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”