SABBATH REVISITED: Never Say Die! (Warner Bros, 1978)

Sabbath’s last album of the 70’s was called Never Say Die, although it seems Ozzy wasn’t in on the joke, as he was unceremoniously sacked not long afterwards.  Of course, legend has it he first walked out on the band during this recording.  Speaking of which, this record was recorded right here in Toronto at the now-defunct Sounds Interchange.  So, if it wasn’t for The Centre of the Known UniverseTM and its contribution to this disasterpiece, you wouldn’t have Heaven and Hell or Mob Rules.  You’re welcome. ;)

The title track kicks this one off, another generic 70’s rocker with a shuffling backbeat.  The stop-start riffing that picks up after the first chorus almost seems like they’re aping Thin Lizzy, but even the Irish rocked harder than this.  “Johnny Blade” is perhaps most memorable for its super-cheesy chorus (“Jaaah-neee Blaaaade!”), not to mention, Holy Synthesizers Batman!  Perhaps the least inspiring riff of Tony Iommi’s career, he simply sounds like a subpar copy of Earl Johnson (of Toronto heavy rockers Moxy) at this point, and that’s a shame.

“Junior’s Eyes” is the second straight song to surpass the six-minute mark, and it starts off softly, the bass barely audible at first as Iommi does some swirlies in the background.  Hey, this almost has a desert-rock feel.  But by the time Ozzy and Iommi kick in, this song hits like a bag of feathers with a subpar power-ballad chorus… before bringing things back down again.  Meh.  “A Hard Road” also eclipses six minutes.  Perhaps the best riff of the record starts this one out, although the production’s so thin that it doesn’t pack much of a punch.  Still, it’s a far cry from doom metal, more of a mid-paced, pedestrian pounder that easily could have stopped a couple minutes sooner.  Oh man, is that the guitar solo from “Reelin’ in the Years” by Steely Dan!?  Uh, take back what I said about Iommi’s guitarwork on here…

The liner notes on the album state, and I quote, “Standout cuts include ‘Johnny Blade,’ ‘Breakout,’ ‘Shock Wave’ and the title track, all included in the group’s live repertoire.”  Yeah, for the tour where they got upstaged every night by Van Halen, maybe.  Anyhoo, “Shock Wave” is another half-decent 70’s rock tune, with a solid bluesy breakdown or two, but I’d definitely take Van Halen over this.  “Air Dance” (lolwut!) is light and, erm, airy, with way too much piano.  This almost sounds like prog rock, but not good prog rock.  I’d rather hear Yes see all the people turn their heads each day so satisfied they’re on their way than listen to this song again.  Sheeeet, it even has a bossa nova beat that starts around the four-minute mark.  That’s right, Black Sabbath is playing bossa nova.  Is it any wonder the band fell apart after this?

“Over to You” sorta sounds like April Wine or Autograph “Turn Up the Radio” or something; at this point, Sabbath’s gone from being a highly influential act to a band inspired by the mediocre dreck oozing out of the studio next door.  But hey, at least Autograph didn’t throw a rolling jazz piano all over the chorus of their greatest hit…  “Breakout” is supposedly the last “inclusion in the group’s live repertoire” on here, and at least at two-and-a-half minutes, it’s mercifully short.  Hey, I almost hear a doom-metal riff on this one.  I also think I hear a saxophone, which shows how much the band has lost the plot.  They didn’t bring that horn section on stage with them, did they?  I mean, this is like the band’s own “Jazz Odyssey,” ‘cept that Harry Shearer didn’t write it…

Rumour has it that Bill Ward sang on “Swinging the Chain” after Ozzy refused to do so.  No wonder—they’ve essentially stolen the riff from Boston’s “Carry on My Wayward Son,” added a muddy layer of distortion and run it into the ground, before burying it with some lazy harmonica wailing.  I guess the Prince of muthafookin’ Darkness didn’t wanna pay royalties to Tom Scholz, litigious bastard that he is, eh?

