Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Never Say Die!

Posted in Bootleg Theater on March 22nd, 2024 by JJ Koczan

[Please note: If you’ve been keeping up with this as a series, Technical Ecstasy would be next, but it closed out a week already and I stand by what I wrote there as it relates to the catalog. In any case, thanks for reading. -JJ]

Never Say Die! was of course the death knell of Black Sabbath‘s original run. It is to wonder what might’ve been had they been able to hold together the founding incarnation of the band into perpetuity instead of splitting with vocalist Ozzy Osbourne after wrapping the Fall tour alongside openers Van Halen supporting this release. But maybe there’s a glimpse of that in how the mixed-bag nine songs of Never Say Die! strode forth with swagger and renewed vigor after the band seemed confused in their ambitions on 1976’s Technical Ecstasy (discussed here), which was perhaps pulled between impulses toward commercial success, being taken seriously as artists, guitarist Tony Iommi‘s pull toward broader-scope songwriting that had been flourishing just a few years earlier on 1975’s Sabotage (discussed here) and 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (discussed here) and his increasing role as producer and emergent bandleader. A flash of what an Ozzy-fronted Sabbath might’ve been as the shift to the 1980s loomed, just closer than the horizon.

To wit, a new generation of hard rock bands and also — a few acts like TroubleThe Obsessed and Saint Vitus working directly in younger-Sabbath‘s wake — were coming up and would continue to in the next few years. The ’70s were winding down. Vietnam was history. Even disco was passé by 1978, or at least on its way to becoming New Wave. Joy Division‘s first album would come out in 1979. Things had changed. Black Sabbath met those changes with what probably sounded at the time like a sustainable version of their approach. As pieces like “Junior’s Eyes” signaled their maturity in the parental voice of the lyrics and “Over to You” somewhat tamely renewed a penchant for societal critique that had brought about “Children of the Grave” and “War Pigs,” Never Say Die! would nonetheless be defined by the shove of its opening title-track.

Uptempo in its shove but inevitably swill swinging with Bill Ward on drums, “Never Say Die” is sub-four minutes of heavy rock righteousness with an earworm hook and a sweeping riff that gives both Osbourne and bassist Geezer Butler room to shine. Never Say Die! isn’t without its Sab-experimental aspects. Whether it’s Don Airey‘s keys starting off second track “Johnny Blade” and piano adding atmospheric light touches in “Air Dance” or the sax-laced strut of the penultimate interlude “Breakout” before Ward takes lead vocals for the finale “Swinging the Chain,” there’s plenty of showcase for the sonic progression that would in some ways end with this record. But while “Johnny Blade” has a Sabbath-does-Bowie vibe to its storytelling and does well in creating an atmosphere corresponding to that, at its heart is the bluesy stomp of its riff, and that holds true for “Junior’s Eyes” and side A capper “A Hard Road,” with its everybody-on-board gang vocals in the chorus and unabashed-feeling groove. All three of those run over six minutes long, and they’re not without their indulgences in solos and arrangement, but in terms of the underlying approach, the band’s vision of who they are seems clearer than it did two years prior.

I won’t claim to know why that is, and it doesn’t really line up with the circumstances of Never Say Die!‘s making, which involved Osbourne (whose father’s death is the basis for the aforementioned “Junior’s Eyes” lyric) quitting the band and being replaced by Dave Walker (Savoy BrownFleetwood Mac) before rejoining, finishing the record, touring, and being fired, various other disagreements over direction, more business trouble and working at a studio in Toronto that BLACK SABBATH NEVER SAY DIEreportedly no one had looked at beforehand, drugs drugs drugs — also booze — and so on. But as side B launches with the standout “Shock Wave,” fostering a tonal grit reminiscent of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath topped off by a layered melody from Osbourne, if Never Say Die! is sloppy or haphazard, it’s organic to the material in a captured-live sense. “Air Dance” pushes against this idea with its midsection departure into piano, keys and wistful jazz guitar, and so does “Breakout” with its cocaine-era saxophone wankery, but Sabbath had done acoustic and/or piano pieces before, and “Air Dance” establishes its verse and atmosphere before embarking on what’s still a plotted linear build, and under the brass in the two and a half minutes of “Breakout” is a rolling movement that feels like it maybe taught Uncle Acid and the Deadbeats (among others) how guitars should sound.

“Over to You,” which appears between “Air Dance” and “Breakout” in the tracklisting, keeps the piano from the preceding song, and feels sure-footed enough in its verse and chorus that “Breakout” doesn’t come across as so substantially different in intent from “Orchid” on Master of Reality (discussed here) or “Laguna Sunrise” from Vol. 4 (discussed here), even if its actual execution leads it elsewhere. All of these feed into an overarching vibe for Never Say Die! that positions it as tangibly above Technical Ecstasy in craft and performance — each member of this band hit their stride as a player at some point in this eight-year stretch in ways that would define their respective career arcs, but that didn’t necessarily happen all at the same time or according to the order of LP releases — while having traded some of its soul for that self-awareness and direction.

As “Swinging the Chain” wraps, Ward holds out his notes and even hits a falsetto that speaks to his emergence as a singer. In another reality, would he have taken over lead vocals after Osbourne‘s departure? Or could Black Sabbath have pulled it together and kept the Osbourne/Iommi/Butler/Ward configuration somehow, and if they had, would they still push forward with something as outright majestic as 1980’s Heaven and Hell (discussed here), which introduced then ex-Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio as their new frontman and felt like all the more a radical turn for it, or continue to backslide into a kind of comfortable mediocrity even before they hit middle-age? Flashes of their former greatness amid an endless string of identifiable but watered-down riffs, with neither the force nor passion behind them of their earliest work?

Of course these things could’ve happened, and if they had, maybe Black Sabbath would still be as revered as they’ve been since reforming their lineup in the later-1990s. But in this universe, Never Say Die is impossible to divorce from its context as the ‘last’ Black Sabbath original-lineup LP, and if you reorient to a position of looking forward from it rather than looking back at it, maybe that’s for the best. Nonetheless, at its center, it’s still these players captured at this time, and as the capstone of their run, there remains positive forward potential in its songs as well as the exeunt omnes spirit so easily read into “A Hard Road,” making it an ending worthy of the beginning from whence it came.

