BLACK SABBATH — Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (review)

BLACK SABBATH — Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album cover Album · 1973 · Heavy Metal Buy this album from MMA partners
5/5 ·
By 1973, the Birmingham quartet had already taken the rock world by storm, and were ready to explore new musical pastures. For a band whom many consider to be the antithesis of progressive rock, they had worn those influences rather visibly on their first, legendary album, and occasionally on the three that followed. However, for their fifth release, Black Sabbath decided to pull out all the stops, and record an album that bears more than a simple relation to prog, all the while keeping true to their metal roots.

The first clearly noticeable thing about "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" (besides the elaborately, stylishly disturbing cover artwork) are the vastly improved production values, which emphasize the complex song structures and confer a definitely more melodic quality to the band's music - instead of pushing for a raw, 'wall-of-sound' effect like on their previous releases. Clarity is the key word here - Tony Iommi's monstrous, hypnotic riffs shine like rough diamonds, enriched by the constant presence of keyboards (courtesy of prog legend Rick Wakeman) and other assorted instruments which in the past one would have hardly associated with BS. The rhythm section of Butler and Ward is also more distinctly audible, and not reduced to a murky background roar. Moreover, it is quite evident that the individual members' technical proficiency has improved, as well as their compositional skills. All of this makes SBS the band's most musically accomplished album so far.

While the title-track opens the album by closely following the style of Sabbath's earlier albums, with Ozzy's voice at its whiniest over Iommi's crunching, relentless riffing - a real, heavy metal behemoth of a song - "A National Acrobat" (at over 6 minutes, the longest song on the album) suddenly steers things into a different territory. In spite of the band's trademark riff galore, there is also an air of melody and sophistication which is further developed throughout the album. Gentle, wistful instrumental "Fluff" offers a moment of respite before "Sabbra Cadabra", the only track in which Wakeman is explicitly credited, contributing his brilliant piano lines to this driving, energetic heavy rocker.

The second part of the album is also the most progressive, with keyboards taking centre stage, and song structures becoming increasingly more elaborate. The sneaky, obsessive synthesizer riff of "Who Are You?", mimicked by Ozzy's eerie vocal tones, relaxes into a beautiful piano interlude. "Killing Yourself to Live", one of the most complex songs on the album, contains a bitter, sarcastic indictment of the music industry, driven by Iommi's corrosive riffing and Ozzy's sneering vocals. While "Looking for Today" is a more upbeat piece, featuring assorted keyboards and even flute, "Spiral Architect", one of the album's highlights, alternates slow, melancholy, orchestra-backed parts with more dynamic, riff-driven ones. Incidentally, the sci-fi-inspired lyrics are somewhat reminiscent of what their American 'counterpart', Blue Oyster Cult, were doing in the same period.

One of the earliest examples of crossover between progressive rock and heavy metal, "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" has a lot to offer to the discerning listener. Even if lacking the shock value and groundbreaking power of their self-titled debut, this is an awesome slice of heavy yet intelligent music, and (together with that big favourite of mine, 1980's "Heaven and Hell") their most mature offering.
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