The cough, out of nowhere, tears the silence into pieces, its mighty echo bounces from the walls, zigzagging through your mind. The shock is paralyzing even if it lasts for less than five seconds. It is so terrifying and unexpected that you instantly become disorientated. Pure horror. It makes your hair stand on end.
Then the guitar riff unfolds in its heavy, oily rotations – pushed right into your guts by the immaculate power of the band. “All right now!” It must be the strongest opening seconds on any album in rock history. Even today, 42 years later, that exploding cough is just as jarring. And when “Sweet Leaf” hits you, there is no turning back. It owns you, you feel like building a tiny altar for Black Sabbath.
“Master Of Reality” is their third LP. It is monumental and straight to the point. The debut-album was more varied, slightly slapdash, and included a brave flirt with the epics. “Paranoid”, whose title track became a massive hit single, was more focused.
“Master Of Reality” doesn’t mess about; its huge, dark sound is established by the opening bars, and they (almost) never shy away from it. There are three exceptions: two short, acoustic Iommi-instrumentals and the super slow, airy and unexpectedly beautiful lament “Solitude”. These disruptions are necessary, otherwise the album would have pushed the listener so hard against the wall that he would suffocate.
Iommi’s special guitar tunings (down to C# from the normal E) - copied by Geezer Butler’s bass to match — gave the music a lead heavy and gloomy timbre. The low tuning adds to Iommi’s signature guitar sound, a meandering, fuzzy drone as it coils itself around the unusually lazy, almost sticky tempo of the tunes.
With this the band achieves a brutally slow attack on the senses that feels absolutely threatening. It’s a sound that countless bands have tried to copy, none has ever even come close. What Black Sabbath delivers on “Master Of Reality” is the ultimate heavy. And they walk it with such effortless grace. Contemporary metal tries to achieve this with speed and noise, Black Sabbath does it with style. Less is always more.
The album sleeve was misinterpreted at the time. Many thought it was supposed to be some sort of invitation to a Black Mass by the devil himself. They were in for a surprise when they got to the lyrics. One of the cuts, “After Forever”, is a catholic song of worship to religion and God. Now stuff that in your pipe and smoke it, you death metal-addicts!
Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne perform on stage in this January 1973 photo. (Wikipedia/Commons).
There are also songs of global concern for our present, our future and the coming generations. This album cares big time. Lyrical depth like this was absolutely unexpected on a heavy rock record in 1971.
The disc should be played so loud that your neighbours attack your front door with a baseball bat - only at that level you will get the full effect of the power of the lower register that is hidden in the vinyl grooves. The force is simply delicious. It is the Tony Iommi-show all the way. His guitar sound is incomparable, it fills the entire room. If you never heard the album before, you’re sure in for a treat. You’ll be hooked. Forever!
Ozzy Osbourne deserves honour too. A wonderful voice in these surroundings, his blistering moaning is the fingerprint of all classic Black Sabbath recordings. No empty gestures, none of the nerve-racking howls that seem to be the standard of later heavy rock-bands. Ozzy is a glorifying individual, he doesn’t sound like anybody else.
He is also a very funny guy to party with, as I experienced when he invited me with the band to a porn club in Gothenburg in 1974. When the live show started, Ozzy pulled down his pants and charged for the naked couple on the stage with a roar of delight, only to have us all thrown out. Then we tried to fit all into the back seat of a taxi cab, impossible of course as people kept falling out on the other side of the car until all of us lay in a pile on the frozen street laughing, the taxi driver drove off, angry, and we started walking.
“Master Of Reality” was ripped to shreds by the critics in 1971. Today it is considered one of rock music’s greatest classics, regardless of weight class. I loved it from the moment that cough split my brain in two, and I was so annoyed by the lukewarm review in New Musical Express. Today it feels good to know that Black Sabbath won.
NB: Next week’s review: Iron Butterfly: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”.