Black Sabbath Review Countdown #18: Technical Ecstasy

Released: 1976

The High Points: You Won’t Change Me, Gypsy, Dirty Women

The Low Points: She’s Gone, Rock and Roll Doctor, It’s Alright

The Verdict: There’s some truly bad music here… but the good stuff is amazing.

The Rating: 6/10

Sabbath went through the first half of the 70s as if they had been sprinkled with fairy dust… it was like they could do no wrong. They managed six absolute masterpieces in a row; who the hell does that? But apparently even they couldn’t keep it up forever.

Album number 7: Technical Ecstasy. Sabbath had been through the wringer during the two years leading up to this record. A split with their management led to lawsuits which led to the band trying to handle their own management which led to… well, you get the idea. Flagging sales figures didn’t help; 1975’s Sabotage is looked back upon as a classic masterpiece but didn’t sell as well at the time as did it’s predecessors. This was at least partly because the management/label issues the band was undergoing at the time resulted in the record being a bit underpromoted, but also because trends were changing. The dark, heavy stuff coming out of Britain was losing ground, and party-hearty American bands like Kiss were ruling the rock roost. Disco and punk were inserting their greasy fingers around the corners. Sadly, Sabbath decided that if they couldn’t beat ’em they might as well join em…

Technical Ecstasy brings to us a very different Black Sabbath. There’s a line between hard rock and metal (think AC/DC vs Iron Maiden), and here’s my full disclosure of bias: I am heavily weighted towards the metal side of the fence. Worse, we’re talking about the 70s here… and with very few exceptions the heavy stuff is about the only music I really like from the 70s. Bad Company? I think they suck. Lynyrd Skynyrd? Hate ’em. This is where I’m coming from. And for the first time, Black Sabbath recorded and album that crossed that line and sacrificed all that was quintessentially Sabbath on the alter of fitting in with current trends in rock. Not only did it NOT help their sales figures, it resulted in one of the worst albums they’ve ever recorded.

It hits you right off the bat. Lead-off track Back Street Kids is a generic chug-rocker and you immediately notice that Iommi’s mighty, mighty tone has had the edge filed off. It’s basically that overly midrangy pseudo Les Paul thing that polluted so much of the 70s. Then there’s the bad lyrics… Geezer, what the hell is going on? On this album Butler abandons his trademark mysticism and topical themes and tries to go for a more mainstream approach. He tries to follow Kiss’s path and write about how awesome Rock n’ Roll is… and man is he BAD at it. Dude, leave the rock till you drop crap to Kiss… they do it better (and even from them it’s generally nauseating). “Nobody I know could ever take my rock n’ roll away from me”?! Really? That’s the best you could do for a refrain line? Interestingly Ozzy would often walk this road in his solo career with ridiculous tracks like Rock ‘n’ Roll rebel. But never mind. It’s actually not the worst track; if you ignore the lyrics it’s listenable enough and it gets really interesting after the 2nd verse.

Speaking of Ozzy, this is the first album where they make really extensive use of the vocal multi-tracking that would become his signature sound going forward. To hide how weak his voice was getting? Who knows? The rest of the band is also showing signs of fatigue; Butler’s bass lines are mostly limp and uninspired and Ward is laying off a lot of the out-of-left-field fills he’s so well known for. Iommi, on the other hand, sounds super-energized and plays great. Also of interest is the addition of a keyboardist. Jezz Woodruffe had been tapped to play the previous tour in order to address a growing sense on the band’s part that some of their newer stuff was too layered to translate well live with just their classic guitar/bass/drums lineup. Woodruffe was kept around for the record and apparently was in the studio with Iommi the whole time putting the record together… while the rest of the band was mostly lying around on the beach.

And he’s everywhere on this. This is the most keyboard-heavy thing Sabbath ever did, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Woodruffe’s contributions are interesting and tasteful. It’s not his fault the band was writing shit that was beneath them.

Back to the songs… when this album is good, it’s great. Gypsy is dark, weird, and riffy, with cool vocal melodies and maybe the best lyrics on the record. Sabbath taps into their unique ability to tack seemingly unrelated parts together into a coherent song. Iommi holds back the main riff for a bit in the beginning, and its that much more powerful when it comes in. You Won’t Change Me is a big, sweeping semi-ballad with effective keys from from Woodruffe, some great riffs, and lots of killer lead fills from Iommi. Doesn’t sound much like Sabbath, but it kicks ass. All Moving Parts (Stand Still) is a weird attempt to tap into the funky music that was becoming popular. Normally I hate funk like the plague, but this works for me. Cool song, and Butler’s best bassline on the record.

The last song is the album’s real masterpiece. Dirty Women may have a weird-ass title for a Sabbath tune (and yes it really is about looking for prostitutes, WTF) but it more than makes up for it by being a badass piece of music. It features the best riff on the album, which Iommi holds back for two full verses. When it appears the effect is stunning. At this point we’re off to the races, and Iommi barnstorms through some ripping extended leads before Ozzy comes back in with the rideout vocal. This song, by the way, is the one thing from either of the last two 70s Ozzy albums to appear in any of the reunion touring that got rolling in the late 90s. It was a very welcome deep cut when I saw them during that period and went a long way towards making up for the fact that almost the whole show was stuff from two albums.

When it’s bad, it’s horseshit. There are TWO godawful ballads here; the inexplicably Bill Ward sung It’s Alright and the utter borefest She’s Gone… and you thought Changes was bad! Then there’s Rock n’ Roll Doctor, a pathetically naked attempt to cop the swinging vibe so characteristic of mid-70s rock. Boys, leave the generic boogie-woogie to Led Zeppelin… they do it better. And man, that cowbell…

Overall, I’d say this album is a bit better than many give it credit for. There’s about half an album’s worth of excellent music here; it would have made a badass EP. But it’s not a great ALBUM. And oh, did I mention the jacket art? Two robots getting romantic… get it? Jeez. Anyway, this was an awfully long way for the mighty Sabbath to fall. It’s marginally better than Born Again or Forbidden, but we’re still pretty firmly in completist land. But even the most cynical of souls can bask in the glory that is Dirty Women.

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