Pearl: 30 Years of Hysteria

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Def Leppard – Hysteria

Released August 3rd, 1987 on Mercury Records

Has there ever been a rock band as completely on-the-nose as Def Leppard is on Hysteria?  I mean really just taking the idea of Big Dumb Rock and making it Bigger, Dumber, and Rockier.  It’s not enough to have an album with the ultimate power ballad, “Love Bites” on it.  Not at all.  They also had to have the ultimate arena rock anthem, the stripped-down-to-essence rock ‘n’ roll fist-pumper “Pour Some Sugar On Me”.  And the sanitized stadium lust of “Animal”.  And the pure butter melodies of “Armageddon It”.  And the Eighties rock heroics of the title track.  And “Rocket”.  And “Women”.  It was wall-to-wall singles, all chart-reaching arena pounders without any depth beyond having a good time and sticking your fist in the air.  And yet it’s coming was as hard-won as any hardscrabble up-and-coming band’s might have been.

In 1983 the band released Pyromania.  Their previous two albums had established them as a driving force in the poppier side of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, the sprawling, dank counterweight to the British punk movement that also featured Union Jack-wavers Iron Maiden and Diamond Head, from whose discography Metallica grokked most of their moves.  Pyromania was a huge success in America, driven by hit singles “Photograph” and “Rock Of Ages”; the band only released three singles despite selling towering piles of records because they didn’t want to flood the market and undercut the inevitable follow-up.  That follow-up, Hysteria, wouldn’t arrive for another four years.  The band, who had recorded with Mutt Lange for Pyromania, wanted to go bigger and tapped Jim Steinman, the songwriter for Meatloaf.  Steinman wanted to record a more visceral, in-your-face Def Leppard; the band had hired him, however, because they wanted a clean, crisp, gigantic arena rock album.  As singer Joe Elliot pointed out, Steinman wrote Meatloaf, but it was Todd Rundgren that produced him.  Those early efforts were frustrated by the gap between band and producer and then were cut short in 1984 when drummer Rick Allen flipped his Corvette on New Year’s Eve and ended up losing an arm.

The idea that the drummer from Def Leppard only has one arm is a sort of rock ‘n’ roll cliche now (thanks to the Bloodhound Gang) but getting Allen back up to speed was both time-consuming and technologically challenging.  Thankfully the band’s label was awash in money thanks to Pyromania and so the latter proved to be no serious issue.  Allen’s kit became a hybrid traditional and electronic kit, with MIDI triggers built in that would play the sounds that Allen would typically have used his left arm for.  Learning to use it was the harder part, and most of 1985 was spent just getting the band back into fighting form.  By the end of 1985 Allen was on top of his game again, and Mutt Lange had returned to produce new recording sessions.  1986 would also prove to be a challenging year, since Lange himself crashed his car (with less injuries than Rick Allen suffered) and Joe Elliott somehow managed to contract the mumps.

The end result of all of that, however, was a bona fide hit machine, a chart topper that ruled the airwaves for the end of the Eighties.  Mutt Lange has said that he and the band wanted to record a crossover album that would have wide pop appeal, like a NWOBHM Thriller, and that’s pretty much exactly what Hysteria is.  Def Leppard would hit the Billboard Top 40 with ten consecutive singles, seven from Hysteria, beginning with “Animals”.  They would never again achieve such success, although they always managed to pop up in the charts from time to time.  Hysteria is about as pop as metal got in the 1980s, scrubbed clean to the point where there’s really nothing metal about it at all. Still, it’s instantly recognizable and a pillar of Eighties production; Mutt Lange would go on to use the tricks he pulled on Hysteria to inform his then-wife Shania Twain’s country-crossover success.

 

Pearl: 30 Years Of Appetite For Destruction

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Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction

Released July 21st, 1987 on Geffen Records

BestEverAlbums: #67

The highwater mark for Eighties hard rock came directly from the squalor of L.A.’s rock club circuit, the combination of two hot bands in that scene:  L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, the latter of which featured guitarist Izzy Stradlin and singer Axl Rose.  The three members of L.A. Guns – lead guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich, and drummer Rob Gardner – were either fired or quit, and of their replacements, two were former Hollywood Rose alumni (Slash and Steven Adler).  Bassist Duff McKagan was the only out-of-towner, hailing originally from Seattle.  Still, regardless of the fact that the band was basically Hollywood Rose in it’s structure, the name Guns N’ Roses stuck.

It’s an apt name for the band on Appetite For Destruction:  blazing-gun guitar work and attitude with a dash of the rose, or at least a facade over burning lust.  In an era when so-called “hair metal” was dominating MTV with increasingly-saccharine pop music and power ballads, GNR were a fist in the nose.  Bands like Poison and latter-day Motley Crue were pretending at being loud and dangerous; Guns N’ Roses actually were.  This was the same era in which Vince Neil was singing about “Girls, Girls, Girls” and David Coverdale was crying in the rain.  Right from Axl Rose’s snarl of “you’re gonna die!” (cribbed from a homeless man who’d warned him in that exact fashion when he’d arrived in L.A.) this was something different – brash and bold, the musical equivalent of a street kid offering you weed with a switchblade hidden behind his back.

There were a lot of ways it could have gone wrong.  1987 was also the year that Def Leppard released that most boneheaded of hard rock singles, “Pour Some Sugar On Me”.  GNR’s id-driven sound could have had thudded like that, but it was kept deft by the dancing rhythm section of Stradlin, McKagan, and Adler, who were much more Rolling Stones than they ever were Black Sabbath.  Slash’s guitar work has always had trouble getting out of the minor pentatonic range, to be true, but it fits his work on Appetite exactly, like his leads were always meant to be married to the rest of the band’s boxer-bounce clamour.  Axl Rose also never sounded better; his soaring, hectoring nasal voice found the vanishing point between Bon Scott and Brian Johnson (ahem) and took up residence there, becoming the signature voice for a generation of aspiring hard rock vocalists.

Much has been said of the problematic nature of the songs on Appetite.  The album’s original artwork featured a surreal beholder-like monster attacking a robotic rapist, with the robot’s latest victim lying disheveled on the ground.  Indeed, there is a certain obnoxiousness present throughout the tracks – singing about getting sex on demand, regardless of consent, spilling out a tell-all on “My Michelle”, glorifying alcoholism on “Nighttrain”, spelling out the boys-club rock ‘n’ roll fantasy lifestyle on “Paradise City” – but, coming from a quintet of near-homeless, drugged-up and boozed-out miscreants barely out of adolescence and raised on Zeppelin and KISS, it’s maybe not hard to figure out where that obnoxiousness comes from.  At any rate, the band sells their songs with such vitality and fervor that it’s hard not to bang your head along, even if you’re worried about the message it sends.  It’s also important to note that a lot of the filth and fury present here is dredged up from the then-decade-old punk rock scene, and presented as a middle finger to the Just Say No, Nancy Reagan, Christian America of the 1980s.

