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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Black Sabbath: Sabotage

BLACK SABBATH: SABOTAGE (1975)

1) Hole In The Sky; 2) Don't Start (Too Late); 3) Symptom Of The Universe; 4) Megalomania; 5) Thrill Of It All; 6) Supertzar; 7) Am I Going Insane (Radio); 8) The Writ.

It is hardly an accident that the only song to have endured in Sabbath's «typical» live set from this album was ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ. Others were tried out circa 1975-76, then quickly dis­carded and forgotten; and, according to most sources, the band members have relatively few kind words to say about the album themselves — they prefer to remember that time as a period of personal chaos, druggy stupor, and just not a lot of fun altogether. (Now Headless Crossthere was a time of much rejoicing and happiness... 'nuff said).

Indeed, Sabotage is anything but the «quintessential Black Sabbath» album. Fans of ʽParanoidʼ, ʽIron Manʼ, and even ʽSabbath Bloody Sabbathʼ, if they come here looking for more of the same, will inevitably run away in disappointment — as perplexed at the band's musical direction as we all would be in the band's taste in clothes (the front sleeve photo has made history as one of the tackiest style demonstrations of «the Me Decade»). Acoustic guitars are one thing, of course, and we'd had them for quite some time already, but harpsichords? synthesizers? choir harmonies? tape experiments? multi-part ten-minute epics? what is this, Selling Satan By The Pound?

Actually, no. Detractors of the album (fortunately, there are not too many of them) usually com­plain that at this point, the band got too heavily involved in «progressive» experimentation, lost its head in a mix of artistic influences and illegal substances, and delivered something that may have agreed with the spirit of the times, but was utterly «not Sabbath», an attempt to tread on other people's turf with predictable stupidity instead of required subtlety. My opinion is the direct opposite: I think that Sabotage is the most sincere and deeply personal album ever recorded by the band, and that this is the reason why it can still be so harrowing after all these years.

As great as those early classic albums were, it is hard to deny that the band was putting on an act, and that even with all his looniness, Ozzy did not think of himself as Lucifer or The Iron Man in his everyday life. Personal matters did not really begin figuring in the band's output until Vol. 4, and even then their preoccupation with their own minds was still only occasional. But they still continued growing as their own psychoanalysts, step by step, and by the time we come to Sabo­tage, it was really happening.

There is one central theme here, running through most of the songs: INSANITY. Ozzy, as he will be glad to tell you himself, is mentally unstable from birth, and while the same cannot be said of his pals, by the mid-1970s they were certainly living mad lives (and who wasn't?). Intentional or not, madness, fantasies, and delusions are at the heart of Sabotage as they were an integral part of the band's life at the time — and the fact that these themes coincided with a «trendy» desire to experiment in the studio is used by the band to tremendous advantage. Naturally, they lack the «education» that it would require to produce a Dark Side Of The Moon, but they more than make up for it with sheer natural talent, creative instinct, and, yes, a good dose of rock'n'roll passion (that one time where they really have Floyd in a corner).

Funny enough, the album begins on a completely unpretentious note: ʽHole In The Skyʼ is just a heavy rocker in the old tradition — lumpy, bluesy, driven by a good, but unexceptional couple of riffs, and only the lyrics, written by Geezer as an ever more sophisticated clump of metaphors and allusions, betray the band's current obsession with their inner psyche. That, and Ozzy's delivery, of course — he sings with such passion as if he actually gets what those lines mean: "The syno­nyms of all the things that I've said / Are just the riddles that are built in my head". Heck, maybe he does get it, he just probably couldn't explain it in words, not even if you threatened to enroll him in a Cambridge educational program.

It all begins at the end of the fourth minute, when ʽHole In The Skyʼ is unexpectedly cut off in mid-riff (artsy!) and the short acoustic interlude ʽDon't Startʼ announces the start of the «serious» part of our program, as we slip into «experimental» mode and never let go. ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ begins fast and heavy, then, midway through, dives into moody acoustic lite-jazz as Tony becomes José Feliciano for a change. Conversely, ʽMegalomaniaʼ ends fast and heavy, but begins as a dark psychedelic trip with ghostly musical overtones and time-warped vocals at the start of each verse. ʽThrill Of It Allʼ is a fifty-fifty mix of «Satanic Sabbath» with the all-toge­ther-now colorfully psychedelic atmosphere of Yellow Submarine. ʽSupertzarʼ (the title alone is worth a grand) puts Iommi's metal guitar on top of Gregorian harmonies from the London Phil­harmonic Choir... or was that vice versa? ʽAm I Going Insaneʼ takes Mozart's / The Nice's ʽRondeauʼ as the foundation and turns it into a synth-pop song with a catchy chorus, but no guitar. Finally, ʽThe Writʼ, an anti-lawyer song of particular value to Ozzy because he wrote the lyrics himself, goes from dark arena-rock to confessional harpsichord-driven baroque pop — and, in the good old tradition of Abbey Road, the album ends on a self-deflating note with the band banging away on a piano and singing a joke tune (ʽBlow On A Jugʼ).