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

I gotta answer some emails. If you’ve reached out to me, oh, let’s say in the last four or five months, and not heard back, I’m sorry. My time is pretty tight these days — genuinely more so than I expected it to be when I sent my daughter off to full-day kindergarten this past Fall — and I’ve found my capacity for getting back has taken the brunt of that. I was never especially good at email, to be honest. I find now I’m about ready to move on from it, though no, that doesn’t mean I’m shutting off the contact form on this site. Just that I’m ready for whatever technological advance in communications might eventually follow to render it obsolete. Branded mini-emails like social media DMs aren’t really cutting it either. Same anxiety on approach, less easy to sort through and find what you need when you need it.

First, I’m lucky anyone thinks enough of what I do here to send their music in the first place, whether it fits or not. Second, I’m doing my best and I acknowledge that things will not always be as they are today.

But yeah, email.

If you dug the string of Black Sabbath week-closeouts, I’m glad. It was a fun project. I was thinking I might dig into Kyuss in a similar fashion, but we’ll see. There are a couple other not-multiple-week odds and ends I’d like to do as well, but I’m content not to decide anything about even next Friday this week, as much as I do enjoy getting an answer for that kind of question ahead of time. For example, I currently have two full albums slated to stream in May, and not necessarily at the start of the month. Working ahead is how I stay sane in this to the extent that I do. In my head, I’m feeling like it’s time to put together the back end for Monday’s review.

And about next week. Monday’s a Skraeckoedlan full stream, Tuesday I’m going to try to follow that with a Colour Haze studio log-ish-type feature. Wednesday is Cancervo’s new LP, Thursday is the Esben Willems solo record with a track-by-track, and Friday I’m leaving open either for Craneium or some other review that strikes my fancy. Or maybe I’ll post that Brume video interview where I, well, just sucked. Their record doesn’t, and that helps. We’ll see.

I got some pretty thoughtful comments last week, more than just internet-style platitudes and/or empty optimism, and thank you for that. You might not find this surprising, but sometimes writing a thing out helps me organize my thoughts. Wild, I know.

This week was my wife’s Spring Break, and it was wonderful to have her home. Tuesday we went to the Job Lot, today we went to the library to look at alternative Zelda books for The Pecan, who at this point continues to want to read nothing else, and even just having her in the house, whether she’s working upstairs or down, whatever it is, makes life better on every level. I’ll miss her next week when she goes back to work.

I hope you have a great and safe weekend. Have fun, watch your head, hydrate. I’ve got my water jug and my bluetooth speaker and some clothes laid out for after I shower, which is my stank-ass-self’s next stop. Beyond that, primo hours of fuck-off time ahead. I hope you also get a bit of a chance to relax, however that looks for you. Thanks again for reading and checking in. Back Monday.


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Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Sabotage

Posted in Bootleg Theater on March 15th, 2024 by JJ Koczan

The number jump between 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and 1975’s Sabotage feels big in comparison to the pace with which Black Sabbath released their first three records between Feb. 1970 and July 1971, but as their sixth album and first signed to NEMS Records, Sabotage followed copious road time in 1974 after canceling their Spring ’73 US run, and landed on July 28, 1975. That was about three months after the end of the Vietnam War. David Bowie had just put out “Fame.” Styx‘s “Lady” took off two years after its own release. Disco was coming up, punk was about to happen, Judas Priest would take the lessons Sabbath were teaching and utilize them in the personality shift between Rocka Rolla (1974) and Sad Wings of Destiny (1976), in no small part setting the stage for the New Wave of British Heavy Metal.

And while Black Sabbath were obviously essential in setting the stage for that setting the stage for the NWOBHM — perhaps the most proto of proto-metals — which arguably was the first time ‘metal’ stepped out as its own genre under the umbrella of rock and roll, by virtue of that, they couldn’t be part of the next generation’s movement. Their major creative innovation had already been made. But Sabbath had evolved as well, and in some ways, Sabotage is a pinnacle of what the original lineup of guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne would accomplish before splitting with the latter after 1978’s Never Say Die!.

In the trajectory of the eight full-lengths released between 1970-1978, Sabotage resides at the tail end of the second group of three, continuing to build on the production style and driving heavy rock that began to surface in 1972 with Vol. 4 (discussed here) and the expanded arrangements brought to the aforementioned Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (discussed here). Some of the severity and harsh cast of their earliest work was gone, but Sabotage filled that space in the mix with more adventurous craft, the corresponding side-enders “Megalomania” and “The Writ” — the two longest tracks on the LP, which would become a trope of heavy rock — taking flight with a dark psychedelic cast in the former that gives over to a stark, effects-tainted procession and boogie jam, while “The Writ” recounts the legal trouble the band was in at the time lyrically during its roll, stops dead to weirdo ambient noise, and moves to incorporate acoustic guitar, chimes and pleading vocals in answer to its own crunch before finally deciding the latter is where it wants to end.

It’s arguable — here’s me, arguing — that Sabotage and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath are the two original-lineup Black Sabbath LPs in closest conversation with each other, despite the longer break between outings. It also features two of the best and hardest-hitting songs they’d release in opener “Hole in the Sky” and “Symptom of the Universe,” which follows after the bit-of-finger interlude “Don’t Start (Too Late)” and retains its aggressive shove 49 years after the fact. Ward is furious onblack sabbath sabotage the crash as he rides Iommi‘s verse riff, Butler is the weight in ‘heavy’ as ever, and Osbourne snarls the verse lines and holds out a “Yeah…” afterward in a way that none of the hundreds of cover versions have managed to capture. Then comes the willfully meandering acoustic guitar and percussion jam. Between it and “Hole in the Sky” prior, buzzing to life with an immediate roller groove and a riff that in the decades since has become a founding principal across two generations of heavy/stoner rock, Sabotage wouldn’t need much more to stand as a worthy entry in the Sabbath catalog, but in the instrumental-but-for-the-chorus grandiosity of “Supertzar,” the keyboard of Gerald “Jezz” Woodruffe interwoven into “Am I Going Insane (Radio)” and even the purpose with which they manifest the final build in “Megalomania,” the band are still presenting new ideas and pushing themselves forward.

That said, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath had “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Sabbra Cadabra” as its straight-ahead-heavy party rockers, “Who Are You” as precursor to “Am I Going Insane (Radio),” and the branched-out arrangements of “A National Acrobat” and “Spiral Architect” to lend a high-concept, progressive feel that “The Writ” and “Supertzar” complement on Sabotage. Even on the most superficial level — their titles — they feel like companion pieces. Is that Black Sabbath, on a deadline, distracted by legal trouble, infamously cocaine-addled as I understand the entire music industry was circa 1975, and maybe getting a little tired of hanging out with each other all the time working more directly from one record to the next than they otherwise might? Leaning on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath more than Master of Reality (discussed here) or Paranoid (discussed here) drew from the self-titled (dicsussed here) in the primary of their two essential trilogies between 1970-’71?

