Rock and Roll Feature: The Original Masters of Reality, Black Sabbath

This is the twenty-third in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.

I don't in anyway claim to be a true metal head, but that doesn't mean I don't think there are some amazing metal bands out there. I'm especially partial to the early bands coming out of the wake of hard rock heroes like Cream, Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer and the Who. There are some incredible modern metal bands, but those original big names... Iron Maiden, UFO, Motorhead, Judas Priest (of course I won't leave out the later Metallica) and especially Black Sabbath, are timeless in my eyes.

I'll admit that it probably took my far longer than it should have for me to start listening to Black Sabbath. I think this might be a common problem for people who aren't engrossed in the metal scene... those of us who were more into ::gasp:: alternative..."insert dramatic music here". Growing up (and probably in modern times too), it definitely seemed like their was a small rift between those of us who liked Nirvana, and those who liked Metallica (alternative vs. metal). Maybe it was imagined, but still, I can't help but think that more than a few people have shied away from bands like Black Sabbath because they thought they were "too metal, too heavy, too cliché, or too something"... crazy talk I say. Even when I went through my metal phase growing up, I shied away from these original metal bands, sticking more towards their modern counterparts... as if somehow things had become more refined and focused as metal had developed and I was above listening to those early, now cliché, founders... again, crazy talk.

Within the past 5 years or so, I've fortunately gotten over my hangups and have thoroughly discovered bands like Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. I have been floored by their music and I now seek to help bridge the rift between the metal and alternative scenes I witnessed when I was young.

As I said, I don't claim to be a metal head... metal fans are the some of the most passionate fans in all of music... I wouldn't dare try to feign such an intense passion for the genre. It's not that I'm not passionate about the metal bands I like, but I'm not someone who lives and breathes metal. Because of that, I don't think I'll try to talk any die hard metal fans into listening to some Nirvana (or any other non metal band)... although I might politely recommend that they give it a try should the opportunity arise. I will however like to recommend some metal to some of the alternative and non-metal fans out there. I think there's more than a few who would really dig Black Sabbath, ones who might not have considered listening to them in the past. I think they'll especially dig the album I've chosen for this month's feature, what might be my favorite of the early Sabbath albums (at least as of recently): Master of Reality.

Released in late summer of 1971, this album might not be considered the best of the early Black Sabbath releases... as I think many would give that honor to the one that proceeded it: Paranoid. Still, it's still nothing to overlook and one that portrays a band that was at the top of their game and continuing to develop the sound that would become heavy metal.

When it comes to why I like Black Sabbath so much, a good part of it is because of Tony Iommi's incredible guitar work, and so it makes sense that a great Sabbath album would start off with one of Iommi's signature riffs. "Sweet Leaf" might not be as well known as say..."Iron Man", but it's an incredible riff and song none the less, up there as one of the band's best I think. Extra thick wall of guitar fuzz with plenty of menace is what it's all about... at least until the pounding middle section with some great double tracked guitar leads rips out of nowhere. The album continues with a riff that one might almost call "light hearted" by Sabbath standards. "After Forever" is one of my favorites on an album of favorites with it's hard driving guitar and philosophical lyrical content about life, death and religion. As odd as it may sound, this is one of those songs that seems to hint a bit at the proto punk movement as well. That might sound like sacrilege, but I think there might be a little bit of the Stooges or even the Doors influence in there somewhere... especially around the middle sections and solo... just a little bit.

A more subtle guitar instrumental from Iommi called "Embryo" serves as sort of an intermission from the massive guitar onslaught. Classically tinged and relatively short, it's not an overly memorable song compared to some of the others, but to my ear serves like a great intro to the next one, my favorite track of this album: "Children of the Grave". Black Sabbath has so many incredible riffs throughout the course of their catalog... especially the first 6 albums or so... but not too many have as much grinding foreboding power, grit and raw intensity of the "Children of the Grave" riff. A classic song that would become the blueprint (sometimes even to excess) for thousands of metal bands to follow, it's just massively driving with this huge grandiose, march-like center section and plenty of great Iommi guitar moments throughout.

After that assault, the acoustic, folksy, mystical tinged instrumental "Orchid" may sound out of place, but I think it's quite a beautiful song none the less. Although it may not be as heavy in guitar fuzz as previous songs, this one is heavy in melancholy and definitely fits in with the overall feel of both Black Sabbath and the album. "Lord of This World" has both an opening riff that seems to sort of hesitate in the right places before crashing back down, and a swaggering secondary riff to keep it trudging along in time. After hearing this song, suddenly it was impossible for me to listen to some modern bands like the Queens of the Stone Age without hearing the influence it's had because it's almost a direct line from one to the other. QOTSA could play this song and not miss a beat... I'd even wager a few fans not "in the know" would mistake it for one of their own. That's a testament to just how much QOTSA love Black Sabbath along with the impact that Sabbath and this album have had on rock and roll as a whole, not just the metal movement.

