Psych album of the week: Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality (1971)

Tony Iommi had shown himself to be a riff-smith of the highest order on Black Sabbath’s first two albums and he continued his hot streak

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Nineteen-seventy-one’s Master Of Reality is Black Sabbath’s third album following Black Sabbath and Paranoid, which both came out in 1970. It shows the band working together more cohesively than ever. What’s more, it cemented Sabbath’s unimpeachable position as the first and arguably the best metal band of all time. Guitarist Tony Iommi had already shown himself to be a riff-smith of the highest order on Sabbath’s first two albums and he continued his hot streak as the band entered Island studios in London. 

“Sweet Leaf”, “After Forever”, “Children of the Grave”, “Lord of the World”, and “Into the Void” all contain enough doom-laden riffage to influence generation after generation of metal musicians. Never mind Sabbath’s even better-known epics like Paranoid’s “War Pigs” and “Iron Man”. Iommi’s genius use of the “tritone”, or flattened-fifth interval, to compose his evil-sounding guitar lines has been a key ingredient mined by all future riff writers across most of metal’s ever-increasing sub-genres. Puritan values once banned classical composers from using this interval at all. There’s little doubt, therefore, as to its effectiveness in conjuring up all manner of dark reaction. 

When a genre-defining guitarist brings his revolutionary compositions and overdriven guitar tones to the dark party and is joined by a hard-rock rhythm section and a banshee vocalist, we have a perfect storm that explains the everlasting influence of Black Sabbath. 

The banshee wails

Speaking of the banshee, Ozzy Osbourne long ago became a pastiche of a cartoon. He continues to successfully market his brand to this day. In 1971, however, Osbourne was one of the finest vocalists in all of rock, in spite of and because of his legendary reputation as a bon vivant.

Speaking of French, bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler was inspired to pen the lyrics for “Sweet Leaf” in acknowledgement of the band’s appreciation of cannabis. The word “inspiration” comes from the French “inspirer” or “to inhale” which is nicely topical. Sabbath had previously expressed their love of pot on Paranoid’s “Fairies Wear Boots”. “Sweet Leaf” keeps the momentum and the joints rolling. 

Butler’s bass tone on the album is his most powerful yet. Indeed, it provides the perfect low-register foil for Iommi’s phrases. Sometimes he simply doubles the riff.  In other moments, he bursts into harmonized and contrapuntal lines showing future generations of metal bassists how to work with a guitarist like Iommi. 

A jazz sensibility

Drummer Bill Ward brings more of a jazz sensibility to his playing in Black Sabbath. His drums still hit hard, and sound better than ever on this album. Sabbath took full advantage of the additional time they were afforded in the studio compared with their previous full lengths.

Iommi shows off his multi-instrumentalist skills as well. He adds flute, piano, synth, and acoustic guitar layers throughout the album. All of that makes this the most hi-fi Sabbath album to date.   

A gentle song like “Solitude” would not be out of place on a Jefferson Airplane album. Interlude tracks “Embryo” and “Orchid” add their own textures and colours to Master Of Reality.

Mostly though, this album is all about the riffs and the headbanging and the glorious future awaiting Sabbath’s disciplines. 

No less than James Hetfield of heavy metal’s most successful group, Metallica, nailed it in 2005 when speaking to Total Guitar magazine. “Tony Iommi is the king of the heavy riff,” Hetfield said. 

Trippiest Lyrics

“They put you down/They shut you out/You gave to me a new belief/And soon the world/Will love you, sweet leaf” (“Sweet Leaf”)

In their own words

“We were getting into coke, big time. Uppers, downers, Quaaludes, whatever you like. It got to the stage where you come up with ideas and forget them, because you were just so out of it.” (Bill Ward, quoted in Steven Rosen’s 1996 book The Story of Black Sabbath: Wheels of Confusion)

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