Master of Reality
Released: August 1971
Chart Peak: #8
Weeks Charted: 43
Certified Platinum: 10/13/86
The second-generation rock audience (that is, those who went steady to "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and got serious with Highway 62 Revisited) suffer mightily wrestling with the phenomenon represented by Grand Funk and Black Sabbath. If nothing else, though, both Funk and Sabbath are for all their monotony at least supremely consistent -- as opposed to shtick collectors with no personal vision like Deep Purple. And since when is monotony so taboo in rock & roll, anyway? Rock has been -- some of the best of it too -- in large part monotonous from the beginning, hypnotically so, as rightwingers would say. As far apart as they are, Black Sabbath is only slightly more monotonous than James Taylor or Joni Mitchell, and any Stooges or MC5 fan who disdains Black Sabbath is just bigoted.
The thing is that, like all the best rock & rollers since the Pleistocene era, Black Sabbath (and Grand Funk) have a vision that informs their music with unity and direction and makes their simple structures more than they might seem. Grand Funk's vision is one of universal brotherhood (as when they have spoken of taking their millions to the White House with a list of demands), but Black Sabbath's, until Master of Reality anyway, has concentrated relentlessly on the self-immolating underside of all the beatific Let's Get Together platitudes of the counterculture.
Master of Reality both extends and modifies the trends on their last album, Paranoid. It has fewer songs, if you discount the two short instrumental interludes, but it is not that the songs are longer than the first record -- the album is shorter. The sound, with a couple of exceptions, has evolved little if at all. The thick, plodding, almost arhythmic steel wool curtains of sound the group is celebrated and reviled for only appear in their classical state of excruciating slowness on two tracks, "Sweet Leaf" and "Lord of This World," and both break into driving jams that are well worth the wait. Which itself is no problem once you stop thinking about how bored you are and just let it filter down your innards like a good bottle of Romilar. Rock & roll has always been noise, and Black Sabbath have boiled that noise to its resinous essence. Did you expect bones to be anything else but rigid?
The rest of the songs, while not exactly lilting, have all the drive and frenzy you could wish for in this day and age. Thematically the group has mellowed a bit, and although the morbidity still shines rankly in almost every song, the group seems to have taken its popularity and position seriously enough to begin offering some answers to the dark cul-de-sacs of Paranoid. "Sweet Leaf," for instance, shows that Black Sabbath have the balls to write a song celebrating grass this late date, and the double entendre, if you can even call it that, is much less tortuous than it would have been in 1966, with an added touch of salvation from grosser potions: "My life was empty forever on a down/ Until you took me, showed me around... Straight people don't know what you're about..."
Unfortunately, the religious virus also rears its zealot head, in "After Forever," which is a great Yardbirds-type arrangement nevertheless and despite its drubbing us over the head with "God is the only way to love" it does have the great line "Would you like to see the Pope on the end of a rope?"
I'm not saying that either that or the arrangement it's set in is the new "My Generation," but it is a rocking, churning addition to the long line of defiant, self-affirmative and certainly a little defensive songs that goes right back to the earliest whap and wail of rock 'n' roll. It's naive, simplistic, repetitive, absolute doggerel -- but in the tradition. Chuck Berry sang in more repressed times, "Don't bother us, leave us 'lone/Anyway we almost grown." The Who stuttered "hope I die before I get old," but the MC5 wanted to "Kick Out the Jams" or at least escape on a "Starship," and Black Sabbath have picked up the addled, quasi-politicized desperation of growing up in these times exactly where they left off: "Freedom fighters sent out to the sun/Escape from brainwashed minds and pollution/Leave the earth to all its sin and hate/Find another world where freedom waits."
The question now is not whether we can accept lines as obvious and juvenile as that from a rock & roll record. They should be as palatable to anyone with a memory as the stereotypic two- and three-chord structures of the songs. The only criterion is excitement, and Black Sabbath's got it. The real question is whether Black Sabbath can grow and evolve, as a band like the MC5 has, so that there is a bit more variation in their sound from album to album. And that's a question this group hasn't answered.
- Lester Bangs, Rolling Stone, 11/25/71.
Sabbath's third album, no less potent that the first two. It includes "Into the Void," "Children of the Grave," and "Lord of This World." * * * * *
- Cub Koda, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Like Paranoid, Master of Reality was another brilliant skull-crusher, featuring the timeless "Children of the Grave" and "Sweet Leaf." * * * * 1/2
- Thor Christensen, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Oh, how the critics laughed at the elaphantine tempos and Beelzebub-for-beginners verse. But Black Sabbath were not curdled Cream for pimply Satanists. They were inspired devils, playing a slow-motion prototype of punk rock riven with ingenious swerves in hook and rhythm. And for all his lyric flirtation with dark princes and the walking dead, yelping loon Ozzy Osbourne was no dime-store Antichrist. On Master of Reality, the definitive studio relic of Sabbath's golden-hellfire era (1970-74), he preached a gospel of light: dignity, redemption and, in the heaving stoner's hymn "Sweet Leaf," peace through weed.
The Sabs cut Master of Reality in a rush between punishing U.S. tours and issued it just seven months after their Top Twenty smash Paranoid. The haste shows. Two of the eight tracks are faux-Elizabethan madrigals by guitarist Tommy Iommo. (The sixteenth century always brought out the sap in U.K. metal bands.) A third, "Solitude," is an endless-tour lament swimming in echo, flute (!) and self-pity, with an opening couplet blatantly cribbed from Bob Dylan's "With God on Our Side."
But the rest is ten-ton meat, Iommi's black-ooze chords and the gibbering discord of his overdubbed-guitar dogfights belie the facility with which he, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward cut through the mood swings in "Children of the Grave" and "Lord of This World": forced march, mad gallop, lava-flow grind. "Into the Void" has one of the best stomps in the Sabs' riff book (Iommi's hopscotch guitar skittering over Ward's unflappable thump), and Iommi's mud-caked picking in "After Forever" jangles like George Harrison buried alive.
Osbourne's homely tenor and Halloween stories sealed the group's bond with High School USA. Sabbath fans in '71 were part of the first post-peacenick generation, kids growing up under Nixon's fat, mean thumb, and on Master of Reality, Osbourne spread hope through fright. "Into the Void" is really a sermon about escape, and "Children of the Grave" is about a teenage army on the move: "They'll fight the world until they've won and love comes flowing through."
Corny -- but killer. Black Sabbath declared war on evil with a big, vicious noise, and on Master of Reality the good guys won.
- David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 1/20/00.
The greatest sludge-metal band of them all in its prime. Paranoid may have bigger hits, but Master of Reality, released a mere six months later, is heavier. The highlight is "Sweet Leaf," a droning love song to marijuana; and the vibe is summed up by the final track, "Into the Void."
Master of Reality was chosen as the 298th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
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