The High Points: After Forever, Into the Void, Children of the Grave, Lord of This World
The Low Points: Wish it was longer…
The Verdict: Still one of the heaviest albums ever…
The Rating: 9/10
In 1970 Sabbath watched Led Zeppelin suffer a minor fan revolt over their third effort, which was half-full of acoustic songs (which maybe wouldn’t be as big a deal if Zeppelin didn’t kind of suck at writing folk songs… there, I said it). So Sabbath, wisely recognizing that their status as the heaviest band on the planet was a huge part of their commercial appeal, deliberately chose the heaviest of the riffs Iommi was cranking out when writing songs for their third album, and tuned their guitars way the hell down to make things sound even heavier.
There are two facets to Master of Reality. There’s the mellow acoustic side, epitomized by short instrumental interludes Embryo and Orchid. Neither is brilliant by itself, but the idea was to play something lightweight to make the heavy stuff seem even heavier. It works, too… two minutes of Orchid and then Lord of this World kicks in and is absolutely skull-crushing in comparison. Solitude is a track a lot of people bitch about, but I love it… if Sabbath is going to play a ballad this is what it should sound like! Nothing pretty, catchy or fluffy about this… it sounds like something you’d play at a funeral. Not a mind-blowing track, but one that fits nicely on the album and provides a breath of air from the brutality of it all.
The real meat of the album, however lies in the five crunchy monsters that have made it such a classic. Sweet Leaf rides on a gargantuan riff while Ozzy sings an ode to Mary Jane… the choking sound that kicks the track (and the album) off is real by the way. Iommi took a puff on a bong and choked on it while the tape happened to be rolling. Children of the Grave features a sort of proto-gallop and chugs along at a fast clip for Sabbath. To this day it’s a live standard. Lord of this World is one of those slow bruisers Sabbath is so good at and had some particularly grooving Butler bass.
Then there are the two I cannot choose between… After Forever starts out with an uncharacteristic major key drone riff before dropping into patented Iommi power chord sludge. The weirdly Christian lyrics actually work, and the track overall stands as one of the band’s finest moments. So does riffmonster Into the Void, which features Ozzy singing about leaving all the evil behind by getting on a rocket ship over some exceptionally powerful riffology. Brutally heavy, dazzlingly brilliant.
The album was recorded pretty quickly… just a couple of weeks. But the band is captured brilliantly here; they finally seem comfortable in a studio setting and producer Roger Bain seems to have settled into his groove on what was to be his final recording with the band. The instruments sound powerful and nicely separated, and the mix is overall very warm. It’s also the last time we’d hear Sabbath sounding so stripped down. Guitar, bass, and drums, not too many overdubs… hell, half the time they didn’t even bother to put any rhythm guitar in behind Iommi’s soloing and in truth you don’t miss it. This is largely down to Geezer Butler, who throws down some exceptionally tasty basslines with a fat, powerful tone. I really, really love the interplay between the guitar and bass on this record.
If this album has one serious shortcoming it’s, well… it’s shortness. Thirty five minutes was a short record even in 1971, and given that the record company had asked for an extra song to fill out the album on the previous record I’m not sure why it didn’t happen this time out. But when the existing material is this good it’s a minor complaint. This is still a landmark metal recording, almost all of the material was featured in the reunion touring around the turn of the century, and it still stands as one of the heaviest platters ever unleashed upon an unsuspecting public… unless you’re one of those clueless people who thinks heavy equals fast.