Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Vol. 4

My general tendency when it comes to the original era of Black Sabbath, from their 1970 self-titled debut (discussed here) up through 1978’s Never Say Die!, is to break the total of eight LPs into three groups:

The first three albums are one group. They represent the transition from hard blues to heavy rock and the codifying of dark atmospheres from cult folk and psychedelia into something new and the foundation of Black Sabbath‘s sound. Black Sabbath, its same-year follow-up Paranoid (discussed here) and 1971’s Master of Reality (discussed here) all happened within about 17 months of each other, and the shock waves of their impact are still rippling out more than five decades later. They are superlative within heavy music. Arguably the founding principles thereof.

Vol. 4, its iconic and oft-imitated cover art with Keith McMillan‘s photo of Ozzy Osbourne conveying the excitement of the band on stage brought to the studio, is the start of the second group, which is comprised of it and the two records that followed, while the last two from the original lineup make up the third. Appropriately titled Black Sabbath Vol. 4, it the first LP that Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward would release at more than a year’s remove from the one before it, and the first record without the involvement of producer Rodger Bain. Patrick Meehan, who also managed the band until 1975, produced Vol. 4 with engineers Vic Coopersmith-Heaven and Colin Caldwell, and the band have said in their sundry autobiographies and elsewhere that they consider it self-produced, which is believable as well given that the 10-song/42-minute album began an expansion of styles and ideas that would continue through the end of Sabbath‘s initial run.

And that expansion feels natural coming to fruition in new sounds. Black Sabbath didn’t happen in a vacuum, and you could spend a lifetime exploring the heavy rock of what RidingEasy RecordsBrown Acid compilation series calls ‘The Comedown Era,’ loosely from about 1968-1975. Some of Led Zeppelin‘s countryside pastoralism would show itself on Vol. 4 in “St. Vitus Dance” or perhaps under the thicker lumber of “Cornucopia,” and “Tomorrow’s Dream” has a radio-friendly melody in the guitar and vocals in a way that feels far removed from the bleak visions wrought the year before in “Children of the Grave,” though that song finds a spiritual successor in Vol. 4 closer “Under the Sun,” which on some North American pressing or other would gain a subtitle to become “Under the Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes.”

Various editions jumble the tracklisting as well, either putting the oh-so-relevant cocaine anthem “Snowblind” — which is to “Sweet Leaf” what “Under the Sun” is to “Children of the Grave,” an extrapolation along a similar path, this one of harder drug use — first instead of the eight-minute original-pressing opener and longest track (immediate points) “Wheels of Confusion,” which remains one of the original Black Sabbath‘s most dynamic compositions, with its flowing, drawn-sounding intro giving over to a more active nod, finding sunshine between the clouds in its still-melancholic lovelorn verses before turning to a jammy bridge and bursting out as it approaches the halfway point led by a crunching riff from Iommi and going back to the verse before another stark transition leads to another sometimes-subtitled solo section, “The Straightener,” atop which the shred is duly winding and for which Butler adds 12-string guitar. It allows itself to give the impression of a jumble, of confusion, BLACK SABBATH VOL. 4without giving up its momentum, and lets “Tomorrow’s Dream” come through as more straightforward and almost optimistic in its shove and lyrical resolve.

Adventurous in its inclusion of Mellotron on the acoustic-led side B interlude “Laguna Sunrise” and the druggy tossoff experimentation guitar noise of “FX,” Vol. 4 finds its greatest charge in “Supernaut,” which heralds accomplishments to come across 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and 1975’s Sabotage in songs like “Sabbra Cadabra” and “Hole in the Sky” and represents the emergent command Black Sabbath had over their songwriting and the way that particular version of riff-led mid-tempo heavy could be a foundation they’d return to again and again as the work around it grew more complex. “Supernaut,” with its punches of bass, percussion break and landmark riff, has a force behind its movement that in the next few years and the decades that have followed since would become an essential tenet of metal, and its electricity is all the more crackling after the empty spaces of “FX” and the shift out of “Changes” just before.

And of that famously, in-many-ways-rightly maligned ballad, I’ll note that I almost never skip tracks as a policy. You take the bad with the good. But when I put on Vol. 4, if I can reach the button I’ll bypass “Changes” every time. I’ll even listen to “FX” after rather than go right into “Supernaut,” but not “Changes” if I can help it. The lyrics take the plainspokenness that made “War Pigs” so devastating and attempt to turn saccharine cliché into some kind of emotionality ring hollow, and though Vol. 4 remains one of heavy music’s most essential albums, its place on any such list or in any such canon is asterisked in my estimation with “Changes” marring side A. On a critical level, the arrangement of guitar, piano and Mellotron are another example of Black Sabbath reaching into new sonic elements — they’d mellowed before, certainly, but put “Changes” next to “Solitude” from Master of Reality and the shift in intention is clear — but I’ve never been able to take those first lines “I feel unhappy/I feel so sad” seriously, and it undoes the whole thing, pulls me right out of the groove of the album in a way that I very much don’t want to be after “Tomorrow’s Dream.” I listened through “Changes” twice ahead of writing this, and it was a genuine effort. You’re welcome.

