Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Master of Reality

Posted in Bootleg Theater on February 23rd, 2024 by JJ Koczan

The quintessential third record. With the July 1971 release of Master of Reality (also discussed here), Black Sabbath further refined the dark, brooding aggression of Paranoid (discussed here) and the riff-following bad-trip hard acid blues of the self-titled (discussed here) to become something even more their own. More than five decades after the fact, the influence of the eight-song/34-minute LP continues to spread to new players, fans and underground culture at large, and it will probably never surpass Paranoid in sales, but there has been nothing made in the last 40-plus years that doom has been a genre primarily in Master of Reality‘s wake that has not been either directly or indirectly touched by its machinations. If you add pivotal opening track “Sweet Leaf” — which swapped out the storm and siren that began their first two records for a repeated cough counting into the riff in a way that’s become no less iconic, and was by no means the first rock song about marijuana but was perhaps the first to sound so hypnotically thick in tone — as a founding moment of all things stoner in heavy music, that reach goes even further.

It was their third go with producer Rodger Bain, who was then on-staff at Vertigo Records and would produce records for Troggs, Budgie, Arthur Brown and helm Judas Priest‘s undervalued Rocka Rolla before the 1970s were done, and clearly lessons had been learned over the past year. Black Sabbath both sharpened and filled out their attack to a degree that makes it difficult to avoid hyperbole in talking about it. Like either of its predecessors, it is arguable as the pinnacle of heavy music full-length recording in the 60-plus years that such a thing might have existed, and whether it’s “Lord of This World” speaking to economic and social inequalities, “Children of the Grave” chugging out a resistant surge, “After Forever” with its worshipful lyrics by drummer Bill Ward inadvertently inventing Christian metal, or the the soft-delivered quiet melancholia of “Solitude” before the escape-the-apocalypse envisioned in “Into the Void” — “Pollution kills the air, land and sea/Man prepares to meet his destiny” — as a wretched Earth is left behind in favor of a new planet where refugees might, “Make a home where love is there to stay/Peace and happiness in every day,” it is a landmark in performance, structure, atmosphere and purpose. Even the cover font gets ripped off. Rightly so.

At the core of the band’s craft, as ever, is Tony Iommi‘s guitar, and in Master of Reality, the boogie of “Rat Salad” that provided a side-step from Paranoid‘s harder fare becomes instead a showcase of more progressive ambitions that in some ways Iommi would struggle to make a part of Black Sabbath for the band’s entire career — and one could go on about the band’s working class background in Birmingham, England, as part of that; it comes up a bit in the 2010 Classic Albums: Paranoid documentary (review here) that was part of the VH1 series — with a showy mastery in his soloing throughout, as well as the interlude “Embryo” and side B intro “Orchid.”

At just 28 seconds and 1:31, respectively, they’re of course not as much a focal point as “Sweet Leaf” or “Into the Void,”black sabbath master of reality etc., but the angular, off-sounding electric guitar strum of “Embryo” makes what might’ve been a tape-rolling toss-off into a landmark contrast as the brief gestation births “Children of the Grave” with an impact given additional force by the tense but obviously more subdued lead-in. And “Orchid” laid claim to both acoustic work and classical stylings as within Black Sabbath‘s sphere. From front to back, Master of Reality presents a more professional incarnation of Black Sabbath — still with the IommiWardOzzy OsbourneGeezer Butler lineup and just a year after their first LP, mind you — who are more directed and purposefully denser in tone, who know what they want their songs to do and to sound like, and who are growing creatively.

The four-piece had toured diligently between 1970 and 1971 in the UK, continental Europe, and the US, taken on new management later in 1970 and as the tour wound down, both Paranoid and Black Sabbath went gold in US sales, so Black Sabbath were no longer an obscure, not-from-London band with druggy, sad-sounding songs. Their music had begun to speak to an audience, and as the third album, Master of Reality is a realization and an arrival in ways that would help define the band across the decades that followed. In its divergences as well as its most intense stretches, it pushed further than the band had yet gone into their persona, and to call it classic is in some ways laughable because its relevance is so enduring. Every single day, Master of Reality continues to have an effect on heavy music. Entire genre ecosystems thrive in the crater it left behind.

