So for Christmas last year, my wife bought me a small hi-fi system that has a turntable attached. I last had one back in about 2007 (or more accurately, was borrowing one from a friend) when I was in my sharehouse days, and I accrued a little collection of records. Not a lot by collector standards; maybe 20? I didn’t have an mp3 player back then, so CDs were the more convenient format. But I liked the experience – ritual, even – of sitting down and having to listen to the album from start to finish. Particularly if was accompanied by a glass or two of Jack Daniels and cola, though back then I was not as well-financed and often had to settle for Woodstock and cola premixes. I wasn't as classy back then...to this day the sight of a Woodstock longneck makes me feel ill.
All of those records have gone now, mostly donated to fellow metal fans who had turntables of their own. But I decided I wanted to get back into it after years away; music is one of the great pleasures of my life, and good music is worth investing in. Naturally it followed that then my first album purchase should be one that I’d always wanted on vinyl, but never owned. And so we come to the subject of today’s review, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality.
Originally released in 1971, Master of Reality was Black Sabbath’s third album, coming hot on the heels of Paranoid, which had seen them crossover into more mainstream success. Things like that happened back then, I guess; I wasn’t there for it, but it seems like people didn’t burst into tears and complain if you liked the Monkees AND Deep Purple. Nowadays the boundaries have become a lot stricter; it’s hard to imagine someone enjoying Cannibal Corpse AND Justin Bieber, though I’m sure there’s at least one such person out there.
(On another note, 3 albums within the space of two years seems outrageously speedy by today’s standards. But people churned out albums like nobody’s business in the 1970s; it wasn’t unusual for Elton John to pump out two a year for a while there, though it must have been incredibly difficult to maintain that pace in tandem with touring.)
This reissue is kind of bare bones – no bonus tracks or gatefold presentation, just the disc in the sleeve. But conveniently, it does come with a copy of the album on CD too, so you can have it handy for ripping it to your mp3 player or for car trips.
And you probably will be listening to it quite a bit. Black Sabbath and Paranoid were unquestionably heavy and great, but for me this is when they really got into their groove. Tony Iommi had started detuning his guitar for a variety of reasons, including aiming for a heavier register and making his guitar easier to play. Not because he was lazy – but because he was missing parts of his fingers on his fretting hand due to an industrial accident. Detuning is virtually de rigeur these days, but in 1971 it was virtually unheard of.
His riffing and soloing are both in fine form here. Though he’s still not as polished as he would be on Vol. 4 and onwards, there is a raw power that permeates the album. On bass and drums, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward frequently sounds like they're playing a different song to everyone else – this would be a criticism elsewhere, but it actually works in quite a complementary fashion, particularly on “Lord of this World”. And Ozzy’s voice was arguably at its finest. He was never really a good singer in the traditional sense of the word, but his frantic yowls have rendered him distinct – and rarely bettered – in the world of rock vocalists.
Lyrically, the album moves into explicitly Christian territory, particularly on “After Forever” and “Lord of this World”. It’s a rebuttal of sorts to the accusations of Satanism that were thrown at them after their first two albums,* and one that’s mostly handled with a gravitas appropriate to the heavy tone of the album. In spite of this, they never quite managed to have the influence on the Christian music scene that they deserve (or that I’d like), with many churchgoers of the era apparently preferring the more gentle strains of Harry Secombe or Keith Green.
Less - or perhaps more - heady topics are covered too. Or more specifically marijuana -- on the opening track “Sweet Leaf”. Plenty of doom bands that have followed in Black Sabbath’s wake seem to have built their entire careers off the back of this particular song, if album artwork and song titles I see on Encylcopedia Metallum are anything to go by. And though it’s a good song, I think they actually did themselves one better on Vol 4, with the cocaine-inspired “Snowblind”. And of course, a few years later we’d hear the flipside, with Ozzy singing about the dangers of hard drinking on “Suicide Solution” on his first solo album.
“Children of the Grave” is probably the real standout track. It is punishingly heavy, even 45 years after release, yet stands as a contrast to the nihilism that has permeated plenty of metal, including Black Sabbath’s own work. Grim in tone, it serves as a warning – a vanitas, if we want to borrow an painting term – but still holds the promise of hope, and a brighter future if people are willing to commit to it.
Master of Reality and Vol. 4 stand as my favourite of Black Sabbath’s albums. While all of their first 6 albums are great – seminal, even – these are the two that have resonated with me most over the years. Its influence can most be heard in doom metal, but has permeated virtually the entire spectrum of hard rock. Essential listening for novice Sabbath fans and long-term metal fans alike.
*The members themselves have wavered back on forth on these topics over the years (a few of the lyrics on Vol. 4 in particular deviate quite a bit from the sentiments expressed here), with the most recent information I could find indicating that they were primarily identifying as agnostic, with the possible exception of Geezer – which would make sense, given his status back then as the group’s resident Catholic.