Black Sabbath Vol. 4

While I initially hated its all-over-the-place-character, I gradually learned to appreciate its awkward attempts at diversifying its sound, even though I still consider most of it failed crap on bad days. I guess there’s just something about this album that you get or don’t. It contains only one straightforward motherfucker of a song (“Supernaut”), yet several of the other songs are immensely heavy in their own way, or make sudden shifts from excruciating heaviness to unexpected, psychedelic-tinged song parts.

Opener “Wheels of Confusion” is often regarded as the band’s attempt to rival their prog-rock contemporaries, but I don’t really get that statement, as the song is no real progression – technically speaking – compared to their previous material, and if you consider a song with a few different parts that mainly relies on a few accelerations and deceleration already a prog-rock song, you and I have different notions of what it constitutes. That said, it IS an attempt to get away from the monotonous sludge of Master of Reality. Perhaps the remarkable identity of the song is also derived from its second half (identified by my Real One Player as “The Straightener”), basically a three-minute solo/groove that has nothing in common with the first part.

On paper, “Tomorrow’s Dream” sounds like, uh, a dream of a song, combining the muddy force of Master of Reality with the accessibility of Paranoid – and the result ends up being exactly what you expect, but for some reason I always considered this a mediocre attempt at creating something likeable (well, it was a single of course). And now that we’re at it, I didn’t get why the 1976 compilation We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll included this song, as well as “Snowblind” and “Changes,” but blindly ignored “Supernaut,” the opening track and “Under the Sun,” which are ALL better songs. Anyway… the album definitely has its accessible moments, as also “St. Vitus Dance” constantly treads the thin line between swirling psychedelic rhythms and simple bludgeoning (which always does the job). The true gold, however, lies in the middle of the album, as “Supernaut” and “Snowblind” are probably my favorite tunes here. The first one boasts one of Iommi’s truly classic riffs and has thing big, pumping drive, with Butler and Ward laying down an immense groove; the second is another one of those “difficult” rockers, although I don’t know if there’s anything special about a combination of dry, monotonous hard rock and a dose of melancholy. It works though, and that’s what’s important. So, there have already been straightforward rockers and multi-parted opuses, but that still doesn’t explain why this album is regarded as a kind of doom classic. The first thirty seconds of “Cornucopia” is the definition of doom: ultra-slow, ultra-muddy, ultra-heavy and ultra-dark. The fact that it soon transforms into another accessible slab of bulldozer-rock can be disregarded, those 30 seconds are what it’s about. Also the final track, “Under the Sun,” basically an anti-religious (and also anti-Satanic) song has the doom thing going, albeit in a less oppressive way: it chugs along at a steady pace and occasionally indulges in accelerations that are basically amped-up psychedelic. It’s the massive and dramatic 3-minute fade-out (“Every Day Comes and Goes”), however, that lends the song its character and it’s a small triumph.

While only one or two of these 7 songs would stand as a true Sabbath classic in my book, there’s hardly anything to dislike about ‘em, if you can deal with the occasionally clumsy structures and vocals, that is. It’s the oddball bonuses you get that make this album really interesting: there’s “Laguna Sunrise,” probably the prettiest instrumental Black Sabbath Mk. I ever came up with – its hypnotic combination of acoustic guitars and strings is simply pretty and recalls the almost otherworldly lushness of some of Led Zeppelin III; but there’s also a totally useless “experiment” (“FX”) that perhaps would’ve made sense on a Can-album, but not here. And then, ladies and gentlemen (the curtain is about to close), there are “Changes,” a piano ballad. A bad one. Listen here, pal… if there’s one thing a metal/hard rock band shouldn’t do, it’s to write ballads. If you act tough and masculine, then don’t back off with fake-ass sensitivity. I got one word for you: Slayer. Whereas 90% of all ballads flat-out suck anyway, this percentage is actually even higher in metal. They have no power (what’s a “power ballad” anyway?), they usually lack the subtlety to do it convincingly and it’s so awful and cheesy every single time. Let Percy Sledge take care of ballads, let Al Green seduce you with a jar of vaseline, let Van Morrison urge you to thrust your crotch against your favorite man/woman/kitchen counter, but please… not Ozzy. Oh well: it doesn’t make the other songs any worse, but it has quite often resulted in me taking the CD out of the CD-player after “Tomorrow’s Dream,” which is a goddamn shame.

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