The way “Children of the Grave” and “Into the Void” anchor its sides, the way “Solitude” took the mellow-psych of “Planet Caravan” to a place of genuine emotional resonance, or how “Lord of This World” hit the economic angle in answer to “War Pigs,” or the maybe-drugs-are-the-answer-to-all-this-disillusion attitude of “Sweet Leaf” and the confidence with which Master of Reality directly addresses its audience throughout — all of this and more that had been lurking in Black Sabbath‘s approach across the year prior came to fruition here, and the result is a singular, unique achievement.

I don’t believe in gods, but Master of Reality in my mind represents an ideal of the ‘higher power’ that can be reached through creative collaboration. I offer it as nothing less than a reason to feel lucky to be alive at this time in human history and a remedy for troubled souls. Putting it on feels like going home, and while much of it is grim in theme, there is a warmth in its presentation that’s like nothing Black Sabbath would ever do again. If that’s hindsight perspective, informed maybe by the massive influence the album and band have had since, a fan speaking to fans, preaching to the converted, whatever? Good. That’s the point. If perhaps you never have, open your heart and let these songs in. Your life will be better for it.

Thanks for reading.

Friday. Okay. Gotta get through the morning. Gotta get the kid fed, medded up, dropped off at school, then I’m home, finish posting, start setup for the Quarterly Review, hit the grocery store, blah blah. I woke up at 3:15AM. I figure maybe noon’ll be fuckoff time if I’m reasonably efficient? Very much looking forward to that.

She — the kid — has been on methylphenidate now for ADHD since December. It’s been a pretty remarkable turnaround at school from everything we’ve heard, which is great. The comedown at home is hard — it’s a whole thing with these drugs, apparently — but I’ll take the hit(s) for her to be successful elsewhere. I don’t think she’ll ever be an easygoing, cooperative kid, but I’m not easygoing or particularly cooperative either. Generally I’m a fucking prick to everybody without meaning to be and I feel terrible about it after the fact. So I’ll say she comes by it honestly and we’ll book some social skills classes at some point so she can learn why to say hello back to her classmates when they talk to her. That usually just gets the spit swished in her mouth. Kid is brutal.

The delivery method of the meds is kind of a quandary. She and The Patient Mrs. both have notably sensitive skin, and while slapping a patch on The Pecan’s lower back was working for a while, it’s been a week now and the itchy and plainly uncomfortable — though she’d just about never admit that out loud — is still there, which says to me finding another way was the right call. It’s fading, needs more lotion, etc. But what we’ve got instead are capsules with the medication in them that I’ve been opening up and putting in the morning yogurt that’s usually what she eats before a breakfast of cinnamon toast, apple, banana, strawberries if we have them. The dilemma is she doesn’t know I’m putting that in there.

Am I really supposed to be drugging my six-year-old daughter without her awareness? Does she not have rights as an individual? Isn’t it part of my job as a parent to build trust? How am I supposed to do that if I’m lying by concealment? The kid already tells me in so many words to fuck myself daily in any number of regards. I think I might deserve it more for this even than for suggesting she go to the bathroom when it’s been six hours and she needs to so badly she can’t sit still.

But here’s the rub: she might never eat yogurt again. She doesn’t eat meat, fish, beans, eggs, any of it. She eats cheese, but currently only Muenster and only sliced into small cubes. If I make some, every now and then I can get her to take a couple bites of almond/pecan butter, but that’s never a guarantee. Nutritionally, there’s a lot hinging on that yogurt. She is adamant about not trying new foods. Hard no. She did pasta for a while with butter, but it was basically just calories to get through an afternoon, and it didn’t last. And it turns out since it’s not the ’80s anymore you can’t just shove things in a kid’s mouth. It’s that whole autonomy thing again. Wildly inconvenient, that.

I don’t have a choice but to tell her. I’ll say we tried it this week and if it was okay with her we’ll keep going. My hope is that if I can convince her it’s a plan that’s already worked it’ll be easier for her to get past that initial wall of opposition into which just about any new idea or task is bound to slam, it’ll be easier for her to see that it’s alright, that it doesn’t make the yogurt taste funny, that it’s helping and that it doesn’t need to change. I’m trying to help, but I feel a very specific rot in my mind for this one. She deserves to know and deserve has nothing to actually do with it since it’s a basic human right.

