Ginger Nuts of Horror
It's odd, I don't have a favourite Sabbath album. The first six studio albums from 1970 - 1976, and the first album with Ronnie James Dio on vocals, do amount to seven of my favourite records of all time though (and I have a great many records). I can't get a cigarette paper between those seven records in terms of my own listening pleasure. Their influence on the heavy rock music around them at that time, and particularly during and after grunge, was monumental. I sometimes think that these days, it's almost hard to find a metal band without the spirit of Sabbath, and an abundance of its musical ideas, present. Like many metal fans, I also look for Sabbath in other bands. It's probably the highest tribute you can pay to a band. They were so original, and such a precursor; I often wonder what their own awareness was, at the time, of what they were doing with music? Oddly, I also enjoyed listening to these Sabbath albums more from the late nineties until the present day. I think at that time I fully appreciated just how special they were/are/always will be. I often have these records on.
What I found so extraordinary about bands of this era too was their work rate and the consistent quality of the recorded music, year after year, when judged against the relative short period of time in which they wrote and recorded and toured in what seemed like a continuous blur, and while, we're told, indulging in drink and drugs on a scale that you'd expect to prevent them doing anything more than taking drugs and drinking and reaping the consequences of such chaotic lifestyles. But it would take a near unique collision of talent, inspiration, chemistry and effort to produce those first six Sabbath albums in six years. Led Zeppelin did it. Lynyrd Skynyrd did it too. Iron Maiden did it in the era that followed. Only legends do it.
The stories of Sabbath's excesses were legend in the rock press that I read as a teenager, and disillusionment and exhaustion and toxic atmospheres have all been reported as reaching a critical mass in the albums that followed Sabotage, Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die. So Sabotage is like an epochal closing chapter on the band's incredible surge out of the void, that began with a first album that cost £600 to produce and was made in three days. Six years later, I believe this record took one year to produce, and seems to close a six year period near unparalleled in heavy music, in terms of what was created and recorded.
The album contains three of my favourite Sabbath songs, not least 'The Writ', which seems like the final scream from this classic part of the band's history. It's a song that conjures so much for me, the raucous white blues of the 60s and 70s heavy rock outfits, before the character of the song changes considerably, from one part to the next, veering from an anthemic, raucous blues, to chugging heavy metal riffing, to mournful, gentle, folky melodies. There's a different sound and tone in Ozzy's voice; a true heavy metal scream blended with the soaring soul melodies of a Janis Joplin, before his voice becomes filled with what sounds like emotional pain, or anguish. I find it quite moving; it is a last hurrah, and a reflection on an incredible era of heavy music that ended on its knees. To me the song captures a sense of youth that became too old before its time.
Also of particular note for me on this album is 'Symptom of the Universe', one of their greatest songs. To this day, when I listen to it, I picture a rapidly turning funnel of stars; it almost makes me feel seasick. Just a black and white psychedelic whirlpool narrowing to a void with that song playing through it; those incredibly deep drum rolls, the urgent, repetitive guitar, Ozzy's wail over it all. A very simple song that conjures visions, and has an epic, booming, sound. While stone-cold straight, I still feel like I'm being affected by the drugs they smoked. As an aside, this album might also feature, for me, some of Tony Iommi's most interesting guitar playing.
'Hole in the Sky' feels like the last of the old Sabbath catalogue too - it has the urgency in delivery, the rhythmical, down-tuned heaviness, and the baleful cries of songs like 'N.I.B', 'Sweet Leaf', 'Children of the Grave', 'Supernaut', 'War Pigs', and 'Lord of This World'.
I've really enjoyed playing this album again, and about a dozen times to articulate some thoughts about my feelings. And one thing that struck me was my mood. No other metal band puts me in a particular kind of mood; there is adrenaline running through the mood, but it's also mournful in character, and my mind is poorly lit.
I'm also still fascinated but confused about the cover - those four long-haired figures, almost resembling images from a painting created during the reign of Charles II, before that huge gilt-framed mirror, and then facing into it on the reverse. As with the Paranoid cover, because I came to metal (1984) long after Sabbath's prime, I find myself intrigued about the influences, lifestyles and culture that produced those covers and the music inside of them.