Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Black Sabbath—
Vol 4


Released 1972 on Warner Brothers/Vertigo
The Seth Man, March 2002ce
“Vol. 4” caps off Sabbath’s initial flush which ran uninterrupted through their first four albums. Not only would it be their last album on Vertigo and the last to speak so directly of monochromatic, nighttime-death-sky-compassion-big release head trips, “Vol 4” was also the first album Sabbath self-produced (co-joined by Patrick Meehan), as well as their first recorded outside of England. The Record Plant, Los Angeles was the site of recording, and the influence of L.A. hangs over it probably as much as their cocaine connections did (who were rather transparently thanked on the album’s credits) as the band got into a head/spaced/zone like never before. Fuck: they even christened their publishing company “Rollerjoint Music” while the lyrics reflected this shift in their abstract, addled simplicity that reeked of pharmaceutical and narcotic overexposure under the burning haze of LA skies...

On “Vol 4” Sabbath’s sound remained heavy as ever but like all their previous albums, the instrumentation would once more get re-shuffled in importance: Here the mix would be predominated by Tony Iommi’s guitar, measurably reducing in turn Geezer Butler’s bass lines while Bill Ward’s playing was a much harder profusion of drums and a welter of flying cymbals and Ozzy’s vocals raged within the crossfire. From the opening notes of “Wheels Of Confusion” that begin the album with the most deeply mind-rotting, drugged-out and nowhere riff EVER, total mental oblivion is guaranteed. The gears and cogs of Sabbath churn ever slower and slower on this ear-splitting grind-out as Ozzy is singing lyrics liberated from reason, proclaiming innocence as illusion as the circular trudge does nothing but continue. Will it ever end? It only does with an unanticipated gear-change and the piece is already at top volume. A surprising and sudden step-up in volume, increasing directly with Ozzy’s voice booming out his first teenage rejection and freak out at the horror of reality with “Lost in the wheels of confusion/running through valleys of tears” at top volume. Twin roars of SG guitar explode into the instrumental break in at the end, aligning all the previously tearful convolutions for indeed, this break is subtitled “The Straightener” on later pressings of “Vol 4” and it’s title was not chosen lightly. Leslie-speakered guitar tiny ripples break out into the horizon as Iommi repeats the same slow lead higher and higher on the neck of his guitar until his fingers anchor it even higher still until a little bit of finger diddling gets thrown in as two stabbing solos are superimposed over each other and things start to look and feel lighter, somehow. That is, until the next song, “Tomorrow’s Dream.” Buzzsawing guitar and double-time cowbell effects are soon replaced by sets of even more roughly-dispelled distorted guitar and rapidly-hit double cymbals as Ozzy intones, “I’m leaving the sorrow and heartaches/before it takes me away from my mind” before the bridge of a glowing tone lifting off for the top floor of heaven amid the slow, low and loudly dirging and rocking. The following two tracks logjam the action somewhat as “Changes” functions as the ballad of the album, given the full treatment with two-fingered piano accompaniment coupling with distinct mellotron swirls. There are no drums and no guitars: just Ozzy, his heartache and said two keyboards. While “FX” is an instrumental whose quietly delayed “blinky... blinky... blinky... doot... doot... bukka... bukka...” glooms out in the darkness right before the 2pm L.A. window shade shoots up to cast shockingly blaring daylight into the scene with the hugely monolithic wipe out:

“Supernaut.”

Sabbath’s peak moment of the album opens with hi-hatting like the theme from “Shaft” until the ‘Tsupernaut Tsunami’ riff turned in by Iommi that everybody soars and surfs on for the rest of the track erupts. It STILL rages at top speed by the time they reach the riff-less samba-rama-lama (cue Casey Kasem voice over: ‘Bill Ward spent several months in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: the capital city of the hottest sounds in the country! And he spent the days (barely suppressed and fake knowingly chuckle) drinking, while by night he was checking out the indigenous, native sounds and even appeared wearing a red leotard and black leather jacket leading his very own Carnival troupe! Soaking up these “way-out” rhythms, what he produced for the bridge section of ‘Supernaut’ is truly a...SPECIAL moment! I think you’ll agree. Let’s listen...’) I mean, it’s SOOOOO incredibly outta left field, the outback, in field, and in from the outhouse door curve ball AND slapping your forehead like a slow kid’s ice cream cone unable to reach the old cake hole, it’s...genius. Even better, what follows this faux-Caribbean malarkey of assembled percussion the like of wood blocks, fish bellies, metal 3-prong trident pinging and acoustic guitar but the mighty, cranking ‘Tsupernaut Tsunami’ riff: barging back in even more powerful and momentum-gathered, crashing through and blowing a hole in the already heavily overburdened and swelling mental dike, spilling out into eternity and chewing up everything in its path while Ward has not held back one inch from hitting about 10 cymbals all at once while this howling tempest runs rampant. The final couplet Ozzy sings sums up the spirit of human independence and power beyond the outdated social boundaries of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘space’ and ‘time’ or even ‘reality’ and ‘insanity’:


“Got no religion / Don’t need no friends
And all I want I got / No need to pretend
Don’t try to reach me / ‘Cause I’ll tear up your mind
I’ve seen the future / And I’ve left it behind...”


Side two drags itself along at a pace as labourious as not-so-quick quicksand. “Snowblind” hits the second side crawling on its belly through a desert of snow and not a straw to be found. Heh, it’s about “cocaine” because I just heard Ozzy whisper it about as softly as he would scream it in concert. “Cornucopia” has an intro that’s so slow and wound down so low I can’t even tell if it ever ends. But with three hi-hat hits, they hit the ground at top speed, soon turning into a roaring gallows swing of tempo shifts and stoned collisions, complete with a perplexing bridge of four gongs being struck. “Laguna Sunrise” is an Iommi acoustic meditation with mellotron strings just on this side of cloying, perhaps inspired by a visit to the artistic southern California community of Laguna Beach. Even more confounding than is “St Vitus’ Dance,” with a riff between The Who’s “Love Ain’t For Keeping” and typical early country rock it’s more than anything musically approaching the title’s medieval mass hysteria dance craze as it plays tag with another riff of the purest Sab as Ozzy pleads with the listener and tries to clear up a relationship-based misunderstanding. “Under The Sun” ends the album with the s-l-o-o-o-o-o-o-w-est Sab riff ever. It barely throws up the slurry from the sludge trench it’s currently burrowing in at a snail’s pace, like somebody crazy-glued Iommi’s SG neck. The middle part sounds like Sab’s own “Electric Funeral” merged into The Monkees’ “Last Train To Clarksville” only one second later to mutate directly into Deep Purple’s “Flight Of The Rat.” A backward gong strikes and ushers in a triumphant outro instrumental riff (subtitled “Every Day Comes And Goes” on some later pressings) which spryly signals victory over all the album’s previous minor chord gunksville into a release of the biggest kind.


A note on the cover:
The iconic cover of Ozzy crazily mirrors a very different public figure of the time: none other than Richard Nixon, whose own publicly flashed peace sign bogusly boasted a reclamation of Churchill’s earlier “V For Victory” away from all those dirty, long haired hippie freaks. And since Sabbath were in American in 1972 (the year of the Nixon/McGovern presidential election race), could it be that Ozzy thrusting both hands upwards into peace signs was leading a post-Altamont revival meeting in Woodstock-fringe as a frenzied, long-haired parody of Nixon? Or possibly re-reclaiming the peace sign right back, but with intent undiminished by Altamont and made only harder?