Maybe. If they were developing a formula and measuring quotas for what each Black Sabbath record should include, fair enough, though part of the consistency of sound from Vol. 4 through Sabotage also has to be attributed to the band having taken on more responsibility for their own production in addition to defining their approach on an aesthetic level. The double-edge of their maturity meant that, while more mindful of what they were exploring around the core, riff-driven style that side B leadoff “The Thrill of it All” so readily highlights in its start-stop verse and handclaps as well as in the plus-keyboard second-half triumph before the fadeout, that also meant they had distinct ideas about who they were and what they did as a group that are inherently a limit as much as a blueprint. They weren’t shy about trying things they hadn’t done before, but they also had a career to protect — which would’ve been all the more in-mind given the court battles with management at the time — and Sabotage seems to be preserving what Sabbath had become as well as adding to that already prevalent sense of persona.

What does that mean? Late in 1975, NEMS issued the 2LP compilation We Sold Our Souls for Rock ‘n’ Roll, an encapsulating best-of drawn from their first six albums, and the sense of Black Sabbath as a band with ‘greatest hits’ stands in opposition to Black Sabbath as the clueless kids from Birmingham — Ozzy in “The Writ”: “I wish I’d walked before I started to run to you”– who blues-rocked their way into inventing doom. By knowing more about who they were and their goals, by maturing as artists and performers, they’d moved past the rawer side of their early outings. They were still heavy in tone, still forceful rhythmically with enough melody around that to be accessible and commercially viable when they wanted to be, but there’s still something about Sabotage as a whole that comes across as settling into the course of their career, and even at its most vibrant moments, Sabotage hints in hindsight at the unevenness to follow in 1976’s Technical Ecstasy no less than it frames the idolization of their younger days. It had only been five years, but it was the five years in which Black Sabbath grew up, for better and for worse.

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

I was on a telehealth appointment Monday afternoon with my neurologist. A probably-overdue check-in after some months on a new combination of mood-stabilizers and ADHD meth-but-it’s-okay-because-we-say-it-is meds. As much as I frame my life experience — probably not all of it, but enough that I can’t really think of anything to which this doesn’t apply off the top of my head — around things like depression and anxiety, I’m starting to also feel like maybe I need to add OCD to that mix given how overwhelming I find small sudden changes and how heavily minute housekeeping shit weighs on my mind. I have another appointment in a month. I think it’s the day before I leave for Roadburn. Seems like a good time to bring that up.

‘At’ this Monday’s appointment — and I put ‘at’ in quotes because really I was on the same couch where I’m sitting now — I was talking about my tendency to fall down holes of negative self-talk. Not just I can’t do a thing — which rest assured I can’t, whatever it is, pretty much ever — but I’m a fucking idiot for trying and should just fucking die to ease the burdens of those who have to live with me, on and on in a thematic loop in my brain throughout every day. In parenting, in my relationship with my wife, which I don’t think is any less strained for my feeling like garbage all the time and telling myself I’m right to do so, and just in my own day to day, it gets brutal. Mean voice. Bad voice. And it’s my own voice. I’m that person calling me worthless. Hoo. Ray.

She told me to take a step back and, while assuring me it wasn’t pop-psych nonsense just in case that mattered to me (I’m not sure it does), to go into that conversation with myself and look at who I’m talking to. She specifically asked me how old is the me I’m speaking to. Am I speaking to me as a child like that? How old is the me in my head being chastised for whatever mistake he’s made, major, minor or not-actually-there? These things come up so often throughout the day — rest assured, I fuck up all the time and rarely let an opportunity slip to make myself feel bad about it — that I usually think I’m talking to myself now, in the present. Like I’m outside of the moment in so many ways, stuck in my narcissistic navelgazing viewpoint so much of the time, but that’s the moment where I really shine. Where I’m most myself. Tearing me down.

But I’ve been thinking about it all week. I might be 13. Pubescent, hapless, feeling and being made to feel shitty in my fat-kid body every day in a way that wasn’t even new by the time I’d started to listen to music and think about growing my hair out. A weird kid doing the class-clown thing in some attempt to find a place. I’ve been thinking about that kid a lot. It’s hard for me not to fucking hate him.

The questions she told me to ask myself: Why am I so brutal to him? Because he’s not worth it? Because he ruined my life, messing things up? What’s his true age? At that age, does he have everything he needs to make good judgements and take good actions? If he was my son, how would I help him? She encouraged me to realize that the power of my own adulthood is to not let it keep happening, to take care of that child and not reject him over and over. To help him recover and repair himself.

I had a paragraph here that I just deleted that totally derailed and redirected the conversation, so maybe it’s fair for me to say I find it difficult to process these ideas. I have a good life. It’s never been better to be me than it is now. Right now. I have a wife, a kid, a car, a house. My mother is still alive. My sister and her husband and my wife’s family and everybody’s kids are great. I’m well supported in the creative work I do, and I don’t have a job that I have to either go to or take away from my writing time/brainpower in order to perform. I am lucky to be me. I am also the thing most keeping me from realizing this and internalizing it on a level from which I might then live as though I really believed it to be true. Tidal waves of self-loathing. I drown.

I’m not over being that kid, whether or not he’s who I’m yelling at all the time (and he might be, I just don’t think it’s so easily settled). I’m not over finding out I couldn’t make a baby eight years ago after three years of trying. I’m not over eating disorders or feeling wrong in my body. I’m just older.

How much older? And what does it mean to be older? I don’t know. These are the kinds of things you explore in talk-therapy, which I’ve certainly cycled through any number of times in the last 25-30 years. One way or the other, I know enough to know I want to keep the life I have. I don’t want to alienate my wife. I don’t want to pass on my feeling-shitty-about-yourself character to my daughter, who has her own hills to climb as regards neurology. I want to help her. She’s the kid I want to embrace, to be there for, to help and love and serve more than some imaginary version of me. The way I am now, I get pissed when she talks back, I get sad when she throws a punch. Last night, I shut off the Switch because she was telling me no and I couldn’t tell her what to do after I asked her to go to the bathroom before bedtime, she turned and just started to wail on me. Then, when I left to take the dog out basically just to get out of the room before I lost it and wound up yelling at her, she followed me out of the house and it kept going.

