BLACK SABBATH: SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (1973)
1) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; 2) A National Acrobat; 3) Fluff; 4) Sabbra Cadabra; 5) Killing Yourself To Live; 6) Who Are You; 7) Looking For Today; 8) Spiral Architect.
This and the following album mark a new, brief, and somewhat bizarre phase in the colorful career of Black Sabbath — the «art-rock» phase. Vol. 4 may not have been one of their best efforts, but it seems to have opened the band's minds towards two things: fear of stagnation and excitement of experimentation. Originally, «stagnation» got the upper hand: with drugs getting the better of them and endless touring sucking out the energy, the band spent a whole month in Los Angeles trying to come up with something new, and ended up with a bad case of writer's block — because, let's face it, Los Angeles in 1973 was just no place for that kind of band.
So they got back to the old UK, rented themselves a medieval castle in Gloucestershire, and things quickly started getting back to normal. With progressive rock pretty much at its peak in 1972-73, the basic idea here was that the band had to «mature» — explore something more complex and adventurous than the mere conception of a «song» being the near equivalent of a «heavy metal riff» and nothing more. This is most evident in the lyrics — with songs like ʽA National Acrobatʼ ("I am the world that hides the universal secret of all time...") and ʽSpiral Architectʼ ("Child of god sitting in the sun, giving peace of mind..."), Geezer is clearly struggling to work the turf of Jon Anderson and Peter Sinfield, often avoiding direct descriptiveness and moralization in favor of «obscure» metaphors and non sequiturs.
Those lyrical results are mostly laughable (and it's not as if those role models were beyond reproach themselves), but, fortunately, it does not matter, because the collective musical genius of Sabbath was still going strong. Sure, the idea of Black Sabbath doing art rock might look like an elephant in a china shop, but every once in a while you get yourself an elephant inexplicably blessed with a good sense of balance and finesse. Most importantly, where the «quiet» moments on Sabbath albums, up to this point, usually just served as breathers (ʽOrchidʼ, ʽEmbryoʼ, etc., are definitely not the kind of stuff for which people remember Master Of Reality), they are now an integral part of the composition — and they sound nice.
The title track that breaks the record in is a classic example — a mere forty seconds after a classic Sabbath riff has ploughed the terrain naked, the earth is irrigated by a soft, «romantic», acoustic-driven bridge with a highly melodic vocal from Ozzy. «Soft» and «harsh» interact with each other continuously, setting yet another trend for future explorations in heavy metal, before, eventually, the song settles on ultra-heavy mode: the dragon riff that enters around 4:05 is the toughest beast on the entire album, with a well-ahead-of-its-time proto-thrash guitar tone, a brief, but mercyless little musical Godzilla, in the sights of which "dreams turn to nightmares, heaven turns to hell" indeed. This is all so much better than ʽWheels Of Confusionʼ that it immediately strikes the idea of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath as a creative renaissance.
That said, I have always regarded this record as kinda «spotty» next to its follow-up, by which time the guys in the band would figure out exactly what works and what does not work in this new production formula. Twice over the record's course they bypass heaviness altogether, and twice the results are unimpressive — ʽFluffʼ, rather aptly titled, is a medievalistic instrumental ballad that mostly just spins around the same acoustic guitar and piano arpeggios, with some delicate, but unoriginal lead noodling in the foreground, and is way too long at four minutes; and ʽWho Are Youʼ is essentially a stupid experiment with «evil» Moog synth tones that sounds like a first-grader's parody on ELP's ʽBrain Salad Surgeryʼ or something like that (but what could you expect from a song written by Ozzy with the basic purpose of testing out his freshly purchased instrument? It's good enough that he was actually able to come up with a quirky riff like that, then was left with nothing to do but to loop it around the whole song).
It all works much better when they leave in the heaviness as the song's basic foundation, then start weaving in little strands of experimentation. ʽSabbra Cadabraʼ, for instance, begins as your basic piece of heavy boogie, well suited for the likes of everybody from Deep Purple to Budgie, and we suspect nothing as Ozzy sings some innocent lines about loving that little lady, always on his mind. Then, hoopla, midway through they shift keys and tempos, bring in pianos and synthesizers (along with Rick Wakeman to play them, all for the price of a few bottles of beer!), mask Ozzy's vocals with phasing to create a ghostly effect, and suddenly what was a cock-rock-fest just a few moments ago is now a spooky extravaganza, because the protagonist turns out to be not a regular guy, but a mischievous guest spirit from the underworld (essentially, this is then a more subtle twist on the story of ʽN.I.B.ʼ).
Even more impressive is ʽSpiral Architectʼ, where metal, catchy pop, and lush orchestration come together in a perfectly balanced synthesis — this is probably the most musically complex piece on the album, and despite Geezer's silly-sounding lyrical pretentiousness, everything else goes like clockwork. It is more of an exuberant power pop anthem with a thick metallic base tone on loan than «art-metal» as such, sometimes breaking into an inspired «musical gallop», sometimes letting the orchestra take over, and always returning to the song's basic «spiral» riff for anchorage. It is also the first Sabbath song to end a Sabbath album on a decidedly optimistic note, even if it took a pinch of naïve mysticism to do it. But it gives the album a conceptual cohesion — we begin with the brutal heaviness of the title track to acknowledge the world's evil, then end with the orchestral beauty of ʽArchitectʼ to reflect the sweet opportunities offered by escapism. That at least seems more logical than singing about "peace and happiness in every day" to the doom-laden monster coda of ʽInto The Voidʼ.
Throw in ʽA National Acrobatʼ (another absolute metal classic, with Tony bouncing melodic ideas off the wall faster than you can catch them — the stoner rock bit, the hellfire wah-wah part, the power-pop riffage of the last instrumental section), ʽKilling Yourself To Liveʼ (this one I've never cared for all that much, but I do acknowledge the complexity of construction), and ʽLooking For Todayʼ, another heavy pop anthem that pales a little in the company of ʽSpiral Architectʼ, and you get an album not without its flaws — many of which would be rectified soon afterwards — but still one that should be inspiring musicians all over the world even today, so all you kids take your lesson here: this is how you «refresh» your formula once it gets stale, so as not to lose your quintessential strengths and skills while at the same time making a bold step forward. Plus, regardless of how one feels about the record, it must have taken real guts to produce it — the musical decisions taken here are some of the band's boldest since they first arrived on the scene. Granted, boldness alone does not cut it, but boldness + talent = thumbs up without further questions, even if some of the actual results turn out to be subpar.