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Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell (1980)

Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell - Frontal1.JPG

The first of the three Ronnie James Dio-fronted Black Sabbath albums. After the admitted success that was Sabotage, Ozzy’s followups with the band were… disappointing, to say the least, at least going by popular opinion. More than just a shift in vocals, Heaven and Hell represents a major paradigm shift for Black Sabbath, and one that (at least for a while) treated them so well that it later resulted in two separate revivals of the Dio age; one in 1992 (Dehumanizer) and another in 2009 (The Devil You Know). How’s the first salvo in the age of Dio, you might ask?

This is the point where I reiterate on the significant changes Heaven and Hell brings to the stereotypical Sabbath sound. Black Sabbath started out especially blues and doom oriented; while they diversified their approach throughout the ’70s, their first album with Dio actually reminds me, to some degree, of his work with Rainbow. Weighty album name aside, the songs here feel brighter and more assertive than before, although much of this is an overall shift in production. The guitars are cleaner than before, which helps with the accentuated focus on guitar leads, but comes at the expense of riff ‘heaviness’ on an album that remains heavily riff driven. One thing that’s definitely improved, however, is the quality of the vocals – Ronnie James Dio is far more technically accomplished as a vocalist than Ozzy Osbourne, who… admittedly fits on his recordings with Sabbath, but that may be more a sign of the songs of the time being written with his strengths and limitations in mind.

More than anything, Heaven and Hell feels like an important stepping stone towards ever faster and more extreme works in metal, but also towards what would eventually become the power metal scene. Other albums in 1980 were faster and more aggressive (Motorhead’s Ace of Spades comes to mind), but any overtures to this in an age where disco’s rotting carcass was being scavenged for the electronic dance music that would dominate future decades are worth noting. If this sounds like the buildup to one of my ‘historical significance’ rants, it probably is – after all, a comeback album by a world famous band usually draws the attention of the music press at large. On the other hand, this album is strong enough in overall songwriting that we can quickly toss that aside. It lacks some of the overt prog influence of previous Black Sabbath efforts (read: Sabotage), and is generally performed in a pop oriented fashion, but it’s nice, loose pop, with lots of bridge content between big choruses, and a well-developed sense of narrative that comes in handy when you’re trying to write heavy metal. This is the sort of thing 10 years in the industry can help with.

In short, definitely pick this one up if you’re remotely into metal. You won’t be doing anything unique and unprecedented by doing so, but it’s still worth it.

Highlights: “Neon Knights”, “Children of the Sea”, “Die Young”

Black Sabbath – Master of Reality (1971)

Black Sabbath - Master Of Reality - Frontal.JPG

One of heavy metal’s earliest classics begins with a dose of lyrical whiplash, at least until you think about it. Master of Reality‘s switch from marijuana devotional (“Sweet Leaf”) to Christian fire and brimstone (“After Forever”) may or may not be intentional, but the switch (featuring lyrics from Bill Ward instead of the album’s usual Geezer Butler) is one heck of a way to introduce an album. If it were all Black Sabbath had in their favor, this would be an unnecessarily shallow album. But there’s more to it. There’s always more to it.

Master of Reality is arguably Black Sabbath’s first ‘fully formed’ album. Some people award that title to Paranoid, and you could make a case for that, but this 3rd effort has enough advances in production and songwriting to shift my opinion in its favor. In general, this is a compact, blues-inflected take on the embryonic heavy metal genre. Even if Black Sabbath is using riffs and song structures that would be reused and built upon for decades to come, their musical roots remain strikingly obvious, although the infamous blues show up more in the instrumentation and general aesthetic than anywhere else. The tritones and repetition had to come from somewhere… which admittedly isn’t very specific. Still, it’s good historical methodology to remember that Black Sabbath’s evolution was inextricably tied to the musical scene around them, especially since they achieved major sales and fame very early on.

