It is very likely that had Black Sabbath called it a day in 1971, they would still be revered as the Godfathers of heavy metal. With Black Sabbath’s groundbreaking unification of rock and roll with horror film imagery, and the commercially successful Paranoid’s radio hits and revolutionary perfection of the 5th chord guitar riff, any further pushing of the envelope was now a daunting task indeed. The only way left to go was down.
When Masters of Reality was unleashed, it slammed into the world of popular music like a wrecking ball. Short sweet and to the point (featuring only 6 full songs and 2 interludes), nothing had ever sounded this heavy before.
A coughing fit courtesy of Tony Iommi appropriately introduces “Sweet Leaf,” a thick grooving ode to the cannabis genus of flowering plants. While remaining musically consistent, the lyrical tone matures with “After Forever,” following the classic Sabbath technique of appearing blasphemous on the surface (“would you like to see the pope on the end of a rope, do you think he’s a fool?”) while actually offering distinctly Christian beliefs (“they should realize before they criticize that God is the only way to love.”)
Similarly, “Lord of this World” approaches spirituality from an infernal point of view, criticizing humanity’s indifference and acceptance of evil (“Your world was made for you by someone above, but you chose evil ways instead of love, you made me master of the world where you exist, the soul I took from you was not even missed.”)
Having years earlier maimed two of his fret hand fingers in a factory accident, Tony Iommi began experimenting with lower guitar tunings to reduce string tension and corresponding finger pain. As a result, “Children of the Grave,” “Lord of this World,” and “Into the Void” feature guitars and bass down tuned three semi-tones, yielding an ominously heavy wall of sonic destruction unheard before in popular music. Ozzy recalls the former as “the most kick-ass song we’d ever recorded,” while the latter has been covered by the likes of Kyuss, Sleep, Soundgarden, and Melvins. However, the perpetual crushing heaviness is flawlessly infused with distinctive instrumental and vocal melody, leaving every track thoroughly and uniquely memorable.
The acoustic interludes “Embryo” and “Orchid,” emanating an interesting middle-ages atmosphere, provide soothing contrast to the surrounding sludge, while the final soft track “Solitude” is arguably the most depressing song that the band ever wrote.
Despite initially being met with mixed critical reception (as is the case with most great records), Master of Reality was an immediate commercial success, and has since been certified double platinum in the United States (selling over 2 million copies.) It is heralded as a landmark in stylistic advents ranging from grunge to stoner rock to sludge and doom metal, ultimately inspiring a plethora of band names, knock-offs, and outright plagiarisms of every sort .
When Breaking Bad’s Badger said he wanted to “crank some old Sabbath and blaze one,” there’s no doubt that he had Master of Reality in mind.
The album features top notch musicianship all around. Tony Iommi provides yet another gospel to the testament of the heavy metal guitar riff over Bill Ward’s pummeling drum beats, while Ozzy delivers Geezer Butler’s lyrics with his distinctive wail that countless millions of fans have grown to know and love.
However, along with his lyrics, the key ingredient is ultimately Geezer Butler’s bass, tying the songs together with driving grooves that solidify the signature Sabbath sound. While every song is prime cut, timeless classics include “Sweet Leaf,” “After Forever,” “Children of the Grave,” “Solitude,” and “Into the Void,” a few of which remain live staples to this day.
In addition to being Sabbath’s first true international success (achieving Gold status in the U.S. on pre-orders alone), the record popularized the use of down-tuned guitars, at the time making these the heaviest songs to have ever been put to vinyl. As such, the entire sub-genres of sludge, stoner, and doom metal owe the entirety of their existence to the template flawlessly executed on this album. Master of Reality is ranked #298 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list.
The band proceeded with the equally phenomenal Volume 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Sabotage, followed by the questionable Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die!, the last recording with Ozzy Osbourne for 35 years.
Intergroup tensions in the late 70’s were scapegoated primarily to Ozzy’s escalating substance abuse, while the fact of the matter was that the whole group were on their last leg. This was most evidently showcased on their 1978 tour, when the band were simply unable to compete with the youthful vigor of a little supporting act by the name of Van Halen.
After parting ways with Ozzy on less than friendly terms, the late Ronnie James Dio commandeered vocal duties for the excellent Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules. Eight records of varying quality followed, with Tony Iommi and the band name being the only real consistencies throughout, while Ozzy went on to infinitely greater success as a solo artist.
After being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, the classic Ozzy-era lineup (with the unfortunate exception of drummer Bill Ward) reunited and released 13 in 2013 to wide critical acclaim. The band recently finished off a European tour, with future plans remaining uncertain at this time.
Reviewer: Gavin Hairgrove
IRC: Lindsey Riley
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