Wednesday, October 28, 2009
SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH
Widely hailed as their supreme recorded achievement, an opinion with which the band members themselves concur, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was quite a departure from the aural template that the group had set in place with their first few releases. Choosing to retreat somewhat from their relentless touring and recording schedule in 1973, the members of Black Sabbath reconvened to work on the new tracks at a more leisurely pace. Vol. 4 had several signposts that pointed to a new direction, including a gradual abandonment of their signature lugubrious, sludgy sound. One significant difference with this record is that Tony Iommi had drastically altered his guitar tone. Production values were also much higher than before with strings and keyboard augmentation becoming more of a rule than an exception.
Still, there was no worry about Sabbath straying into Barry Manilow’s territory.
While recording the tracks for Vol. 4 back in ‘72, the Sabs hung out in LA, snorted mountains of coke and availed themselves of the pleasures of being rock stars in sunny California in the “let it all hang out” early seventies. Seeking to duplicate the process, the lads jetted back to the US to set about getting some new material together at the Record Plant. Trouble set in immediately as the vibe in the studio wasn’t the same due to the banks of keyboards and synths that had been brought in by Stevie Wonder, who was also working on a new project. The root of the problem was that Iommi was going through a brief dry spell with respect to new ideas. Generally, the others looked to him to come in with riffs and musical passages to which they could add their parts, sketch out melody lines and add lyrics. Cutting their losses, they trooped back to the UK and took some time to rethink their approach as Iommi went back to the drawing board.
The new rehearsal space was the dungeon in a castle in Wales, with band members continually having a go at scaring the shit out of each other. Once ensconced, Iommi reconnected with his muse and came up with the signature opening blast that became the title cut on the disc. Had things not turned around, the Sabbath story might well have ended right here. Once this temporary creative block was removed, the songs flowed beautifully and took several very uncharacteristic turns as they were mapped out.
Black Sabbath should be counted as one of the most important bands to ever plug in and play.
Want to know why?
Innovation by accident.
Most rock aficionados know about the unfortunate injury that a 17 year old Tony Iommi sustained to his fret hand while he was on his last shift in a sheet metal factory. The machine he was working with caught the tips of his middle fingers on his right hand, severing them instantly. He was a lefty and the incident almost brought an end to his guitar playing days. Perseverance coupled with invention allowed him to continue. He fashioned plastic finger tips to bear the brunt of applying pressure to the strings, though the guitar in standard tuning still made it painful to depress them with enough force to produce proper notes. His solution was to detune the guitar, thus slackening the pounds per square inch on the neck and making it much easier to play with prosthetic finger tips.
This significant event would eventually spawn a completely new genre. When Sabbath took shape, Geezer Butler detuned his bass to match Iommi and they became the heaviest sounding group of their time. Heavy metal in the darkest shade of black had arrived. Their approach was not without precedent, as Blue Cheer and Mountain had been walking the same sonic path, although Iommi's departure from basic blues structures gave them a unique angle, unlike anything else in the marketplace.
Critical reaction to the band was fairly chilly, quite often singling their material out as being plodding and simplistic.
“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” was a giant, raised middle finger to each and every writer who had ripped them, not recognizing that they stood in the vanguard as originators of a new type of music. It also stands as a very powerful opening salvo, which is solidly anchored by the rhythm section. Suddenly shifting gears, the riff is replaced with a delicate figure that leaps from the Wes Montgomery jazz playbook.
Nobody will ever let you know, when you ask the reason why
They’ll just tell you that you’re on your own, fill your head all full of lies
This section is reminiscent of the verses in the Beatles “Don’t Let Me Down” which also features a prominent F sharp minor. Crashing back into the main theme followed by a solo, things take yet another ominous turn with one of the most foreboding set of changes over which Ozzy floats his “helium voice”.
Distancing themselves from that incredible, bottom heavy sound on record may have been disconcerting for fans that were looking for more of the same. The quality output found on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was sufficient to silence even the harshest critic. The production is clean, while managing to avoid that antiseptic feel, as the listener is always reminded that a real band is kicking throughout. Out of the eight selections, only one falls flat with respect to standing up to repeated listening and that is the tedious “Who Are You”, livened up only by some decorative keyboard and mini-moog work by Rick Wakeman.
Wakeman lends his virtuosity on the 88s to “Sabbra Cadabra” as well as handling harpsichord and piano duties on “Fluff”. Legend has it that he exacted no more than a couple of pints of John Courage Best Bitter as payment for his services. He had struck up a friendship with the quartet when Yes and Sabbath toured together and was far more committed to having a good time than his Yes-mates were. Hence, some fun drinking sessions with Osbourne and Ward ensued and everyone bonded through the magic of cocktails.
