HOT SABBATH

It was well after leaving High School that I acquired my first stereo. Sure, the family home had several devices capable of emitting music: a Bakelite mantle radio in the kitchen, my Father’s Elcon reel-to-reel tape recorder, the sideboard sized stereogram in the lounge, all polished wood and frowning classical records. But all of these were controlled by the adults and closed to anything but serious music. For a number of mid-teenage years, the only aural space I could occupy was provided by a tiny transistor on which I listened to AM pop radio or the late night ebb and flow of the cricket beamed from England. All this changed when I sold my extensive slot car set and purchased a small cassette player, entering – for the significant sum of forty-five dollars – a world of recording and playing music I chose… but still no records.

But I had friends with records. Or at least, I had one friend. Rod Amberton – no stranger to these pages – lived a couple of miles away, a hot bicycle ride in summer sure enough, but the rewards were great. Not only was his mum lovely and always ready with a cold drink, but Rod’s large room was semi-detached from the rest of the house, meaning that we could sit around and play records on his powerful HMV stereo to our hearts’ and ears’ content.

Two speakers and 8 watts per channel. What power! The windows shivered in fear as we blasted out his LPs. And no record was blastier or shiverier than Black Sabbath Vol 4.

Black Sabbath Vol 4

From the moment you picked up the record it shouted POWER. A timeless solid-rock typeface framing the mustard coloured high-contrast photo of a wild-winged raven man, arms and feathers aloft in salutary greeting. In stark symmetry, the back cover had the tones reversed and the songs listed sideways next to the album title. If you turned it sideways to read the songs, the raven was on its back, broken-winged and spread-eagled.

Black Sabbath Vol 4 Back

After an opening lick of electric blues, the sound rumbles forward like a smoke-belching steamroller grinding heavy sludge under “Wheels of confusion”. An up-tempo middle section whirls like carrion birds over a putrid dump before descending to the riff again. The final section has some wicked guitar work over an insistent, catchy base. Although quite unfocussed across eight minutes, “Wheels” is an arrestingly addled heavy prog overture to the album.

“Tomorrow’s dream” is more focussed, having a strong vocal and another pounding riff. This is also the point you realise that whilst the twin barrels of Black Sabbath are undoubtedly Ozzy Osbourne (wailing and gnashing of teeth) and Tony Iommi (demonic riffery), the rhythm section of Geezer Butler (low throbbing stuff) and Bill Ward (smashing things, hard) are the elemental foundation.

The piano and mellotron ballad “Changes” is a striking change of pace and tone. Sure, the lyrics are dreadfully clichéd and adolescent, but back then we loved the pathos of it all. If only we clichéd adolescents had the chance to love and lose like that.

God knows why they included the piss-weak experimental snippet “FX”; perhaps to build expectation for “Supernaut”, one of the Sab’s finest moments. Fantastic riff, great vocal, driving rhythm. Grab a cushion: there is black magic here that forces your head to bang.

Vol 4 Label Side 2

Side two is sonically fascinating. Though Rod and I probably didn’t notice at the time, there is an increasing signal-to-noise ratio throughout the twenty minutes of distressed vocalising and frantic guitar-straffing that presages space-rock, stoner-rock, and any number of metal sub-genres.

Back then (and now) I love “Snowblind” despite (then and now) having no personal experience of the white substance at its centre.

My eyes are blind but I can see

The snowflakes glisten on the tree

The sun no longer sets me free

I feel the snowflakes freezing me

Class As notwithstanding, it’s an exciting slab – or perhaps line – of addictive rock music.

After that we have a song that was the template for the entire genre of doom metal, “Cornucopia”. Hm. I fear I might well get assassinated for straying into the treacherous maze of metal sub-genres, where hatchet-wielding men in ragged black tour t-shirts glare with bloodshot eyes from behind every bush. Better make a run for the exit…

The pretty pastoral interlude of “Laguna sunrise” amply demonstrates what sensitive souls these Birmingham lads are cursed with. Thank Hades the crunch returns in “St Vitus dance”, the closest thing on Vol 4 to a straight ahead up-tempo rocker. Final song “Under the sun” could well have been the template for the entire Spinal Tap oeuvre, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. It also showcases a psycho-emotional confusion that played out in Ozzy’s lyrics. Am I alone? Is there meaning or a higher power?