Obviously, Black Sabbath would endure despite that perceived misstep — and “Changes” has its champions as well — and as noted, Vol. 4 is among the most revered heavy albums of all time. No argument. They were back on the road in the US shortly after finishing the recording and shared the stage with Humble PieGentle GiantGroundhogsBlack Oak ArkansasWishbone Ash and Blue Öyster Cult ahead of the release, and tour Australia and New Zealand early in 1973 and Europe and the UK that Spring. By the time it was two months old, Vol. 4 moved enough units to get a Gold Record, but the band would cancel their April 1973 US run, and it would be another full year and then some before the arrival of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. People probably thought they were done.

By virtue of existing, Vol. 4 is an essential piece of the Black Sabbath catalog, but what makes it special even among Sabbath offerings is the evolution that was beginning to take hold in their approach, and if Master of Reality perfected the dark, heavy impulses shown through the first two albums before it, these songs are a forward step onto new ground and in no small way would define the course of Black Sabbath‘s next four releases.

As always, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

Quarterly Review this week was some labor. Wednesday, which was my busiest day (was posted yesterday), was particularly tough, not because of the music or anything, just the crush of other life aspects beyond the 10 records being written about that day. Nothing I’m sure that most humans wouldn’t be able to handle without feeling like their brain’s on fire, but yeah. Kid was pukey sick all last weekend — from Friday night on — through like Tuesday, and is still a little digestively wobbly. I’ve been trying to chase vomit smells to their source all week.

It’s about 10:30AM now. The QR was finished yesterday. This morning I was up at 4:15 and spent the next 45 minutes in and out of consciousness ahead of the alarm. At least I was ready to get up by the time I did. Plugged away on Vol. 4 till the kid got up, then did that routine, and after dropoff, The Patient Mrs. and I volunteered taking down the school book fair and whatnot. I’m awkward. That’s the moral of the story. Around normal people, I absolutely wilt. If I could physically shrink myself, I would. At one point, I said I was going to go sit in the car with the dog.

I don’t know what the weekend looks like. On the potential docket are driving to Connecticut tomorrow to see family — generally pleasant but not a minor or particularly relaxing day — and maybe going to the Nintendo store in NYC, as we’re currently wrapping up Tears of the Kingdom after putting in over 810 hours playing as a family with the three of us. It’s a big deal. I invited my mom to come watch us fight Ganon. I’ve got three pristine Gerudo Claymores ready to go. 130-plus Big Hearty Radishes! 600 Bomb Flowers! I’m dying to write about the game but probably won’t ever have time.

So maybe that’ll happen, maybe not. Sunday I’m interviewing the dudes from Apostle of Solitude about their 20th anniversary and it’s Author and Punisher in Brooklyn, which I said I want to see and do — not the least with Morne opening — but probably won’t because getting my ass into New York is pretty tough these days.

Whatever you’re up to, I hope you have a great and safe weekend. Have fun, watch your head, hydrate. I’m gonna go have an egg sandwich (thanks to The Patient Mrs.) and try to do some Duolingo before school’s out. Next week is full front to back. So’s the week after, actually. No substitute for keeping busy.


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3 Responses to “Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Vol. 4

  1. wombat60 says:

    JJ, check out Fudge Tunnel’s version of Changes if you haven’t already, it’s the version Black Sabbath should have made.

  2. Leo Scheben says:

    Vol 4 (even with “Changes”, which I personally really dig, but I realize most heavy music lovers wish it wasn’t on the album) and Heaven and Hell are my two favorite albums.

    I agree about the three periods of the original SABS catalog:

    Black Sabbath
    Master of Reality

    Vol 4
    Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

    Technical Ecstasy
    Never Say Die

    I’ve also always kind of broke it down that way in my mind too. In terms of style, sound, and approach.

  3. Leo Scheben says:

    Besides the Fudge Tunnel version of “Changes” I also have versions by:

    Bloody Hammers,
    The Curtis Harvey Trio,
    Hands of Doom,
    High Reeper,
    Jazz Sabbath,
    Rockabye Baby Lullaby Renditions,
    Vitamin String Quartet

    I really dig the Jazz Sabbath version (and as previously stated the original). But I’m also a big Jazz fan.

    But the High Reeper one has that doomy take on the tune many doomsters dig.

    Stay Heavy,


    “Active vs. Passive Listening”

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