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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Black Sabbath – Paranoid

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 10
Overall Rating = 13

Best Song: Umm... anything off of side one

If I were to be considered a "legitimate" Black Sabbath fan, I probably wouldn't have picked this album as their best. It might have been the next one for introducing the heavier, earth-rattling guitar tone and religious lyrics in their ironically satanic setting, or 1975's proto-prog-metal efforts on Sabotage, or even their debut for being their most innovative. And while I do love those albums, and I don't rate them far behind this one either (well their debut a bit more, but if you've read that review you probably already understand why), there's a solid reason that this one not only gets acclaim from the "true fans", but the casual fans and classic rock listeners only immersing themselves into the band's vision of heavy metal as a gothic/horror/cheap thrills type of genre. The fact that it contains the best elements of their debut – the aforementioned cheap thrills, the simple, yet devastating riffs – and predicts some of the best elements of their subsequent ones – the occasional more complex riff, lyrics and vocals (and vocal melodies) that are so stupid they're brilliant, some very scarce experimental ideas – while containing big hits, fan favourites and underrated gems all at once was enough of initial selling point for me.

That being said, much like the first album, side two is considerably weaker, although I definitely prefer this side two. The usual accused in this matter is "Rat Salad", a track in the vein of Cream's "Toad" and Led Zeppelin's "Moby Dick" – a grooving 12-bar riff followed by a brief guitar solo, a drum solo and then a reprise of the main riff. However, I'd say, in a certain sense, this one's a relative improvement over its more (in)famous predecessors. For starters, the main riff is somewhat more memorable: rather than the crunchy chord-based riffing of Clapton's or the tricky boogying groove of Page's, Iommi's riff (and Geezer's bass played in unison) plays a fun, stopping-and-starting old spy film-style theme, occasionally in call-and-response with Ward's drumming (something that only ever happened post-solo in "Toad" and "Moby Dick"). Most importantly, though, is that the track is barely two minutes long, meaning that the drum solo itself only lasts about 50 seconds. I know that saying "it's shorter than others" doesn't exactly resemble a glowing endorsement, but I've always enjoyed the initial moments of drum solos more because all the energy is put into it, and Bill Ward's brief explosive outburst is no exception. So rather than take offense at a style of song that I don't find particularly favourable, I enjoy it the way I imagine the group intended it: as a parody of their peers who wanted to show their drummers as Gods when they're simply percussive backers (excellent ones, of course, but not exactly suitable for such length).

The two tracks surrounding it are better, in the sense that they're actual songs. The closing "Fairies Wear Boots" (a song whose lyrics mock skinheads) is similar to their earlier b-side, "Wicked World", in that the song is made up of a significant number of riffs being cycled around. I wouldn't say they're the kind of riffs to end all riffs, but they're solid and memorable, whether the initial moody arpeggios turned dark bluesy solo, the two-chord guitar vamp/cascading drum fill call-and-response, the rising quasi-power pop twangy riff, the swinging verse riff... well you get the idea. There are probably a few more in there. In a way, I suppose the song's strongest asset is also somewhat of a liability: in its five minutes, it cycles through so many ideas repeatedly in a variety of orders that it loses you. On the other hand, Ozzy's vocal parts make it easier to remember which riffs precede, accompany or follow them. It's actually quite a solid vocal performance overall. He seems rather desperate in his plea "You gotta believe me!" – whether addressing his audience in regards to his story about an unfortunate run-in with skinheads or addressing a psychiatrist on the matter – and he handles the melody quite well despite not even partially fitting the riff (which began on the previous album but becomes the group's trademark here, but more on that later).

"Hand of Doom", on the other hand, has the opposite issue: of stretching out a couple of slightly better riffs to last 7 minutes. Don't get me wrong; I consider these to be some great riffs. Geezer's main bassline that slowly and menacingly crawls upward with funky drum backing and Iommi subtly following in the distance is moody and effective, and it alternating with the same riff in full-out rock mode, guitars crunched up, bass bubbling up and cymbals crashing makes it incredibly dynamic. The secondary riff is great as well: a stomping, chugging guitar groove in the doom-laden vein of future Iommi riffs, just two close chords colliding together in a hellish landscape. And Ozzy's vocals tackle the subject matter – that of the harrowing experience of the band witnessing Vietnam vets' lives degenerating into heroin-fuelled nightmares – with plenty of skill, from the creepy riff-following in the quieter parts of the main riff (describing the events that tormented Vietnam soldiers into consuming drugs), to the tense howling in the louder parts of the main riff or in the secondary riff (by which point the vets succumb to drugs and feel their lives spiral out of control). All of this is well and good, and at 3-4 minutes the song would have been perfect, but at 7 minutes it just kind of repeats needlessly. Yes, I suppose the lyrics are different, but there's nothing in the later verses to capture my attention that the first verses do. We're not dealing with Bob Dylan after all.

