May 4, 2003
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
Hardcore fans know that no band did more to define the nascent genre of
heavy metal than Black Sabbath, and they invariably cite the group's first
four albums (1970's self-titled debut and "Paranoid," 1971's "Master of
Reality" and 1972's "Volume 4") as the cornerstones on which all of the
noise that followed was built.
But the quartet continued to refine its brand of sturm und drang
throughout its first incarnation, which ended when original vocalist Ozzy
Osbourne left in fall 1977. Often overlooked in discussions of the
black-clad maestros' masterworks is the 1973 epic "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath"
(Warner Bros.), whose title track was to Sabbath what "Stairway to Heaven"
was to Led Zeppelin--a crowning achievement that crystallized the group's
sound, and which stands as a paradigm of everything that made the band
'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath' (1973)
The track list:
1. "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" (5:45)
2. "A National Acrobat" (6:13)
3. "Fluff" (instrumental) (4:09)
4. "Sabbra Cadabra" (5:57)
5. "Killing Yourself to Live" (5:41)
6. "Who Are You?" (4:10)
7. "Looking for Today" (5:01)
8. "Spiral Architect" (5:31)
Originally a psychedelic blues combo called Polka Tulk (later Earth), the
four mates from industrial Birmingham, England, changed their name to Black
Sabbath in 1969, drawing inspiration from the title of a B-movie starring
Boris Karloff (originally released in Italy as "I tre volti della paura"
). Pairing a hefty dose of horror-movie imagery with the solemn
minor-key riffing, deep bass rumble, wailing vocals and massive, plodding
rhythms, they would go on to define the heavy-metal sound on classic tunes
such as "Iron Man," "Hand of Doom" and "Children of the Grave."
The group partied hard and toured constantly through its early years, and
by the mid-'70s, the pace was starting to take its toll. In 1974, drummer
Bill Ward suffered from hepatitis and his first heart attack, bassist Geezer
Butler was downed by kidney stones, guitarist Tony Iommi found himself on
the brink of exhaustion, and Osbourne was deep in the throes of alcoholism
and drug addiction.
In their late 20s, the musicians were finally starting to sense their own
mortality when they retired to a castle in Wales to record their fifth
album. The disc finds Sabbath broadening its musical palette considerably,
incorporating synthesizers (played by guest keyboardist Rick Wakeman, a
veteran of Yes), strings and acoustic guitars in addition to Iommi's
trademark fuzz-driven Gibson SG.
An unusually tranquil and idyllic vibe permeates songs such as "Looking
for Today," "Sabbra Cadabra" (a love song that ends with a demonically
echoed laugh) and "Spiral Architect"--three tunes that are as close to pop
ditties as Black Sabbath ever got. The pretty but sarcastically titled
"Fluff" stands as unique in the band's catalog (it's a spartan acoustic
guitar and piano interlude) and the dark, synth-dominated "Who Are You"
marks Osbourne's first songwriting contribution to a Sabbath album.
This new, dare I say "sunnier" outlook was no doubt partly the inevitable
result of aging--even the most miserable, angst-ridden teen can't help but
mellow a bit by age 28. But it can also be viewed as evidence of the
musicians having grown confident enough to begin tinkering with the sonic
formula that they'd painstakingly perfected over the previous four
With "Sabotage" and "Technical Ecstasy," the discs that followed, some
fans say that the band went too far in diluting Sabbath's infamous black
magic. But "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" strikes the perfect balance between
experimentation and that familiar crunch. In retrospect, the liberal use of
keyboards and softer melodic textures predict the "symphonic" or "black
metal" sound of current underground heroes such as Cradle of Filth. And on
the tougher songs, Sabbath never rocked harder.
"A National Acrobat" is propelled by one of Iommi's strongest guitar
riffs, as well as by Butler's signature galloping bass lines. "Killing
Yourself to Live" follows the model of "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" with a
heavy, angry sound and a complicated song structure that progresses through
several different movements. (Some fans say the lyric is inspired by
Osbourne's pre-Sabbath days working in a slaughterhouse.)
Then of course there's the title track. "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" boasts a
killer opening riff--one of the heaviest that the band ever crafted--and
it's made all the more effective by the mid-song acoustic detours. (Zep is
always hailed as the champion of contrasting light and dark, heavy and
acoustic, but here Sabbath proved that it was just as adept at that trick.)
Meanwhile, the concluding section approaches progressive rock in its
complexity (though Yes or Genesis could never inspire such head-banging).
According to Butler, the epic track came together in a sudden burst of
inspiration. "Tony started playing 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,' the main riff,
me and Bill just came in on bass and drums, we just played together and the
whole thing materialized," he told author Mike Stark in the book Black
Sabbath: An Oral History.
The lyric ranges from a positively vitriolic rage ("The people who have
crippled you/You want to see them burn," Osbourne howls, his vocals still in
prime form) to an uncharacteristically resigned introspection ("Nobody will
ever let you know/When you ask the reasons why/They just tell you that
you're on your own/Fill your head all full of lies"). They build to a
climactic shout of "you bastards!" leading into a searing guitar solo and an
instrumental rave-up that are connected by a classic falling-down-the-stairs
Ward drum fill.
Butler, the group's primary lyricist, told Stark that the theme of the
song was a bitter attack on managers who'd betrayed the band, as well as a
musing on the illusory nature of the rock-star dream. "It was about the
attitude of certain people," the bassist said. "The British press and people
like that, you know, really slagging us and everything, and doing so many
tours ... all the glamorous thing was gone for us. It'd been beaten out of
us by then. 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath' is just our attitude toward the music
business--the business side of things."
Added Osbourne: "I'd rather not talk about 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.' It
was a very personal thing, and I wouldn't like to embarrass the person it
was written about."
Nearly 30 years on, listeners don't need to know exactly who Sabbath was
railing about to appreciate the tune's power. Like all timeless rock
anthems, it stands as an inspired protest against conformity in all of its
many guises. And while the group would arguably never top this
accomplishment again, it remains an energizing example of a groundbreaking
and justly revered band at the very peak of its hard-rocking powers.
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