Thursday, June 17, 2010

Black Sabbath - "Vol. 4" (LP Review)

This review goes out to Butch @ Squealer Music. Butch and I share an interest in drone & doom music and he's turned me on to some cool bands like Earth, Sunn O))) and Deathprod. I plan to review LPs by those artists later, but first I thought I'd start with our mutual interest in the progenitor of doom, Black Sabbath.

Unlike most metal bands from my youth, I can honestly say that I enjoy Sabbath nearly as much now as I did then. And who doesn't, really? People who do not count themselves as fans probably sing along to songs like "Paranoid", "Iron Man" or maybe even "War Pigs". Ozzy-era Sabbath has a popular music legacy that is larger than most casual fans might imagine.

Having said that, Sabbath is probably best well-known for their great songs, not necessarily their great albums. For every "Paranoid"-quality song on an LP, there seemed to be something like "Planet Caravan". OK, so "Planet Caravan" is kind of cool in its own way, but check your iTunes play count and tell me how it rates compared to other Sabbath songs. Be honest.

Butch and I discussed our favorite Sabbath LPs one time, and while I think he went with "Master of Reality", I have to say their greatest LP is 1972's "Vol. 4". It has fewer hit songs (I'm not sure any get current radio airplay), but it is arguably the strongest start-to-finish LP they released (at least in the Ozzy era). I could make an argument for 1973's "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", but the inclusion of keyboardist Rick Wakeman made for interesting songs, but ones that rawked less.

I'm not entirely sure why the songs from Vol. 4 don't get airplay on the classic rock stations: standouts like "Wheels of Confusion", "Tomorrow's Dream", "Supernaut", and "Under the Sun" are upbeat, have killer riffs and are very heavy. It might be that none of these songs have sing-along choruses like "Paranoid" and "Iron Man". For example, you can probably sing along with the guitar riff of "Supernaut" (which is at least as good as "Paranoid") better than you can remember and sing along with the lyrics ("I want to reach out and touch the sky / something something something / something something something..." -- there's actually no chorus).

Come to think of it, "Changes" is pretty much is the only song that you can sing along too. I also consider it the weakest song on the LP. It is not really bad, and you do have to give them credit (blame?) for basically inventing the metal power ballad genre, but it clearly not as enjoyable as the other songs. I'm ambivalent about the cocaine-themed "Snowblind", its neither bad nor good. The only truly skippable song is "FX"; 1:44 of electronics noodling which I guess seemed cool at the time.

"Laguna Sunrise" is the "pretty" instrumental Sabbath has on nearly every LP that serves as a vehicle to demonstrate Tony Iommi's guitar virtuosity. "St. Vitus Dance" is a nice example of Sabbath doing "hippie metal" -- it even has acoustic guitar in parts.

Another thing I like about this LP are the medleys: "Wheels of Confusion" leads into "The Straightener" and "Wheels of Confusion" interpolates "Every Day Comes and Goes" -- sort of a metal version of "A Day in the Life". The song writing and arrangement is at Sabbath's zenith here. This is the last LP where the drugs amplified their creativity instead of hurting it.

So despite the limited radio / single impact, I think this is their finest LP. They had recorded better individual songs before and after this, but as a collection of songs this is their high water mark.

Standout songs: "Wheels of Confusion / The Straightener", "Tomorrow's Dream", "Supernaut", "Cornucopia", "St. Vitus Dance", "Laguna Sunrise", "Under the Sun / Every Day Comes and Goes".

Skip 'em songs: "FX", "Changes".

Final score: 9/10. "FX" and "Changes" keep this from being 10/10.

2010-06-18 Edit: Butch insisted I include this link for "Snowblind". I'm surprised at how many high-quality, 1970s concert videos you can find on YouTube.

2012-07-05 Edit: The entire LP on YouTube.  

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