How would I feel if some strange man put a drug in her food without her knowing it? How do I feel about being that man, even if my intentions are arguable as good and the results are positive across multiple levels? Ends justifying means? Am I right to compromise my values to support her success? Or am I teaching her that even the people she’s supposed to trust the most will betray that trust? Am I taking one for the team here or is it just easier for me to deal with getting the medication in her if she doesn’t know it’s happening? And does the fact that she’s six and not really able to make responsible judgments for herself at this point play in at all? Beyond the decision to medicate her in the first place — about which I have feelings, to say the least, mitigated though they are by the to-date outcome — is this even my jurisdiction?

So I guess telling her is my goal for Saturday morning. I’ll say we tried it this week and if it’s okay with her we’ll keep it going and if not we’ll find another way. But is she going to look at her yogurt every day now and wonder if it’s drugged? Or is she going to refuse the yogurt outright because that’s who she is, write it off entirely and lose a cornerstone of her daily intake with nothing on the horizon to replace it?

Guess we’ll find out.

As always, I thank you for reading and for your time. Have a great and safe weekend. Don’t forget to hydrate, watch your head, all that stuff. Quarterly Review starts Monday. I can’t wait to be stressed out all week and behind on news posts, which I already am. Rock and roll.


[EDIT 10:37AM: So after writing the above, I decided there was no point in delaying until tomorrow to tell her; it wouldn’t make my case any stronger anyhow. I said that this week I’d been putting her medicine in her yogurt instead of doing the patch, and if it was okay we’d keep doing it. She was headed toward no, but we were able to sort of steer that back around to realizing it’s not a big deal and she ate the yogurt this morning knowing that the meds were in it. I feel better about it, and I’m really, really glad I don’t need a new primary source of protein for my kid. Sometimes you roll the dice and come out alright. I acknowledge I got away with one here, and for what it’s worth, I’m still not really okay with how I went about it. I’d say next time I’ll do differently, like I learned a moral lesson or something, but real life makes jokes of those promises and a moment’s need can eclipse bigger-picture concerns. I will continue to try my best to do right by my kid for as long as I am able.]

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Canon of Heavy: Black Sabbath, Master of Reality (1971)

Posted in Canon of Heavy on October 24th, 2012 by JJ Koczan

What do you say when staring into the face of the greatest album of all time? Fuck if I know.

For months, I’ve been kicking around the idea of starting a periodic feature highlighting the best and most influential albums in heavy rock, stoner rock, doom, whatever — a Canon of Heavy. All along I’ve known that, though I didn’t want it to be like a top-10 or to go by number or date or any other particular order, the first inductee into said canon would have to be Black Sabbath‘s 1971 masterpiece, Master of Reality. The rest of the time since has been trying to figure out what the hell to say about it.

Because while endless words have been written in its praise and its singular influence has bled into enough bands and records to make Helen of Troy’s thousand ships look paltry, the basic fact of the matter is that Master of Reality was and is perfect, and that’s all the explanation it really needs.

No doubt I could stop right there and an entire section of the population who might see this post could only nod in agreement — “Yup.” — but it would be half-assed, and frankly, it’ll be more fun this way. Here are just a few of my reasons why it had to be Geezer Butler , Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne, and why Master of Reality had to be the first Canon of Heavy inclusion.

Is it the Best Album Ever?

Yeah, pretty much. Opinions vary and we can go back and forth forever about this or that record, what’s better about what, but when it comes down to it, Master of Reality really is flawless. From the coughs that open “Sweet Leaf” to the last chord that closes “Into the Void,” there isn’t a moment misspent. Sure, you have interludes “Embryo” and “Orchid” and the whispered section after “Children of the Grave,” but even these are perfectly suited to their purpose, no longer than they need to be to bridge the gap to and from the song before into the next track while adding to the atmosphere.

And each of its main tracks was a defining moment. “Sweet Leaf,” “After Forever,” “Children of the Grave,” “Lord of this World,” “Solitude” and “Into the Void” — you could look at any one of those songs and mark out its influence, whether it’s “Sweet Leaf” codifying what decades later would in no small part define stoner rock or  “After Forever” offering the earliest template for Christian metal — but more importantly to the idea of Master of Reality as a whole is how well they work with each other, driving you forward into the culmination of “Into the Void,” which comes as the final answer to successive exclamations of “this is the heaviest thing ever,” “no, this is the heaviest thing ever!” No matter how many times I hear Master of Reality, it never loses its power. One does not listen to it so much as one is brought into its countenance.