In some way, I can enjoy these in context and in another, might consider them minor highlights, if not for the fact that they follow a string of five strong highlights. To me, the side opening "Electric Funeral" is underrated when compared to the first side's tracks (or the last LP's first side, for that matter). The song also touches upon fears of ongoing war, this time the Cold War; of course, rather than being set in modern times, it's set in a dystopian time where the nuclear apocalypse feared by the world from the 1950s onward becomes reality, and the music is made to reflect that: how else would you justify the fuzzy, slow, plodding, wah-wah-drenched riffs (a slightly Middle Eastern-sounding one introducing the verses and a descending, bluesier one afterwards) and Ozzy's zombie-esque vocals? It gets better, too – and by better I mean campier, as the term comes to mean in regards to Black Sabbath. After Ozzy introduces the nuked zombies in each verse, the continued fighting in the post-apocalypse leads into chaotic boogie-like sections, with agitated riffage, a rising vocal melody and Tony's lead guitar following it, and each one concludes in the intentionally dippy grumbled bass vocal hook where Ozzy robotically echoes the title, with the final one resulting in a literal dead-end for the track. Is it stupid? Kind of. Does it rule anyhow? Hell yeah.

On to side one, the "stupidity" continues with group calling card "Iron Man". Don't, for a second, mistake this for a degradation of the song. From its first moments, you know it's going to be cheap, campy and kick-ass: the opening bass drum thump, the power chord guitar blasts that sound like someone's standing behind Iommi to detune the strings, Ozzy's initial encoded robot voiceover of "IIIIIII AAAAAAAAM IIIIIIIIRON MAAAAAAN", and of course, the riff. Of all of the riffs in the world that could be described as "stupid", this one's probably my favourite. Doesn't the sequence of chords Iommi picked for it perfectly resemble that of a lumbering metallic buffoon clumsily tearing down everything in his path? It's made all the more brilliantly idiotic when Ozzy builds a melody that copies it note for note, as if expressing the inner thoughts of this clueless machine of destruction (and Geezer's ungrammatical lyrics certainly add to that notion). What's amazing about it is there's more to the track than this main riff, as great and memorable it is. The stupid simplicity of it is made all the more appealing when surrounded by several equally impressive yet slightly more complex riffs: a hell-ish descending riff (when Ozzy sings the Iron Man's lament of being unwanted), the following rising bluesy riff, the chugging speedy bassline that Ward backs with Ian Paice-like insanity and that Iommi initially follows before veering off into searing soloing... there are probably plenty more, but I just can't keep track of them all. The best one, other than the main one, is the final one: with jackhammer bass playing, rolling drum cascades and a speedy, quasi-apocalyptic riff, you get to witness the once clumsy destruction of Iron Man's escalate into violent rage.

It's funny to think that the second best-known song, the title track, started as nothing more than a filler piece to shut the record executives up about something with commercial appeal (and fill in another 2-3 minutes of record time). It's actually unique in the group's catalogue (until they would rip themselves off) as a bit of Deep Purple-ish speedy metal – in other songs, speed was more of an "evolution" of the dark, pseudo-evil slowness that preceded – yet unlike their fun-loving peers, they manage to take their overamped rock 'n' roll drive and make it as dark as the rest of the Sabbath catalogue. Even if the chugging riffage is hardly different from, say, "Speed King", the guitar tone is somewhat foreboding (I sense a bit of phasing, but there's more to it than that; it's just that I – and many others – are unable to identify it), the three-chord interruption at the end of each descended two-chord bombardment makes it seem disjointed, Geezer's basslines underneath occasionally pop out like overflowing magma, and Ozzy's rushed vocal performances, slightly echoed and extremely tense throughout, express paranoia as best as possible, despite the lyrics having more to do with (as far as I can tell) feeling lost without a loved one, not to mention despite the rumours that Ozzy hadn't a fucking clue what the emotion he expressed so well even meant. And then, there's the rip-roaring solo, where the unique nature of Iommi's guitar tone is fully exploited: the lead guitar is split in between each channel, with one side being vaguely more piercing and the phaser effect sounding more haunting than anything the band's disciples could ever concoct. Yet it's such a simple solo that anyone could reproduce it note-for-note. Says a lot how a bit of extra production value goes a long way.