So there you have it, folks.  This is the only Black Sabbath album that elicits comparisons to Steely Dan, April Wine, Autograph and Boston.  No wonder Dio was such a breath of fresh air!

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SABBATH REVISITED: Technical Ecstasy (Warner Bros, 1976)

As yon Sabbath concert draws nigh, I find myself listening to the albums that they probably won’t play anything from on Wednesday.  For one thing, they can’t do “It’s Alright,” cuz the guy who sang it isn’t in the band anymore… but I digress.

If not the worst Sabbath album ever, Technical Ecstasy certainly has the worst cover of the band’s career (although not everyone’s a fan of Born Again in that regard).  I mean, what’s that supposed to be, two robots fucking on a pair of escalators!?  Actually, when I was at a Pentagram gig down in Cleveland, some guy proudly showed me his Technical Ecstasy iPhone wallpaper.  I dunno guy, was that the only Sabbath artwork in the iTunes Store?

Anyways, the album opens with “Back Street Kids.”  While several other Sabbath albums had songs that christened doom bands (ie “Iron Man,” “Under the Sun,” “St. Vitus Dance,”) they had fallen so far at this point that the leadoff track would somehow inspire the manager of the biggest-selling boy band of all time.  That said, this song isn’t that bad—it’s sorta like a heavy-metal soundtrack to Miami Vice, what with that shuffling, rhythmic chug.  And oh yeah, that keyboardist from the last appearance makes another appearance, albeit briefly.

“You Won’t Change Me” sounds somewhat ironic coming from a band that’s clearly evolved over the past six years, but it does offer a solid, back-to-basics, Doom Metal 101 riff off the bat, before it fades into some swirling keyboard thing.  No tales of War Pigs or Electric Funerals here, however; these lyrics are hella cheesy (“I want to hear the things you say, today/Although you won’t change my anyway, no no way”).  Yes, that’s not one, but two no’s.  Ward then gets his moment behind the mic on “It’s Alright,” a piddly, wannabe-Beatles piano ballad that almost makes freakin’ “Beth” sound heavy.  Man, this shit sounds like Supertramp… and I hate Supertramp!  Oh, that’s right, I said it: Peter Criss 1, Bill Ward 0.

The A Side ends with “Gypsy,” Bill Ward playing the intro to “Ballroom Blitz” on repeat beneath a slow moan that eventually gives way to a crunchy hard-rock riff that actually kinda sounds like the Sweet, now that I think about it.  And yes, there’s another not-so-Super-tramp piano section on this one, too.  Blech.

Side B begins with “All Moving Parts (Stand Still),” which opens with a pretty decent bluesy rock riff.  Of course, the slow grooves on this one sound more like Foreigner or Foghat than the (original) Masters of Reality, if you ask me.  “Rock ‘n Roll Doctor” is an atrocious song-title fitting for a straight ahead boogie-woogie that’s on about the same level as Lynyrd Skynyrd (not a fan) or the first Rush album.  And yes, it even has some cowbell, though it could probably use more.

“She’s Gone” begins a bit like some horror-movie soundtrack with acoustic guitar after some stringed instrument, but doesn’t go anywhere fast, as the orchestra comes back with a whimper, making this the second sappy ballad on the album.  Hell, this one even makes freakin’ “It’s Alright” sound heavy.  Bill Ward 1, Ozzy 0!

I’m pretty sure that “Dirty Women” is the only song on Technical Ecstasy that you’re actually allowed to like.  That said, it’s a pretty pale imitation of their early work, with a slow, sluggish pace that seems more lazy than doomtastic.  When they get to the chorus, there’s some decent heavy riffage to be found, but it’s all too little, too late.  If that’s the best they’ve got, no wonder the band was about to burn out.

