Black Sabbath Master of Reality, Vertigo Records, 1971
Children of the Grave
Lord of This World
Into the Void
Black Sabbath were formed in Birmingham in 1968 as a blues band. Tony Iommi on guitar, Terence “Geezer” Butler on bass, Bill Ward on drums and singer John “Ozzy” Osbourne first recorded demos under the name “Earth” influenced by other British blues bands of the time, but it was as Black Sabbath that they really made their mark. Their lyrics took a darker turn that proved popular with audiences. Tony Iommi briefly joined Jethro Tull and Earth broke up, but he quickly returned and Earth became Black Sabbath after realising that their was another band on the local scene called Earth. The name Black Sabbath was inspired by a horror movie of the same name. the band began to focus on writing darker songs with heavy guitars and drums in contrast to the positive message of the 1960’s flower power movement. Their first two albums are now seen as genre defining for heavy metal.
“Black Sabbath” and “Paranoid”, the band’s first two albums were not well received by critics but were commercially successful. The eponymous single from their second album “Paranoid” was their first and only UK top ten single. Following the success of “Paranoid”, which cemented Black Sabbath as a commercially successful band, they had significantly more studio time and money with which to make their third album “Master of Reality”. Although a fair bit of this money went on cocaine, they were still able to branch out in terms of their musical style. This meant more experimentation with solo parts, different instruments and instrumental tracks. They were able to keep their drug use relatively under control, at least enough to make a solid album which they were able to take on a world tour in 1972.
Recorded at Island studios in London, Tony Iommi downtuned his guitar to reduce the tension of the strings. This was an attempt to reduce the pain that playing caused in his fingers after severing the tips of two of them years earlier. A side effect of this was a heavier guitar sound which became Black Sabbath’s trademark. The album was a success and reached Number 5 in the UK chart. It is yet another album that was dismissed by critics on release but is now lauded as a classic. The album is observational in tone covering topics such as war and religion. Having travelled the world touring after the success of “Paranoid”, this is the sound of a young band trying to make sense of all the things they had seen. It was this album that proved that metal was a potent and versatile genre. Although people credit Black Sabbath’s first two albums with starting the genre, “Master of Reality” showed the range and ability of the band to write songs that were based on real experience. It is particularly noticeable that Ozzy’s voice is melodic and even a little soulful sometimes, there is none of the screaming that is often associated with heavy metal music here.
It’s a short album of just 8 songs, two of which are brief instrumentals, but it packs a punch. Stoner Anthem Sweet Leaf literally starts with Tony Iommi coughing after toking on a joint. With heavy drums and guitars and prominent bass and a fade out to finish the song Black Sabbath begin 90s grunge 20 years early. After Forever starts with a marching song vibe and surprisingly for a band constantly accused of being satanic, this is a full on Christian song with a religious message. The brief “Embyo” is a folk instrumental on an electric guitar and proves that even the godfathers of metal haven’t quite shaken off the 1960s. “Solitude” is a gentle change of pace including a flute (some Jethro Tull obviously rubbed off on Tony Iommi). Both fan favourite Children of the Grave and Into the Void are anti-war songs and Children of the Grave is definitely the hardest track on the album. It’s my favourite of a strong set. This album truly feels like a step away from everything I have covered up to this point. It reflects the dark reality of life for many working class British people at this time. This was a period of high inflation, mass unemployment and significant terrorist activity (Bloody Sunday and the IRA’s subsequent mainland bombing campaign were only a few months away) Black Sabbath started making music because they didn't want to spend their lives doing manual work in Britain’s industrial heartland. With this album they truly escaped, but continued making music for the people they left behind.
Black Sabbath’s legacy can be heard in the music of any metal band you care to mention, but with this album in particular they also influenced grunge bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the Beastie Boys have sampled them. They are also important in popular culture, their early tours provided some inspiration for the rock parody film “This is Spinal Tap” and of course we have Ozzy Osbourne and his family to thank for the current ubiquity of reality television. It’s fair to say that even the queens of this medium, the Kardashians owe something to Black Sabbath’s frontman since the success of “The Osbournes” opened the floodgates of the particular television genre. Ozzfest in it’s varying guises remains a well attended festival and Ozzy Osbourne continues to play live shows and will begin the European leg of his current world tour in January 2019. These four boys from the black country certainly made their mark on the world.