The third most well-known song, the opening "War Pigs" (once called "Walpurgis", or Satanists' Christmas, before the label put a stop to that), was originally meant to be the title track, hence the album cover with a boar in uniform kept once the album title changed. It fits perfectly in the anti-Vietnam era, denouncing corrupt politicians for waging war with others' lives and comparing it to satanic rituals. The war theme of the song is perfectly captured by the music, starting with the slow, bombastic power chords with occasional feedback echoing them, the fat bass carrying the melody, and 1940's British war sirens; in fact, it's just as effective as the opening bells and initial riff of "Black Sabbath" on the previous album. That's not all the tune shares with its fellow LP opener: the main form of guitar followed by percussion and vocals is preserved, although this time instead of a powerful three-note riff followed by mystical, tribal-like drumming it's a two-chord vamp (occasionally accompanied by searing guitar fills) followed by a hi-hat groove. While the lyrics here are somewhat dumb (infamously rhyming "masses" with "Black Masses"), Ozzy sings them incredibly well, with a powerful voice tackling the rising melody with plenty of poignancy. As the song progresses, the guitar vamps become more chord-filled, the drums become chaotic, and we lead into a terrific chugging riff where Ozzy's denunciation of crooked, warmonger politicians becomes even more poignant. There are also a couple of cool solo parts (or where lead guitar is generally more prominent) before and after reprises of the aforementioned sections, and these are pretty great too. I'm not sure which I prefer: the hypnotic arpeggio interrupted by power chords or the Middle Eastern-influenced melody that transforms into a double lead guitar attack backed by flexible drumming and acrobatic bass. Regardless, it suffices to say that, despite the repetition, it manages to make every second of its 7 minutes count, which I can't say as easily for "Hand of Doom".

Given that I'm not a heavy metal purist, it shouldn't come as a surprise that this final track is a highlight to me. "Planet Caravan" is, of all things, a psychedelic ballad (!) with elements of jazz thrown in (!!). What's amazing is that it's not completely out of place: with themes of madness, addiction, violence, war and destruction abound on the LP, a brief respite in an escapist love song fits right in. And where else to escape but the stars, considering space travel was just as much "all the rage" at the time as anti-war sentiment? Anyways, the song is quite lovely, with the band (and their producer and engineer, I imagine) perfecting every little detail in the arrangement to capture the right mood. Ozzy's vocals are filtered through a Leslie speaker and a couple of other effects, making them otherworldly, and the musical backing of looping bass, mystical hippie-esque bongos, plucked gypsy-guitar chords and distant echoing notes that I only recently learned were backwards flutes from Tony are quite pretty and relaxing. The centerpiece of the tune has to be Tony's fluid jazz guitar solo; it's absolutely breathtaking, starting low and slow, but gradually speeding up and climbing up the guitar strings. I guess he learned exactly what he needed to in his brief stint with Jethro Tull. My only complaint is that the slow, stately piano chords that surface halfway through the solo should have been there throughout the tune, although I guess it was saved later for a semblance of "development" (although the guitar solo itself accomplishes that feat, if you ask me).

While technically there's no ideal introduction to Black Sabbath – as I said earlier, their debut, their third LP or their mastery of the proto-prog-metal genre all apply – I would still recommend anyone wanting to learn more about the group start with this one. It has familiarity, which is hard to come by given the band's (not-for-the-better) notoriety with critics, it has innovation, and it even has a bit of diversity, despite not being a major focus for the band for another three years. If you, a novice at the darker side of heavy metal (as opposed to the philosophically lighter side of Deep Purple or philosophically moderate side of Led Zeppelin), want to dig into the band, you might get turned off by the detuned guitars of Masters of Reality or never-ending jamming of their debut's second side, and as great as Sabotage is, I'm not quite sure how reflective of the band it can be as a whole (only two songs fully capture the kind of spirit people think of when they think of the band).

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