Review Summary: This is what happens when you release four albums in three years.
While I'll always maintain that the two albums Black Sabbath recorded with Ronnie James Dio are drastic improvements over those from the Ozzy era, I must give credit where credit is due. Each of the band's first three records are good to excellent pieces of work. Along with carving their own niche into the rock scene of the time, they've managed to improve with every album, with each of Paranoid and Master of Reality improving on its predecessor's weaknesses. Though none of these records are among the best in the metal genre (one might be able to make an argument for Master of Reality, but you'd have a hard time convincing me), they're all great albums worth multiple listens.
But Black Sabbath took a nose dive with Vol. 4. After a record like Master of Reality, I'm not quite sure how it's possible that a band could sound so utterly uninspired. Sabbath did it, however, and thanks to several shortcomings managed to release one of their worst albums – with or without Ozzy.
Black Sabbath's biggest strength is and, save for perhaps the Dio-era albums where Ronnie James Dio generally steals the show, always has been Tony Iommi's guitar work. However, Mr. Iommi's licks and riffs were never exciting because they were fast or technical. Nah, Iommi's compositions were fun to listen to because they were creative and well thought out. Between the creepy wah-wah riffs of Electric Funeral, the classic Luke's Wall interlude which ends War Pigs, the sludgy groove of Sweet Leaf, hell even in the mellowed out Planet Caravan, Tony Iommi had – to this point – always found a way to elevate the band's works to something more interesting than the dull 70's rock played by a band like Deep Purple. Vol. 4 does not possess this element. In fact, though the main melodies of Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener or Supernaut are quite catchy, they lack the killer instinct of the early Black Sabbath material and the LP feels rather devoid of appealing riffs. There's nothing about Vol. 4 that manages to differentiate itself from the sound of Black Sabbath's earlier records, nor the scene which the band belonged too. Essentially, it's a safe, risk free album which sounds like every other generic 70's hard rock band, albeit a little heavier.
Vol. 4's problems exceed Iommi's apparent writer's block, though. Aside from the short instrumental, Laguna Sunrise, and parts of Under the Sun, the album's songs are more irritating that they are listenable; especially in the case of Tomorrow's Dream, Cornucopia, and the dreary eight minute opener, Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener. The closest the band gets to a memorable hit Paranoid-esque song (not that a song needs to be a fan favourite to be good – Iron Man and Paranoid are both far from my favourite tracks) is Snowblind, which plods along in a remarkably similar way as Tomorrow's Dream does. With that in mind, Vol. 4's weakest track (save for the utterly pointless FX) is not one of the rockers, but instead the record's token ballad, Changes. Driven by piano, mellotron, and Osbourne's singing (which should never be the bread and butter of any
song), the track is a mournful piece and one of the more experimental songs of Sabbath's early material. While it's nice to see the band trying something new, Ozzy sings the entire track through his nose. Though it has a repetitive, somewhat half-baked feel to it, I have this feeling that if Black Sabbath had a frontman who wasn't totally inept it wouldn't sound nearly as annoying as it does. And Planet Caravan does the whole "experimental" thing better anyways.
If Black Sabbath's fourth album shows us anything, it's that even the so-called "fathers of metal" can hit a rut. Despite the reverence shown towards the record, Vol. 4 can be described as nothing more than a stale, meek offering from a tired, worn out band. It isn't quite as utterly atrocious as any of the post-Mob Rules albums (particularly Seventh Star), but Vol. 4 not only sounds extremely dated and fails in asserting itself as a competent album, but when compared to its predecessors it's just disappointingly bad. Black Sabbath would bounce back somewhat with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath a year later, but it wasn't until 1980's Heaven and Hell that the band would be able to reach the heights they accomplished with Master of Reality. Too bad, really.