Review Summary: A perfect album by every standard
As a millennial, I’ve had more than one friend question if 70s Black Sabbath is actually “metal” by modern standards. Such a concept is obvious heresy but makes some sense if you squint hard enough at it. Omnipresent radio rock staples aside, the band operated outside of heavy metal conventions as often as they were inventing them. Their first two albums are basically dark blues records, the run from Volume 4 to Sabotage might as well be prog rock, and their last two with Ozzy aren’t heavy by any stretch of the imagination. But all things considered, Master of Reality is enough proof that Black Sabbath was always at their core a heavy metal band.
Despite whatever protometal relic you can pull out of your ass, nothing was heavier than Master of Reality in 1971. Tony Iommi’s guitar tone was enough to set that distinction. Black Sabbath’s prior albums had a decidedly ominous atmosphere but his decision to downtune with Geezer’s bass following suit took that sense of impending doom to unprecedented levels. It’s organic enough to not sound out of place in the 70s rock climate but still has enough grime to be just as earthshaking as your modern stoner/sludge metal fare. Groups like MC5 may have been rowdier and more aggressive, but this album still sounds like the goddamned apocalypse.
The band also seemed to be tighter as a unit with a much more focused vision. The Sab Four always had fantastic chemistry but the structures on this album are more fully realized than anything that had come before. Nothing on Paranoid could’ve ever reached the speeds of the charging “Children of the Grave” and while the tempo shifts on songs like “Sweet Leaf” and “Into the Void” are nothing new, they were never this purposeful. The band was clearly done meandering around and not a single second is wasted, effectively bridging the gap from the psych blues jams of “Warning” and “N.I.B.” to the elaborate journeys of “Megalomania” and “Wheels of Confusion.”
Of course, the album’s stellar songwriting is what truly drives everybody and their father to imitate it so much. Whether you’re looking at the “Lord of this World” doom chugs, the proto-power metal “After Forever,” or the ambient “Solitude,” every song has a legendary status with influences heard in multiple demographics. But in contrast to Paranoid’s overplayed nature, these songs are actively sought out and seemingly spread in a much more organic fashion. Everybody in the underground knows “Sweet Leaf” and “Children of the Grave” but is anybody as sick of them as they are of “War Pigs” and “Iron Man?”
Master of Reality is a perfect album by every standard. It shows Sabbath at their best as musicians and songwriters while setting an insanely high bar for all other heavy metal acts to follow. Some could deem the album too short, especially with two of eight songs being short interludes, but anything more would just be superfluous. The individual songs are all complete and the short overall length feels like a challenge for anybody who would follow in their footsteps. I can only imagine how cataclysmic this thing sounded back in ’71 but with how timeless it sounds, you don’t have to come at it from that angle to fully appreciate it.
“Children of the Grave”
“Lord of This World”
“Into the Void”
Originally published at http://psychicshorts.blogspot.com