody thought much of it. Certainly nobody could have expected that BS would become the most influential one of the Founding Four. What we heard were sub par riffs plus a less interested Ozzy. Booze and drugs had become main priority. That was not unique of course, but with BS it happened faster than with any other band.
    So meh, I don't like this album, not because it's bad, but because it's a borefest. And that applies to every single album that follows; there are a few first rate songs left though.
    Also note that it's as much a cash in on its predecessor as The Magician's Birthday is of Demons and Wizards. The length is revealing: almost 10 minutes shorter than Paranoid. Strip away the novelty factor of tuning down and not much is left.

    "Which easily makes it the heaviest album ever recorded in the history of popular music, bar none."
    That's an exaggeration, even regarding the production. The drums are quite flat for instance. For the 70's this honour goes to Rainbow Rising, even if Iommi plays at a lower pitch.
    Ah - a show case of generation gap, I suppose.

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  2. Yeah, I have to agree with MNb's last bit. At the time, it was probably the heaviest album ever made, but with the advances to recording technology, it's been surpassed by now.

    Nonetheless, Master Of Reality was very ahead of this time - along with the Stooges' Raw Power and King Crimson's Red, it sounds like it could have been recorded today.

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    1. No, no, you both didn't quite get it. Advances in recording technology be damned, "heaviness" isn't defined by sheer levels of volume or recording equipment specifications alone - it's just as much in the melody, the attitude, the composition. An album like Rainbow Rising doesn't even begin to compare with Master of Reality on that scale - it's a collection of fairy tales with epic/symphonic pretense! No lava flowing or Panzers rolling on that one. Of course, Cozy Powell is a much louder and flashier drummer than Bill Ward, but drums do not define melody, after all.

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    2. To be honest, by that standard, the heaviest thing I've heard is Sepultura's Chaos A.D. from 1993. "Tanks on the streets" indeed...

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  3. Sweet Leaf--I rarely listen to this one, just because I find myself singing it out loud at the most inappropriate places, like the church parking lot. Still, one of their better riffs.

    After Forever--I love the lyrics on this one, probably my all-time favorite, and apparently this was all Tony's thoughts, although he never struck me as the "preachy moralizing" type. Never been a fan of the droning opening riff, the "melody" of which always sounded a little brass-bandy for my taste (Red Heylin: Could be a good addition to the Grimethorpe's repertoire?). The main verse riff, on the other hand, gives me whiplash. Love it. And that stomping bridge is also killer.

    Orchid--Ugh. Almost sounds like he's scraping the strings with a bow. And not in the classic Jimmy Page style, either.

    Children of the Grave--This is one of those "hippie lyric/neanderthal riff" mismatches that works for the most part, although the play on the title line is a bit silly. Still, I suppose it shows a certain amount of knowing irony that Geezer can play off their own perception as a "Satanic death metal band."

    Into the Void--The whole "uncoiling snake" image is pretty cool, I'd never thought of that one before. Probably the coolest thing on the record for me, although it does kind of fall into the standard intro riff/slow verse-fast break-slow verse-unrelated coda/ blueprint that was becoming old hat by this point. Speaking of said ending, not my all-time fave, but surprisingly funky for a bunch of Brummies.

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  4. Something I never see anyone mention is that the melody and opening couplet of 'Solitude' are ripped almost wholesale from the same folk tune that Dylan nicked 'With God on Our Side' from (hell, Sab likely got it from Dylan). Not that that makes the tune any more interesting (the melody needs more than just a flute/acoustic strumming arrangement to come to life) but it's some fun trivia.

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  5. Nice to see you came around on this'un.

    You know...I don't like the whole "X is the greatest thing of ALL TIME" trend that Internet top10 lists have propagated over the years. I really don't. There are only a few instances where I play favorites with music. But I find that in metal, it's much easier for me to make decisions about this sort of thing (maybe it's because I don't like 95% of the stuff). So if, in my opinion, the greatest metal album of all time is a tie between DP's Made in Japan and Rainbow's Live In Nuremberg '76, it's only because none of the other songs on MoR are as incredible as "Into The Void." Maybe some of the lyrics are a bit out of place (though in general, they get the right vibe across), but the music is just the finest collection of sequential riffage ever. And the fast break in the middle just puts lighting in 'yer bones. Good job singling that'un out, George.

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