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Vol. 4
Black Sabbath

Warner 2602
Released: September 1972
Chart Peak: #13
Weeks Charted: 31
Certified Platinum: 10/13/86

Black SabbathBlack Sabbath at their best have been perhaps the all-time ultimate rock and roll noise -- their music has relentlessly developed upon the idea the early Who were getting at, that mystical moment when the music takes off and just becomes pure sound. That, indeed is where Sabbath have made their basic stand: sound.

And that's where the one big dissapointment with Black Sabbath Vol. 4 lies -- the sound itself. For some inexplicable reason, Black Sabbath saw fit to record Vol. 4 without their previous production/engineering team of Rodger Bain and Tony Allom, a move that has to be one of the biggest mistakes in recent rock history.

Black Sabbath - Vol. 4
Original album advertising art.
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As a result, Vol. 4 is the most conventional sounding of any Black Sabbath album to date, lacking entirely the furious slab-thick bass sound which reached its apex on Master of Reality. Large stretches of Vol. 4 sound a lot like Led Zeppelin, in fact -- which is great, but not Sabbath's main turf.

But the engineering deficiencies of the album are largely compensated for by a stunning new development: Black Sabbath playing at fast tempos! Around 5 of the 7 rockers on the LP feature Sabbath simply revving up a a pace previously unknown! The mind boggles. "Supernaut" is the real standout, one of Sabbath's two or three best tracks ever... to hear this song on AM radio would be the greatest thing since Uriah Heep's "Easy Livin.'" The remaining tracks are for the most part also very good, and "Cornucopia" is an effective slow workout more in the old Sabbath mold.

Black Sabbath's songwriting has changed a lot with Vol. 4. Musically, the group's material is more diffuse and less monomanically vicious -- fewer pulverizing riffs this time out. The music nevertheless still shines, but thematically the songs just don't stand out as they have in the past (who can ever forget "War Pigs," "Hand of Doom," or "Into the Void"? Whether, as one non-convert put it, you want to or not!).

So Black Sabbath Vol. 4 is both a confusing and an exciting album. Good but not great. In the long run Vol. 4 may be a more durable effort than Paranoid, but the two are so dissimilar I hesitate to ignore them. And it's still impossible to tell whether the comparative lack of fire here is due to inferior engineering, or to a decreasing savagery in Sabbath's playing. Considering how "Under the Sun" (the album's least successful hard rock number) is almost wiped off the board by thin recording, the former seems more probable at this point in time.

But Black Sabbath merely going through the motions still shuts down 99% of today's rock.

- Mike Saunders, Phonograph Record, Nov. '72.

Bonus Reviews!

The red kings of demon rock have gotten it together and gifted their adoring public with a long awaited fourth album. They have not disinterred any new musical pathways here, their sounds are, as always, immediately recognizable. Some nice titles include "Cornucopia," "Wheels of Confusion," "St. Vitus Dance" and "Laguna Sunrise."

- Billboard, 1972.

This is a surprisingly song-oriented set of cynical boogie. * * * *

- John Floyd, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Long before Black Sabbath broke down as a result of drug-fueled infighting, there was a brief period of drug-fueled sludge-metal genius. The proof -- ...Vol. 4.

The band have long said the writing and recording of the album coincided with their most hedonistic and substance-heavy period, after their label transplanted the four Brits to California to record the album. The record's original title, Snowblind, was nixed by label execs for its obvious reference to cocaine.

The negative consequences of their decadence would be heard at the end of the decade, when the band descended into Spinal Tap versions of their early selves. But ...Vol. 4 was before the burnout and bloat and the songs were still riff-packed, rough, and heavy -- or, as Rolling Stone put it, "slabs of liquid metal."

Because of the lack of an anthemic single, ...Vol. 4. is often overlooked. There is no track to rival the popularity of "Paranoid" and "Sweet Leaf"; only "Snowblind" gets the odd nod on radio these days. Rather, the album's strengths lie in the songs' confident, heavy crunch and in small touches of experimentation. The band dabble with psychedelic overdubs ("The Straightener"), live strings ("Laguna Sunrise"), and even a mellow side -- the slow piano ballad "Changes," which makes for an odd addition to this collection. But unlike the band's later albums, the meat of this record stays true to the band's original dark and heavy roots. It was with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and all that followed that the Sabs' trademark sound began to slip away from them.

- Jason Chow, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

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