The High Points: Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener, Supernaut, Under the Sun, Laguna Sunrise
The Low Points: Changes
The Verdict: A metal masterwork.
The Rating: 9/10
By 1972 Sabbath had truly arrived. The albums and concert tickets were selling, the chicks were lining up, the cocaine was flowing freely, and for the first time they had the time to linger over the writing and recording of an album instead of throwing it together in a rush. The result was a sort of transitional release; one step removed from the straightforward, bare-bones heaviness of the first three records yet a couple of steps shy of the wild experimentation that would characterize Sabbath Bloody Sabbath a year later.
The first thing you’ll notice compared to the previous release is that there are more tracks; this album is considerably longer and the average song here is on the shorter side of normal for Sabbath. Most of the tracks are dense and heavy, dominated by Iommi’s gargantuan tone. Short heavy numbers abound, with Tomorrow’s Dream and Cornucopia delivering the sludge in a most satisfying way. Supernaut goes above and beyond; perhaps the best uptempo number in the early Sabbath catalog. Love that riff!
On the slower side you have the concert classic Snowblind, which although good has always failed to grab me to the same extent as most of the rest. Laguna Sunrise is one of Iommi’s gentle acoustic instrumentals and maybe the best of them… a pretty guitar melody backed by lush strings. Nice. Under the Sun is cool and kinda proggy. The only letdown is the godawful piano ballad Changes. OK, FX seems kind of pointless too but it’s short enough to ignore.
The best song is the kickoff track… not uncommon on a Sabbath record. Wheels of Confusion manages to top Sabbath’s already high standard for dreariness, with Ozzy wallowing in despair as he expounds on the pointlessness of life over the top of a dirgelike riff. When I learned that lyricist Geezer Butler suffers from clinical depression I was the least surprised person on Earth. But then the track segues into The Straightener, a short uptempo instrumental driven by of all things a keyboard riff with Iommi soloing furiously over the top. It’s sweeping and hopeful… exactly the opposite of the almost desperate feel of Wheels of Confusion. It’s like the sun poking out from behind the stormclouds, and taken as a whole this eight minute slab of music is incredibly powerful.
The band sounds great on this; everyone is firing on all cylinders. Production is credited to Black Sabbath and Patrick Meehan… since Meehan was the band’s manager what this means is the band produced it, and according to everyone involved what that REALLY means is Iommi did most of the work. And he was clearly just finding his feet; the overall feel is kind of chilly and lacking in warmth. It’s not bad enough to seriously hurt the record, though.
In a way it’s amazing this record came out so well. The band describes the writing session mostly as a haze of hottubs, groupies, and nose candy. But somehow they managed to pen a monster album that they’ve rarely been able to match.