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”
Note: Although Morbid Visions is often bundled with the 1985 “Bestial Devastation” EP, I’ll be focusing on the studio album itself.
Morbid Visions is one of the granddaddies of deliberately sloppy Brazillian extreme metal – a long and glorious trend that Sepultura themselves were quick to replace. It belongs to that early period of extreme metal where genre descriptors (death, black, grindcore, etc.) weren’t so clearly defined, it’s hastily performed, and the songwriting is surprisingly solid when you actually sit down and think about it. This puts Morbid Visions squarely in the low tech but highly ambitious sector of the extreme metal world that so many people seem to value.
I would go as far as to say that Sepultura’s full length debut (and to be fair, the EP that preceded it) is a result of the mid-80s’ metal teardown, for want of a better name. Between the influence of hardcore punk and an increasingly viable independent music scene floating around in cassette form, anyone who was alive and sentient enough to take place in the extreme metal revolution presumably listened to a great deal of albums that essentially ignored conventional basics and began forging an unfamiliar musical language in the process. You’ll hear a great deal of that on Morbid Visions, with its fast but sloppy rhythmic backing over monophonic droning riffs. Not hard to imitate; not exactly a form of pop music in 1986.
However, Morbid Visions goes further at times. For an album of such battering instrumental simplicity, it makes a surprising amount of room for compositional variation, especially given how brief the songs are. In layman’s terms, there’s quite a few riffs per song even if the riffs are painfully basic to the point I can imagine myself playing them on a guitar even though I have literally no experience with said instrument. Future Sepultura albums would briefly see advances in this realm, for what it’s worth. Still, this one’s a good example of the second part of the process I was describing earlier – extreme metal bands elaborating on their new styles – sometimes by reincorporating older elements, and other times by inventing new ideas wholesale. At this stage in their career, Sepultura was more inclined towards the latter. It certainly bore fruit – while Morbid Visions has its share of immature ideas, many a band saw enough value in them that they improved on them.
Over the years, I’ve found Morbid Visions to be one of those many albums that seemingly would be the antithesis of my musical preferences, but actually turn out quite entertaining and worthwhile. Most likely, it’s because the album reveals its depths with time.
Highlights: “War”, “Crucifixion”, “Show Me The Wrath”
I first tried to explore Metallica before I learned to appreciate albums as a whole, and thusly I ended up hearing the title track of Master of Puppets over a year before I heard the rest of the album… which admittedly, I was quick to explore once I found its predecessor to be so mind-opening at the beginning of my initiation into metal.”Master of Puppets” is… not entirely unrepresentative of the various twists and turns in the album it lends its name to, but its breadth of musical concepts stands in contrast to the rest of the tracks, which while extended at points are still more terse and focused. Beyond that, it’s a chance to ride more lightning.
As a refinement as opposed to a reinvention of its predecessor, Master of Puppets formalized Metallica’s speed/thrash arrangements for some time. “Formal” actually is the word you’re looking for, since Metallica put significant effort into plotting out their songs at this point. There’s a much greater emphasis on dynamics and atmosphere this time, so when it’s not being blatantly metallic, Master of Puppets has its share of mellow or at least midpaced moments which generally work, considering that the songs are designed to support them and make them appropriate. The key is that unlike on its successors (And Justice for All, Death Magnetic, etc), Metallica still had some shreds of restraint to keep them from stretching the content here into overly lengthy songs.
Now, given that A. Metallica had already been comprehensively out-extreme’d in the past, and B. Metallica was holding back the heights of their velocity compared to said past, this album’s peaks of violence aren’t as satisfying as they could be. Some of them (mostly “Battery”; its intro is basically the 101 of how to do a lengthy buildup in a metal context) win points more for being successfully elaborate than for any technical wizardry they might accidentally display. It does sort of point to a path Metallica could’ve successfully taken had history unfolded differently – basically becoming a heavy metal/progressive rock fusion band like latter day Iron Maiden or earlier Rush, except this time slightly heavier and more interested in cheap beer. Describing Metallica’s historical downfall, though, takes me too far into the realm of cliches for my own tastes. The fact that so many metal bands deliberately and knowingly imitated Metallica’s formulas speaks well of their influence. I still prefer Ride the Lightning, but Master of Puppets is a close and worthy second place.
Highlights: “Battery”, “The Thing That Should Not Be”, “Damage Inc.”
Allegedly, this is what broke the floodgates of Bathory to relatively mainstream audiences (as opposed to tape traders greedy for the sickest metal they could find). It’s almost like Metallica’s infamous self-titled album in that it’s almost entirely unlike prior albums in favor of sounding somewhat closer to “normal” rock and metal. Had Blood on Ice been released in its place, that comparison would be more accurate, but Hammerheart still contains its share of mid-paced, clean-sung material. It also represents Quorthon embracing the more experimental side of his last album, ushering in a new musical direction and me repeating myself frequently to make a point.
Hammerheart shares a soul with the minimalistic variants of Norwegian black metal that would pop up in the early 1990s, even if the aesthetic is far closer to traditional/power metal. The songs here rely on repetition, particularly in their choruses, and there aren’t a lot of small variations like some of this work’s spiritual successors use. Even if there were, this sort of album relies heavily on its anthemic qualities to get anywhere in the listener’s mind. As is befitting of such, Hammerheart has a far “larger” production than its predecessors, in that it’s bassier and has more presence, although it’s hardly high fidelity. Blood Fire Death occasionally channeled the same compositional frameworks, but its thinner sound felt more suited to the aggressive, thrashy tracks.
Along with the dramatic change in songwriting, Hammerheart seems a more confident album than its predecessors, as if Quorthon has stopped wearing another’s costume (although he did do black metal genre-defineingly well) and forged a new identity for himself. Since Quorthon’s singing is far from technically perfect, one could argue that some of the moments intended most as epic come across as overly melodramatic. On the other hand, being able to transfer the overall energy from previous works reflects pretty well on the band. Incidentally, represents the first released Bathory album to actually delve into Viking themed lyrics, which seems appropriate given the overall more uplifting approach. It doesn’t go as far into the mythology and culture of the Norse as much as Blood on Ice did, but it does set a mood and function as a benchmark of Quorthon’s development as a songwriter.
If there’s one thing about this sort of stylistic change worth noting, it’s that Quorthon must have found it himself quite enchanting, as most of Bathory’s later released work follows its general approach. I tend to slightly prefer Twilight of the Gods for being slightly more refined, but some will be drawn to the greater aggression and energy this one has. In the end, Hammerheart’s main historical function appears not to be its lyrical themes or musical approach remniscent of power-metal, but the fact it opened up the ears of many black metal writers to extend their writing in the way bands like Manilla Road or Manowar did. That in itself is a trend worth writing about.
Highlights: “Shores in Flames”, “Valhalla”, “One Rode To Asa Bay”