SABBATH REVISITED: Sabotage (Warner Bros, 1975)

At this point, the band was beginning to lose the plot, as evidenced by their bizarre wardrobe choices upon the album cover.  Still, they were able to cull a couple classic tracks, namely “Hole in the Sky” and “Symptom of the Universe,” before ending with an eight-minute rant against their crooked management, ie “The Writ.”  Also noteworthy is “Megalomania,” at nine-and-a-half minutes, the band’s longest song since “Warning” from their debut.  In fact, they would not go to such great lengths again—although “God is Dead?” certainly comes close!

“Hole in the Sky” is the great driving rocker that was notably absent from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, this one driven by a dirty blues riff with plenty of bite.  Its stop-start riffs of the chorus only add urgency to the titular lyrics belted out by Ozzy.  The song stops suddenly for “Don’t Start (Too Late),” a minute-long classical guitar thing that dumps us right into “Symptom of the Universe” on this top-heavy effort.  Iommi exceeds himself on said up-tempo stomper, a bit of foreshadowing to the Dio years, but with Bill Ward going completely batshit on drums.  They don’t always play fast, but when they do, Black Sabbath kicks ass.  (And hey, who doesn’t love the jazzy detour around the 4:20 mark?)

But then things slow down with the aforementioned “Megalomania,” a drawn-out, haunting ode to mental illness.  In fact, you could even argue that there are some sonic similarities between this and the fuzzed-out, bluesy Aynsley Dunbar cover on the debut, only this one doesn’t have a drum solo.  They do pick up the pace around 3:20, however, with a dirty swamp boogie that almost sounds stolen from The Nuge, albeit with a decidedly different vocal cadence, Ozzy extending each syllable… although yelling “Suck Me!” for no reason is totally Ted Nugent.

“The Thrill of it All” also starts off on a bluesy bent, including a ripping Iommi solo right off the bat.  The verse definitely has that mid-70’s arena rock feel, but considering that the band was playing arenas at this point, I guess that’s okay.  Things do get more melodic as they briefly slow down around the 2:45 pace, before picking up the pace in a section that unfortunately reminds me of “Spaceship Superstar” by shitterific Canadian outfit Prism…  Ugh.

Coincidentally, the next song on here is called “Supertzar,” an extended instrumental with some eerie chanting ‘n shit.  A bit of a strange one, indeed.  I have no idea what it has to do with Russian royalty, either.  But man, I’ll be damned if the cheesy keyboards and hackneyed chorus in “Am I Going Insane (Radio)” aren’t pure Prism.  Yeah, this song sucks.

Album closer “The Writ” even starts off with people laughing at its predecessor, before giving way to vomiting.  That says it all, doesn’t it?  But when the song really gets underway, Ozzy is screaming into the stratosphere over a solid 70’s rock riff.  Again, tis not your signature Sabbath tune, but it’s right up there with the top hard rock of the time.  And hey, who doesn’t like sticking it to the lawyers?

SABBATH REVISITED: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros, 1973)

Don’t get me wrong, the title track is bloody brilliant, while “Killing Yourself to Live” was probably an apt descriptor of the band’s lifestyle in those days, but otherwise, I don’t find myself going back to this album too often.  Despite the pre-death-metal artwork (complete with Nazi S’s), there isn’t much brutality to be found here.

Of course, the moment that killer riff kicks in on “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” I can’t resist the urge to turn up the stereo.  Although it’s got that frilly, jazzy passage in the chorus, the instruments are overshadowed by a great Ozzy vocal (and Geezer lyric), in providing a welcome change of pace.  Speaking of pace-changing, the song certainly takes a sinister turn after a bizarre guitar solo, Ozzy’s voice kicking things up a register overtop a menacing, chugging riff.

