Ginger Nuts of Horror
BY ANDREW FREUDENBERG
So it’s 1971 and those crazy young guys from Birmingham have put out their third album. You’ve kind of dug their first two releases, as bizarre and original as they are, and you’re keen to find out just what the hell they’ll do next. You’ve played ‘Led Zeppelin III’ and ‘Deep Purple In Rock’ to death; you’re ready for some new sounds. So you gather your friends, roll up a fat one, crank the stereo and it’s time. You hear that loop of Tony Iommi coughing and, boom, ‘Sweet Leaf’ is blowing your mind for the first time…
Yeah, those were the days. Well, I can only guess those were the days. I was three years old and admittedly some way off actually becoming a fan. It’s a nice dream though. Instead it was about eleven years later that I picked up ‘Master of Reality’ on vinyl. By this point Ozzy was long gone, Dio had recorded his two albums with the band, and Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin were no more. This was effectively teenage metal archeology, the kind that you had to do in the early stages of discovering this kind of music. So was this ancient gold or just a rotting corpse?
Well… I have to admit to always feeling some confusion about this album. Giving it a fresh spin, another 35 years down the line, I think it’s pretty clear why. The first side of the record is a wonder, but, and this is one of those big buts that nobody likes, the second side is not all that great. It’s not totally horrible, far from it, but it just doesn’t match the intensity of the opening half. You have to wonder whether they consciously had to choose between blowing your mind and having that lesser following flip side, or perhaps interspersing the killer tunes between the more average numbers. Personally I think they made the right decision. Half a relentless classic is better than none.
‘Sweet Leaf’ might have slightly lost its impact after a thousand listens, it being such an upfront song, but it deserves high praise. That huge Neolithic riff, the massive guitar and bass sound, Ozzy confident and in your face, and then that murderous drop with Iommi shredding his guitar while Ward batters the hell out of his drums. This is a huge number and, talking of numbers, probably the greatest and certainly the loudest, love song to the evil weed ever recorded. Mileage may vary as to how much that means to any given listener, but I’m sure it hasn’t hurt the song’s legendary status over the years.
‘After Forever’ steps up the pace. After a semi-psychedelic introduction, a strident riff kicks in, managing to both march and groove at the same time. Geezer’s bass playing is sublime and the vocals perfect. This track makes you want to get up and shake your stuff. Bizarrely the lyrical content was heavily influenced by Butler’s Catholic leanings, and as such it must be one of the best selling Christian rock songs of all time.
Next up is the thankfully brief ‘Embryo’, which provides an acceptable acoustic breather before the star turn, ‘Children of the Grave’. The scraggly bass line, the rolling drums, that moment when the guitar kicks in for the epic communal chug… this is vintage Sabbath at its very finest. You may have gathered by now that I love this song, and that includes the ghostly whisperings that bring it to a close.
I don’t think its hyperbolic to suggest that side one forms an important part of metal’s DNA. Seattle’s grunge scene also owes it a great deal. It’s a veritable blue print for Doom and Stoner rock. Of course it nothing exists in a vacuum, and it wasn’t even Sabbath’s debut, but this was 1971. This is primal stuff.
On to side 2, or the fifth track as more digitally inclined citizens of the 21st Century might have it. ‘Orchid’ is a ninety second acoustic instrumental that, to my mind, serves no purpose. With apologies to the mighty Tony Iommi, it’s not particularly impressive or pleasant, and I just don’t see the point of it. Moving on…
‘Lord of this World’ has a decent riff and an interesting swing to it, but the highlight for me are probably Ozzy’s phased vocals. Overall it is pretty good, but I guess ‘Children of the Grave’ is a hard act for any song to,(almost), follow. I’m sure it has its fans.
Everything gets dialed right back for ‘Solitude’. The distortion disappears from Tony’s guitar, Ozzy is barely recognizable as he warbles gently, and a flute meanders throughout. It’s a lightly atmospheric ballad, which is fine in theory, but this is a throw away track, lyrically utterly banal and musically bland. At this point in the album something a little different isn’t an entirely bad idea, but this sounds lazy.
‘Into the Void’ is instrumentally sound, a good collection of riffs and breaks, but this time the vocal line lets it down. Tony Iommi has joked about how funny it was listening to Ozzy attempting to sing it during the recording sessions; there are just too many words in too short a space. It does the song no favours at all, again representing more of a wasted opportunity than a real success.
Well, there you have it. Half an essential album followed by half an unexceptional album. This should be in your collection nonetheless. Crank it up and enjoy that first side.