Graded on a Curve:
Black Sabbath,
Master of Reality

Celebrating Bill Ward who turns 73 tomorrow.Ed.

Is Black Sabbath the dumbest band in rock history or what? Even as a wee lad “Iron Man” struck me as the work of a band that was slow, and I don’t mean slow as in sluggish in tempo but slow as in dim in cerebral wattage—heavy metal half-wits who wore boots because the alternative was those shoes with Velcro straps on them. They reminded me of the weird kid down the street who chewed then swallowed the heads off a full battalion of little green plastic army men but continued to play with them, despite the fact they were dead.

And I’m not alone: rock crit Robert Christgau gave Sabbath’s debut LP an unprecedented “E,” and when I asked my younger brother to sum up Black Sabbath he said simply, “Apparently the Devil likes doofuses.” Personally I lay the responsibility for this perception of the band from Birmingham as English oafs at the feet of Geezer Butler, whose wooden, stilted, and startlingly stupid lyrics make the boneheads in Bad Company look like MENSA material in comparison.

Let’s be honest: The Geez’s “I’m living easy where the sun doesn’t shine” may well be the most unintentionally hilarious rock lyric of all time (what, has he rented a penthouse in a giant’s bunghole?) And “I looked through a window and surprised what I saw/A faerie with boots and dancing with a dwarf” runs a close second. Then there’s “Into the Void,” wherein Butler comes up with the bright idea of sending freedom fighters to the sun to escape a doomed Earth, which ought to work out just dandy until they spontaneously combust.

But if I’m coming off all condescending (and I am) the joke’s on me, because Black Sabbath must have had something going for them (I know I’m talking past tense when they’re still around, but are they really?) or they wouldn’t have spawned a thousand heavy metal, doom metal, sludge rock, thrash, goth, and stoner rock bands, to say nothing of that Satanic duo Loggins and Messina. And that something wasn’t the dumb lyrics but duh, the music, which was murky, heavy-as-Leslie-West, and doom-laden, and kicked the bats out Hell because frankly Black Sabbath made a scarier noise and Ozzy was more than happy to bite the head off any bat that thought different.

So who cares if the lyrics suck? Or if Black Sabbath’s first two heavy metal albums do absolutely nothing for me (or for Lester Bangs for that matter, who called their 1970 debut “a shuck” and “just like Cream. But worse!”) Because by the time LP No. 3, 1971’s Master of Reality came around, Black Sabbath’s sound had morphed into something even I dig, even if it did take me 44 odd years to give it an honest listen, so great was my prejudice against the sluggish, clanking tempos and pea-brained lyrics of the few Sabbath songs I heard on the radio.

On Master of Reality Black Sabbath (Ozzy “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most” Osbourne on vocals, Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, and Bill Ward on drums) went from being a very ponderous and heavy dinosaur stuck bellowing in the primordial ooze to a machine that produced actual grooves. They were still as heavy as the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even heavier if that’s possible due to Iommi’s decision to downtune his guitar three semi-tones, but Black Sabb no longer seemed to be standing still. (Yeah, I know: “Paranoid” moves. Unfortunately, it also sucks.) Forward momentum: what a concept! And so it was that on Master of Reality B. (as in Bong) Sabbath managed to cough up (it’s right there at the beginning of marijuana ode “Sweet Leaf”!) Stoner Rock.

One thing I love about Master of Reality is that it doesn’t have a prog bone in its body. While bands like Deep Purple were stepping on their metal with the baby powder of organs and the like, Black Sabbath was selling the pure, uncut shit, Tony Iommi’s synthesizer on “After Forever” (which I can’t even hear, but then I’m deaf) notwithstanding. Theirs is some of the most uncompromising metal ever made, stripped-to-the-bone and with no more moving parts than necessary to rattle your brainpan with their industrial-strength-downer sound, which brings to mind what Danny the dope dealer says in the great Withnail and I: “If I medicined you, you’d think a brain tumor was a birthday present.” Because that’s what Black Sabbath’s music at its best brings to mind—a very loud but not altogether unpleasant brain tumor.

That said, what in Hades are the short hippie-dippie folk pastorals “Embryo” and “Orchid” doing on Master of Reality? Other than casting doubt on Tom Morello’s comment that Black Sabbath’s “arrival ground hippy, flower-power psychedelia to a pulp…” Ground it to a pulp? They were putting the shit on their albums! Well, not psychedelia per se, but worse: the English folk-rock revival! And then there’s “Solitude,” a slow, bona fide pretty, non-power ballad (complete with piano! And flute!) that leads me to suspect Tommy Iommi was secretly listening to—and this is a hanging offense in metal circles—Pentangle. It seems even the Devil likes an occasional dose of flute, although I can’t help but think the less of Him for it.