Everyone from a certain era has put “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on a mixtape for a person they’ve been romantically/sexually interested in, except for me.  For reasons I’ll never be quite clear on, my go-to was usually “Rocket Queen”, probably because the latter is a much better-written song and the former is built around a guitar exercise Slash found stupid, and for good reason.  I’m convinced that the only reason he changed his tune on it was because it got so godawfully huge.  It’s a really annoying riff, even if the rest of the song is pretty okay.

Even as the band’s star diminished (by 1992 they were mostly a bloated joke, made fun of by Nirvana and the rest of the Alt Generation) Appetite For Destruction remained a classic album, a legacy of where rock ‘n’ roll had been prior to Nevermind that carried over into the new alternative world by sheer force of attitude.  Even in the face of sprawl, an acrimonious breakup, a revolving-door lineup, and a long-delayed vaporware album that was finally released, Appetite For Destruction remains the quintessential GNR album, the one that makes them rock stars for life, regardless of all else.

China: 20 Years of Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk

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Emperor – Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk

Released July 8th, 1997 on Candlelight Records

Listen, In The Nightside Eclipse is a stone classic.  It’s my favourite black metal record, although if you’re a purist I’ll probably say it’s Sunbather just to piss you off.  Regardless, Nightside is the album I would point to and say “that’s black metal”, in case you were wondering.  That said, Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, the band’s second album, does everything Nightside does, only bigger, and in widescreen.  While there are somewhat less keyboards overlaying the churn of Anthems, and it doesn’t have “I Am The Black Wizards” on it, it does work in a much clearer fashion, upping the production values and drilling down more on the intense blastbeats to anchor the songs, rather than mixing everything into a shoegazer-approved blur.

By 1997, of course, the Norwegian band was surrounded by a black haze of controversy, like the filth and the fury surrounding the Sex Pistols twenty years prior but much more viscerally psychotic.  Original drummer Faust murdered a man in 1992 for making passes at him in a forest near Lillehammer; that day he went with Mayhem’s Euronymous and Burzum/Mayhem-affiliated pagan-fascist Varg Vikernes to burn down one of Norway’s ancient Christian stave churches (the latter two would later fall out, leading to Vikernes’ infamous murder of Euronymous in 1993).  He and Emperor co-founder Samoth went to jail in 1994, shortly before the release of In The Nightside Eclipse, although Samoth was imprisoned for arson, having been caught burning down another church with Varg Vikernes.  Anthems was recorded after Samoth was released on parole in 1996; still, most of the record is the brainchild of Ihsahn, vocalist, lead guitarist, and main arranger of the sumptuous, vile suites.  Controversy followed them on tour (and again in 2015, when Faust was released from prison and went on tour with Emperor), but it only served to bring further notoriety and interest to the Norwegian black metal scene and Emperor specifically.

Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk is arguably (but only barely arguably) the peak of Norwegian black metal, from a technical and sonic standpoint.  The band themselves would put out a wildly uneven third record (IX) and then turn into an endlessly-touring machine under the sole control of Ihsahn.  The genre would burn out on cheesy adolescent theistic Satanism, cross the Atlantic, and be reborn first as paganism with the Nordic fascism removed (Wolves In The Throne Room) and then as a vehicle for hipster American musicians’ experiments in metal, both failed (Liturgy) and sublime (Deafheaven).  Anthems, then, remains the high-water mark for purely Scandinavian black metal.

 

Pearl: 30 Years of Scum

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Napalm Death – Scum

Released July 1st, 1987 on Earache Records

 

Back in high school, my English teacher was big into heavy Seventies rock music.  He had a cassette-player stereo he would keep in class that he would play old stuff on; incidentally, this is where I first heard the glory that is Master Of Reality.  In time of course we put our own generation’s heavy music on, trying to introduce him to the evolution of what he’d grown up on.  We put on Master Of Puppets and he remarked that it just sounded like Black Sabbath sped up.

Lord only knows what he would have said if we’d put Scum on.  If Metallica took Sabbath riffs (filtered through a thick NWOBHM asthetic, of course) and concentrated them into pure modular speed, then Napalm Death did the same thing but on a hyper level, creating black holes of metal riffs that were played with such speed and power that they, too, ate light.  This is where grindcore was born, and if Anal Cunt would later turn the genre into a stupid joke, Napalm Death came barreling out of the gate in all seriousness, spitting politically-inflected fire in all directions.  Thrash metal, the scene that birthed Metallica et al., was a fusion of Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and hardcore punk rock.  Grindcore was the same idea, only taken to it’s logical, extreme conclusion.  The guitar, bass, drums, and vocals all speed by in a corrosive blur that carved out new spaces for metal, often in under one minute.  Perhaps the most fully artistically realized moment, “You Suffer”, takes place in the space of two seconds (making it the world’s shortest song, at least according to the folks at the Guinness book).

Scum was not the first grindcore album, technically (the sounds that went into it had been brewing for a few years) but it was the first one to get a slightly more widespread audience than the six guys down at the basement hole that passed as an experimental metal club.  It found an audience not only with metalheads unafraid of a little speed, but also among noise/ambient heads and the hardcore weird experimental wing of the jazz cats.  It became quite influential in it’s own right, providing a guidestone for bands that thought even the death and black metal scenes in the 1990s was too tame.

 

Pearl: 30 Years of Scream Bloody Gore

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Death – Scream Bloody Gore

Released May 25th, 1987 on Combat Records

The 1980s saw a grinding evolution of metal, one that splintered so deeply that there is today internecine warfare between various sub-sub-sub-genres that spun out of each of the genre fractures that came about in the decade.  To understand what in the living fuck extreme technical melodic death metal is, you have to first parse out each of the various categories inherent in that genre and understand the paths that led to them.  Thankfully we don’t have to do that here, because Scream Bloody Gore was a – some say the – founding document of the disgusting bloody mess that is death metal.

Metal was covered in rock ‘n’ roll cheese for the most part until Judas Priest finally got good right near the end of the 1970s.  Around the same time two major influences on the metal underground sprang to life:  the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and hardcore punk.  NWBHM included bands like Diamond Head and Iron Maiden; these were tight, riff-heavy metal bands that emphasized modular songwriting.  Hardcore punk brought speed, pounding drums, and amelodic shouting and made them de rigueur for being on the cutting edge of how far music could be pushed.  The two were combined into thrash metal, a by-now familiar genre whose Big Four were Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax, and Slayer.  Of those four, the biggest influence on the ever-heavier underground was Slayer; some might try to add Celtic Frost or Venom into the mix, but the birth of death metal is entirely due to Hell Awaits and especially Reign In Blood.  Death metal itself stems from Death, the band (and not the Detroit proto-punk band), whose early work spawned a whole host of disturbing weirdos first in Florida and later the world who would be inspired by it.

