Black Sabbath’s third LP, released in July 1971, is not exactly a long-player. Clocking in at thirty-four minutes, the follow-up to 1970’s breakthrough Paranoid does not wear out its welcome. Overlooking the two brief instrumental pieces you are left with a six song record that opens with a love song to grass and closes with a condensed sci-fi epic.
I bought a package deal of Black Sabbath vinyl some years back. It was the first seven LPs, re-issued on nice heavy vinyl (natch) by Rhino in 2010. I confess I tended to favour the discs I already knew and race through those less familiar, rather than a more sensible music-lover approach of spending more time with the new material. So when Master Of Reality appeared on the radar for my 33 ⅓ book group, I extracted the LP for more focussed listening while scuttling around trying to get a handle on whether this was a book I needed to own.
Here is a review of the book from Goodreads:
Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series is a very straightforward concept—a monograph of 30-40,000 words on a single album—but in practice the books vary wildly in approach, style, and focus. Black Sabbath’s “Master of Reality” by John Darnielle is one of a handful of 33 ⅓ books that takes a fictional approach. Although this is fraught with danger, Darnielle manages to pull us into his story of a teenager incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital against his will. At times grim, always tense, the musical content is woven into a story of loneliness and rage. Is this in keeping with the music? Many would argue so, but it will vary according to where you sit with the fathers of heavy metal… and with psychiatry.
Confession #2. I don’t like fan fiction much, but I bought a hard copy of the Bloomsbury monograph anyway. It was written by a musician, which did promise something beyond fawning fandom. At the very least, it could sit next to my largely unread copy of Mick Wall’s 2013 biography of the band.
The task, then, was to dig deeper into the album. In fact there were two tasks. Dig deeper into the album and learn more about the band. Three. There were three tasks.
Dig the album. Dig into the band. Read the 33 ⅓ book.
Sabbath were a fascinating band. Forged in the working class grime of industrial northern England, the band were described by their singer, Ozzie Osbourne, thus: “We were four fucking dummies from Birmingham, what did we know about anything?”
Guitarist Tommy Iommi at least knew he wanted fame and riches. He ruled the band with a ruthless dedication that guaranteed tension and pain. Indeed, the revelation that Iommi bullied Osbourne at school offers a telling insight into band dynamics. Family violence in the Osbourne home was a double blow to the young man’s mental health. So it was deeply ironic that when Ozzie left Black Sabbath he had more success as a solo artist. That he returned to the band he helped form is psychologically predictable but also rather sad. (One of the strengths of John Darnielle’s 33 ⅓ book is his weaving of his protagonist’s psychiatric journey into the music of Master Of Reality, the irony of the album’s title being revealed by both the book and an appreciation of the members’ backstories).
Third confession: it is very tempting to write a psychological case study of both album and band. We better get back to the music before that happens.
“Sweet Leaf”. What an opening track. A paean to pot, a glorification of grass, a psalm about smoke, and one of the Sabbs greatest riffs. Two of them actually; what riff profligacy. Beginning with an echoing (smoker’s) cough—of course they had a sense of humour; this is pantomime horror—the song lurches forwards with Ozzie’s warbling love song to the green stuff while Iommi’s guitar is simply thrilling. The song’s a great litmus test for your heavy-rock sensibilities. Hate this and it’s unlikely you will ever meld with metal. Love it and you’ll at least have a foot slammed in the door.
Thematically, the opening lyric is not surprising. Even early in their career, Black Sabbath were known for excess and self-medication. Ozzie again: “We would never come through a door where a plate glass window would do.” (Both quotes from the Mick Wall book). Really surprising are the two songs arguing for Christianity and a connected third exhorting listeners to think about the future. After the spooky darkness of the first album a mere two-and-a-half years previously, this is some turnaround. For a band constantly associated with satanism and demonology (at least in the mainstream music press), it is astonishing. Yet “After Forever” is pure proselytising while in “Lord Of This World” Ozzie sings advertising copy from the devil’s perspective in a blatant attempt at reverse psychology. Oh well, the riffs are great. As is the faster riffing of “Children Of The Grave”, my favourite song on Masters.
The two brief instrumentals serve as a spoonful of sorbet between the thick sound of the rest. “Orchid” opens side two with beautiful acoustic guitar that after ninety seconds cedes the stage to “Lord Of This World”. But, surprisingly, acoustic gentility returns for the ballad “Solitude” which is essentially a folk song with flute and picked guitar. Although it sticks out rather like a unicorn in an abattoir, it is sad and lovely… and leads to the final track on Master Of Reality, the heavy metal sci-fi epic “Into The Void”. This is classic Sabbath, driven by the dual engines of Iommi’s guitar and Ozzie’s piercing monotone vocals. It’s a strong ending for a strong album, one that made it to #5 in the UK and was Top 10 in the USA. Clearly lots of people found a connection with the record.
Which makes me wonder. Could a psychometric test could be devised that uses rock album preferences to create a mental health profile? How might that look?