Behind the Wall of Sleep - The first four Sabbath albums and monolithic legacies - IN SEARCH OF SPACE #227

When I first met you, didn't realize
I can't forget you, for your surprise
you introduced me, to my mind
And left me wanting, you and your kind

I love you, Oh you know it

It occurs to me in all my occult murmurings and outrageous stumbling oversimplification of rock and roll idolatry I’ve never directly tackled Black Sabbath. It’s never felt entirely necessary, as some poor sheltered soul might be unaware of Blue Cheer or Pentagram, or, perish the thought, the MC5, but Black Sabbath are to heavy rock what north is to navigation; a point which so utterly dominates any conversation about heavy rock and roll; even so-called escapes are completed with reference to Iommi, Osbourne, Ward and Butler; and yet the rest of the modern rock press has been comparatively light on the works of Sabbath, and I don’t feel like they’re played as often in bars and in covers as perhaps they should be. Maybe there’s a feeling that we’re all marinating in the bath of Sabbath, but I don’t think there can ever be enough remembrance of the first four records.

It’s difficult to listen to a cut from any of the four albums (except Changes but we don’t talk about Changes) without feeling the need to dive into another half-day chronological marathon of all four virtuous slabs of pure heathen barbarian rocknroll. The richness packed into each bite of all songs on these records is what most clearly strikes so many years after first hearing them; like Kubrick’s Shining there’s a depth and a bathlike quality that feels much more immersive than their contemporaries. Blue Cheer may be able to explode dogs and Bobby Leibling might be able to destroy pretty much any potential recording contract but only Sabbath feel like they supercharge the brain, activating hidden or hitherto-unused highways of perception and appreciation.

Every album has been my favourite, every song on every record has been my favourite; at the moment I’m saying Master of Reality and Children of the Grave respectively. Master of Reality is probably objectively the most important of the four prophets. The graphable curve of these records bends exponentially upwards, as Coven-imitation in the opening moments of the eponymous track on the eponymous album accelerates to take-off speed within minutes and Ozzy’s hoarse screaming vocals intone over Iommi’s increasingly technical and fuzzy industrial guitar girders, Butler’s telegraph-wire bass and Wards’ deafening drum blasts. By the end of Black Sabbath, with Warning, one of the greatest and most heartacheing love songs ever written where spurned lovers and half-drunk false-steps become mythical entanglements of wizards and demons that shake the literal world. Everything is kicked up a gear on Paranoid, kicked off by legendary half-song War Pigs and leaps in what feels like a single breath through 43 minutes of the most catchy, scintillating rocknroll ever produced. Modern day heavy rock incarnations that lazy writers dub ‘the new Black Sabbath’ toss and turn in their bunks trying to come up with such politically wise and punchy songs, let alone eight of them.

Master of Reality represents the point on the exponential growth curve where everything hits 99; Iommi’s grinding guitar would inspire an entire generation of band-of-the-week features and Sweet Leaf as a whole would influence an entire generation, when Ozzy’s pleading lyrics would reach new heights. Reality is also Sabbath’s most assured and confident album, with Solitude exploring their slower side which previously had been tentative and unsteady.

I always thought of Volume 4 as the black sheep of the quartet; while undeniably great, it never felt as necessary, as deeply honestly powerful as Sabbath, Paranoid or Reality but laterally I’ve been playing and replaying it, grooves carved into my central brain tissue like rings in a tree because I saw, one night at two AM and understood that Volume 4 could well be the greatest cure for what ails us of the four pillars of unconquerable sonic profundity. The first album to be recorded outside the dank forestry of Britain, the Birmingham boys had made it big, and the backing off of Iommi’s guitar, Ozzy’s throat cleared by top quality Charlie and saying off that bad humid climate skunk they grow in the midlands. It’s also their first post-Altamont album, and while Sabbath were very much a seventies band, this feels like the first time they were wearing shoes in Los Angeles’ Record Plant studios. The first side chronicles the misguided ballads and buzzsaw guilty pleasure guitar-lead freakouts that would define the band (and cement Sabotage as the eternal Honourable Mention; not sacrament, but a near-essential appendix.

Side two of Volume 4 hits the Sabbath stride, with the slowest and most grinding riffs yet, and a return to that deep feeling of previous records. While the songs are shorter here, most coming in under five minutes, there’s an exhausted hazy LA smog gunk all over the album, everything slowed to a crawl like autumn bumblebees; coated in tar and baking in the late afternoon sun, skin wrinkled and cracked from drinking too much whisky, everything tired, everything behind, the world itself Thursday-afternoon exhausted and hopelessly jetlagged. Butler himself has described the creative constipation that evidently overtook the group during the production of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in interviews years later and amid half-cancelled tours and drug-based depletion. Despite Sabbath Bloody Sabbath being utter shite, it was also the first time they began to receive favourable reviews from mainstream critics and it was clear at that point that the gargantuan tank of rocket fuel, the post-sixties angst that caused four Englishmen to go completely off the wagon on rock and roll for four (count ‘em) albums of sonic thuggery, had been completed degraded and a kind of half-life had at last been reached.

In their greatest moments, Black Sabbath produced sonic tomes that will never lose their sting. As today’s imitators, playing a rip-off of a rip-off, try and fail to reach the status of second-hand Sabbath imitators, it’s perhaps time to dust off these first four albums and put them back on hard rotation. Each aesthetically complete and rounded, and together forming a much more encompassing completeness, a blueprint for a kind of politicised heavy rock and roll; a landscape laid out that the world’s hairy would explore without finding the edges of the map for 40 years. Paving the way for Hawkwind (after which this blog is named) and Kiss and even Sleep and Sunn O))) and dozens of lesser imitators. Listening to the entire four-slab suite though, it’s clear Sabbath remain the masters of reality.

Written under duress by Steven.

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