Scream Bloody Gore is basically Reign In Blood with a few major exceptions.  To be sure, it’s built around pounding, speed-obsessed passages drawn directly from “Jesus Saves”, but Chuck Schuldiner’s guitars are tuned down a hell of a lot lower, he uses a lot more palm-muting, the emphasis is more on blastbeats than separable riffs, and the band utilizes breakdowns quite a bit more.  Also, Schuldiner’s vocals are harsher than Tom Araya’s; Araya has a certain scream he uses that hits an interestingly high register, and it’s much easier to pick out what he’s singing about.  Schuldiner’s vocals are more like the howlings of the eternally damned, pitched lower and more of blurred screams than anything resembling what people traditionally think of as “singing”.  The lyrics also feature a notable difference.  Reign In Blood was about evil Nazi death-doctors and the hypocrisy of religion and insanity.  Scream Bloody Gore, meanwhile, is exactly what it says on the tin:  these are about zombies, cannibals, blood, slaughter, and gore.  This, in essence, would be what “death metal” would be about from 1987 onward:  downtuned guitars, blastbeats, low-pitched howls, and gore, gore, gore.

The San Francisco Chronicle referred to Scream Bloody Gore as “the first death metal album” and this is true of everywhere outside of Belo Horizonte.  An entire underground industry was born out of it and the bands that poked their heads out of their dank practice spaces because of it.  The production quality is utterly primitive by modern standards, but there are still bands who chase that sound out of a sense of purity and complete anti-commercialism.  Schuldiner’s death in 2001 put a halt to the band’s activities but they remain among the most influential bands in modern metal – certainly the crazed proliferation of both bands and sub-genres would never have happened without Death or Scream Bloody Gore.

Ruby: 40 Years of Sin After Sin

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Judas Priest – Sin After Sin

Released April 8th, 1977 on CBS Records

Released on the same day – and on the same British label – as The Clash, Judas Priest’s major label debut is a leap forward in a direction that would solidify the genre of heavy metal as much as The Clash would for punk rock.  While it wasn’t the definitive statement of hard rock and heavy metal at the end of the 1970s – that would be their next two albums – it was a definite harbinger of things to come.  Rob Halford sounds as though he’s still coming to terms with his shrieking demon wail (he seems even a trifle unnerved on parts of “Starbreaker”) and the rest of the band is playing it somewhat safe in the space carved out by Deep Purple.  This last is underscored by the fact that production was handled by Purple bassist Roger Glover.  Regardless of this somewhat unsure path, the, er, British Steel that lay within the band was clearly evident on tracks like “Sinner”, “Let Us Prey / Call For The Priest”, and the pummeling “Dissident Aggressor”, which would (many years hence) be covered by Slayer.  It’s hard-rocking album, to be sure, but there would be much harder moments in the future.  Much harder.

 

Pearl: 30 Years of Tribute

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Ozzy Osbourne – Tribute

Released March 19th, 1987 on Epic Records

Shorter than average, and rail-thin to the point of emaciation, most of the space that Randy Rhoads took up was due to his massive, lion-like mane of blonde hair.  He was quiet, unassuming, and mostly stone sober, an Odd Couple-esque contrast to the guy he played guitar for, Ozzy Osbourne circa 1980-1981.  That’s actually a very understated thing to say – “played guitar for”.  Randy Rhoads was a barnburner of a guitar player, a shredder that did for guitar in the 1980s what Eddie Van Halen did for guitar in the 1970s.  He sent everyone back to the woodshed, and his influence on the neoclassical movement of shred guitar cannot be overstated.  His playing on Ozzy’s two best albums, the one-two punch of of Blizzard of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman, are what makes those albums so great.  The riffs are crunchy and yet grounded, something a shredder like Yngwie Malmsteen could never quite grasp.  He plays in support of the singer, up until it’s time to let loose and then GAWD DAMN, Randy Rhoads could melt your face off.  Tribute is the perfect, er, tribute to how he managed this:  check out “Flying High Again”, or the inevitable “Crazy Train”.  Those background riffs are solid, nothing fancy – chords and chord-transitions that let Ozzy soar his voice, but when it comes time for the solo Rhoads leaps out and gets downright liquid, slipping through lines and playing faster than any human has a right to play.  He also got deep into the theory behind his playing, encouraging Ozzy and the rest of the band to write songs that fell outside of the usual “A or E” key that heavy metal tracks were written in.

 

He was a force to be reckoned with, a brilliant musician with a fresh take on a well-worn instrument, and so it was inevitable that he would die young, because that’s rock ‘n ‘ roll for some reason, even when you avoid drugs and alcohol in a band full of drugged-out alcoholics.  After a show in Orlando, FL in 1982, the band stopped in Leesburg to fix an air conditioning unit.  Tour bus driver and sometime pilot Andrew Aycock noticed a plane on the property of the place they’d stopped and decided to steal it; he took a couple of people up with him the first time and landed without incident.  The second trip, where Aycock took up Randy Rhoads and band makeup artist Rachel Youngblood, was much grimmer.  Aycock, who had been reportedly up all night binge-snorting cocaine, decided to buzz the tour bus as a lark.  On one of the passes, he clipped the plane’s wing on the bus, went into an uncontrollable spiral, and crashed the plane into a nearby garage.  All three aboard died instantly and were burned to cinders.  Tribute followed several years of grieving and carrying on with new guitarists and new albums; when it came time to put out a live album, the strength of Rhoads’ playing during the 1981 tour especially cried out for an actual release.

Pearl: 30 Years of Abigail

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King Diamond – Abigail

Released February 24th, 1987 on Roadrunner Records

Man, Mercyful Fate.  For an up-and-coming metalhead like I was in 1996-1997, there was nothing quite like discovering them.  My first exposure was either through Metallica’s Garage Inc. (where the band covered five Mercyful Fate songs) or through an old Metal Blade compilation we used to blast while playing euchre.  Either way, they were a quick favourite of mine, and why not?  They had great riffs, their imagery was over-the-top, and those vocals!  Kim Bendix Peterson, with his operatic range, seemed to summon up long-dead ghosts every time he opened his mouth.  I was a little defeated when I learned that the band had only recorded two albums before breaking up, but re-energized when I found out that the vocalist – the mighty King Diamond – had gone solo and taken the guitarist and bassist from Mercyful Fate with him.

 

The band’s first album – 1986’s Fatal Portrait – sold well, but Abigail is their first bona fide classic.  For one thing, it’s the band’s first concept album, a trope they would continue through the rest of their releases.  While some of their later stories would get a bit esoteric, Abigail is a classic ghost story, about a couple in the mid-Nineteenth Century who inherit a haunted house and are slowly destroyed by it over the course of the album.  Miriam, the woman who’d moved in, is pregnant with the spirit of the old owner’s stillborn child, Abigail, and the possessed child will wreak untold havoc.  After a series of bad omens, ominous foreboding, and ghostly encounters, all hell breaks loose.  It is, in short, metal as fuck.

 

Said metalness is borne out by the music the narration is carried on.  The band takes the basic sound of Mercyful Fate and expands on it.  Heavy guitar riffs are rendered heavier by space, reverb, and better production.  The drums punch through the mix in precisely the right fashion, and newcomer Andy LaRocque’s guitar work glows in the dark, like uranium fireflies in the darkest part of the forest.  The focus is, naturally, on King Diamond’s soaring voice, and despite what my Cannibal Corpse-loving guitar teacher once thought, there’s really no finer vehicle for ghostly destruction than his soured-opera-gone-Satanic delivery.  The fact that such a chilling, disturbing story can be paired with such a great package of post-thrash metal is exactly why King Diamond has continued to endure over three decades.