If you are yet to savor those crazy delights and that paragraph seemed tempting to you, rest assured that the music actually does match all that weirdness, and, moreover, none of that weird­ness seems particularly forced or senseless. Even a track like ʽSupertzarʼ, probably the easiest target on here to shoot down for «stupidity», works very well in the overall context —  I suppose the band invented the title not merely as a pun, but because the choir reminded them of «Russian church singing», and where there's Russian church singing, there's also a sort of «foolishness-for-Christ» association going on, and one thing ties to another and suddenly Iommi's frantic guitar riffs, locked with those religious choral harmonies, start making some sort of bizarre sense — perfectly put right in front of ʽAm I Going Insaneʼ.

However, my own personal favorite here, and a vote for most criminally underrated Sabbath song of all time (at least in that the band has never tried resuscitating it live after the 1975-76 season), is ʽMegalomaniaʼ. The song is yet another example of an odd lyrical/musical mismatch — its two parts respectively deal with the self-realized deadly plight of a satanic megalomaniac (Hitler?) and the successful search for redemption ("Now I've found my happiness / From the depths of sorrow"), but if anything, the second part of the song is even gloomier and scarier than the first one: at least, Tony's major riff that is driving it forward contains no hint at «redemption» or «happiness». One totally ad hoc association that crossed my mind, for some reason, was Jesus Christ Superstar — there are some moments here when ʽMegalomaniaʼ conveys the same «un­redeemable darkness» feel as ʽThe Death Of Judasʼ, with those atmospheric, ghostly, fleeting heavy chords laid over the main melody. Thematically, though, the song probably has more in common with Tommy... one thing is for certain: this is as close as Black Sabbath ever came to writing their own «rock opera», and something tells me that in 1975, they might have succeeded with it. On the other hand, maybe it is just as well that the album was made without such a strictly set purpose, and just came out naturally the way it did.

Fate would have it, though, that the chief memory of Sabotage in the collective mass conscience would have to be the main riff to ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ — the «first ever thrash metal riff», as it is now retrospectively featured in encyclopaedias, even though the term certainly did not exist in 1975 (Tony himself has humorously mixed it up in his memoirs, writing that it has been called «the first progressive metal riff»), and, furthermore, Pete Townshend was already playing something very close to that same pattern as early as 1969-70 on some of the versions of ʽYoung Man Bluesʼ. What matters, though, is that it is just a frickin' great riff — simple, monstruous, powerful, and, while we are on the subject, more memorable and more cool than 99% of the «real» thrash metal riffs I have heard. And what is even cooler is how Ozzy manages to saddle it with his own speedy vocal part — witchy lead singer ripping through space on a heavy metal riff broom — and how they come up with the idea of crash-landing the song in an otherworldly jazzy paradise at the end, instead of just fading the riff away as many others would have done.

And yet I insist that the legend of ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ should not have overshadowed the overall punch of Sabotage as a thematic and unpredictable album. As a whole, it certainly is «progressive metal», and a million billion times more impressive than, say, the entire output of a band like Queensryche, simply because it happened to be made by a score of talented people who refused to bind themselves by silly genrist rules. Alas, pretty soon already Black Sabbath would turn into a prime example of a band ruining itself by sticking to genrist rules — like most other people, they paid attention to record sales, and with sales of Sabotage failing to match their pre­vious successes, it was believed that «this is not what the fans want of us» (which was at least partially true). But this is also what makes Sabotage so pricelessly unique in the band's catalog, and, in fact, in Seventies' music in general — thumbs up on all counts.

6 comments:

  1. I still think Paranoid is their best record, but Sabotage is an extremely close second. The band was at their creative zenith and Ozzy delivers his best vocal performance in his career.

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  2. Yup, Megalomania is my favourite track of this album too. The first three quasi-mellow minutes lack a riff. Iommi relies on atmosphere only and totally succeeds. Osbourne sings about his personal issues again, which results in his best delivery since Paranoid. Note how Iommi suddenly starts to boogie (when Osbourne sings "how I lied, went to hide") and gives it a sinister twist. The live versions don't cut it for me; on stage the band lacked the energy and ambition they had in 1970.

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  3. "Sabotage" definitely marks the end of the golden age. It's their most progged out, spazzed out opus, equal parts classic Sabbath, Yes (there's a definite Rick Wakeman influence here for sure), and Queen (glossy production, millions of guitar overdubs a la Brian May). The year of its creation -1975- is telling, since that was more or less the last time classic rockers of the era were fully "relevant" to the youth of the world before the punk/new wave movement took over. However, I seriously doubt it was punk that influenced Sabbath to make an album like "Technical Ecstacy" in 1976. The decline in quality was more likely due to physical and creative exhaustion, not to mention rampant drug use and frustration over financial and management issues.

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  4. Funny to read Beatle references on a Sabbath album review, since I myself have been thinking lately that "classic" Sabbath did indeed have a certain Beatle-like quality to their sound.

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  5. This record was the beginning of the end for the Sabs.

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  6. I think this album is absolutely fantastic. I had always seen the LP in record stores and had all the other Sabbath albums, but never bought or heard this one.

    My friend in college introduced me to it right after we had smoked a joint in his college dorm.

    I stood straight up from my bean-bag chair after the first 2 licks of "Hole in the Sky" cranked up at full volume.

    This album kicks ass from start to finish.

    And yeah, I said "joint" ;)

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