Black Sabbath – Master Of Reality
Released July 21st, 1971 on Island Records
Produced by Rodger Bain
Peaked at #5 U.K., #8 U.S.
There are some anniversaries that are more curiosities than anything else. A tenth anniversary is a good way to take stock of an album that seemed to be everywhere at the time – and so anniversaries of albums by Washed Out, Fleet Foxes, and Kurt Vile let us think on how these artists have evolved (or not) in the ten years since. After that, though, things get a bit heavier. For example, in two short weeks (nine days from when this gets published) we’ll discuss the fact that Is This It? is somehow twenty years old, as though that were a thing that could possibly be true. The further you go back, the heavier these things seem to be. Nevermind is thirty this September. How? Time passes, baby, and it never stops. Fifty years – the biggest anniversaries I tackle here, although come 2023 watch out because it’s sixty years since Please Please Me – is almost suffocating to consider sometimes. A half century. When these albums came out it was 1971, and fifty years before that was 1921. Even then, 1921 was somehow pre-modern, before the Depression and the War and nuclear paranoia and computers…and and and. Here, from the vantage of 2021, the year 1971 only seems relatively more recent by virtue of increased media circulation; we’ve never really gotten to forget the Sixties onward because the Boomers were so self-obsessed they deified aspects of every era they’ve ever been alive for. Still, it predates a lot of what we consider the modern world. It was before the internet, which alone makes it suspect; it was also deep in the era of the Cold War, and that’s been over for thirty years this Christmas.
More importantly, especially in terms of this particular anniversary, it’s before heavy metal. To be more precise, it’s exactly on the cusp of metal’s birth. Today is the day several different genres turn a half-century old: doom metal, stoner rock, sludge. Without Master Of Reality there is no Metallica, there is no Alice In Chains, there are no desert rock scenes, no Melvins, no Nirvana. The entire Scandinavian musical world looks a whole lot different. Sixties counterculture worshippers often like to claim that the Beatles invented most of what we consider rock ‘n’ roll today, but be serious: it was really Black Sabbath.
There were two albums that came before Master Of Reality, of course, that should not be forgotten. Black Sabbath and Paranoid, though, were written down and recorded in the space of two days each. The songs evolved out of jams rather than purposefully. Master Of Reality was the first album where the band was able to spend time in the studio and plot out what they were presenting. As such, there are none of the spacey, jazzy jams that ended up in the middle of some of their songs on their first two records. They would return in time, but on Master Of Reality it was a much tighter set of songs. Aside from two songs – the medieval “Orchid” and the acoustic dread of “Solitude” – the songs on this record are built around heavy, walloping riffs that don’t let up. They set the benchmark for headbanging: “Sweet Leaf” and “Lord Of This World” are the birthplace of stoner metal, and “Children Of The Grave” and “Into The Void” are the one-two punch of doom. Countless bands have spent themselves trying to capture the exact excitement of that chugging riff in the former. Much of the Melvins long-running career – nearly forty years – is pretty much just an exercise in exclaiming just how absolutely fucking cool the latter is.
It also set the tone for metal. Heavy music requires heavy subjects, and Geezer Butler wrote songs that reflected this. “Sweet Leaf” was about marijuana, which was a pretty heavy topic at the time. I can go down the street and by an ounce for a decent price from a store operating legitimately under the auspices of government regulation, but in the early Seventies smoking the herb and getting caught meant prison time. Whole battalions of law enforcement were dedicated to wiping out the scourge of that sweet leaf, but it was also (clearly) what powered a lot of the songwriting on the record. “After Forever” and “Lord Of This World” were dour tales of Christian morality – dying godless and letting Satan into your life, respectively – and proved that all of the pastors who warned about the evils of Satanism and summoning demons by playing Black Sabbath records or whatever lysergic bullshit they were on about then and now never listened to anything the band actually did. The biggest open secret in rock ‘n’ roll history is that Black Sabbath were a Christian rock band. “After Forever” ends on “Perhaps you’ll think before you say / That God is dead and gone / Open your eyes, just realize / That He is the one,” ferchrissakes. Butler was a Catholic to his fingertips, in the same sense that Rosemary’s Baby is a terribly Catholic movie; both are dour moralists with a penchant for dark dramatics and an ability to preach without actually being preachy. “Into The Void” showed that there was more to him, though: the soul of a dour science fiction writer also lived inside of him.
Part of the lasting appeal was the way it was played; it seems commonplace now, but in 1970-71 there were very, very few bands that approached the visceral intensity of Black Sabbath. Led Zeppelin was capable of being heavy in a similar way, but Zeppelin played it fast and loose, ripping off old bluesmen and writing about The Lord Of The Rings and their dicks. The Who were capable of a certain level of loudness – maybe reaching their peak on Who’s Next, which would come out a short month later – but not this kind of thick, viscous loudness. Part of that was born out of necessity. Prior to forming Sabbath, Tony Iommi’s day job was in a sheet metal factory. A workplace accident found him missing a pair of fingertips on his fretting hand, and for a moment the pain and awkwardness in playing the guitar afterward made him want to quit. His boss (!) however, told him to stick with it and gave him a Django Reinhardt record for inspiration. Reinhardt had suffered severe injuries in a fire and played the guitar with two fingers; Iommi fashioned a pair of thimbles for his injured fingers using melted plastic and a cut-up leather jacket and soldiered on. In a 2016 interview he mentioned that people have said to him that they were amazed that an industrial accident created heavy metal. The unique sound the band dialed up came about because Iommi had restrictions on how he could play; because he couldn’t properly feel the strings, he had to come down on them quite strongly. By the time the recording of Master Of Reality came about he had decided to try downtuning his guitar even further so that he could have more control over how he bent the strings. Standard tuning for a guitar is in E; Iommi took it down to C# and from that the sound of doom was set. “Children Of The Grave”, “Into The Void”, and “Lord Of This World” all prominently feature this sharp downtuning. It is likely not a coincidence that from these three songs spawned whole universes.
Fifty years is a heavy anniversary. It means we’ve had five decades to consider an album, to chew it over and spin it around and wax philosophical on it. Bands have had five decades to mine it for inspiration – and they have, on a massive scale. Not a week goes by where I don’t listen to some new album by some sludge rock band that has scratched Master Of Reality into their soul. The best thorough examination of the album and what it means is John Darnielle’s 33 1/3 entry on the album. 33 1/3 is a series of extended liner notes; they’re small books about specific albums that dissect and discuss and reconstruct the records. The Mountain Goats frontman’s entry is a little different. It’s a work of fiction that takes the form of a kid making the case for why his tape of Master Of Reality is not only okay for him to have during his unwilling stay in a mental hospital, it’s absolutely necessary. Few books have ever made the case for an album in such a specifically unusual way, and it’s well worth reading to get an idea as to why this record has endured as well as it has for this long.
Check out the band’s other albums in my Sabbath discography guide.