China: 20 Years of City

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Strapping Young Lad – City

Released February 11th, 1997 on Century Media

Devin Townsend is fully aware of how completely ridiculous many of the tropes in metal are.  Think about it for a second.  They are.  There’s a reason that the genre is most popular among 14 year old boys – it’s because those are the people most willing to swallow absurdity in the face of pure, naked aggression (see also Trump supporters).  Townsend knows how ridiculous the tropes are because he lived them; before forming Strapping Young Lad, the Vancouver musician was best known for providing the vocals to Steve Vai’s uneven 1993 album Sex And Religion.  His experience with record labels and the music business led him to his awakening:  metal is absurd, the business is absurd, so you may as well have some fun with it.  A little burned out and feeling like a “musical whore” for working his muse at the command of other people, he recorded Heavy As A Heavy Thing, an album lost on it’s contemporary listeners, even in 1995.  People sat up and took notice when City came out, however, and it marks the beginning of the metal community’s embrace of Strapping Young Lad and their balls-out, “twist-the-dial-back-and-forth-until-it-snaps” version of extreme metal.

 

City is a solid trash metal album buried carefully in a really stellar industrial noise album.  For every moment of straight-ahead pummeling (like the beginning of “Home Nucleonics”, or the massive breakdown in “AAA”) there are layers of digital textures and those Townsend vocals that sound like they were lifted whole and breathing off of dank, bloody German industrial records.  The influence isn’t particularly surprising – Vancouver is, after all, the home of Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, and a bajillion other industrial acts – but Townsend’s mixing of it with his obvious mastery of metal forms is what puts City over the edge into being a bona-fide classic.

Hand Of God Has Struck The Hour: A Guide To Black Sabbath, Part 1 (1970-1978)

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The 1960s are a decade that has been largely romanticized by the generations that came after it.  The Boomers that lived through it carry tales about free love and smoking marijuana like we’re supposed to sit and swoon over their vinyl copies of The Beatles.  “Oh,” they say, “we had all this great music come out, and we marched in the streets and we even stopped a war.  It was such a great time to be alive.”  Everyone that comes after is supposed to chew on their envy in the corner, and there are a lot of the children of Boomers that do exactly this.  You know them as the Wrong Generation crowd.  They go onto YouTube videos and leave snide comments about how music was so much better in the Sixties and that they were born into the wrong generation, all their friends are dumb and listen to Justin Beiber and Rebecca Black.

All of this false nostalgia for a time that was never lived through is even worse given that it’s based on a series of lies.

First of all, no one listens to Rebecca Black.  I’m fairly certain that there are more people that have referenced Rebecca Black in asinine comments on the internet than have actually listened to “Friday”.  Somehow she’s become the spokesperson for the music of a generation that also includes Ty Segall, Arcade Fire, Kendrick Lamar, and Kamasi Washington among its legion of artists.

Second of all, the Sixties were a stressful, conflict-ridden time that ended in disaster.

It’s been 40 years and two major new wars since the Vietnam War ended in Communist victory.  The 1960s were the prime time for American soldiers dying for a geopolitical strategy that assumed the viability of preventing Asia from falling to the Communists.  Those Boomers aforementioned marched in the streets to protest the Vietnam War, and where did it get them?  They were kettled, truncheoned, gassed, and disparaged.  In the end, like at Kent State, they were shot and murdered by the forces of the State.  All that happened was that the administration and the military-industrial complex ended the war exactly when they wanted to, at the very last minute before the prospect of victory was completely eliminated.  At home, the decade kicked into gear with the assassination of a sitting President, reeled through the Civil Rights movement, and leaped headalong into the protest movement against the war.  There were fracture lines along race, sexuality, employment, drugs, and virtually every other aspect of modern existence.  It was a stressful time where revolution seemed a shout away – the French uprising in May of 1968 seemed to dovetail nicely with the American unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots at the Democratic National Convention later that year.  Bombs went off, people died, and at the very end of the decade the Rolling Stones held a festival and decided to use the Hells Angels as security.  The concert at Altamont ended up as a drunken mess where a man was murdered by the security forces, and it seemed to be an ill omen that drove in everything else that was waiting just around the corner.

That would be the 1970s, of course, and it would be a heavy economic downturn that would come about as the result of the supply shocks of the OPEC-initiated 1973 oil crisis.  Corporate profits would stagnate, Deng Xaioping would open China up for business in 1979, jobs would vanish forever, and neoliberal economic piracy became the rule of the day.  The rose colouring of the 1960s is the propaganda of the class that made it through the initial death shudders of Keynesian civilization intact or thriving.  The poor and disadvantaged of the Earth have a different tale to tell.

One such poor and disadvantaged area was the city of Birmingham, England.  Birmingham has been charitably described in the past as being an industrial hellscape, and it was dreary fifty years ago, too.  My grandfather escaped the city in order to live in Canada, but for the youth of the late 1960s the opportunities to get out were few and far between.  They worked in blue collar jobs, deadening factory work, and when they got out they drank, smoked, fucked, and listened to heavy blues music.  The paisley folksy bullshit was an offshoot of the old British Invasion but was largely an American concern.  The British kids of the mid-to-late Sixties were into the blues, and the louder the better.  Starting a band was a popular way to beat the dead-end feeling of life in working class Britain.  John “Ozzy” Osbourne was an unskilled labourer with a penchant for petty theft who’d wanted to be a rock star ever since hearing “She Loves You” on the radio in 1963.  Tony Iommi worked in a sheet metal factory (a job that would claim the tips of the fingers on his fretting hand) and was inspired to adapt his guitar style after his accident by a recording of Django Reinhardt.  Terence “Geezer” Butler was a working class Irish Catholic learning to be an accountant who found himself through LSD, Aleister Crowley, and Cream bassist Jack Bruce.   Bill Ward was a lager lad with a love for jazz drumming and the heavier, more primitively pounding work of John Bonham.  They would play in blues bands and knew each other from gigs across the city.  Butler’s first band was Rare Breed, who would also feature Ozzy as their singer.  Ward and Iommi played together in a band called Mythology.  The two groups would eventually split up, and the four would come together in a new band called Polka Tulk.

Polka Tulk began when Ozzy put out an ad at a Birmingham music shop that went “Ozzy Zig needs a gig – has own PA”.  Ward and Iommi answered the ad and, in need of a bassist, Ozzy mentioned his old bandmate Geezer Butler.  The four of them began rehearsing as Polka Tulk before changing the name to Earth (Polka Tulk being a terrible name, after all).  On 1998’s Reunion live album, Ozzy tells the crowd that they at some point decided that Earth “wasn’t a very good fucking name for a band”.  The actual truth is that there was already a band called Earth doing gigs in Britain that was a minor league success.  A name change was thus necessary.