As far as I’m concerned, this album’s important advances come primarily from its songwriting, and its song structures in particular. I’m admittedly under-familiar with the band’s work prior to this, but there’s enough information that I can extrapolate from this album alone to say that even in 1971, Black Sabbath was beginning to seriously hone their songwriting. Even though they’d written some extended improv-oriented jams before, even Master of Reality‘s more conventional pop songs contain more unique sections and musical ideas than otherwise expected. The transitions between musical ideas are, however, somewhat iffy even at the best of times. If Sabotage indicates anything, it’s that Black Sabbath (like many bands) got better at building songs over time, although this often comes at the expense of the band’s original charms. Black Sabbath only had so much material in this vein, and even their good albums after this take a significantly different approach whether for reasons of novelty, or complete band replacement, or whatnot.

I suppose that in an alternate universe, I may have categorized Master of Reality as the final draft of Black Sabbath’s initial contributions to heavy metal music. There’s enough evidence for that position that you could debate exactly what role this album fulfills in the band’s discography for quite a while. Alternatively, you could just add Master of Reality to your collection. It’s historically important, but it’s also accomplished enough to hold up even today.

Highlights: “Children of the Grave”, “Lord of this World”, “Into the Void”

Black Sabbath – Sabotage (1975)

Black Sabbath - Sabotage

I don’t know how many of my readers were around to experience the 1970s, and WordPress doesn’t care to help me figure it out, but when I started my exploration of metal and progressive rock music, I rapidly found out how much overlap between the two there was in the genre’s earliest days. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Black Sabbath, the archetypalest of the archetypal metal bands, was involved in such blatant genre mixing! Sabotage came at a point where Black Sabbath was already a veteran band, and allegedly at a point where extreme drug abuse was tearing the band apart and forcing increasingly bad business decisions. More importantly to me, it’s also the culmination of studio and songwriting experimentation that began back on Volume 4, and those things tend to make for fertile writing.

Sabotage is, to my understanding, a cleaner fusion between early heavy metal and its prog rock contemporaries than its predecessors, and a hell of a lot more coherent than Technical Ecstasy, an album with a reputation so bad I haven’t given it a chance yet. Some of the obvious metal tropes of previous albums are gone, with a cleaner and less distorted guitar tone from Iommi that belies the occasional exception (usually “Symptom of the Universe”), but a couple of obvious progisms make a departure too – fewer flashy keyboards, less varied instrumentation, etc. Sabotage gains its status here primarily by applying extended songwriting techniques to what otherwise might be similarly composed to previous Black Sabbath albums. Now, I’m aware those had their share of lengthy songs, but compared to some of the blues inflected jams of the past, these songs feel a bit tighter and more solidly constructed.

This album also gets some credit in the metal circles for giving the growing heavy metal movement a couple of prototypes for subgenres. I wouldn’t go too far along that line of thought, personally, since a couple of hard rock and other early metal bands were constantly experimenting with their share of grooves and strums and (in the particular case of one Judas Priest) similar expansions of instrumentation and song structure. The aforementioned “Symptom of the Universe”, though, is quickly labeled a prototypical speed metal song and in its especially minimal and tritone driven form, I can hear how this might’ve influenced a few generations of bands. However, due to the prog influence (and the occasional shift into nonsensical weirdness like the strangely cheerful “Am I Going Insane”), I’m ultimately going to have to suggest that most of the ideas other bands lift from Black Sabbath come from their earlier, more formative works.

After this, Black Sabbath’s discography (and lineup) turns into a rollercoaster of colossal failures, interspersed with the occasional successful reinvention; you’ll have to ask me what I think about Heaven and Hell at some point. Sabotage ends up kind of incoherent at times, but interestingly, it is most entertaining and well constructed in its lengthy, vaguely prog-fusion moments. I like it personally, but I don’t know if it’s really what the average Sabbath fan wants. Then again, I don’t actually know what the average Sabbath fan wants, so that might be a moot point.

Highlights: “Megalomania”, “Supertzar”, “The Writ”, “Blow on A Jug”