The High Points: Symptom of the Universe, Megalomania, Hole in the Sky, The Writ
The Low Points: Are you fucking kidding me?
The Verdict: It doesn’t really get any better than this.
The Rating: 10/10
’74 and ’75 were shitty, shitty years for Black Sabbath. They found out their manager had been ripping him off, they fired his ass, he sued, the band’s assets were frozen pending the outcome, the label got in on the act… they actually had process servers walking into the studio and serving them papers while they were trying to write. I can’t imagine an environment less conductive to the writing and recording of good music, but…
Sabotage marked the end of Sabbath’s brilliant six album golden age, and what a way to cap it off. The original intent was to pull back from the rampant experimentation that had characterized Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and write a no-frills hard rock record. They did avoid all the extra layering and instrumentation, but in terms of songwriting and arrangement it turned out to be the most progressive and complex Sabbath record yet, with two of the tracks clocking in at over eight minutes. But the record does rock harder, and it wastes no time pummeling you into submission with the swingy-yet-still-heavy Hole in the Sky. Right off the difference is apparent; aside from the hard rocking nature of the track you can hear the denser, meatier sounds hearkening back to their earlier work. And did I mention that the song kicks ass?
So does everything else here as well. Symptom of the Universe (arguably the best track here) dips it’s toes into progressive metal territory years before progressive metal was even a thing, and became one of the band’s great classics in the bargain. It also hints a little at thrash and I have to think bands like Metallica were more than a little influenced by this record. Megalomania is angry and intense, never becoming boring throughout it’s nine+ minute stretch. On the second side you get the sweeping and plaintive Thrill of it All followed by Supertzar, a bizarre yet beautiful piece with a choir soaring over the top of Iommi’s power chords. The of course there’s Am I Going Insane. It’s kinda pseudo-pop pseudo-metal pseudo-I-don’t-even-know, but it’s got a cheesy creepiness that totally works for me. It’s weird and doesn’t seem to necessarily fit, but that very jarringness provides a needed respite from the doom, which comes back in full force with the monster closing track The Writ. Eight minutes long and utterly brilliant throughout, this sounds more pissed off than anything Sabbath has done before or since and it’s almost a letdown to discover that it’s about the band’s management and label woes.
The stress the band was under didn’t hurt the performances any more than it did the writing; everyone is firing on all cylinders here. One thing guitarists often note when learning material from this record is how much Iommi’s guitar technique had improved by this time from his years on the road. There’s a world of difference between his solos here and going forward and the early ones, not so much stylistically but technically. This is where he truly comes into his own. But the real hero here is… believe it or not… Ozzy Osbourne. Somehow for a brief moment in time the man went from being an adequate singer to a great one; this is without a doubt his finest recorded performance.
The production is a definite step up from the previous two; in fact I’d call it the best sounding Iommi-produced record of the 70s. It’s got the heaviness and warmth of Master of Reality but with a touch of the lusher, more layered feel of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. There are a fair amount of keys here and for the tour Sabbath would for the first time travel with a keyboardist. Don’t look at the jacket art; it’s awful.
Every metal fan really, really, really needs this album. It’s arguably Sabbath’s finest moment (although it was a tough call up against Dehumanizer) and an absolute landmark of heavy metal.