Well I don’t want no preacher telling me about the god in the sky

No I don’t want no one to tell me where I’m gonna go when I die

I wanna live my life, I don’t want people telling me what to do

I just believe in myself, ’cause no one else is true

These existential musings are accompanied by scorching guitar explosions from Tony Iommi, though I always find myself wincing at the repeated upwards riff. The massive elegiac final section, however, is hugely, absurdly magnificent. Ozzy may have staggered under the crushing wheels of philosophical confusion but Tony thunders on…

Black Sabbath Vol 4 vinyl

It’s oppressive in Sabbath-land, but also comforting. Like being wrestled by an overweight, somewhat dim giant who really wants you to have a good time – as long as you don’t mind a few bruises or perhaps a couple of broken bones. At the end you might well find that the thumping has demolished your blues with the cathartic cudgel of heavy rock.

At the time, Tom Clark in had this to say in Rolling Stone (December 7th, 1972; read the whole fabulous review here):

Molten rocks hurtling across space imitating the origin of the universe, you dig? Ah, lay those chord slabs on my grave… whew. The Sabs are genius.

For those of an adjectival bent, here are the ‘Album Moods’ associated with Black Sabbath Vol 4 by the Allmusic Guide:

Cold

Angry

Bitter

Bleak

Druggy

Gloomy

Hostile

Intense

Malevolent

Menacing

Ominous

Paranoid

Sombre

Visceral

Wintry

It was pummeling fun revisiting Black Sabbath Vol 4. And while we’re talking about dense and dark, sometime I must tell you about the first LP I ever bought. It was another favourite spin in Rod’s room and has a title redolent with both existential power and heavy prog potency. Be afraid, boys and girls, for Death Walks Behind You.

Sabbath Rooster

*

22 comments

  1. Excellent review and read, Bruce. I also was, and am, a fan of this one from earlier, clichéd adolescent days. As for Death Walks Behind You, I was swirling in its heavy prog potency just yesterday. Picked it up at a thrift store circa ’76 with its alternative “rocket chicken” cover and never looked back. When I daydream about my family band performance at the talent show, it’s always “VUG” we’re playing (“true story,” to borrow A 1537’ism). I’m on guitar, son’s on bass, daughter’s on keys, and we’ve brought in a ringer on drums. Fact that none of us play somehow has not yet killed the dream… it’s gonna happen!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks VotF.
      And you are a fellow “Vug” fan? Brother, I’ll be at that gig – albeit in our minds – with big rocking boots on.

      PS. Haven’t seen the alt cover. “Rocket chicken”, eh?

      Like

  2. Given some of their ‘alternative‘ covers, that one is damned classy!

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  3. Great read Bruce. I still remember hearing this for the first time! Was absolutely enthralled with stuff like Wheels of Confusion. And I’ve never heard the Atomic Rooster album so I’m looking forward to reading about that one. It’s always been loitering on my “to hear” list. But never quite made the transition to the “have heard” list!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Scott. I’ve been thinking about the Atomic Rooster piece ever since I began Vinyl Connection. Now I’ve outed meself there’s no excuse!

      Like

  4. Laughed aloud at the stereogram reference.
    Whose parent’s didn’t have one of those in the lounge?
    We had an old Grundig. My dad who was a dab hand at electrical stuff fitted a headphone jack so I could listen to ‘that bloody noise” in peace and quiet.
    One of only two Sabbath albums I ever owned and this one is definitely my favorite. Have the cd too.
    Snowblind is sublime.
    Great review, Bruce.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers Mr A.
      I love your Dad’s intervention to constrain the ‘bloody noise’. Creative, effective and permission-giving all at once!