It was The Birth of The Heavy — and though it’s sold over two million copies since, it remains an underground treasure. You listen to Master of Reality and it’s not like putting on anything else, any other big release. The album connects on an individual level, and not just in a handshake-from-a-famous-person kind of way. Its thickened, sludgy lumber is the stuff of legend, but each legend is a personal, human story as well.

Third Time Around

We all know the cliche about thirds, so I’ll spare you that, but arriving in July 1971, Master of Reality came not even a full year after Black Sabbath‘s landmark second album, Paranoid and only 17 months after their self-titled debut, which is widely regarded as the moment that hard rock became heavy metal. Nonetheless, the growth the band underwent in that time — they toured as well, astoundingly — is stunning, and where Black Sabbath was formative and raw and Paranoid was chaotic and bitter, the third album refined all of Sabbath‘s ideas to that point into a drug-fueled lurch that they’d never again match. In their rush to get the next LP out and maintain their chart position, they wrote the single best collection of songs heavy music has ever known.

They were, by their own admission, drugged out of their minds at the time. And yet, their songwriting would never be in this space again. Black Sabbath and Paranoid are both truly great albums, and I don’t doubt that in time they’ll be included here as well, but the reason it’s Master of Reality first is because Master of Reality marks that crucial moment where “heavy” became more than just a mindset and truly manifested itself sonically in Iommi‘s guitar and Butler‘s bass, where the riffs came to ultimate prominence, and where the band hit the intersection of knowing what kind of music they wanted to be making without over-thinking their processes. The bassline of “After Forever,” the unmitigated stomp of “Lord of this World,” the percussive thrust of “Children of the Grave” — how much time did they actually spend on these songs? Hours?

With Master of Reality, Sabbath found the balance sound-wise they’d never be able to find in a real life filled with narcotic excess and personal drama. Further, it’s the most efficient album they ever made. By the time they’d record Vol. 4 in May 1972, that moment had simply passed, and while they were by no means done and there was still plenty more for them to say in their original incarnation, Master of Reality was as crucial as they ever got.


There’s ongoing debate about whether it’s even Osbourne singing or Ward, but what’s special about the penultimate cut on the album is that it’s no less heavy than anything around it for its lack of assault. Sure, “Black Sabbath” from the same album was a creeper and “Planet Caravan” is a better execution of psychedelia, but “Solitude” is among the purest executions of doom ever recorded. You’re not journeying through space so much as through the depths of your own wretchedness, and long gone are tales of mysterious demons at the foot of your bed. All that’s left is yourself and the miserable bastard you’ve become:

My name it means nothing, my fortune means less
My future is shrouded in dark wilderness
Sunshine is far away, clouds linger on
Everything I possessed, now they are gone

Even “Paranoid,” which one could argue covered some of the same depressive lyrical ground, didn’t dare unmask itself to such an extent, and when they tried again to cover similar ground on “Changes” from Vol. 4, the result was a laughable farce of emotionality. The minimalist blues of “Solitude” is unmatched in the Sabbath catalog, which even elsewhere offers righteous judgment (“Lord of this World”) and brazen defiance (“Children of the Grave”), but never again the same kind of peculiar ambience and first-person exploration of damaged psyche. It is beautiful and doomed in like measure, and the lead-in it provides the introductory and signature riff of “Into the Void” gives both songs a context emblematic of the strength of the album as a whole work.

The Legacy

Goes without saying, again. Go grab a CD or record off your shelf of any even moderately heavy variety, and there’s a good chance that whether or not the band knows it, there’s some aspect of Master of Reality to be found therein. The album is elemental in the actual, scientific sense — providing the pieces through which compounds can be made. A lot of Black Sabbath from this period is like that. With Master of Reality though, this was the record the first two were driving toward and the record that the remaining five released by the original lineup were coming from.

In terms of a Canon of Heavy, Blue Cheer and Hendrix were heavy before it, and others like Budgie, Atomic Rooster, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin ran concurrent, but none could stand in line with its crushing weight or sheer sonic mass. And none have since, Sabbath included. One need only name a band from either the heavy rock, doom or sludge genres to find someone who’s tried, pivotal or obscure, but Master of Reality stands unto itself, carved in stone. Time has not diminished it, and I think if time tried, the record would simply kick its ass, which is the same treatment it has dealt out to everything else in its path for the last 41 years.

Like I said: perfect.

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