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.
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.
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.
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…
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:
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.