This was five minutes out of an otherwise passable, not unpleasant evening, and afterward, we took the time to work it out, watched a Bluey and went upstairs to read the Zelda Encyclopedia — though we used to cover a range of topics, it’s been Zelda-only information processing since well before Xmas — and by the time I left her room, we were in a calmer, more peaceful place. It felt okay again. But that five minutes counts too, and I don’t want to live like that, standing in the yard in the dark trying to get the dog to pee while yelling at the kid to go in the house, sit and think about why she’s not playing Nintendo anymore. That’s not who I want to be at any age. I don’t want to be own my piece-of-shit father, or hers.

I’ve gone on here longer than I wanted to, and if you read all that, thanks. I’m not going to undercut how I feel by calling it a brain-dump, but clearly I’m trying to work things out in my head and sort through these issues, and if you put eyes to any of it, can relate or not, I appreciate your time. This site is basically the only outlet I have for this kind of exploration, and I value your… indulgence?… acceptance?… I don’t know. Maybe just feeling like I can say these things with less fear of being judged as the terrible person I’ve believed I am all along in some horrifying validation.

I wish you a great and safe weekend. Have fun if you like fun, be safe either way, and don’t forget to hydrate. Next week is slammed with a Rickshaw Billie’s Burger Patrol review, full-album streams for the new Carpet (banger!) and Iota (ultra-banger!) LPs, another premiere for Maragda that I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about yet, and videos from Ripple Music doomers Haunted and Heavy Psych Sounds denizens Acid Mammoth. Yes, some days are doubled-up. Stick around and we’ll see if I make it through without collapsing.

Thanks again for reading.


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Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

Posted in Bootleg Theater on March 8th, 2024 by JJ Koczan

With the clarion riff of its title-track sounding the call to worship at its outset, experiments in folk and synth more realized than the band had yet attempted, an emergent progression of sound, arguably the first party-rock riff in “Sabbra Cadabra” and performances that find the young Black Sabbath hitting their stride as players, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was released in Dec. 1, 1973 on Vertigo Records. That put it just 14 months after Vol. 4 (discussed here), the band’s forward momentum taking a hit after the cancelation of their Spring 1973 tour either as a result of burnout, drugs, or both, depending on who’s telling the story, but it’s still about the same turnaround as that between Vol. 4 and its predecessor, 1971’s Master of Reality (review here). They were a working band.

And the eight songs and 42 minutes of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath sound like it. Gone is the willful cultish slog of their self-titled (discussed here), somewhat contrary to the impression of Dan Struzan‘s cover art, and the gritty judgementalism of Paranoid (discussed here) — at least mostly — as the returning four-piece of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, who branches out instrumentally on various keys, flute on “Looking for Today,” bagpipes on “Spiral Architect,” etc., bassist Geezer Butler (also some synth and Mellotron) and drummer Bill Ward dug into an expansion of ideas that began to come forward on the album prior to find a more rousing and uptempo take. Accordingly, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, as the fifth Black Sabbath full-length from the original lineup and the entry into the back half of their multi-genre-defining eight-record run, is also the first LP in their catalog that truly comes across like a follow-up to the one before it.

There are positive and negative aspects to that, and its audible in the expanded arrangements throughout as well as in the production around the guitar, bass, drums and vocals. As the Narrative (blessings and peace upon it) saw cocaine, alcohol and whatever other substance abuse famously rooting itself into the already-wasn’t-lacking-for-shenanigans culture of Black Sabbath as a group, they were also more confident and more self-aware in recording themselves than they’d yet been. Working with engineer Mike Butcher following writing sessions in Los Angeles (unsuccessful) and at Clearwell Castle in Gloucestershire, UK (successful), where the likes of Led Zeppelin, Queen and Deep Purple, among others, had composed and/or recorded (you can get married there now), the band stepped forward with a crunch in Iommi‘s tone audible right at the outset of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” — reportedly the first riff he wrote for the album — that was consistent with Vol. 4 in a new and purposeful way. It was the first time Black Sabbath sounded like they actively chose how they wanted to sound on a recording.

I’ll also argue that Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and its July 1975 successor, Sabotage, represent this version of Black Sabbath at the peak of their powers. That isn’t to say it’s necessarily their ‘best’ album — I’m not picking — but it’s amongBlack Sabbath Sabbath Bloody Sabbath the best played. Between Vol. 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and SabotageOsbourne, whose first statement with the band in the eponymous “Black Sabbath” was that, yes, he could reach those notes organically, found new levels of accomplishment as a singer. Here, he’s grandiose with Butler‘s lyrics in “A National Acrobat,” emotive and sincere in the realization at the end of “Spiral Architect,” and the swagger and lighthearted spirit he brings to “Sabbra Cadabra” is enough to make its generic met-a-girl-feel-good-about-it storyline come through as sweet instead of hollow as did the sappy “Changes” a year earlier.

He’s credited with composing the side B standout “Who Are You” on synthesizer — Rick Wakeman of Yes sat in on keys; maybe also for “Sabbra Cadabra” — and demonstrates a range between the creeper cinematic vibe that makes it the darkest track on the album and the still-melodic shoutier approach on “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” that uses the instrument of his voice in more complex ways, also incorporating different effects so that the bluesy swing in “Sabbra Cadabra” and the back half of “Killing Yourself to Live” could exist alongside the more adventurous instrumental arrangements in “Fluff” and the closing salvo of “Looking for Today” and “Spiral Architect.” In a singularly influential discography spanning more than five decades, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath could easily be a candidate for Ozzy‘s best work as a singer, though admittedly it’s not the only one in the running.

But Ozzy wasn’t the only one to step up, either. While Ward would always be defined by his swing and the creativity with which his fills gave force and character in complement to Iommi‘s riffs, he sets a march in “A National Acrobat” that conveys drudgery without actually being it, gives nodding shape to “Who Are You,” and double-times the hi-hat in the verse of “Looking for Today” — more strut than march — to bring a sense of energy without taking away from the vocals and guitar or Butler‘s bass, which could by this point in the original Sabbath‘s tenure be well relied upon for righteousness. As Iommi dug into the sunny folkishness of “Fluff” and the not-guitar elements noted above brought to “Looking for Today” and “Spiral Architect,” one could not say his core modus had been abandoned, even if broader ambitions were coming to the surface around that. A greater depth of structure overall makes the sudden blues-rocker turn of “Killing Yourself to Live,” which might otherwise be thought of as a mirror atmospherically for “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” natural, and as far out as “Spiral Architect” goes after its acoustic introduction, it signals nascent maturity in its patient unfolding and finds space atop its central groove enough that neither the strings nor Butler‘s nose flute feel out of place.