In my view, just about everyone who picks up an electric guitar and thrashes out a rock song these days automatically owes mechanical royalties to Tony Iommi. Merely stating that he was prolific when it came to creating iconic riffs does not properly do him justice. Using a few examples from this LP, let’s have a look at the six-string bounty that was heaped upon them.
“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” – Five distinct themes
“A National Acrobat” - Six changes
“Killing Yourself to Live”- Six changes
He had so much going on in some of these compositions that, in some cases, he didn’t even trouble himself to return to the introductory guitar figure. This is one of many reasons why I think that people who knock the band demonstrate a profound ignorance of their accomplishments and influence.
Even a cursory glance at the lyric sheet for this disc would be enough to raise an eyebrow. “A National Acrobat” explores the eternal cosmic questions that Geezer Butler playfully dismissed as being, “about having a wank.” Deflecting the controversial nature of his subject matter with humor, Butler knowingly wades into the long debated topic of “at what point does life begin?” with an ease of expression and deftly ties it to the concept of reincarnation. This is one of my favorites in their entire catalogue, as it is intelligently constructed on all fronts. Ozzy delivers the song with a wink (and a laugh toward the end).
Bill Ward propels the slow, twisting riff with his usual dexterity, steering the others smartly through all of the changes. He gave Sabbath an extremely important anchor for many of their flights of fancy, though what separated him from many of his heavy-rock contemporaries was his ability to infuse his time-keeping with swing. He was never lead-footed and you can hear a slight Elvin Jones influence in the way he flew around the kit.. There is a tendency to forget how much Ward contributed as a percussionist as he was overshadowed by John Bonham and Keith Moon in the flash department. His jazzy touches provide a finesse that balances well with some of the more ponderous explorations of early Sabbath, almost akin to the example of a heavy person that is surprisingly light on their feet. Those flourishes at the tail end of “Sabbra Cadabra” are prime evidence of his skills and lighter touch(not to mention the entire song-it cooks!)
Sabbath always had time for a mellow guitar interlude that generally served as a buffer to give the listener a breather from the exercises in brain-melting riffology. “Fluff” is the most developed of these themes to date. The guitar break in the bridge is pure Hard Day’s Night era Beatles, so convincing that it sounds as if George Harrison himself showed up to play on the session. Wakeman's harpsichord and piano decoration add up to a very sophisticated final product.
Both "Sabbra Cadabra" and "Killing Yourself to Live" are multi-part epics. They are also the last really heavy songs on the LP with the former seeing the band straying into near-Zeppelin territory. Ozzy howls about "his woman", though his distinctive phrasing is miles away from Robert Plant and borders on pathos in the breakdowns. Though he was never a technically perfect singer, he developed a style that perfectly suited the onslaught created by Iommi, Butler and Ward. Don't forget that this is the same John Osbourne that spent hours in front of the mirror as a teen trying to imitate his idol, Paul McCartney. It is to his credit that he found his own voice and niche as a front man.
"Who Are You" is simply boring, which was rare in their case.
Curiously, two very un-Sabbath-like selections were chosen for the homestretch and close the proceedings in majestic fashion. "Looking For Today" hammers home a "here today, gone later today" lyrical theme, cleverly taking a shot at the ascendance of the Me Decade's greedy, disposable consumer culture. Ward lays down a groove throughout the verses that echoes the scattershot patterns that Keith Moon employed in "Happy Jack" and "I Can See For Miles", though he plays it straight on the chorus. Iommi adds flute to the mix and the tune rides out on a repeated arpeggiated wig-out, topped off by dueling guitar solos.
Nothing in this remarkable set prepares the listener for the grandiosity of the finale.
Prefaced by a slice of faux-classical acoustic picking, the haunting theme gives way to a supercharged electric intro, fired by intense high-hat work and dramatic punches. Iommi does a nice scale excercise and the drums tumble into a very pretty, orchestrated verse.
Sorcerers of madness
Selling me their time
Child of god sitting in the sun
Giving peace of mind
On a black snow sky
Sadness kills the superman
Even fathers cry
Sweeping strings lead into the chorus, written by Ward. Overall, the sheer impact of "Spiral Architect" is quite stunning. Wil Malone's arrangement is tasteful and the momentum builds right up to the end as the tension snaps on the last note, applause is dubbed in and Sabbath take their bows. Bass and drums provide the perfect outro to fade. To say that this is a beautiful song is an understatement.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath marked a great turning point in the development of their sound, which saw them turn away from where they had started. Litigation, pharmaceutical intake and internal disagreement about how to proceed followed this excellent disc, with all three virtually bringing their operation to a halt for a period. Fans would see the group release just one more "classic" record the following year with Sabotage, though it would, sadly, be their last high calibre work of the decade.