BLACK SABBATH: TECHNICAL ECSTASY (1976)
1) Back Street Kids; 2) You Won't Change Me; 3) It's Alright; 4) Gypsy; 5) All Moving Parts (Stand Still); 6) Rock'n'Roll Doctor; 7) She's Gone; 8) Dirty Women.
If we put it very bluntly, the crucial difference between Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy is that the former was an «art rock» album, whereas the latter was a «hard rock» album. Not «heavy metal» in the typical Sabbath sense, but a much more blunt, straightforward, lumpy, «leaden» form of heavy music, ideologically closer to AC/DC, Kiss, and early Judas Priest than to Master Of Reality. I mean, look at the songs — there is at least two tracks here whose primary purpose is to sing hosanna to «rock and roll» (ʽRock'n'Roll Doctorʼ is a Kiss-worthy title if there ever was one, and the refrain of ʽBack Street Kidsʼ — "nobody I know is gonna take my rock'n'roll away from me" — begs for one and only one question: is somebody whom Ozzy doesn't know going to take his rock'n'roll away from him?).
Why in the world did the band decide to make that switch when nobody really asked them to is anybody's guess. «Drugs» as such does not cut it: the stylistic change was clearly rational and could not have been fuelled by substance intake (and, for that matter, Iommi's guitar playing skills and Ozzy's vocal technique on Technical Ecstasy are impeccable, so from a «technical ecstasy» point of view at least, drugs really made no difference). Shifting musical tastes seem more like it — I think that Tony paid close attention to popular taste, and consciously wanted to shift the sound in the direction of the new wave of heavy bands, without any artistic pretense or particularly «satanic» connotations. Black Sabbath were going to try on the guise of a heavy rock'n'roll band, and see how it worked.
Unfortunately, it did not work too well. The crucial problem of Technical Ecstasy is that Black Sabbath just do not cut it as a «rock'n'roll band». Ozzy is not a rock'n'roll singer, and Tony is not a rock'n'roll player, and this is immediately obvious on the very first track, which is not bad per se, but relies on generic boogie chords to make its point rather than one of Tony's classic riffs. Why bother coming up with a classic riff, anyway, if all you wanna do is boogie? "I'm a rock'n'roll soldier, gonna play it until I'm dead" — 'nuff said. It sounds especially convincing when delivered in Ozzy's glassy, inflexible vocal tone (as much as I generally prefer Ozzy's singing to Paul Stanley's, ʽBack Street Kidsʼ should rather be sung by somebody like Paul).
This «keep it loud, simple, and basic» ideology is maintained throughout the album, despite its strange title and Hipgnosis cover showing two robots engaged in robosexual activities — you'd think it would all be more fit for a Kraftwerk record. The only «sci-fi» or «futuristic» element here is the occasional sound of synthesizers (provided by Gerald Woodruffe), but it's actually less prominent than it was on the previous two LPs, although keyboards as such are laid over most of the songs. All of this merely adds to the overall confusion, because it sort of looks as if they started out with one agenda, then messed up and ended up with another, by which time it was already too late to straighten things out.
The good news is that the band was not yet completely wasted, and even in a state of misguided confusion was able to come up with occasional winners. Although the only song to endure in their setlist was ʽDirty Womenʼ, a last moment attempt at a throwback to the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath epoch (with a rather disappointing mid-song riff that sounds like a variation on the ʽN.I.B.ʼ theme), where they really excel here is in... the sentimental department! Cue Bill Ward and his ʽIt's Alrightʼ, an unabashedly romantic pop rocker on which the drummer sings lead vocals himself — and unexpectedly demonstrates a sweet and pleasant tone. The tune has often been compared to the Beatles, although it has a very prominent Seventies style pop rock sound and should rather be compared to Badfinger or Eric Stewart's 10cc, but the main thing is that, as a piano pop rocker, it's a cool, convincingly optimistic tune, and it plays a respectable role in demolishing the «Sabbath stereotype», even though it would be the last Sabbath song in a long, long while to demolish the stereotype.
The true forgotten gem of this record, though, is ʽYou Won't Change Meʼ, a song that has been cruelly overlooked by fans and unjustly underappreciated by the band members themselves — if anything, it should have become a personal favorite of Ozzy's, but apparently neither Sabbath as a band nor Ozzy as a solo artist have ever performed it live, nor has it been covered by anybody else, for reasons I cannot fathom, since this song holds my personal top spot for «greatest non-Sabbath-like Sabbath song». A dark, heavy ballad, opening with a suitably Gothic guitar intro and then riding on a gloomy, funebral organ pattern and Iommi's doom-laden power chords — and on top of it all, what might be Ozzy's single best vocal performance of his entire career, just because it sounds so totally like him, Ozzy: a song about a morally dysfunctional human being who might occasionally question his own existence and grope for a ray of light, only to conclude with grim determination that "nobody's gonna change my world, that's something too unreal, nobody will change the way I feel". I will even confess to having occasionally found myself empathizing, against my will, almost to the point of tears — then again, I guess Jesus weeps for Ozzy, too, on an everyday basis.
The song is also notable for introducing Iommi's new soloing style — each of Ozzy's stone-heavy concluding statements puts Tony in a state of overdrive, where flashy, frenzied, «shredding» licks flood the room in hysterical torrents that used to be characteristic of Jimmy Page rather than Tony Iommi. Of course, this playing style can easily degenerate into meaningless wanking, but on ʽYou Won't Change Meʼ, both solos are in perfect agreement with the singer's state of mind, not to mention the important demonstration that Iommi is, in fact, ready and able to enter the Van Halen / Iron Maiden era with the required chops for the business. Nevertheless, on the whole ʽYou Won't Change Meʼ is an Osbourne classic, not an Iommi one (and, in a funny way, all those lyrics — from "you give me life woman" to "although you won't change me anyway" — predict the complicated story of the Ozzy / Sharon relationship to a tee).
I wish I could garner the same level of exuberance for the other ballad of the album (ʽShe's Goneʼ); alas, this is where the melodrama in Ozzy takes over, and he oversings Butler's corny lyrics to a lite-baroque pop arrangement, fully in line with all the stereotypical «arena (pseudo)-art balladry» clichés of the decade. Maybe they were trying to become The Moody Blues on that particular track, but they forgot to write an interesting melody for it, beyond Tony's repetitive acoustic arpeggios. Actually, the Moody Blues connection could also be seen in that they have a psychedelic art rocker called ʽGypsyʼ on the album — far less impressive than the Moodies' ʽGypsyʼ, but one of the most experimental numbers on Technical Ecstasy anyway; I'm not sure I love it, but I can see where it could be lovable if you give its complex structure, various overdubs, and alleged seriousness some time to seep in.
As you can see by now, the album is an oddly mixed bag — on the whole, probably a failure if viewed from a «music as never-ending progress» angle, but not without its share of underrated classics and musical experiments. In recent years, its reputation seems to have slightly improved as more and more people have begun evaluating it on its own terms, rather than from the «how does it compare with the punk/New Wave spirit, or at least with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal?» point of view. In any case, it is not a record that is only too happy to pigeonhole itself, and I'd gladly take it, hits and misses included, over most of what would continue to be issued under the Black Sabbath moniker — even if it is much less true to the «essence» and «legacy» of the Black Sabbath moniker than, say, all of those Tony Martin albums. A «technical», if not particularly «ecstatic», thumbs up here.