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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Periodic Table of My Favorite Albums: "Sabotage", by Black Sabbath

The year is 1975. Black Sabbath, once seemingly overflowing with good ideas, has just released a real stinker of an album. It was called “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, and despite a shredding title tune, it lacked impact and worse yet, it appeared that Ozzy's songwriting had gotten far, far worse. It contained the appropriately titled 'Fluff', another one of those acoustic guitar workouts that alienated metal fans so much in those days. The doom was still there, as were the open exhortations to get fucked up, and the bad Jesus Hippy shit that marred the second and third albums was for the most part gone. But the music just wasn't very exciting.
Personally, had I not been in pre-school at the time and therefore couldn't have given a shit, I'd wager that a quick reinvention of Black Sabbath was not on the wise. (Their worst album, however, was still ahead of them. “Technical Ecstasy” would be an embarrassment to any band.)

It now remained to be seen whether or not Sab could integrate their hellish need to rock out with their curiosity about pseudo-classical arrangements and childlike love of effects. The answer was “Sabotage”.

It is an album loaded down with weird little jokes and puzzling evidence that really messed with my junior high-aged brain when I discovered it. Before the first song, someone very far off yells, “Attaa-ck!” (I think). The you hear Geezer turn on his bass amp, the countdown is heard, and then the air is filled with death boogie. “Hole In The Sky” is one of the better state-of-the-artist songs I've heard. You know; that first song on the album, wherein rock star lets you in on just where their head's been lately.
It would seem that he was still meditating on the stunning downward trend of the world, but from a more detached perspective than before. He wasn't singing little songs about satanic generals destroying the earth and God coming to punish wrongdoers everywhere. But everything remains fucked. The song is abruptly cut off, as if the world just ended, and segues immediately into a brief, beautiful classical guitar piece titled, 'Don't Start (Too Late)'.

'Don't Start' peters out, and is immediately replaced by this very proto-punk guitar riff. This is 'Symptom of the Universe', perhaps the greatest heavy metal love anthem of them all (uncrowded though that field may be). It jams along rapidly, unashamed of its pretty damn stupid lyrics (possibly because they are meant sincerely, or was Ozzy in on the joke too?). The guitar solo comes, and Tony has discovered phaser pedals, it would appear. This solo gets progressively more glam psychedelic, and just when it would normally peter out and return to verse, it transforms, somehow.
Here comes the acoustic guitars, whooshes and claves, ferchrissake, that spell Groovy Love Anthem. “Woman child of love's creation, come and step inside my dree-eams...” Ozzy is declaiming nearby. It is done: yer girlfriend is the Goddess, dude. The overall effect isn't nearly as cheesy as you might think. It's actually kind of sweet.

Next comes 'Megalomania', which gives away the actual theme of the album: the famous person complains about being famous, twenty years before Smashing Pumpkins. The song itself is a slobbery mess of loops and echo, with our narrarator beating his brow about how he “sold my soul to be the human machine,” which again is cheesy, but honest, I think.
The chorus pulls it all back together. It rides high on soaring power chords, and would be catchy for quite a few rock songs, I feel: “Whyy don-cha just get out-ta my life, yeah/ Whyy don-cha just get out-ta my life, now/ Why doesn't evry-bodah leave me alone?/ Why doesn't EEEvry-bodah leave me alone, yeahhh?” Beyond there, it descends into the proto-Motley Crue riff, with cartoony lyrics about impending insanity and revenge scenarioes (he even yells, “Suck meeee!”, which is funny, perhaps not intentionally so). The guitar work, as on a lot of the album, is so phased and flanged that it almostwanders out of rhythm. Before it gets a chance to do that, Side One ends.

It's hard to do this album justice. Like a lot of albums in this genre, the lyrics are the work of a person who isn't terribly bright, but he feels them so profoundly, it effects you. Some of the lines here work only if you suspend your cynicism (hard, I know), others because they're clumsy-but-true, and others because they actually work.
The music, on the other hand, is underrated-ly good. Tony Iommi could always be counted upon to be one or two innovations ahead of the rock guitar idiom of his time, and yet he will always be known as a savage basher-out of primal, simple doom-rock chords. It's kind of a shame. Even much later, after Ozzy, after Dio-on the one album they did with Ian Gillian, he still rises above the muck and wreckage with truly forward-thinking guitar work. I wonder if that continued to be true after I stopped listening to these guys.

