Review by Paul Monkhouse for MPM
Black Sabbath aren’t just a key band, if not THE key band, in the evolution of heavy metal but a major band in the whole of modern popular music.
These four working class guys from Birmingham shook the world and tilted it off its axis, managing to do this in the form of their first pair of seminal albums.
Whilst ‘Master Of Reality’ was as critically acclaimed, it was hugely popular with the record buying public and showed the band to be flexing their musical muscles and expanding on the template created with ‘Black Sabbath’ and ‘Paranoid’. With this huge success came huge pressure and huge temptations.
Looking back, it’s a miracle that ‘Vol 4’ was ever made, the band having decamped to Los Angeles to record album number four. Eschewing the services of Rodger Bain, who had helmed the first three releases, the band decided that they would produce this new opus themselves along with their manager at the time, Patrick Meehan.
The mix of having that freedom in one of the most infamous cities in the world for illicit activity was a potentially explosive and has been well documented over the years.
The fact that the band wanted to name the album ‘Snowblind’ after not just the track itself but in tribute to the enormous amount of cocaine hoovered up various noses during its production should have spelled disaster.
Somehow, through divine intervention or miraculous circumstances, what actually emerged from those few months locked away was an album that holds a special place in the hearts of Sabbath fans, some citing it as the bands best work.
Whilst that is moot, ‘Volume 4’ certainly has its fair share of groundbreaking and vital moments, the band feeling free to experiment and build on both the reputation and sound that they’d built to this point.
Sure, there were the heavy, doomy sounds they were getting renowned for but also ones where they pushed themselves into new areas and it just all seemed to come together.
Following on the heels of last year’s deluxe ‘Paranoid’, this new four-disc version delves deeper into the album and brings it to sparkling life once again as we hear new mixes, out takes and live recordings that bring it all to sharp focus.
Apt of the time and mindset, there is a woozy psychedelia to opener ‘Wheels of Confusion / The Straightener’, the first section giving way to the weight of heaviness that permeates the second.
This ramp up launches the listener into the pounding ‘Tomorrow’s Dreams’, the track continuing the power in a natural and electrifying way, Tony Iommi’s guitar continuing to shape the sound that became their calling card.
The natural thing would have been to build on this speed but the band, in their wisdom and aching desire to cut entirely their own artistic path, throw ballad ‘Changes’ into the mix.
The lyrics, written as always by Geezer Butler, chart the breakdown of the marriage of Bill Ward and it’s all wrapped up in probably the most beautiful song Sabbath have written and performed.
This new remastered version brings everything to startling life, the punch of the previous tracks giving way to a lushness that does exactly what was intended in that it breathes a lushness into the song and makes it sound as good as it must have done in the studio. It genuinely is a showstopper as layers are peeled back and the familiar once more becomes exotic and wonderful.
There’s a brief, experimental, sidebar in the short and unusual ‘FX’ before the band kick into the monster that is ‘Supernaut’. One of the best loved and lauded tracks in the Sabbath canon, this absolute beast stands proud around the coruscating axe work of Iommi and a superb drum break by Ward.
Both raw and melodic, this one track managed to push the heavy, crushing sound of metal along more than anything that had come before and stands as a benchmark to this very day. It was another chapter in the band’s story and one that, unbeknownst to the quartet at the time, was making history.
Remarkably, they followed it up with the mighty ‘Snowblind’, this seismic pairing forming the centrepiece that the album revolves around. A massive track, this ode to cocaine is like a panzer tank steamrollering you, the guitar laying down such a heavy riff as Ozzy Osbourne’s unique vocals cut through the sludge like a rapier.
Whilst the pair push themselves to the limit, it’s down to the rock solid, but never less than spectacular pairing of Butler and Ward to underpin everything, their own flourishes adding fireworks.
‘Cornucopia’ continues this blitzkrieg on the senses, it’s perverse drum pattern almost causing Ward to lose his place in the quartet due to the tensions that arose. Like a balm on a fevered brow, things switch once again, this time to the beautiful and light acoustic guitar and strings of the serene ‘Laguna Sunrise’, another breathtaking sideways move for a band known for the weight of their material.
The final pairing of ‘St Vitus Dance’ and ‘Under The Sun / Every Day Comes And Goes’ brings back the dark storm, closing the album with colossally heavy riffs and the compelling and thunderous drive of the drums and bass.
This new, remastered disc comes with the additional bonus of sonic polishes by musician / producer extraordinaire Steve Wilson, adding his own magic to the grooves.
With a fascinating additional disc of alternate versions and studio outtakes and an explosive and vital live album culled from their 1973 tour, this all adds up to a very special package that should be heard by anyone who has more than a passing interest in the development of modern music, not just those devotees to all things Sabbath.
The perfect companion piece to the thrilling ‘Paranoid’ box set, this new edition raises the awareness of just how mind-blowing those early years were and how they still thrill and amaze now, almost fifty years later. Essential.
4-CD And 5-LP Versions Will Be Available From BMG
On February 12th, 2021