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Black Sabbath - Sabotage CD (album) cover


Black Sabbath


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4.02 | 571 ratings

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4 stars Supposedly, this album is totally underrated, but given that almost single review I've read for it has raved about how good it is (even people who otherwise dislike Sabbath tend to praise this one, in my observation), I'm not really sure how accurate that description is. Then again, I can't see Sabotage numbers getting a lot of play on classic rock radio, and it differs pretty strongly from the conventional wisdom of what Black Sabbath is supposed to sound like, so I guess I can see where people would be eager to apply the 'underrated' tag. Personally, I find the album more intriguing in theory than in execution, but I still tend to enjoy it a good deal more than not.

The most obvious thing that stands out when listening to Sabotage is that the ambitions shown on the last couple of albums have only increased. Whether this was because the band really didn't want to be thought of as stupid potheads anymore, or whether it was just the drugs fooling them into thinking they were actually capable of becoming "serious artists," we may never know (I'd say a little of column A, a little of column B), but this is definitely not the Sabbath of Master of Reality. On the other hand, it's not really the Sabbath of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath either; the "artsy" elements of SBS were mostly cosmetic (and kinda perfunctory, truth be told) in nature, courtesy of synthesizers or strings or whatever. On Sabotage, the "artsy" features come from the songs themselves, through experimentation in style and structure. Furthermore, the instrumentation makes a very noticeable return to the guitar-bass-drums basic sound of the '70-'71 albums, which has the beneficial effect of largely requiring the experimentation aspect to be coupled with quality riffs. The result is an album that, in many spots, can easily satisfy both an art-rock lover and a metalhead who gets off on ass-kicking riffs (as long as he can tolerate a lack of the killer tone of Reality). It should be little wonder, then, that this album is often hailed as one of the earliest examples of "prog-metal," and is almost always cited as one of the important foundations of post-70's heavy metal.

As cool as this sounds in theory, though, it doesn't cover up that there are a couple of tracks I really don't like that much. "Thrill of it All" bugs me in that the opening minute of guitar wanking just doesn't sound cool enough to me to justify its minute-long ramblings, and the main song part seems too torn between wanting to be a simplistic screech-rocker and a multi-part mini-epic to remember to bring out the best characteristics of either. I'm also not terribly fond of "The Writ," even though I like the relatively slow first part, which combines moderate heaviness with a weird "bubbly" effect on the bass that sounds to me like Sabbath has been drawing on the same muses as Pink Floyd. But sheesh, the variations of the theme that make up the middle chunk of the piece don't inspire me at all (and I'm not sure having the second vocalist trying to harmonize with Ozzy was such a good idea here, and that's not even mentioning the whispering of "cats" and "rats" at various times), and when Ozzy goes into melodramatic mode from time to time, it gets really stupid sounding. I mean, I'm all for maturity, but only when it's done right; otherwise it tends to cross the line into "laughably pathetic," which parts of "The Writ" definitely do.

Fortunately, I tend to like everything else on the album quite a bit, so a good grade still comes to this album from me. For some reason I still can't fathom, George Starostin (a web-reviewer whose opinion I generally respect) ripped on the opening "Hole in the Sky" as predicting "their soon-to-come downfall into the world of mediocrity," but I just can't see it. It's a slightly different kind of metal than what they had done before, but that's fine with me, as I was never a giant fan of their previous metal styles anyway. It cycles through a small set of easy-flowing distorted riffs with Ozzy throwing in one of his best absurdly-high-pitched vocal performances yet, and has such a nice vibe of moderate ass-kicking that I can't help but enjoy it to death. Then, after a brief (and kinda pointless) acoustic instrumental, we hit "Symptom of the Universe," which pretty much invents the chugging heavy riffage that characterized 80's Metallica and other related bands. The main riff is simple but fabulous (making it simply fabulous, I guess), Ozzy's singing sounds incredibly intense as it crashes against the main rhythm, the brief speedy section has quality soloing that Tony couldn't have even tried to pull off five years ago, and then out of nowhere they end it with Ozzy singing over a cool Spanishy acoustic guitar section. Man, if the entire album sounded as inspired as this track, I'd name it as Sabbath's best in a heartbeat, and maybe even consider an overall rating upgrade. But alas, I'll just have to settle for this piece of Sabbath perfection.

Up next is the 9-and-a-half minute "Megalomania," which I don't find as great as some people I know do but nonetheless entertains me quite a bit. The opening slower section is longer than I'd prefer, but it does have that neat effect of (twice) fading in Ozzy's vocals with incessant overdubs until he actually starts singing. And come to think of it, I do like the wailing, moody and dark bits of guitar sounds that surround Ozzy as he builds to lines like, "Why doesn't everybody leave me alone," so really, the only thing I have against the opening section is that it's drawn out too long (then again, I like Yes' "Ritual," which pretty much marks me as a hypocrite in this matter). As for the second part, it didn't really get me that much the first few times I heard it, but then one day while walking home from work, I found that not only couldn't I get the riffage and vocal hookage out of my head, but I really enjoyed singing those parts to myself almost ad nauseum. Overall, then, the song could probably be cut down to six minutes without much problem, but the stretched-out length doesn't exactly leave me feeling cheated out of precious seconds of life, so I can largely ignore that little quibble (and besides, I'd be bummed if the three minutes cut from it would include Ozzy's out-of-nowhere "SUCK MEEEEEEEE!!!").

The other two tracks tend to split some fans a bit, but I'm fine with them. "Supertzar" is definitely the most atypical track they had yet done, but it's a case where I largely applaud the band's creativity. Over the standard "dark" instrumentation, we have what I can only describe as "The Monk Choir of the Damned," as the concept of Gregorian chanting is totally turned on its head and stripped of any and all positive spiritual connotations. It seems kinda silly when I take a step back and think about it, and I can see where some might want to see this as a clear example of the band going off the deep end, but I'm cool with it. Just as I am with the surprisingly synth-drenched pop-rocker "Am I Going Insane (Radio)?," which functions extremely well as a contrast to the over-overblown "The Writ" (on my copy, "Am I Going Insane" actually ends the album, even though on most the closer is "The Writ;" that makes three Sabbath albums I own that have the ordering of the last two tracks wrong). What can I say, the chorus rules, the guitar breaks are surprisingly melodic, the synths don't really interfere much, and there's disturbing laughter at the end. Fine by me.

Overall, then, I kinda want to give this album a higher grade than I actually do (this is a low 4-star rating), since I like to dwell on positives instead of negatives, and maybe I should. Then again, those two tracks I don't like really bug me, so I guess I'll just keep it where it is. Regardless, this is a crucial album to own for anybody who calls themselves a Black Sabbath fan, and is just as essential in understanding the overall nature of the band as is Master of Reality or Paranoid. Besides, this the last Black Sabbath studio album that I can say I like with no reservations (the first couple of Dio ones are okay but only have a song or two each that I tend to love), so it can probably be considered a farewell of sorts to the band's prime.

tarkus1980 | 4/5 |


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