Side Two starts out with 'The Thrill of It All'. In this, Ozzy is observing that he really has no more idea than anyone else what the hell is up with the universe. This is tacitly given as a good reason no to look to his word as gospel, and he also says, “If my songs become my freedom/ and my freedom turns to gold/ then I ask the final question/ is the answer bought and sold?”
Well, I like it.

'Supertzar' is the name of the next song. It is the sort of song that inspires parodies like Spinal Tap, in that it far overreaches whatever goal it had set for itself, and for all its pretense, you're never quite clear on what the point actually was. It sounds like the work of your average heavy metal fan who (for some reason) has been called upon to provide the music for a documentary on Russian history.
It has no lyrics, but there is a chorus of overwhelmed and surprised-sounding men and women emoting about something. The overall effect is hilarious, but on some level, it works. It's so damn weird, it redeems itself.

The next song, 'Am I Going Insane (Radio)' is already familiar to the legions of us who grew up listening to “We Sold Our Souls to Rock n' Roll”. A late attempt, I think, at another radio hit by Sab (note that hopeful parenthetical; even though there isn't a non-radio version anywhere I've ever seen).
It's okay, but I've never felt any real attachment to it. It's more in the pedigree of Screamin' Jay Hawkins, with its 'ooh, I'm so damn scary 'cuz I'm so damn ca-rayy-zyy!' feel, but again, entirely different guitar work that saves it in a weirdly speeded-up solo. It fades out into the cartoony laughter that siginifies 'insanity' in pop music.

But then something happens. As the laughter fades away, it is gradually replaced by this truly ugly howling. The laughing continues, but the miserable wailing of somebody is overtaking it. A dark, menacing bassline begins percolating. It's clear that they're building up to something big.
When the first note of 'The Writ' jumps out, it hits you really, really hard. They wanted to make you jump. It is the final song, and the most damning anti-fame number on the album. But it goes beyond that.

It's self-dramatizing, of course, but it's also a return to Ozzy the Crusader of earlier albums. Fame is Satan, or the Famous Person is. Or the World. Or the Eternally Ungrateful Audience. The fucker just keeps plunging on, punishing everything in its path. Ozzy seems mad. “All of the promises that never came true/ you're gonna get what is coming to you,” he fairly spits, and it's unclear who he's talking to. The Voice of Satan effect, also used in 'Megalomania', returns: Ozzy sings with a slowed-down backing track of his own voice.
Here, instead of speeding up, it heads into this fairyland full of chimes and ringing acoustic guitars.

He's trying to convince himself, unsuccessfully: “But evry-thing is gonna work out fiiine, yeah/ if it don't, I think I'll lose my mind...” There is a third movement of steadily churning guitar mixed with pseudo-inspirational lyricizing. It sort of grinds itself down while fading out, and you think, that can't be it...

Then, very quietly, you hear someone start playing a piano with a lot of delay on it. A slowed-down voice sings, “Bl-ow in a jug/ evah-body's doin' it/ bl-ow in a jug/ be like me and bl-ow in a jug/ I want you to/ bl-ow in a jug/ evah-body's gotta bl-ow in a jug...”
And it fades out. It's the most subtle that Sabbath ever got, and it's funny too. After laying on that fame=evil message so heavy for most of the album, it occurs to them that maybe a lot of that audience wasn't bright enough to get it, even then. So they might as well make a little joke about the whole thing; a joke about how the central premise of the whole star/audience thing is so fucked up, it's surprising that everybody doesn't just go start their own band.

And of course, punk rock was right around the corner, and everybody did start their own band, presaging the end of dinosaurs like Black Sabbath, kind of.



Blogger Salty Miss Jill said...

I need to give this one a re-listen.
I've got it here somewheres...

7:42 AM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

I'm not sure it would hit me the same way if I were hearing it for the first time Now. It was just what I needed in early adolescence though, and for the most part has withstood the test of time for me.

But I can't say how it will read with anyone else. It does have a certain amount of absurdity about it, like I said.

10:17 AM  
Blogger disco boy said...

"symptoms of the universe" is some shit hot shit. i've got a great re-edit that loops up the final acoustic part of it in fine form.

gonna have to go back and listen to it again. i've heard that the blow-inna-jug part isn't on the vinyl release... possibly cassette only.

11:09 AM  
Blogger rich bachelor said...

And you know who used that particular loop, doncha? Ultramarine, in the song "Geezer".

11:43 AM  

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