If one were to ask what Black Sabbath’s golden era was, most ivory-tower music historians and co-called “experts” would probably say it was the band’s first four albums. If you were to ask anyone (critic, or fan) what was Sabbath’s best offering, “Paranoid,” (1970) or perhaps the self-titled debut, (1970) or even “Master of Reality” (1971) would be your answer. For this fan, however, I’m going to have to go with the band’s fifth album “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” (1974) as being my personal favorite album by the legendary British metal band.
In terms of creativity, musicianship, and songwriting, the iron was still hot by the time Sabbath recorded “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” Key elements that so defined the band’s first four albums are still in place; blues-based, sluggish riffs, a gloomy outlook, and gothic trappings abound, but this time the band try to expand their sound by introducing synthesizers and orchestration into their formula (courtesy of Rick Wakeman of YES). Like any of the band’s first six albums, Sabbath is as focused and tight as ever.
In all honesty, the first six albums are all classics, all flawless; you could really argue any of the first six releases as being the band’s best album. I tend to give the nod to “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” because I think it showcases Iommi’s best riffs and the added synths work really well encompassed into the band’s bluesy/sluggish signature sound.
On “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” like any classic Sabbath or early Ozzy solo work, we see Ozzy in his prime. Long before Ozzy Osbourne became a parody of himself, being known to most as an oafish buffoon on a reality show as opposed to an icon, he really was genuinely chilling. Geezer Butler (bass) and Bill Ward’s (drums) bone-crunching rhythm section are as intimidating and intense as ever.
The opening title track “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” stands as one of the band’s greatest songs. From the second the needle hits the groove of the record, or you press play on your CD player, your senses are almost overwhelmed by a riff that is simultaneously intense, gripping and infectious. As the song grinds along, it goes from angry, lean and mean, to a melodic, almost bittersweet, to a full-throttle attack. After the overwhelming “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” the listener is offered a reprieve with the laid-back yet fully captivating “A National Acrobat.” The beautiful melancholy acoustic “Fluff” is perhaps Iommi’s all-time greatest instrumental and serves as a sharp contrast to the rest of the album. The band’s experimentation makes itself known with the hard-hitting “Sabbra Cadabra,” as synthesizers and piano come out of left-field, throwing the listener a welcome curveball. One of the band’s bleakest songs, “Killing Yourself” is kind of like a heavy-metal version of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero.” The gloomy-as-could-be synth-heavy “Who are you” enters prog-rock country. The album offers another surprise with the pop-savvy “Looking for Today,” and the epic closing “Spiral Architect,” the latter adding orchestration. The orchestration works well in combination with Iommi’s killer solos.
When a band tries to expand their sound with experimentation it doesn’t always work. This isn’t the case at all, however, with “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.” This album is the perfect example of a band experimenting, growing, and maturing, without loosing its teeth or letting its ambitions run wild. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” stands as not only one of the band’s best albums (or best) but is also one of the best rock albums from the 1970s.