Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Black Sabbath—
Master Of Reality


Released 1971 on Warner Brothers
The Seth Man, February 2002ce
At their peak (1969-1972; 1975) Black Sabbath albums (especially “Master of Reality”) were as nearly illiterate as they were keenly aware, compassionate, intelligent and generally indignant at the world’s horrible stupidities and waste whilst kicking ass in an onerous way that for its time was probably considered vulgar, loud and unsophisticated beyond insanity. And what with the whole mystique that surrounded them and kinda clouded the music and their inner essence to no one except the confused occult weekend warriors whose habits of alcoholism, downers and arson gravitated towards Sabbath because in their incisive way, concluded they were ‘evil.’ Evil? And write the songs that appeared on this album?! No way in Hell!

I believe what Ozzy in his all his near-hoarse vocal poetic glory careening above Iommi’s perfected guitar roar was trying to communicate was a spiritual angle Sabbath always had in spades (or at least in reserve) and finally exposed for all to see on “Master Of Reality.” The lyrics are clearly displayed on the back cover and far more shades of grey are explored than previously, reinforced by the slight use of extracurricular instrumentation such as gong, cello, organ and flute. Here Sabbath’s compassion fully flowered as practically every song is bent on using the word ‘love’ in at least once while flipping between dealing with tough salvation in a miserable world of fear to a crawling for a utopia just out of reach.

“Sweet Leaf” begins the album with an ultra-stuttered, pre-sampled repeated bong-induced sputter -- complete in a slow stereo pan, no less -- into the weirdest produced Sabbath album ever: especially the manner in which the drums are triple-trebly and Ward seems to have replaced most of his normal cymbals with pangs that create far more sharp and abrupt resonances. The floodgates break open with THAT riff: the undertow of Iommi’s tuned-down to a crawl guitar is about as psychedelic as it is heavy and when Ozzy sings “You introduced me/To my mind” a truly different side to Black Sabbath is being laid down. It’s a clattering thrash that barely exceeds a speed limit of 2mph until the breakneck instrumental passage with gratuitous gong smashing. “Sweet Leaf” is heavy reefer rolled in ether but what space/time and/or continuum/vacuum does “After Forever” occur in? Beginning with a repeated cut of backwards cymbals and an almost chorale of dead souls queuing up for the next Gregorian Express home, what bursts in but Iommi’s wild and celebratory intro riff, and it’s not even in a minor chord. But this celebratory beat of the chest against infinity quickly turns back into the endless now of a MONSTER minor chord repeated in a shorthand succession of short, stiff shock riffing, set against Bill Ward’s trebly recorded and pang-heavy cymbal work against Geezer’s stoked, boner-stroker bass throb, which just leaves Ozzy...to sing. Actually, it’s more than just singing: he’s carrying the whole shebang on his back, only stopping momentarily to part his greasy hair in half to push it out of his face. He’s singing about both his and the audience’s mortality AND he’s got a scratch to itch on his forehead...so he scratches it. Oh no, time to part the hair again. He parts it. Another scratch on his chin, he scratches it. If he was a greyhound he’d be off the racing track chasing a butterfly AND catch it AND still be singing lines like “I believe it was people like you/Who crucified Christ” and almost slurring the end of the line “before you think God is dead and gone” into “God is a dog.” It continuously shifts between this ‘celebratory’ riffing and the tight, hairy buzzsawing from Iommi so many times you lose count of them. There’s also one point where you think it’s just about to end, but no: the tightly knit, moronic buzzsawing only re-appears again to beat your brain all over again.

The mere seconds-long “Embryo” signals the entrance of the ominous rolling tympani and bass pattern of “Children of the Grave.” Oh, it’s now time to run far, far, FAR away as Sabbath swing their heavy dong to and fro and raze everything in sight. It’s a blistering track; absolutely heavy as fuck. But in this deadliest of songs what appears but timbales, employed throughout at a speed approximating a drunken gallop and continually vanish only to reappear on and off again in the background like flicking a light switch ‘off’ and ‘on.’ They are so rattling and rickety and nonplussing an ingredient, all you can do is throw peaces signs up in the air to the rhythm to commune and connect not only to Ozzy, but the power surge he’s surfing upon vocally. A final nasally and ghostly guitar feedback wailing and Ozzy’s whisperings of the title ring down the curtain on side one with a chilling sense of finality.

Side two is split down the middle between yellowish-cast though gentle light or horrible, sludgy shade. It begins gently enough with the Iommi instrumental “Orchid,” an exquisitely picked and strummed “Spanish” [and/or] “Planet Caravan”-type solo thang totally at odds with “Lord Of This World” -- one of the two sick plodders that take up the majority of side two with lead-booted sludge-festing that lurch heavily and sway from side to side like Gigantor the oversized superman robot after a four-day cyber-kryptonite anal probe. Yeah, it’s THAT lumbering, drugged and flat-out damaged...While performed at the speed of a tractor in fourth gear climbing Sisyphus’ path whilst its scrotum plows a sad furrow through the burning sands of time and space. “Solitude” once again shifts back to a drum-less, pastoral and melancholy scene that could accompany the mottled photograph poster that came with the original album perfectly. The slight flute and tinkling little bells gather lightly and disperse behind Ozzy’s slowed down vocals into a hollow place where post-love alienation has rendered him into a state of near-paralysis. “Into The Void” is the last sludgement when Iommi releases a shredding guitar riff (credited as “Deathmask” on the original US album) that roars out with a bass line that is so solid it’s decided it’s not music anymore and springs forth from its Orange bass amplifier and decides to nip out the studio door for a piss and a look around. Ozzy’s recitations of the lyrics are resigned and oddly unemotional, fitting in with the theme of the song’s interstellar escape route. A middle section they previously used on the freak-break to “Electric Funeral” is where they start finally kicking it out at top speed, but the magnetic pull of Iommi’s opening riff returns it all back once more to a slug’s spit-laying pace so he can quickly shoehorn into the last minute of the song all the remaining solos he thought up for the album.

“Master of Reality” is about as distressed as the embossed typography on the front cover; right down to its curvy, swervy and wasted post-psychedelic-ness. Distressed, but not deterred in the least.


Note:
The original US pressing of “Master of Reality” features a surprising amount of different song listings on its label. “After Forever” is credited with the subtitle “(Including The Elegy)” while the seconds-long outro to “Children Of The Grave” is listed as a separate song called “The Haunting”. Side two sees the mystery deepen with a song listing for the last 30 seconds of “Orchid” titled “Step Up.” And as previously mentioned, “Deathmask” is the intro to “In the Void” as opposed to the ending of “Solitude”. Why? Because both “Deathmask” AND “Into The Void” are timed at exactly the same length (3:08) while “Solitude” is listed as 5:00 and no way is it any longer. One last thing before I cry for help: the title of the aforementioned pressing was spelt “Masters Of Reality” on the label, and upon comparison of the grooves between the original and second pressings there is clear evidence of different groove widths which indicates two completely different pressings...but the music is exactly the same. Help.