As composers and musicians, Black Sabbath were growing, and things were only going to get weirder from here, but they had found the band they wanted to be and set themselves to chasing that ideal on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in ways that would inform their work for the next five years and heavy music for the subsequent 50-plus so far. If I call it essential, I mean it speaks to the very heart of what Black Sabbath were at the time.

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

Busy week, busy weekend. You know I’m still not caught up on news from last week’s Quarterly Review? I was a little embarrassed yesterday putting up that Inter Arma album news a week after the fact of the actual announcement, and there are a couple things that I’m probably just going to have to drop because more has come in. I don’t particularly enjoy that, which is putting it mildly, but I remind myself that the stakes are pretty low, content-urgency is an illusion, and that I do as much as I can. I’m trying. There’s just a lot out there.

Anyway. The kid had half-days Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday because of parent-teacher conference, so it was hands-on parenting time for most of the week, which not at all shockingly does not allow for much concentrated writing. That the news was good from her kindergarten teacher — she reads well, has stopped putting what we call “the claw” in other kids’ faces, got a perfect score on her last math assessment, etc. — I won’t say makes it worthwhile, because it’s worthwhile anyway spending time with your kid, but was encouraging just the same. She’s different at home and at school, and though we have a hard time sometimes — she started ice skating lessons again on Wednesday and that claw was dug into my throat as I carried her nervous-to-go self to the car so her mother could take her — every time I step back and look at the progress she’s made and the difficult work she’s done and does every day, I can only admire her strength. Less when she’s using that strength to punch me or The Patient Mrs. for turning off the Switch at bedtime or coming downstairs an hour later to whine in her Bluey voice that she’s hungry for another yogurt, but still.

I have a bio to write today and a call scheduled with Jack from Elephant Tree ahead of doing the liner notes for their upcoming PostWax split with Lowrider. I haven’t heard any music yet from it, so don’t ask. I think they’re still mixing. I guess I’ll probably ask about that, too. But hopefully there will be some downtime in there as well. The Patient Mrs.’ mother’s birthday was yesterday and she’s coming down from Connecticut to NJ for tonight and tomorrow, which will be great, and I think her sister and her sister’s kids are coming Saturday too? I’m not sure, but also wedged in the next two days is The Pecan at a mermaid-themed pottery-painting birthday party. I don’t know how all of this will shake out, but it won’t be the first tired Monday I’ve ever had, so whatever. See “worthwhile,” above.

I’m gonna leave it there.

Thanks again for reading. I hope you’re digging the Sabbath (though if not you’re probably not still reading either) and I hope you have a great and safe weekend. Next week is once more booked front-to-back, and I look forward to again feeling both like I’m doing way too much and like I can’t keep up at all. See you Monday.


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Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Vol. 4

Posted in Bootleg Theater on March 1st, 2024 by JJ Koczan

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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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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Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Paranoid

Posted in Bootleg Theater on February 16th, 2024 by JJ Koczan

Science tells us of a time when it rained on earth for thousands of years. Water, having traveled to our nascent planet on various asteroids smashing around each other in the early solar system, finally cooled the atmosphere to the point where it could precipitate, and it would seem — at least in hyper-simplified terms — that happened long enough for 70-plus percent of the crust to be covered with water surrounding whichever supercontinent the landmass was at the time. It is what let life happen here. It’s how we got here.

This is what Paranoid is to doom. Not a watershed, but the watershed. Ubiquitous to a point of cliché, though fortunately the genre doesn’t seem to mind. Released in Sept. 1970 as a seven-months-later follow-up to Black Sabbath‘s likewise genre-defining self-titled debut (discussed here just last week), it was the band’s most commercially successful release during their initial run, and is arguably the most important heavy metal record of all-time, at least from a pop-cultural standpoint. It’s not their most accomplished work, or a personal favorite, but its component songs are so pivotal to the making of heavy music of any and all niches/microgenres/whathaveyou that it’s a given. It was the first Black Sabbath album I owned, and I don’t imagine I’m alone in that.

The album like a vacuum for hyperbole. I’ll just say the names of the songs since I assume that’s all you need to hear them in your head: “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” “Planet Caravan,” “Iron Man,” “Electric Funeral,” “Hand of Doom,” “Rat Salad” and “Fairies Wear Boots.”

To call it god-tier feels inadequate, considering the decades its relevance has held and the subsequent generations of bands who’ve internalized its teachings. 54 years after its original release, it has been put through a ringer of remasters and remixes and special editions, but the power of the original material hasn’t waned. If you want to compare it directly to its predecessor, you don’t need to look further than how each LP starts: the rainstorm at the beginning of “Black Sabbath” on the first record casting a morose atmosphere for the immediately-dug-in slow roll of that eponymous statement, and the riff and air raid siren of “War Pigs.” The one is foreboding, the other a literal alarm, a more active noise, and most of all, an acknowledgment of audience.

Generally speaking, you can only do something for the first time once. Among the most substantial differences between Black Sabbath circa Black Sabbath and Black Sabbath circa Paranoid — remember, we’re talking about a difference of months in terms of when these records happened — is that the audience is a clear consideration. Black Sabbath ParanoidNot just in “Paranoid,” the speedier track famously born from a spur-of-the-moment Tony Iommi riff as the label wanted a single. Even the label wanting a single is a change. With the element of surprise no longer on their side, Black Sabbath — the original lineup of IommiOzzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward — instead had to take the work they did on the self-titled and expand on it. First came the heavy and then came the metal. “Electric Funeral” hits hard at the start of side B and is dark in atmosphere in a way that is more cogent but also more performative. Black Sabbath had ‘a sound’ they were playing toward, and Paranoid allowed them to focus on elements like atmosphere and songwriting all the more for that.