While mulling over their options, the band went across the street to a cinema that was showing Boris Karloff’s 1963 horror classic Black Sabbath.  One thing they noticed and talked about at length afterwards was the idea that people would pay money to get scared; fear and looming doom struck right at the animal part of the human brain, and it produced a weird sort of thrill.  Horror films were always well attended, so what about making horror music?  The seeds were already there.  Iommi’s factory accident had maimed his fingers and left him unsure for a time whether or not there was a point to continuing to play the guitar.  He’d eventually hit upon a solution involving lighter strings and melted plastic fingertips he would use to press down on these light strings.  To reduce the tension and make it easier to play, he would also down-tune his guitar; the result was a much darker, “heavier” sound than was typical among even the heavy blues bands of the time.  This sound, plus the realization that people loved to get scared out of their wits, led to the band changing their name to Black Sabbath, in homage to the movie that had changed their direction – and the direction of rock ‘n’ roll – forever.

 

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BLACK SABBATH

Released February 13th, 1970 on Vertigo Records

Producer:  Rodger Bain

Peaked at #8 UK, #23 U.S.

Singles:

Evil Woman

Black Sabbath

N.I.B.

The Wizard

Right from the get-go, Black Sabbath is the sound of the disenchantment of youth exploding into its own bloody birth.  The tritone riff of “Black Sabbath” – inspired, according to Butler, by a movement in Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” – sets the tone exactly.  A thousand years prior to its release, using that kind of interval in music would likely get you burned at the stake, or hung, or at the very least chased out of town.  It’s not just the tritone, though:  it’s the way that Butler’s bass rumbles along with Iommi’s riff, it’s the tension that Bill Ward’s toms add in the fills behind the verses, and it’s the way Ozzy’s keening wail sounds like a ghost mourning it’s own demise.  It’s very rare that a band can sum up exactly what they’re about in the course of a single song, but “Black Sabbath” sets that up for Black Sabbath.  The entire history of metal came after, but I don’t think that there’s ever been a song that’s been heavier.

Of course, there’s more to Black Sabbath than just “Black Sabbath”.  “The Wizard” belies the band’s roots in heavy blues music and their love of Led Zeppelin.  The guitar work on “The Wizard” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” could likely have fit pretty well on Zeppelin’s debut album (one of the band’s favourite at the time, incidentally), but for the fact that they’re played quite a bit slower than anything Jimmy Page would have committed to wax.  It’s the slower tempo of Iommi (and the oddly fleet-fingered lumbering of Butler’s bass) that makes the difference.  Zeppelin’s heavy blues were hedonistic and airy; Sabbath’s were gloomy and filled with dread.

Another band that had a great deal of influence on the early Sabbath was Cream, Eric Clapton’s heavy blues band du jour.  It’s not just the deconstruction of the “Sunshine Of Your Love” riff that you can hear on “N.I.B.” – it’s also the entirety of side two, which is given over to a heady blues jam that may not have the grace and effortlessness of Clapton’s playing but has the verve and tenacity to match it in other ways.  “Wicked World” mines a jazz groove for some rare upbeat finger-popping, and the closing piece “Warning” substitutes raw, blistering tone and form for the innovation and progression that Cream had been famous for in the late 1960s.

Lyrically, Geezer Butler sets the groundwork for the obsessions of heavy metal lyricists for evermore (okay, him and Robert Plant) by channeling his Irish Catholic background and setting against his love of the occult, black magic, and Crowley.  “Black Sabbath” details the soul of a man being run down by the Devil; “N.I.B.” flips that around and has Lucifer fall in love with a human woman and give himself over to her.  “The Wizard” was written with Gandalf The Grey in mind, mirroring the Tolkien love that Zeppelin was also mining at the time.  “Wicked World” would be the track that pointed the way forward, as Butler would eventually get more comfortable as a lyricist and start putting his political beliefs forward more often.  “Warning”, finally, is that rare beast in the early Sabbath catalog:  a regretful love song more in keeping with the traditional lyrical matter of rock ‘n’ roll.

On a side note, I thought for years that the person standing rather creepily on the album cover was Ozzy Osbourne in drag.  As it turns out, the figure is a woman the band vaguely remembers as being named Louise.  No one actually knows anything about her beyond that tiny factoid; there is no public record of her and if she’s still alive she’s apparently taking the secret of her place in rock ‘n’ roll history to the grave with her.  Like the title track, the album cover sets up the tone of the album perfectly, another thing that would be very rare in Sabbath’s career.

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PARANOID

Released September 18th, 1970 on Vertigo Records and January 7th, 1971 on Warner Bros. Records

Producer:  Rodger Bain

Peaked at #1 UK, #12 US

Singles:

Paranoid

War Pigs

Iron Man

Fairies Wear Boots

Filling the gap between Cream and Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath’s first album was a big success, especially in their native Britain where it went to the Top Ten.  Four months after it’s release the band went back to the studio to record a follow-up, comprised mainly of songs which had grown out of the live improvisations the band did during their endless tours of the club circuits.  It’s arguably Iommi’s peak as a riff-writer:  pretty much everything on Paranoid is iconic and has been celebrated in one way or another in the 45 years since its release.  At the very least, the DNA of a lot of heavy metal that came afterward can be heard on the record.  It’s not hard to imagine the path that leads from the crushingly heavy riff of “Electric Funeral” to Alice In Chains.  The breakneck pace of “Paranoid” would give rise to a much more fast-paced form of metal when bands like Judas Priest (and, later, Sabbath themselves) would barrel ahead full-tilt.  “Iron Man” is the birth of sludge metal while “Planet Caravan” would inspire a legion of band’s bong-laden softer moments.  It’s also not hard to imagine where these songs sprang out of.  “War Pigs” was born out of jamming on “Warning”, and the slam of the main two-chord riff definitely bears this out.  “Paranoid”, written in 15 minutes so that the record label could be assured of a viable single, took a cue from the headalong power of Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”.  “Rat Salad” was a long drum solo much like Bonham’s own on “Moby Dick”.  “Jack The Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots” continues the tradition of jamming two more fragmentary songs together, the same tradition that forms the entirety of side two of their debut.  The jazzy interludes that serve as bridges are in full display here as well – the breakdown in “Electric Funeral” is jaunty, a direct contrast to the main section and “Hand Of Doom” rides a (quite a bit darker) jazz wave into a brick wall of heavy blues riffs in the same fashion that “Wicked World” did.

Lyrically, the album opens Butler up into a much more political bent than he showed on Black Sabbath.  “War Pigs” is a vicious vision of Satan rising up and claiming the souls of the rich war profiteers and politicians and generals that destroyed the world.  Familiarity has perhaps bred out the shock of what a radical call to arms it is, even among other songs of the era.  Butler points the finger squarely at the enemy, without need for metaphor or subtlety:  “Politicians hide themselves away / They only started the war / Why should they go out to fight? / They leave that role to the poor.”  Before there was Joe Strummer, there was Geezer Butler, who would later talk about how he was into how political Bob Dylan had been but missed his presence in the music scene by the 1970s.  “Paranoid” examines depression, although it’s more just the paranoia of being stoned; “Iron Man” came about because Ozzy cracked that Iommi’s lumbering riff sounded like a “giant iron bloke walking around” but it told a story of a self-fulfilling prophecy of hate and destruction.  “Fairies Wear Boots” was about Ozzy’s encounter with a pack of skinheads one night. “Electric Funeral” channeled the generation’s fear of impersonal nuclear obliteration, and “Hand Of Doom” was one of the few songs of the era to discuss the phenomenon of American soldiers coming home from Vietnam with a habit for sticking needles in their arms.  The Vietnam era in general weighed heavily on the album.  The album was originally supposed to be called War Pigs – hence the odd looking soldier with the sword and shield on the front cover – but the record executives decided that the title was too deliberately provocative for the time.

