Black SabbathSabbath Bloody Sabbath
Released 1973 on Warner Brothers
Reviewed by Joe Kenney, 03/09/2004ce
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was the group’s bid for artistic relevance. Volume Four marked the beginning of this, and though it’s considered “classic” Sabbath, I’d say the seeds of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath were planted there, particularly in tracks like “Changes” and “Wheels of Confusion.” Ozzy’s vocals are the first clue; gone is the lower-key moan prevalent on the debut and Paranoid, replaced by the glimmerings of the banshee wail that would reach its helium peak on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Another clue is the fact that none of the songs on this album run at marathon lengths, though certainly a few of them do wear out their welcome (I’m looking at YOU, “Looking For Today!”).
It seems obvious that Sabbath was trying to broaden their appeal and improve their image with critics. Everything, from the production to the cover painting, is a clear struggle for sophistication. For the most part, they succeeded. SBS is probably Sabbath’s best “album” album, in that it unfolds coherently and logically. It’s also the best Sabbath album to listen to through headphones, as you can really appreciate the sonic variety offered. But there’s no way I’d ever say this is their best. I do appreciate the production values and the obvious leap in sophistication, both in song composition and lyrics, but the edge seems to be missing. The following album, Sabotage, got it all right as far as I’m concerned, but SBS got it better than Sabotage in at least one department: it didn’t have the gall to put two bad songs back-to-back.*
“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” appropriately starts off the album. I have to admit it took me a while to appreciate this one. When I was younger it was one of my favorites, but as the years progressed I found it too overproduced and lifeless. Now I like it again, mostly due to Bill Ward’s fuzz bass. (I’m a sucker for fuzz bass; it’s the sole reason “Think For Yourself” is my favorite George Harrison Beatles song.) Iommi has referred to the riff that runs throughout this track as “the riff that saved Black Sabbath,” as apparently after Volume 4 the group was at a creative nadir. After several false starts at songs for a new album, Iommi stumbled upon this riff, and the tracks for the album quickly sprung forth from his drug-soaked mind. The only thing that still doesn’t do it for me on this song is Ozzy’s singing, which is as eardrum-shattering as James Williamson’s lead guitars are on the Bowie mix of Raw Power.
“A National Acrobat” follows, and sure, it’s also overproduced, a tad too long, and unfocused at times, but I still like it. This is Sabbath back in funk territory, but without the impact of previous funk numbers like “The Wizard” and “Wicked World.” I love the bit two minutes in where the riff abruptly changes, and though the soloing goes on too long, the track ends on a rocking note. Ozzy gets some good vocals in, especially the “I’m talkin to you” lines in the second half. Incidentally, Metallica covered this song on their 1998 “Garage Inc” album, obviously not realizing they don’t possess an ounce of funk.
The album gets a bit lame with “Fluff,” a title which is truth in advertising to the max. I think I’d like this song a hundred times better if Sabbath would’ve been even more honest and named it “Filler.” It’s just a repeating acoustic guitar melody, over and over, over and over. It’s boring on the first run-through, annoying on the second, and rage-inducing by the third.
“Sabbra Cadabra” picks things up on a rockier note, ending the first side of the album. I like this track a lot, despite its faults. Faults? Namely, the undesired appearance of keyboardist Rick Wakeman in the second, hook-less half of the song. And that’s the other fault. The track starts off with a good riff, a good beat, just an all-around “rock” vibe, even with the braindead lyrics a dumb rock song would entail, and then abruptly we’re off into a keyboard-lead, freeform passage that just goes on too long. But despite the complaints, this is one of my favorites on the album. Incidentally, I’ve often wondered if this track was Sabbath taking a swipe at the lame-brained cock rock of the mid-1970s. Especially how the track ends so half-heartedly; the last thing you hear is Bill Ward dropping his drumsticks, like they’re sending a message: “You think Sabbath only knows about metal and doom-obsessed lyrics? We can do dumb rock shit with the best of them.” Unfortunately, they only proved this all to well in later years.
Side two opens with one of Sabbath’s all-time best tracks, and a concert favorite, “Killing Yourself to Live.” Of all the songs on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, this sounds the most like what was on the preceding four Sabbath albums. It’s also by far my favorite track on here. Opening with one of Iommi’s best riffs, the song just bashes away for the duration. You also can’t help but love a song which features Ozzy whispering “Smoke it/Get high” right before an instrumental break. The ending, for me, ranks up there with the “bolero” finale to “Black Sabbath,” with the group banging away magnificently.
Next we land smack-dab in the middle of lame-ville, with the schlocky, outdated, and annoying “Who Are You.” Keyboard madness to the max, this track has aged more poorly than just about any other in Sabbath’s catalog. The humorous thing is that it was considered “forward-thinking” by critics, upon the album’s 1973 release. The sad truth is that the song wouldn’t be that terrible, if instead of a keyboard playing the same frustrating notes, it was Iommi’s fuzzed-out guitar. That Ozzy’s vocals are once again into the stratosphere doesn’t help matters.
“Looking for Today” is one of Sabbath’s poppier numbers, and I don’t mean that as an insult. It goes on a bit too long, but what with its riffs, fluid bass, and toe-tapping beat, it’s a pretty good song, with even flutes making an occasional appearance. According to Geezer Butler in the book that accompanies Rhino’s 2004 “Black Box” Sabbath boxset, this track was aimed at groups who broke into the music biz only looking to make a quick buck. I’d say this track would be more appealing to the average radio listener of 1973 than anything else on the album, so it’s strange it wasn’t released as a single of some sort.
“Spiral Architect” closes the album in fine fashion. There’s no precedent for this track in Sabbath’s catalog; it’s about as prog as you can get, but at the same time it’s short and to the point. Featuring all sorts of unexpected instrumentation, including a string section, the song might not rock very hard, and in fact it might not even have a memorable hook or riff, but it’s as grand a finale as Sabbath ever attempted. And moreso than any other track on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, it connects with the listener, especially if you’ve listened through the album in one sitting on a pair of headphones. The lyrics are Butler’s best ever, even poetic: “Watching eyes of celluloid/Tell you how to live/Metaphoric motor-replay/Give, give, give.” I also like how the song ends in true “classic rock album” fashion, with Geezer running through the bass line unaccompanied, Ward providing the beat, as a studio-generated crowd cheers away.
SBS has an elusive quality that grows on you, and I find myself listening to it more than any other Sabbath album. Ozzy himself has often said that this is his favorite Sabbath album, as he was so “focused” during its recording. It’s hard not to admire the amount of work the group put into the record, and though I’ll take the easy route and say Paranoid is Sabbath’s best release, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath ties with Sabotage for a close second.
* Sabotage’s “Supertzar” and “Am I Going Insane” have their fans, but I’m not one of them.