When it comes to riffage, “A National Acrobat” offers a pretty solid one off the bat, the repercussions of which can be heard everywhere from Saint Vitus to Blood Ceremony.  But Ozzy’s upper-register vocals don’t really work as well this time around, and the mildly meandering tempo doesn’t contain that same feeling of dread as, say “Black Sabbath.”  Hell, it even has a jazz/funk section, complete with congas!  The band’s seeming lack of direction is reflected in the song lengths here; all but two exceed five minutes, while even instrumental guitar interlude “Fluff” clocks in at 4+.

But then we’re back to the rock with “Sabbra Cadabra,” a swirling, driving boogie blues with a bevy of rapid-fire breakdowns.  Still, for a band that blew minds on their first three albums, this song seems a little old hat, if not even Foghat.  And man, what’s with that slow synth section that makes a couple appearances when the song takes a turn for the trippy?  Well, at least the piano isn’t as prominent as ‘tis on “Changes,” but still…

“Killing Yourself to Live” even sounds a little stadium-rock to me.  It’s got a decent bite, but lacks the downtuned despondency of earlier efforts.  Still, that’s one heckuva chorus riff, comingled as it were with some heavy-handed drumming and a catchy, repeated vocal refrain.  But just like its predecessor, this one veers off into some strange psychedelic breakdowns that pale in comparison to what, say, Hawkwind was doing at the time.  To the band’s credit, they aren’t simply playing the same three chords for five minutes, so I’ll give ‘em that.

Speaking of Sabbathian lineage, the swirling synth sounds of “Who Are You?” surely must’ve inspired Blizaro.  In fact, I’d once have said that synths weren’t doom, had they not been used so masterfully by the Rochester trio.  Alas, while I’d rather hear Iommi on guitar than keyboards, I can’t complain about the seed he’s planted here.

“Looking for Today” is almost the title track’s poor cousin, the band even employing a flautist on the mellow section.  Unfortunately, they don’t catch lightning in a bottle a second time; with a pretty pedestrian riff, it’s easy to see why this one was shuffled off to the back half of the album.  And man, that chorus is hella cheesy, Ozzy whining like a dying dog as he wails out the song title.  “Spiral Architect” also mimics the title track with its rolling verse, but then goes and throws a string section in on the chorus.  Blech.

SABBATH REVISITED: Vol. 4 (Warner Bros, 1972)

When discussing the Sabbath cannon, much mention is made of the mythical First Four.  Hardcore Sabbathians would even say it’s the First Six that deserve praise and adulation—and for the purpose of this exercise, I’m reviewing the Original Eight.  That being said, I don’t actually think Vol. 4 is as great as the first three.  Sure you’ve got “Supernaut” and “Snowblind,” but beyond that, things start to move away from the band’s distinctive blend of proto-doom—Sabbath being THE doom prototype, of course.  Take the mellow instrumental “Laguna Sunrise,” for instance, or the much-ballyhooed piano ballad “Changes.”  Clearly, this album was the start of an experimental phase (with drugs) that would only become more prevalent on subsequent releases.

But first, we’re hit with “Wheels of Confusion,” an eight-minute tune that sounds somewhat like a precursor to its successor’s title track, what with its lazy, knuckle-dragging pace—this one doesn’t erupt into such a killer chorus however; while they do pick up speed past the 2:30 mark, it’s in the form of a shuffling backbeat and stoned-out guitar solo, which precede the eventual refrain.  Compared to past Sabbath album-openers, it just doesn’t quite measure up.  Not sure whether the jangly, psychedelic outro that kicks in around the five-minute mark is officially considered “The Straightener,” but it certainly adds a mellow edge to the proceedings.

“Tomorrow’s Dream” still has a bit of that jangly edge, though this one is a bit more aggressive in its mid-paced attack laced with those great bluesy breakdowns.  That said, this subpar three-minute number is perhaps best known as “that song that comes before the ballad.”  The ballad being “Changes,” natch, which scored a number one hit for, erm, Kelly Osbourne.  Let’s just say the original beats her version, but I’m still not a fan.