Paranoid made the band huge, and they blew the door open for every disaffected generation after.  It’s not quite hyperbole to suggest that every heavy band that came after the album stems in some way from the sludge that pours out of its grooves.  Grunge is often said to be a combination of Black Flag and Black Sabbath, but Black Flag were listening to Black Sabbath when they made their proto-grunge My War album.  The critics of the time were not kind to it, but retrospective is a powerful drug and the entire movement that has come after tends to colour perceptions a bit more.  The surface Satanic imagery of the songs would also get them on the radar of the religious factions in society, which ramped up quite a bit after a nurse was found dead by suicide with Paranoid still playing on her turntable.

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MASTER OF REALITY

Released July 21st, 1971 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Rodger Bain

Peaked at #5 UK, #8 US

Singles:

After Forever

Children Of The Grave

Sweet Leaf

After recording the founding document of heavy metal on Paranoid, there was no other real direction for Sabbath to go but heavier.  Master Of Reality is heavier.  Three of the songs feature Iommi’s guitar tuned down to C# and stripped of all reverb, producing a tone that was akin to a black hole swallowing all light.  Butler’s bass is tuned down as well, creating a throbbing rumble that feels like doom approaching.  Ozzy, meanwhile, pitched his wail up even higher, becoming a banshee howling over the apocalypse.  The critics hated it (“monotonous” Lester Bangs called it, and he was among the kindest) but the kids ate it up, and many of those kids went on to form bands:  Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and virtually every other grunge-affiliated band from the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Master Of Reality is the birth pains of sludge and doom metal, as well as lighter fare like stoner rock.  “Sweet Leaf” especially is the ultimate stoner anthem, an homage to the band’s love of marijuana during the recording sessions and named after a slogan on a cigarette package.  Those coughs that open up the album are in fact Iommi choking on the smoke from a large joint that was being passed around.

Gone were the jazzy interludes that broke up the tracks of Black Sabbath and Paranoid.  Instead, every main piece on Master Of Reality hits like a ton of bricks, “Iron Man”-style.  The opening riff to “After Forever” is breezy enough but the main riff is the ultimate in caveman pounding; Brooklyn hardcore band Biohazard didn’t have to change a thing to get the same effect on the Nativity In Black tribute album some twenty-five years later.  “Children Of The Grave” burns everything in its path, melding chug-a-lug verses into a breakdown that defines what it means for a riff to bang your head for you.  “Lord Of This World” is a more amiable groove than the others, the closest to the original Zeppelin-echoing heavy blues the first two albums mined.  “Into The Void” is the real masterpiece here, though, a searing hypnotic pound through a desperate attempt to flee a war-torn, destroyed Earth.

Master Of Reality can also be considered a beginning of sorts of the hard times that would engulf the band over the next few albums.  Black Sabbath and Paranoid were recorded pretty much live and off-the-cuff; Rodger Bain would set the band up in studio and then record the results, and that would be that.  Master Of Reality was the first album they spent longer on in the studio, and the stress levels were amplified.  The drums on “Into The Void” were especially difficult for Bill Ward to nail, leading to a few outbursts about just not playing it.  “Solitude”, the lone full-length quiet track, was an exercise in multi-instrumental experimentation, with Iommi playing many different instruments and a delay effect added in the studio to Ozzy’s vocal.

The definitive take on Master of Reality remains the 33 1/3 book on the album written by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats.  Unlike most 33 1/3 books, which are inflated guides to a single album, Darnielle’s take on Master Of Reality is a semi-fictional account of a young man who has been committed to a mental health hospital and uses the album to try to convey his problems and relate to people.  It’s required reading for anyone interested in the impact that Black Sabbath had on people that weren’t writing music reviews for Rolling Stone or The Village Voice.

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VOL 4

Released September 25th, 1972 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Patrick Meehan, Tony Iommi

Peaked at #8 UK, #13 US

Singles:

Tomorrow’s Dream

If weed and booze was the impetus for the band’s first three albums, inspiration took a rather different path when it came to the appropriately titled fourth album.  By 1972 Black Sabbath were a big deal – commercial successes drowning in money and women despite the critical backlash – and as was proper for the time they decamped to Los Angeles to record.  Like every other band that ever recorded in Los Angeles, the members of Black Sabbath were offered increasingly ridiculous amounts of cocaine.  They would do some lines, then they would do some more lines, and then they would get around to writing some songs and perhaps recording them.  As Iommi remembers it, half of the allotted budget went directly to cocaine and the other half was spent staying in the studio doing cocaine as long as possible.  It was very rock ‘n’ roll for the time, of course, but all that continuous substance abuse took its toll.  The band graduated from doing lines to having suitcases (and, later still, speaker boxes) full of cocaine delivered to the studio.  With the band looking to break out of the sludge-rock mould they’d pioneered, they naturally spent their time in L.A. experimenting with their sound.  Unfortunately, the sheer amount of coke being done meant that a lot of that experimentation ended up being somewhat ill-advised.  What sounds great after a few fat lines is rarely actually great while sober (as Oasis post-Be Here Now could likely tell you) and Vol. 4 is definitely that kind of album.  “Wheels Of Confusion/The Straightener” and “Cornucopia” are attempts at progressing beyond the heavy stomp of old, but they substitute sheer volume and trickery for the solid riffs that Iommi and Co. were known for.  “Cornucopia” was also frustrating to record; Bill Ward, addled and paranoid from the sheer amount of drugs he’d consumed, was unable to get his parts right on the track and was afraid that the others were going to get sick of him and fire him.  While this was probably not much of a concern (there are few hard rock drummers as deft as Bill Ward) the band also probably was pissed off at him.

That said, it was a hard time for Ward in general.  He was supplementing the cocaine abuse that he shared with the others with an increasingly heavy dependence on liquor, and his ability to handle it was slipping.  At the same time, he was going through an acrimonious breakup with his wife and his bandmates were continuing to step up their vicious pranking of him.  At one point the band found him passed out drunk in the Bel Air home they’d rented and covered him head to toe in DuPont gold spraypaint, several cans of which had come with the house.  Unknown to them, the spraypaint blocked his pores completely and he began to suffer seizures, necessitating an emergency trip to the hospital.