In addition to setting a standard that few LPs could ever hope to stand up to, by Sabbath or anyone else, Paranoid also serves as a model for trajectory and creative growth. Much of it is in conversation with its predecessor, but at the same time the band had clearly learned. The performances are sharper on Paranoid, with Ward rolling immediately on the “War Pigs” intro, giving depth to the chug of “Paranoid” through jazzy swing and holding the proceedings together as “Iron Man” invents proto-crush. Iommi is more confident as a soloist, Butler expands his palette lyrically to the sociopolitical — I’ll spare you the I’m-a-liberal-on-the-internet-so-I’m-performing-sadness-about-war diatribe about the ongoing applicability of “War Pigs” or the class consciousness of “Hand of Doom”; you’re welcome — and Osbourne emerges as both frontman and singer. The latter’s on-stage charisma feels accounted for in the shouts of “Paranoid,” and while he never was a technical, voice-as-instrument-style vocalist, he reaches highs in the verses of “War Pigs” that have seen cover versions fall short for decades and defines the style he’d later explore in his solo career on “Electric Funeral,” and so even within the band, Paranoid is monumental. There is no understanding or engaging Black Sabbath without it.

Like Pink Floyd‘s The Wall or The Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s Are You Experienced?, if grimmer in outlook and outwardly angrier about it, Paranoid has pervaded the pop-cultural mainstream in such a way that it no longer belongs solely to the genre born out of its primordial ooze. “War Pigs” was in Marvel movies. I tell you no lie, I heard “Paranoid” two weeks ago over the speakers at the grocery store down the road (and yes I absolutely rocked out my middle-aged self while picking up yogurt and eggs, thank you very much). It’s not just a classic metal record, it’s a classic record. It belongs to everybody.

Maybe in part because of that, doom itself tends to hold other albums closer, whether that’s the self-titled or 1971’s Master of Reality (discussed here), Vol. 4 in ’72, or something else from the catalog, but there’s no getting around Paranoid since it’s so essential to the persona of Black Sabbath as a whole, casting their aesthetic in its purposeful, willful, defiant-of-moment-but-representative-of-moment heft. Even “Planet Caravan,” float incarnate, is heavy.

I won’t feign impartiality here, or insight for that matter. Whatever else Black Sabbath was, is, will or would ever be, Paranoid is the album for which they’ll most be remembered, the moment the entered the zeitgeist, and the greatest source of their ongoing influence across heavy music styles. And somehow, even in acknowledging all of this, I can’t help but feel like I’m underselling it. Maybe because the songs are good?

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

That’s two weeks in a row of a Sabbath delve. Is this how I’m celebrating the site’s 15th anniversary? I don’t know. I’m curious though. Sometimes a thing kind of happens and then you have to explain it afterward. I’m doing my best. My brain’s got nooks and crannies like a Thomas’ English Muffin, so sometimes I need to chase my own motivations to their source.

It was a week, it’ll be a weekend. The godsend was a productive Monday. Shit you not, I’m still today posting stuff that I wrote Monday afternoon, which almost never happens unless I’m really behind. The difference this time was I was ahead. My daughter went to school Monday, had a snow day Tuesday, was home sick Wednesday, went Thursday and is off today and Monday for President’s Day — just in case anyone wanted to be reminded of Joe Biden, which is kind of a drag even in concept, what with all that fostering genocide — so it was the fact that I got shit done on Monday that let this week happen without my eyeballs falling out. I am behind on news but that’s nothing new, and I managed this week to even have some flex on last-minute stuff, which was satisfying considering that most of the time the kid is home, that’s where focus goes. You can’t really bust out the laptop and expect productivity, though I did for a bit on Tuesday as well.

That chaos and the sick kid also pulled me out of my own head a bit, which I needed desperately. I renewed my prescriptions for whichever  mood stabilizer I’m on and whichever meth I take for ADHD, so I’m back on that horse, wagon, etc. Drugs. You know how we look back on people drilling into each other’s heads and think “oh how savage! how fortunate we are now to have modern medical science!” Some day people will look back on all the shit we dump in our bodies the same way. And they won’t be wrong, but you work with what you’ve got and if I can make my trip easier from one end of an average, probably-not-that-difficult-generally day to the other, there is a value to that beyond the fiscal exploitation of the pharmaceutical industry. I am fortunate to have insurance.

So, a four-day weekend coming up. I’ve got a Holy Fingers video premiere on Monday that I hope you’ll watch, premieres for Clarion Void and Kitsa, the latter a full LP stream, and a review either Thursday or Friday for the new album from The Obsessed, which is out today. I’m slated to interview Brume next Thursday as well, but that record isn’t out for like two months, so I might wait a bit to post. We’ll see how it goes.

Coming on 7AM (today was a pre-4 wakeup) and I hear thudding upstairs, so I’ll punch out and wish you a great and safe weekend. Have fun, hail Black Sabbath, watch your head, hydrate. That list is getting pretty long. Whatever you’re up to, thanks for your time and for reading and I hope it’s the exact opposite of awful.


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Friday Full-Length: Dio, Holy Diver

Posted in Bootleg Theater on April 8th, 2022 by JJ Koczan

It is a pinnacle achievement in heavy metal. One of the greater classics of the form. A genuine landmark for the artists involved and the genre they helped define. The course that brought vocalist Ronnie James Dio to front his own band on this debut album in 1983 was certainly bumpy enough — early teen idol fare leading Ronnie Padavona to Elf, to Rainbow, into and out of Black Sabbath again (and ultimately back into, out of, and into again as well) — but Holy Diver is one of those records that seems to stop time.

Its nine songs are brazenly dynamic, starting at a rush and pulling back immediately toward a new kind of metallic grandiosity in “Stand Up and Shout” and “Holy Diver” itself. Clearly written with an audience in mind, informed by the NWOBHM and fully cognizant of itself as a ‘heavy metal’ album at a time when that meaning could still be nebulous, Holy Diver is a monument to craft and performance. In either its own era or now some 39 years after its first release, it is a once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment — even in a life such as Ronnie James Dio‘s, which had a few of them — and it shines in a way few albums of any style could ever hope to do. There is very little hyperbole that is hyperbole enough to accurately describe either its quality or the influence and effect Holy Diver has had on metal and other heavy musics in general. It is a given. It is dogma. Holy.