      Like

      1. What he didn’t realise was that it also made a pretty good jack point to use as a practice amp for my first electric guitar: an Ibanez SG copy!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Great read as always, Bruce. I love this album. Blew me away first time I heard it – all that demonic riffery! I picked up a pretty beat up copy of this a few months ago, but it sounds great (aside from a scratch through Changes and FX – but that’s the record’s story, right?). Anyhoo, I get that sucker spinning every chance I get. I’m gonna take the opportunity to go listen to it now … you’ve put me right in the mood.

    I’ll look forward to your piece on Atomic Rooster. That’s one I’m not yet familiar with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s the sort of album that sort of needs to be a bit beaten up, isn’t it James? My Rhino re-issue, though magnificent in all it’s cardboard, vinyl and musical heaviness is just too fresh and clean. (Though scuff it and you’re a dean man!).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think so, Bruce. There are just some albums that just suit that wee bit of noise. Plus, it suggests it’s rocked a whole lot of folks.

        I do have the Rhino re-issues on my list, though. Dare say I’ll get me one of them nice copies at some point down the line …

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Excellent review. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Cheers DD. See you in the Spring.

      Like

  7. Arlee Bird · · Reply

    Stopping by from your self-promo at Sourcerer. I like your concept and often do music related things on my blogs.

    I’m not at all familiar with this Black Sabbath album. I really got into them for their first 3 albums with Master of Reality being my favorite. Then after that one I stopped listening for some reason–guess my music tastes took a turn or I just decided to spend my money on other things. That was a long time ago.

    Hope you’ll stop by to check on my Battle of the Bands at a href=”http://tossingitout.blogspot.com/2015/08/bo-dang-buck-botb-vacation-version.html”>Tossing It Out and cast your vote.

    You might even want to join us for upcoming Battles.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks a lot for stopping by. Hope you enjoyed some Sabbath memories (if not about Vol 4!).
      Will definitely check out your blog.
      Cheers,
      Bruce.

      Like

  8. Arlee Bird · · Reply

    Link correction Tossing It Out

    Like

  9. Cathartic cudgels? hoo-boy, I like that a lot! I’d still, just, pick Paranoid over this one, but only just – ‘Supernaut’ is my fave BS track of all-time. In fact as you, very correctly say, it’s all brilliant apart from the piss-weak ‘FX’!

    That’s a lovely shiny copy of it too, mine has candlewax on the cover from a previous owner, it having been used in some form of decadent satanic ritual no doubt, although the poster of them live is still intact.

    Stay out of the metal genre thicket for your own sanity’s sake, but you’re completely right Sabbath, like a lot of the best bands, inspired at least two sub-genres per LP back then.

    Finally, I know I’ve mentioned it before, but grab yourself a copy of the Mick Wall Sabbath book, I found it a great read. There’s a surprising amount of jazz in the band, is all I’ll say.

    (makes metal horns gesture, with BOTH hands)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yep, Paranoid is great. And I’m not saying that because the men listening in the van outside demand it.
      I purchased a massive set of the first 7 Sabbs albums on Rhino a while back. More than a soft-metal-head needs, to be sure, but they are lovely re-issues. Though I think I might have to dribble some wax onto a few and lodge a couple of fag papers in the gatefolds to pretend they’ve gone the distance like your Vol 4.
      Will watch out for that bio. Jazz? Really?

      (Thanks for visiting bud)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lots of jazz. True story (to coin a Victim of the Future-ism !!).

        (no problem, it’s really not a chore)

        Liked by 1 person

  10. […] of many albums that became as good mates as Rod and I were back then. Santana’s Lotus was spun, Black Sabbath Vol. 4 thumped forth. And Uriah Heep’s Magician’s Birthday (rel. Dec. 1972) with its captivating Roger […]

    Like

  11. […] pal Rod Amberton and I had ridden our bikes round to Neil’s parent’s house not to listen to records, […]

    Like

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