The only single from the album, “Tomorrow’s Dream”, was spared the confusing mess of the aforementioned tracks by being only three minutes long; it was, otherwise, a song that was almost great but too unfocused to really make the leap.  The same is true for the most part of “St. Vitus’ Dance”, although the short runtime makes for a much more satisfying listen.  Part of the problem was the coke, for sure, but it was a bit more than that.  They’d risen up from being working class folk working dead-end jobs and blowing their brains out with dirty industrial grade blues rock on the weekends to being Their Satanic Majesties.  Now they were in a city awash in money, women, and drugs, being offered anything they wanted and given free rein over a major recording studio.  It’s really the last part that signifies the problem with the record:  there was no outside producer working on it.  Production was largely handled by Tony Iommi, with some minor work done by the band’s manager, Patrick Meehan.  Rodger Bain was able to get a raw, gritty sound even out of the dry, downtuned guitar; Iommi’s work made that same tone muddy and ill-defined.  It’s also why a nothing track like “FX” was allowed to be put on – too much cocaine and too insular a bubble gives rise to terrible decisions.

Still, when Vol 4 is on it is dead on.  “Supernaut” and “Snowblind” are two stone pillars of the Sabbath canon.  The former rides a nimble riff into a blistering vocal from Ozzy, who’s honestly the best part of the entire record.  The latter is the “Sweet Leaf” of cocaine, a heady anthem that manages to sound as glacial as no longer being able to feel your face.  Amusingly, the record was originally going to be called Snowblind but the execs finally balked at that, settling for the much more straightforward and generic title it ended up with.  “Laguna Sunrise” is a beautiful composition by Iommi, written on Laguna Beach after watching the sun come up at the end of an all-nighter.  “Under The Sun / Every Day Comes And Goes” manages to conjure up that old blues-jamming feeling under the heavy sludge, and the out-of-left-field ballad “Changes” manages to bring the entire band together for one heartfelt moment.  Iommi built the keyboard work, Ozzy provided the melody, and Butler fit the words to that melody.  The words were inspired by Ward’s breakup, bringing everyone into the act.

The band would, years later, acknowledge Vol 4 as the point where the constant party stopped being so fun and started to become a drag.  The stress of needing to constantly evolve their sound coupled with the sheer amount of drugs being shoved in their direction made for an unfocused, bleary sound that fell flat after the triumph of their first three albums.  It still sold well, of course, and it for some reason became the moment that critics changed their minds about the band, but it is telling that only a couple of the songs were regular additions to the band’s setlists in the years to come.

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SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

Released December 1st, 1973 on Vertigo Records and January 1st, 1974 on Warner Bros. Records

Producer: Tom Allom and Black Sabbath

Peaked at #4 UK, #11 US

Singles:

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

After an exhausting tour fueled by coke and groupies behind Vol 4, Black Sabbath decided that if it wasn’t broken they weren’t going to fix it.  They set up shop at the studio in Los Angeles, brought in Tom Allom to produce, rented another house in Bel Air, and got to work.  Unfortunately, they forgot that it was, in fact, broken in the first place, and it was even worse the second time around.  The problems began at the end of the Vol 4 tour.  Up for days on end and wired on cocaine, Iommi eventually collapsed and had to be hospitalized, necessitating an end to the tour. The band went their separate ways at the end of the tour and tried to regain some semblance of a social life back home in England, but their status as bona fide rock stars made this somewhat difficult.  Butler recalls that they’d been in a sealed bubble of debauchery for so long that when he got home his then-girlfriend didn’t even recognize him.  When they reconvened in L.A. to begin work on their fifth album, nothing happened.  The songs fell flat, the riffs wouldn’t flow, and the band was at their wit’s end.

Defeated after a month of getting nowhere in America, the band fled back to England and set up shop in the old medieval fortress of Clearwell Castle.  Supposedly haunted, the castle was a creepy old building in the middle of a forest that inspires rather dark thoughts.  It was, in other words, the perfect place for Black Sabbath to get their mojo back.  Shortly after setting up in the dark dungeon of the castle, Iommi came up with the powerhouse riff that drives “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and the rest of the album flowed out from there.  The difference between Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and its predecessor is night and day.  That riff on the title track beats out pretty much anything on Vol 4 (except maybe “Supernaut”) and is easily one of the five most headbanging tracks the band ever recorded.  “A National Acrobat” and “Sabbra Cadabra” show the power of Iommi’s twisting guitar work in completely different ways.  The latter is actually my favourite Sabbath riff to play, and the lengthy, lumbering jam in the middle of it shows how powerful the Vol 4 songs could have been with proper guidance and production.  The crushing “Killing Yourself To Live” touched on the death spiral that each of the band members knew was going on with regards to their increasingly out-of-control substance abuse issues, especially Iommi, who had basically gone out of his mind on coke by the end of the Vol 4 world tour and Butler, who had to be hospitalized at one point for kidney problems resulting from the sheer amount of liquor he was drinking.  The haunting “Who Are You?” is the result of Ozzy playing around with an early Moog synthesizer (despite his not really knowing how to play it at all) and the soaring finale “Spiral Architect”, a song about the mysteries of DNA and the human experience, featured a gigantic orchestra that necessitated a move to a different, larger nearby studio.

Sabbath still had one truly great album left in the chamber, but Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is where the band really began to unravel.  The group’s serious substance problems were reaching epic proportions and their in-fighting was becoming a big problem as well.  Ozzy was checking out of the group even by 1974, Iommi was annoyed at being left to handle production on the band’s end by the others (leaving him isolated in the studio while the others went out and had a social life), and Butler was aggravated by Ozzy’s seeming inability to pick up the slack on writing lyrics (even though history has proven that he’s obviously much better at it).  The writing was on the wall for the band, but they managed to prove that they weren’t completely out of it yet.

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SABOTAGE

Released July 28th, 1975 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records

Producer:  Mike Butcher and Black Sabbath

Peaked at #7 UK, #28 US

Singles:

Am I Going Insane? (Radio)

The last great Black Sabbath album was recorded in a period of time that can be charitably described as a nightmare.  Having discovered that Patrick Meehan was colluding with their record label to cheat them out of royalties, they fired Meehan and were instantly sued by him.  The recording process of Sabotage was marred by a constant litany of visits to lawyers offices, letters delivered to the recording studio, and affidavits needing to be signed, often at the mixing board according to the band. With the constant distractions it’s a wonder that Sabotage turned out even half as well as it did.  Iommi suggested in later years that actually working on music was like a respite from the constant legal wrangling that took place in 1975.  Given that the band had to spend most of their days embroiled in legal shenanigans, the nights were given over to writing and recording.  The process took longer than any previous Sabbath album, and led to grumbling on the part of Ozzy that the whole thing was taking entirely too long.

Still, the band was spot on for the most part.  “Hole In The Sky” was a headbanger second to none, and “Symptom Of The Universe” gave birth to thrash metal.  “Megalomania” expanded the band’s prog reach to its eventual extreme, pushing close to ten minutes and full of shifts between straight-ahead rock and something more approximating a boogie.  “The Thrill Of It All” rode a riff that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Master Of Reality before launching off into a synth-driven rock ‘n’ roll odyssey circa the middle of the Seventies.  The use of synth – a divisive instrument among the band’s fanbase – would feature heavily in both the oddly orchestrated “Supertzar” and the strange choice of sole single, “Am I Going Insane (Radio)”, a track that would feature very little guitar work at all.  “The Writ” would end the record with another proggy stomper, this one featuring lyrics actually written by Ozzy about his disillusionment with the record industry and with the position the band found themselves in with regards to their former management.