One of three Dio albums to feature the lineup of Dio, guitarist Vivian Campbell (who had been in Sweet Savage prior), bassist Jimmy Bain — who also played keyboards here before the band added Claude Schnell to fill the role — and drummer Vinny Appice. The latter was imported from Black Sabbath where he had replaced Bill Ward for 1981’s Mob Rules (discussed here), which was also the second LP on which Dio fronted in place of Ozzy Osbourne, who began his own solo career in a band bearing his name in 1980. You could — and hey, it might be fun, too — argue which of the three is the Dio band’s greatest achievement, between Holy Diver, 1984’s The Last in Line (discussed here) or 1985’s Sacred Heart, but the simple truth is there is no wrong answer. With a quick jump into the album cycle of recording, releasing, and touring, and ace management, Dio was able to hold onto momentum from his time in Black Sabbath and make it his own, much as these songs were a sonic turn from even the most progressive riff-based work of Tony Iommi, blessings and peace upon him.

Consider “Invisible” on side B, or “Caught in the Middle,” or “Rainbow in the Dark.” These songs are young, vital, fresh. Despite Dio‘s presence in the music industry for decades by the time he fronted this group, he’s speaking in part to aDio Holy Diver younger audience, not patronizing but identifying with feelings and considerations that a weird heavy metal kid circa 1983 might be dealing with. Following its layered melodic opening, “Invisible” is seething, triumphant. “I can go away/I can leave here/I can be invisible.” This is a message of empowerment for someone feeling cast out. “We’re all 18 and we’re in between.” Different songs serve different purposes, of course, but from the encouragement to physically move that is “Stand Up and Shout” — pure for-stage songwriting if there ever was any, and an answer to Sabbath tracks like “Neon Knights” and “Turn Up the Night”; quintessential openers — to the storytelling in “Don’t Talk to Strangers” and “Holy Diver,” that perspective of needing to overcome a challenge is unflinching. “Don’t Talk to Strangers” is a model Dio would follow throughout his career, one of many lyrics framed around a kind of basic wary misogyny, but it pairs with the rolling cruise of the subsequent side B opener “Straight Through the Heart” as though finally embracing the inevitable.

“Holy Diver” and “Rainbow in the Dark” are achievements unto themselves, of course. Candlemass must have been paying attention, as well as countless other bands. Even the rise of thrash seems like a punker-born response to the over-the-top, all-in, zero-irony push one can hear in these songs and in Dio‘s metallic contemporaries, be it Judas Priest or Iron Maiden or Ozzy OsbourneHoly Diver takes itself deadly serious — a lesson that even the most extreme death and black metal took to heart, to be sure – and while it’s a fun record to listen to both in the bounce of “Holy Diver”‘s verses, in the scorching “Gypsy,” and in the swinging, bassy strut and open bluesy vibe of closer “Shame on the Night,” the latter something of a comedown following the keyboard hook of “Rainbow in the Dark” but still strong enough to earn its place at the finish, it also lives up to the seriousness of its approach in its performance. This band rips these songs to shreds like no one had done before and no one would again. Listen to “Rainbow in the Dark.” Just listen to it. Really.

I don’t know when the last time you put this album on was. Maybe it was yesterday. Maybe a decade ago. Maybe never. Whenever it was, Holy Diver (which was one of the first Friday Full-Lengths I ever did) has been waiting for you all along. Its songs are just as memorable as you’ve been hearing in your head this whole time, and though I’d usually wrap one of these pieces with some summary of what the artist involved went on to do after, this is enough. You know how it went, and I’m not even going to claim to have any insight on Holy Diver or Dio‘s career arc — there’s a Holy Diver graphic novel now? Okay. We’re coming up on 12 years removed from Ronnie James Dio‘s passing, and the legacy of his work and this record are strong enough that they don’t need to be recounted by the likes of me in my sweatpants on my couch. He was a generational talent. This is a generational album.

As always, I hope you enjoy. I feel pretty confident you will, and if not, I respectfully hope you’ll reconsider your position. Thanks for reading.

Not sure I have or really need an excuse behind the Holy Diver revisit. It is its own excuse for being, and if maybe I close out a week with it at random points once every decade or so for the rest of my life, I know at least I won’t complain. I’ll be the last blogger ever by then, practicing a lost artform while most people just upload their brains to the cloud or whatever. Fine.

What a week. I was up early every day including today to work on Quarterly Review stuff. We’ll wrap that on Monday and then it’s back to normal. The next few weeks are pretty locked down and there’s some cool stuff slated. I’m finally going to review the Naxatras that came out in February, not this week but the week after. Better late, and so forth. And I interviewed Esben Willems from Monolord the other day, so I’ll find some slot for that video as well. He’s a nice guy.

I was efficient enough in the Quarterly Review though that yesterday I finished today’s writeups with enough time to give myself 90 minutes off before The Pecan got home from school. I showered, I think, but then failed to take the rest of the time and instead worked on some draft revisions for a Tau and the Drones of Praise bio. Nothing major, but not exactly “time off” either. I could wrap this up now and get more time, but the same thing would happen. I’ve got a Gimme Metal playlist to turn in for next week (I’ll get an email about it today, most likely), and there’s still that last QR day. I think I’d rather go back to sleep, but yeah.

Actually, Truckfighters and Greenleaf just announced the rescheduled dates for their tour I was supposed to go with them on… oh, right about now… and I should get a post up for that. The Patient Mrs. tells me my flights are booked for it, so that’s interesting. Maybe it’ll happen, but you’ll pardon me if I’m a little gunshy about looking forward to it.

I hope you have a great and safe weekend. Have fun, hydrate, watch your head, whatnot. It’s Spring now, kind of, so that’s something. Maybe listen to some Amorphis. That’s what I do.


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Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Technical Ecstasy

Posted in Bootleg Theater on July 26th, 2019 by JJ Koczan

Black Sabbath, Technical Ecstasy (1976)


Alright, let’s do this. Let’s talk about Technical Ecstasy. In a world where the saying goes, “you can only trust yourself and the first six Black Sabbath albums,” it’s the seventh. Widely regarded as the nadir of the doom forebears’ original lineup, including by the band itself, it was released in 1976 through Vertigo Records and there’s no question it was a departure from their prior work. That’s been blamed on a number of sources, whether it’s commercial or indeed more technical aspirations in the songwriting, but most centers around the fact that production was handled by guitarist Tony Iommi on the part of the full band. But really, even on paper it was kind of a recipe for disaster. They were a bunch of coked-out rockstars recording in Miami in 1976. That’s not an album. That’s a movie.