But after the forgettable instrumental interlude “FX,” we’re down to the meat and bones of this platter, namely the aforementioned “Supernaut” and “Snowblind,” back-to-back.  The former offers the best riff of the album, if not the year 1972, right off the bat, and the verse is almost as impressive as the intro/chorus—a driving, skating slither through Ozzy’s nasal passages.  (For what it’s worth, I quite like his vocal on this one.)  And hey, faaaar out drum solo, maaaan!  “Snowblind” not-so-quickly follows, setting a considerably slower pace with a memorable mellow jam that really accentuates the vocals.  Kinda ironic that the slow, mopey number is supposed to be an ode to cocaine, eh?  Of course, they do bring things up briefly to a frantic, disjointed march, but it still seems far removed from the ol’ marching powder. ;)

There is one pure moment of truer-than-true doom in “Cornucopia,” its impossibly heavy intro coming off as a page outta the Doom Metal 101 textbook.  But they kick things up from there, a fairly fast number with some crashing breakdowns that even throws in a country-style riff or two about halfway through.  Making things even stranger, what follows is the mellow, folksy “Laguna Sunrise,” a tune that would be more at home on Ritchie Blackmore’s meandering modern-day medieval music project.

The last two tracks heavily influenced a pair of future doom acts, although if you haven’t heard of the Christian doom band Under the Sun, you’re probably not alone.  But first up it’s “St. Vitus’ Dance,” which actually captures some of that lo-fi sound that Dave Chandler, Wino and co. would make famous.  But instead of a squealing, feedback-laden guitar solo, we get an oft-repeated breakdown that makes you wanna hoedown more than throw down.  If anything, “Under the Sun” sounds even more like a Vitus tune, a downtrodden doom number that keeps pace initially with the SST troupe, before a serpentine Iommi riff leads to a need for speed, an upbeat stomper along the lines of “Fairies Wear Boots,” albeit somewhat less inspired, complete with sort of a “War Pigs” knockoff outro solo.  That’s right, I just said I like “Fairies Wear Boots” more than this one…  Whoa.

SABBATH REVISITED: Master of Reality (Warner Bros, 1971)

Album number 3 from the Sabbath crew was chock-a-block with classics.  From “Sweet Leaf” to “After Forever” to “Children of the Grave,” “Lord of this World” and “Into the Void,” you really can’t go wrong here….

Perhaps the most famous hacking cough in musical history begins “Sweet Leaf,” a solid mid-paced stomp that’s apparently about smoking a certain brand of cigarettes—and not the marriage-juana.  Who knew?  “After Forever” offers an almost-preachy Christian message about the afterlife ‘n shit, but when it’s delivered alongside a punishing Iommi riff, I can certainly put up with it.  After a 30-second interlude in “Embryo,” “Children of the Grave” kicks in with a driving bassline, heading into a driving, up-tempo number about dead kids ‘n shit.  Killer tune ‘n all, but the best is yet to come…

“Orchid” is but another brief instrumental, although it inspired the most Sabbath-worshipping band of all-time, before “Lord of This World” kicks in with an outstanding doom-metal riff, this one exuding evil vibes up into the demented march of the verse, which begets another great Sabbath tune.  “Solitude” is “Planet Caravan” with fewer effects—although it’s way too long at eight-minutes-plus—before  “Into the Void” ends things with an all-too-brief outburst of doom.  I dunno, this is a pretty great record overall, but there is perhaps less cohesion between parts than there was in previous jobs, for what that’s worth.

SABBATH REVISITED: Paranoid (Warner Bros, 1970)

True story: “War Pigs” is the first song I fully learned how to play on guitar.  Hey, it’s not like the verses are all that tricky, although it took a little longer to master the solos.  Back when I was a kid, I had this guitar teacher, some old blues guy with crooked teeth and a ying-yang chest tattoo (cuz he’d always keep his shirt unbuttoned while instructing children), and we’d pretty much just jam to Sabbath.  Learned to play most of “Paranoid,” too, though I never made it on to “Planet Caravan…”  Anyways, Paranoid remains my favourite Sabbath record to this day.

