The High Points: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, A National Acrobat, Spiral Architect
The Low Points: Sabbra Cadabra
The Verdict: Bold experimentation, brilliantly executed.
The Rating: 9/10
It’s funny that this album started off with a case of writer’s black. Sabbath songs almost always start with a Tony Iommi Godly Riff of Doom (TM), and Tony couldn’t think of any riffs. The band decided to try a change of venue and rented a creepy old castle to work in. The first night the saw a figure that everyone involved still seems to think was a ghost, after which Bill Ward refused to spend the night there and started commuting from his home. But the next day Iommi wrote the riff that would become the album’s mighty title track…
The reason I say it’s funny is that the end result is the most wildly experimental and creative album Sabbath ever did. Everything was on the table for this one as the band tried keyboards, strings, and whatever else they could think of to spice up the already mostly excellent tracks. The songs themselves were often quite different from standard Sabbath fare as well. Living For Today is a pop rock song with a lovely little keyboard melody wafting it’s way through the chorus. Who Are You is built around a melody that Ozzy himself came up with on a Mini Moog, and it still comes of as sludgy and dirgelike even without the guitar as the main focus. Spiral Architect is particularly successful , an attempt at serious soft rock that gives us Iommi rocking out on a triad riff instead of power chords for a change and a luscious vocal melody.
Not all of the above songs are full-on classics, but they’re all pretty cool. The one place it doesn’t really work is Sabbra Cadabra, which aside from the godawful title is a hackneyed attempt at a shuffle. These guys really need to just lay off the boogie because they’re really bad at it, and Geezer Butler should never ever try to write lyrics about being in love. Even a piano solo by Rick Wakeman from Yes and a cool riff isn’t enough to save this one.
There’s also plenty of patented Sabbath heaviness floating around this disc. A National Acrobat is a particular standout, with a killer riff written by… surprise… Geezer Butler. Iommi apparently really had to push to get Butler to show him any of his ideas, but if he was sitting on stuff like this I can’t imagine why he was holding back. Iommi slaps some guitar harmonies on the riff to good effect; it’s not something he does much. The song goes through a few different movements at the end, slipping adroitly from one idea to the next in classic Sabbath fashion.
Then there is of course the classic title track. Built around one of Iommi’s all-time greatest riffs, the song breaks down during the refrain and Iommi twiddles around on some jazzy-sounding acoustic guitars. The simple but oh so effective solo bulldozes you down, and then the song comes to a menacing climax with an evil, grinding riff which Ozzy screams his balls off over. Sadly the ball-loosening screams have mostly kept this song out of Sabbath setlists down through the years; nobody can sing the friggin’ thing live every night without trashing his voice. It’s a shame because it’s a favorite of both fans and the band, and Iommi will usually slip the riff into his solo spot to give people at least a taste of it.
The production is a bit of a letdown. It was produced by the band (read: Iommi), and compared to previous releases the guitars are lacking in heft and the drum sound is a bit weak. Was this perhaps intentional, to allow all the instrumental layering to shine through? Maybe, but it leaves the finished product a bit lacking in power. The jacket art is killer… maybe the best ever on a Sabbath record.
It’s surprising Sabbath never pursued this sort of thing again, because it mostly works. This may not be the best record Sabbath ever did, but it is certainly the most interesting and varied.