The record is, as I mentioned above, the last great Sabbath album.  Things would unravel from the release of Sabotage onward, and it would culminate in the seeming destruction of the band within four years.  They were holed up in the studio, angry and paranoid, seemingly under siege on all sides and still trying to do everything themselves.  On Sabotage it still worked, but the next two albums would be a different matter entirely.

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TECHNICAL ECSTASY

Released September 25th, 1976 on Vertigo Records

Producer: Tony Iommi

Peaked at #13 UK, #52 US

By 1976 the band was in need of a vacation and decided to record the next album in the sunny environs of Miami.  This proved to be a relaxing process for everyone except Tony Iommi, who was forced into the position of producing the whole thing while everyone else took a break.  Butler and Ward drank and snorted and soaked up the sun; Ozzy did the same while plotting breaking off into a solo career.  Iommi holed up in the studio, did a lot of cocaine, and chased after a rock ‘n’ roll game of Keeping Up With The Joneses.  Ozzy recalled that during the recording process Iommi was obsessed with staying modern, chasing after Queen and Foreigner to keep their names relevant.  Therein lies the real issue with Technical Ecstasy.

That issue is that the album is all over the place and at times shockingly derivative.  Derivativeness on the whole is something that Sabbath fans should be somewhat familiar with; after all, the early classics were somewhat indebted to Cream and Led Zeppelin, even if they took those influences in a much heavier, darker direction.  There are parts on this record, however, that are complete head-scratchers.  “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” is probably the most egregious of these, given that it’s a warmed-over Kiss rip-off that comes off as completely unconvincing in the recording.  “Gypsy” recycles a bunch of rock cliches that were well-worn when Robert Plant was doing them, and “She’s Gone” is a go-nowhere sort of ballad that mistakes string sections for depth.  “You Won’t Change Me” repeats the problems of Vol 4 in that it overstays its welcome and prefers to spin its wheels rather than go anywhere useful.

Like Vol 4, however, there are some very solid tracks embedded among the flailings of a band on its way down.  The opener, “Back Street Kids”, is a thundering rocker, the sort of thing that “Wheels Of Confusion” should have been.  “It’s Alright” is an anomaly in the Sabbath catalog in that it features Bill Ward singing (he has a pretty good voice, as it turns out) and it sounds like a Seventies track from one of the Beatles’ solo projects.  “All Moving Parts (Stand Still)” is weirdly funky and shows that Butler still had his finger on political concerns (the song is about a transvestite President of the United States and the inherent misogyny of America).  “Dirty Women” is a take on the same vibe that brought out “Snowblind” and has proved to be the most enduring of any of the songs off of this confused, grasping record – it was a highlight of the band’s reunion tour in the late 1990s.

The biggest failure of the album is that it largely abandons what made Black Sabbath work for the previous six years and tries to stay relevant to the contemporary music scene.  On one side, California was knocking with breezy soft rock  – Rumors was less than a year away and, at the same time and in the same studio, The Eagles were crafting Hotel California.  Both would go on to be massive sales forces at a time when Sabbath-esque hard rock was falling by the wayside.  The bands that Sabbath were awkwardly trying to ape – Kiss, Uriah Heep, the heavier parts of Bad Company, etc. – were no longer the cutting edge.  Punk rock was emerging quickly out of England, and within a year The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash would put paid to the sort of bloated rock ‘n’ roll hijinks that Sabbath had gotten mired in.  Hard rock would follow the path of Judas Priest, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal would put Sabbath riffs on speed and evolve into thrash metal, and within ten years bands would be putting on eyeliner, teasing their hair, playing pop songs and calling themselves “metal”.  It would be fifteen years before Sabbath would be a relevant cultural force again, although it wouldn’t stop remnants of the band from trying in that interval.  First, though, they had to fall apart, and the story of that destruction lies in their next album, the final of the Ozzy years.

black-sabbath-never-say-die

NEVER SAY DIE!

Released September 28th, 1978 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros Records

Producer: Tony Iommi

Peaked at #12 UK, #69 US

Singles:

Never Say Die!” (#21 UK)

A Hard Road” (#33 UK)

Black Sabbath’s original lineup fell apart for all intents and purposes during the Technical Ecstasy tour.  The infighting, the death of Ozzy’s father, and the exhaustion of doing hard drugs continuously for at least six straight years  prompted Ozzy to check himself into an asylum for a short period at the end of that tour.  Shortly after he formed a new band, Blizzard Of Ozz, and the band replaced him with Dave Walker, who had sung previously with Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac.  A few songs were sketched out with Walker, and there was even a television appearance with him on the BBC, but Bill Ward eventually called Ozzy and negotiated him coming back to record Never Say Die! with Black Sabbath.  They booked a studio in Toronto based on some sales brochures and set out to record the album in the winter of 1978.

As someone who has lived for a few years in Toronto, it’s difficult to overstate the sheer stupidity of this move.  Never do anything in Toronto in the winter.  It’s bleak, depressing, dirty, and exhausting.  It’s no surprise that the recording sessions were a confusing mess for everyone involved.

Ozzy came back but he was far from sober.  The Madman Himself was nearing the peak of his Madness and his antics drove the rest of the band mad along with him.  He refused to sing any of the melodies or lyrics that the band had written with Walker.  The band put their foot down about “Swinging The Chain” and when Ozzy refused to sing it Bill Ward stepped in and did it himself.  The winter was particularly bad in Toronto in 1978 and it dragged everyone down with it.  They would write songs in the daytime, record them at night, and patch things together at the end.  As a result, there is a peculiar feeling of the record being disjointed.  All of the finished songs are longer than they need to be, and no one seems to be willing to make an effort throughout.  The tempos are too rote, and the riffs are pastiches of other band’s riffs.  The leadoff track/lead single “Never Say Die!” retools a Kiss amalgamation into something workable, and “Junior’s Eyes” and “A Hard Road” contain the structures of much better songs.  The album version of “Junior’s Eyes” tacks on another two minutes to the version that the band played with Walker on the BBC and does nothing with them.  “Johnny Blade” awkwardly marries airy synths with stabbing hard rock chords and features a very tired-sounding Ozzy Osbourne.  “Air Dance” and “Breakout” are surprise jazz-fusion numbers that showed the experimentation that Iommi wanted from the band (and that Ozzy absolutely despised).  “Over To You” and “Shock Wave” are lethargic hard rock numbers that are easily forgotten when they’re over (although the former features some vaguely interesting piano trills embedded within).

Ozzy would go on to get fired from the band for being a drunken, drugged-out clown and in 1981 would call the album “disgusting”, but it’s not as bad as that, if we’re going to be fair about it.  The bones of very good songs are present throughout, but they’re buried under exhaustion, ego, and hazy drug-fueled self-indulgence.  There are people that actually really like it – Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, for example – and there’s a rough charm to most of it.  It isn’t actively awful.  It’s just a poor execution of decent material, and as such it’s a lowlight of the band’s catalog and an ignominious ending for Ozzy’s tenure in the band.