Saturday, August 27, 2016

Throwback Album of the Week: Black Sabbath - Sabotage

Although it was not their last album with Ozzy, Sabotage very much plays as the breaking point for original-lineup Sabbath.  Already the heaviest band on earth, struggles with drug addiction and legal issues with their record label created the perfect storm for their fifth album to reach unheard of levels of volatility, heaviness, and experimentation.  On Sabotage, overblown grandiosity coexists with outright aggression, and unpredictability reigns supreme.  I was about 14 when a borrowed copy from my dad’s vinyl collection became the first rock music to legitimately scare me.  I haven’t been able to get enough ever since. 

Lead song Hole in the Sky is one of the band’s most immediate rockers, and the churning, perpetual rhythm of Symptom of the Universe laid the foundation for the upcoming "New Wave of British Heavy Metal" and is often credited with initiating the thrash metal aesthetic.  These guys had always been scary, but it’s clear from the beginning of Sabotage that now they’re pissed off.  While their earlier material preferred to lurch about in dark atmospherics, Sabotage’s opening tracks are straight downhill; less menacing than they are pummeling and overbearing.  It starts getting weird with the aptly-named side-one closer Megalomania.  The track grinds its way into larger-than-life territory via Ozzy’s coked-out obsession with tracking his vocals several times over and drummer Bill Ward’s similar deal with “backwards cymbal” and other effects.  The band had never sounded more unhinged, yet it all seems to fit.  Megalomania does not surpass a snail’s pace until nearly four minutes in, instead alternating between sullen laments and depraved cries of agony- all seeming to come from unfathomable depths of murk.  By the time the song kicks into gear halfway through, you know you’re at the mercy of a madman.  The band clearly hits a stride though, delivering their familiar aesthetic with bursting immediacy and edge.

Side two opens with The Thrill of it All, which begins as a solid riff-based track but very quickly grows out of itself to the point of pomposity.  The song is okay, it just becomes too bouncy and light for the albums context, sounding much more like what Ozzy would go on to do with his solo career (a trap also succumbed to by later song Am I Going Insane).  However, it gives way to the gloriously devilish Supertzar; a grinding instrumental that immediately restores all of the evilness that Sabbath had built their legacy upon.  Tony Iommi unleashes one of his darkest guitar riffs, only to be dramatically harmonized by a catholic-esque choir.  On a promising album that threatened to blow itself out of proportion, Supertzar is brilliantly placed, taking the top off while simultaneously bringing the band back to its roots in a big way. 

The albums final epic The Writ opens with a droning bassline before giving way to a jarringly hostile verse section; which lyrically seems to depict the wrongdoing of the band’s record label at the time.  Whatever the case, The Writ ends Sabotage in remarkably fitting fashion.  The track plays as much too overblown for the band’s own good, while also devastatingly suffocating in its heaviness.  It should also be noted that during the song’s midsection I used to be absolutely sure that Ozzy was chanting “Matt…” which increased its impact tenfold...  I still choose to believe, though it apparently is “rat”

Due to circumstances in and out of their responsibility, Black Sabbath was clearly a band spiraling out of control in the mid-70s.  This clearly had an effect on the making of Sabotage.  Although the album certainly has its missteps, overall it uses the surrounding tension to forge a new approach which at several points thrusts the band to the pinnacle of their powers.  By virtue of their own personal undoings as well as unfortunate legal struggles, Black Sabbath solidified their status as heavy metal pioneers with 1975's Sabotage, laying the aggressive and suffocating foundation for thrash, progressive, and doom metal music yet to come.  

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