Of course, you can’t go wrong with the eight-minute opener, which takes the same gloomy, doomy feel of the first song from the first record and adds a distorted, slightly psychedelic sheen, along with timely (at the time) anti-war lyrics…  And to think, it was originally called “Walpurgis!”  By the way, the guy on the album cover is supposed to be a War Pig, incaseyoudidntknow.  Hey, is it just me, or does the entire song get louder when the first guitar solo kicks in…  It’s like being awash in a sea of Iommi!  (Let’s just say I’ll be very disappointed if they don’t play this one next Wednesday.)

Of course, as you might have heard, “Paranoid” wasn’t even meant to be on this album.  The producer and/or record company said they didn’t have enough tracks, so the band wrote this one in 10 minutes… and it became the biggest Black Sabbath song of all time.  Personally, I don’t hate it, but it’s just so far removed from their best stuff that it’s almost unfair that this is the tune we hear all the time.  Well, this one and “Iron Man.”

More on that in a bit, but first it’s “Planet Caravan,” the mellow, underwater-vocal, bongo-drumming interlude.  I’ve come to not hate this song, but rather accept it as a mere part of a greater whole.  One does not hit “skip” when listening to a Sabbath record, put it that way.

That being said, I could probably do without listening to “Iron Man” again.  Though it’s not a terrible tune, the fact is I’ve heard it everywhere from action movies to college basketball games—performed  by the MI-Annnoying-U school band.  (That said, the stadium DJ rarely makes it all the way to the understated guitar solo a little over halfway through, much less the second one that brings ‘er to an end.)  In a way, it’s sorta like Sabbath’s “Back in Black”—a decent song that’s simply been run into the ground by its massive popularity.  I wouldn’t be disappointed if they omitted it from their set-list at the ACC—but I know there’s virtually no chance of that happening.

For my money’s worth, what really makes this album is the killer one-two punch of “Electric Funeral” and “Hand of Doom.”  The former simply oozes doom-metal from the opening note, a slow, languid, turgid tempest of it’s-not-gonna-be-okay.  Of course, that’s before it kicks things into high gear right around the 2:20 mark, the fractic pace set by Bill Ward’s all-over-the-place drumming seems somehow even more unsettling, before it deposits us right back where we began.  Oh man, and this isn’t even the one that has “Doom” in its title!

“Hand of Doom” begins with bass, Geezer Butler casting a large, looming shadow over which Ozzy sneers menacingly “Whatcha gonna do…”  The entrance of Iommi signals a crashing crescendo of molten magma, a real barrage of riffage, along with some head-pounding percussion courtesy of Monsieur Ward.   (I can barely keep a beat on drums, but I air-drum the shit outta this section!) Like its predecessor, this one considerably picks up the pace just past the two-minute mark, although the only thing going off the rails on here is Ozzy’s crazy wail.  Call it organized chaos, or something.  And man, that menacing march that starts around the 3:40 mark?  I’m quite convinced that’s why they call it “Hand of Doom.”  Of course, just like “Electric Funeral,” Sabbath brings things back to the beginning, a good five minutes later, as the subject matter just gets darker before quietly fading away.

“Rat Salad” is what it is, a two-and-a-half-minute blues jam that almost coulda been lifted from somewhere in the middle of “Warning” off the debut.  Just a chance for the musicians to flex their muscles—Ward in particular, what with the extended drum solo—while Ozzy goes off for a hit of who-knows-what.

“Jack the Stripper” is sort of a cross between “Rat Salad” and the second solo from “War Pigs,” though tis but a brief interlude that takes us into “Fairies Wear Boots.”  The latter was never my favourite Sabbath song, though I’ve grown to appreciate it for what it is, a solid, swinging stomp about fairies… in boots.  Hey, like I said, it’s all part of a greater whole, eh?