"Solitude" is another one of those surprising songs if you're expecting all metal all the time. Another beautiful one drenched in melancholy, this one also has a bit of a medieval feel complete with flute very reflective of the times (it was 1971, the same year as Led Zeppelin IV and Aqualung). Although I don't think this one can top "Planet Caravan" from Paranoid in terms of spine-tingling from Black Sabbath, it isn't behind by much. And just like that song, this one features some subtle guitar lead work that still manages to speak volumes.

The album closes with another massive track. "Into the Void" has bludgeoning riffs and a killer explosive middle section that just rips out of the speakers and begs for some rockin' out before returning to the grind. There's also more great lead guitar work from Iommi. I'm especially found of how the leads are double tracked, but then split off to intertwine, or echo from one end of the stereo image to the other. This is something Iommi was known for, but I think it works especially well on this track.

And there we have it... Master of Reality a Black Sabbath album that sits right amidst what might be their best period depending on your opinion... their first 6 studio albums with Ozzy Osbourne. Nothing sound to surprising? Still wondering why you... as a listener to "insert your favorite musical genre here" and not "metal" should be interested in this album and this band?

Well you might not realize it, but the influence of Black Sabbath can be heard everywhere. I already mentioned the Queens of the Stone Age, but what about the Smashing Pumpkins? Or Nirvana? Sonic Youth? Mudhoney? Alice in Chains? And that's not even including all the modern "metal" bands who owe Sabbath a huge debt of gratitude. Maybe you're into bands like Led Zeppelin, the Doors, Cream, or the Stooges. Black Sabbath is not as far a leap from these bands as you might expect and it's easy to hear influences from each in Sabbath's music whether it be the hard riffs of Zeppelin, mystic primal feel of the Doors, massive blues of Cream or the wall of fuzz of the Stooges.

Is that not enough to convince you? Are you thinking that Black Sabbath are just going to be too heavy for you... too metal... as some might claim?

Yes... these songs provided the blueprint for so many heavy metal bands that followed, but we aren't talking hardcore thrash here... not yet (not that there's anything wrong with hardcore thrash). I actually find that with Black Sabbath, the focus is almost always on melody over just crushingly heavy riffs for the fun of crushingly heavy riffs. I think a lot of people who've never listened to this band would be surprised just how melodic and melody driven their music really is.

Overall I think that Black Sabbath can actually be quite a successful bridge between classic rock and metal, as well as alternative and metal... something I had considered when I started listening to them, and makes logical sense when tracing rock and roll's lineage. Still, when I started really getting into this band I was shocked to see how true it really is. One can easily go from Zeppelin to Sabbath and on to more modern metal bands by going to Iron Maiden and Judas Priest and then on to Metallica... and so forth. Or from the Smashing Pumpkins, to the Queens of the Stone Age to Sabbath, to the metal line... successfully traversing the path backwards. It wouldn't be a stretch to find a path from the proto punk movement through Sabbath and on through thrash that made progressive sense either.

I don't know why, but I expected the break between classic rock and Sabbath, or alternative and Sabbath to be more pronounced than it is. I think it has something to do with their title of "Fathers of Heavy Metal" or "The First Real Metal Band". Those are apt titles, but at the same time to someone unfamiliar with the band and unfamiliar with metal... or maybe even not into metal... they can be a little intimidating as if Black Sabbath should be a band that only true metal lovers could really enjoy because they're the band that "Started It All".

When you listen to the albums though, especially these early albums, the music speaks for itself and I think it should appeal to a wider range of people than just those who love heavy metal. In fact, Black Sabbath's wide reaching influence is a testament that it DOES appeal to a wider range of people than just those in it's major genre. There shouldn't be a rift between alternative and the metal scenes... or between any other scene and metal for that matter... they may have all diverged but they're joined firmly at the junction of Black Sabbath.

So all it comes down to is that if you've never listened to Black Sabbath before, but you're a fan of some of the band's I've mentioned throughout this piece... don't be intimidated... don't see some sort of a rift... don't shy away...go check it out as you might be surprised by how much you like it. You can easily start with the album I've discussed here, Master of Reality, but if you really want to do it right I'd start at the beginning... or at Paranoid as it contains the band's more immediately recognizable tracks.

If you're a die hard metal head... well then I'm pretty sure I'm preaching to the choir. Still, maybe you've stuck only to modern metal... or maybe it's just been a long time since you've listened to this album.

Time to take another listen and rock out to the mastery of Black Sabbath.

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