As for the rest of the album, what can I say? “Sweet Leaf” may not be as great a reefer anthem as Leroy “Stuff” Smith’s great “You’se a Viper” or The Dandy Warhols’ “Smoke It” or Cypress Hill’s “Hits From the Bong,” but there’s simply no beating Iommi’s barbaric guitar riff, which may well be one of the most brutal sounds ever put to record. And I love Bill Ward—the band’s secret weapon—on drums, who plays some truly wild shit in the song’s midsection. And while I’ve never been a big fan of Osbourne’s vocals—I’d prefer his voice be deeper—they’re more than up to the job.

“After Forever” is my fave off the album—a bona fide rave-up from a band not known for exceeding the speed limit. Once again Iommi’s riffs are gigantic, monstrous even, and if his guitar left paw prints they’d be bigger than any T. Rex’s. And I love his guitar solo at around the halfway point. It’s a sinuous, loud-soft thing of pure beauty, and while there were far flashier guitarists around at the time (the late Frank Zappa and Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel come to mind), nobody could come up with a riff as catchy or heavy as Iommi. In college the ceiling in the room next to mine collapsed, dropping a several-ton beam directly onto my housemate’s bed. I always thought it was just the house, which should have been condemned, croaking its last. Now I suspect my housemate had cranked up “After Forever,” and it brought the ceiling down around his ears.

“Children of the Grave” is another classic, with Iommi pulling another great monster riff out of his hat while Ward plays some of the coolest drums I’ve ever heard. In fact Ward steals the song, in my humble opinion, despite Iommi’s titanic riffs and cool interjections. Don’t care much for the midsection myself—it’s sluggish and reminds me of faux evil and earlier Sabb—but for the most part the song goes truckin’, especially during Iommi’s badass solo. And by truckin’ I mean the sucker would have sent The Grateful Dead scurrying, the same way they did for the last chopper out of Altamont.

“Lord of the World” is my least favorite of the heavy cuts off Master of Reality because it clomps along like “Iron Man” in search of a velvet glove that will finally allow him to jerk-off. Sure, Iommi’s super-sized riffs are positively medieval, and his guitar solos make the song worth listening to all by themselves, but the song lacks the sheer sonic propulsion I love on the rest of the albums’s concussion-inducing cuts. That said Bill Ward contributes some great drumming, and Iommi’s guitar throws sparks like a downed power line. I also find the lyrics (Christian dreck) annoying, and Butler’s Christianity in general amusing given Black Sabbath’s reputation as Satan worshippers, which I’m sure was a shuck from the beginning—Black Sabbath were about as evil as John Denver, and probably less so (ever listen to “Grandma’s Feather Bed” backwards?)

The riff that dominates “Into the Void” isn’t as bone-crushing as Iommi’s other vertebrae-shakers, and I don’t much like the song’s slow intro, or the midtempo section that follows, or even (ironically given everything I said earlier about forward propulsion) the fast-paced section that follows that. And really, when all is said and done, “Into the Void” does nothing for me until Ozzy shuts up and the band goes into a long instrumental close, with Iommi’s guitar coming out of the murk to play echoing riffs that are twice as loud as anything else in the song while Ward feloniously assaults his drums and Butler’s bass, high in the mix for once, throbs away like a happy migraine.

Black Sabbath may not have been the brightest light in rock’s intellectual firmament, but then again plenty of the best rock is completely brainless. Sometimes you just want something that rattles your brainpan, and judged from that perspective, the Black Sabbath of Master of Reality was a great band indeed. Nobody sounded like them. And nobody—not even Led Zeppelin—could scare up riffs as heavy, as relentless, or as remorseless as Black Sabb. They kept it as simple as first grade math, and therein lies their genius. Sabbath was a machine with just four moving parts that generated grooves as big and bad as any blitzkrieg, evoking shock and awe and pure, untrammeled dread.

So who cares if Geezer Butler lives in a giant’s bunghole? Or if fairies wear boots and dance with dwarves? Or if by “Spiral Architect” off 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath Ozzy and Company are beginning to sound suspiciously like Rush, and it’s mostly downhill from there? I just tune that shit out and crank up “After Forever” or “Sweet Leaf” or “Supernaut” or “Sabbra Cadabra” and sink into the murk, shiver beneath the Sabb’s hard rain of metallic doom, and wait for the Apocalypse to commence.

Long live the Titans of Tinnitus! And let the bad times roll!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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