But history has been awfully kind to Iommi, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward. Let’s remember that it was their late-’90s reunion tour that solidified their singular place in the pantheon of heavy metal, a comeback that followed an era of confused recordings like 1995’s Forbidden (discussed here) as the band tried to fit a modern context a quarter-century after getting their start. The truth is Technical Ecstasy does have some elements that show the band wanting to move forward from the prior darkened sound that would eventually become their legacy. The penultimate “She’s Gone” is based around acoustic guitar and a string arrangement in a way that feels grown out of “Fluff” from 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and presages some of the more grandiose sonic reaching of the Ronnie James Dio-fronted era that began in 1980.

At the same time, Technical Ecstasy wasn’t without an edge. I won’t attempt to defend the ultra-sleazed-out lyric of closer “Dirty Women,” but the song had a riffy crunch that fit with what the band had done a year earlier on Sabotage and though opener “Back Street Kids” reaffirms a working class origin that the band had readily given up in favor of fame and fortune, its drive was also a foreshadow of what the band would do on cuts like “Neon Knights” or “Turn up the Night” in their second iteration, or even on the title-track of the subsequent 1978 LP, Never Say Die! — a barnburner to lead-off. Experimentation with keyboard prominence in “You Won’t Change Me” came coupled with some fair tonal heft and a suitable vocal performance from Osbourne, whose voice was continuing to take on the affect it would further develop in his solo work also beginning in 1980, and a concluding solo that could please even a discriminating Iommi fan.

It was the album’s attempts at commerciality that came up lame. “It’s Alright” put Ward on vocals, and he handled it ably, black_sabbath_technical_ecstasy_retail_cd-frontmoving into a falsetto series of “oohs” to complement the McCartney-esque piano bounce of the initial verse before Iommi‘s out-of-nowhere sweeping solo. But for a band who made their name with raw impact, it was too stark a contrast for many. I won’t take away from the honky-tonk piano line of the later “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor” or the riff that accompanies, but the track sounded like the work of a band running on empty, and after “Gypsy” and the rolling groove and highlight bassline of “All Moving Parts (Stand Still),” it just seemed like Sabbath had run out of things to talk about. “She’s Gone” and “Dirty Women” would do nothing to dispel that notion in closing out the record.

That left “Gypsy” and “All Moving Parts (Stand Still)” as highlights one way or the other. They moved Sabbath‘s sound forward from Sabotage and introduced a more lush sense of melody (“Gypsy”) and were able to toy with structure in interesting ways. I’d put “You Won’t Change Me” in that category as well, despite its lyrical redundancy to the opener and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor.” It had only been five years since the band went “Into the Void” on Master of Reality (discussed here), but Black Sabbath were a different group than they were in 1971, in concept if not yet in personnel, and Technical Ecstasy represented the turmoil that was beginning to take hold that would ultimately result in the ouster of Osbourne and the arrival of Dio following Never Say Die! It was a step along a much longer, broader path.

Does that make it the worst original-lineup Black Sabbath record? Well, something’s bound to be at the bottom, and it certainly isn’t Vol. 4. I wrote a post nearly six years ago about a live version of “Dirty Women” that was so sloppy, raw and high-sounding that it encapsulated for me the crashing-out of Sabbath as a whole, and defenders of the late-Ozzy era rallied to tell me how wrong I was to malign that period of their work. So maybe bad Sabbath is still better than a lot of other things. I have the feeling if the commercial experiment had paid off and “Gypsy” or “It’s Alright” had been huge hits, the band wouldn’t be so quick to write them off, but that’s here or there. And doesn’t change the fact that their most influential work remains across the first six records, if not the first four.

Technical Ecstasy has more than a little contextual appeal. It’s part of the narrative of Black Sabbath, and an important part for what it would lead to and the changes that would come in the band in the years that followed, but on its own, the powerhouse songwriting and performances, the sheer urgency of their earlier work was largely gone. And fair enough as the popular consciousness had largely moved on from early ’70s rock and the NWOBHM had yet to take hold. Technical Ecstasy resides in that somewhat awkward between-place: mature but stoned, classy but sleaze, loud but soft. And while in hindsight one can look back and appreciate the confusion for what it is, how it represents that pivotal time for Black Sabbath as a whole, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be the record you reach for when you want to listen to them. But hey, every now and then, you could certainly do much worse.

And seriously, how great would the movie about recording it be?

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

My alarm was set for 4:30 this morning. I was giving myself a break since I got in late from the Crowbar/Lo-Pan show last night and didn’t get to sleep at 8PM as I otherwise might. Lose like four hours, gain a half-hour back. Whatever. I woke up at 3:50AM and that was it. Blew that plan like a vacuum tube.

Worth it though. Show was low key, but the bands sounded good and I was glad I went, not the least for having bought a Hawaiian shirt from Lo-Pan. Best $25 I spent all week.

Next week is packed, so let’s do notes:

MON: Horseburner track premiere; Weird Owl track premiere.
TUE: Ghost: Hello track premiere; Rancho Bizarro video premiere; Holy Grove mixtape.
WED: Hound the Wolves/Glasghote stream; Gurt video premiere.
THU: Warcrab track premiere.
FRI: Oblivion Reptilian review.

Busy busy busy.

This week has been much the same, I guess. Couple six-post days in there. I’m still pretty surprised about Des leaving High on Fire and interested to hear how they sound with someone else in that spot. Everyone on the West Coast seems to give the new guy a rousing endorsement, so either he’s a beast or just a generally awesome person or maybe both. Both would be nice in a good-for-him kind of way, but if he’s a prick and can drum, well, it’s not like I’ll have to hang out with him. Low stakes for me, is what I’m saying.

This weekend, yeah, I don’t know what’s up. I think I’ll try and take tomorrow and not to Obelisk stuff at all. We’ve got a lot going on with getting this house ready to receive the rest of our crap from Massachusetts — including like 35 boxes of CDs that allegedly are going to go somewhere other than a storage unit — so yeah. Having a toddler pull ladders down on himself does not make that process any easier, I’m sure you’ll be shocked to find out.

Dude was like CRASH and then lost his mind for like a minute and then was fine. Two black eyes and a bloody nose this week. Oy.

He’s gonna be one of those kids who breaks his arm falling off the roof. When he’s four.

No Gimme Radio show this week, but thanks for asking. I’ll get a playlist together for the next one though, so if you’re not tired of me being like, “Duh, songs,” there will be plenty more opportunity for that.

Until then, I wish you a great and safe weekend. Thanks again for reading. Have fun, be safe, live long, prosper, all that silly whatnot.

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