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Black Sabbath - Volume Four CD (album) cover


Black Sabbath


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3.88 | 692 ratings

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Jeff Carney
5 stars The Seth Man, one of my favorite reviewers from Julian Cope's web site, once cited something truly important about Black Sabbath: Their ability to "make the simple complex, and the complex simple." It is that extraordinary gift combined with a desire to expound upon their sound which begins to take the band to new heights here.

Vol. 4 is a feast for the heart and mind at once. New depths of melodic innovation are on display from the opening moments, and the level of musicianship is now in the territory of the utterly stunning. There are things happening on this album which I have only begun to understand after years of musical study myself. Things I wouldn't have even recognized during years when I felt my own musical "chops" were at their peak. Cerebral attributes and tricks unique to these four individuals that accomplish things which transcend individual showmanship.

It's teamwork. It's musicians telepathically connecting. It is Black Sabbath becoming so confident in their unique musical visions that a certain looseness begins to set in, experimentation begins to reach new heights and yet it is all tied down with brute force. Discipline remains a core principle of their musical endeavors. I would argue that this fundamental aspect of Black Sabbath; discipline, is one of the most important components behind their continued success. Why these albums recorded so long ago continue to astound and amaze when so many from this genre eventually became caught up in who was playing the "fastest," who could play the "most notes," who could "scream the highest" and so forth ...

Author, speaker and blogger Sean Murphy once described "Wheels of Confusion" as "an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes." A better and more on point description of its musical content I have not encountered. It opens with what must be the saddest lick in the history of ever, laid on top of minor chords yielding to a major chord which eventually launches into a riff that immediately confirms Bill Ward was without peer. This verse riff is heavy yet different from Iommi's previous work. It has a deep sense of sparseness to it and leaves room for Osbourne's melodic shouts from the sky. The key, however, to the success of this idea is one William Ward. Where nearly every drummer on the planet would have found a "beat" for this riff, Ward plays like a jazz drummer in some experimental classical ensemble. Loosely propelling it forward with swing, yet fully locked and ready to strike. Osbourne is singing Butler's lyrics from some Reality Moon as yet untapped. "Innocence and love was all I knew. Was an illusion." It is here that the band give their first taste of one of the greatest riff syncopations in their history. Ward syncs it up the first time, then lets that loose, jazzy feel allow it to begin to pass by the second, then finds a variation on his original idea to lock it back down into the second verse, only to loosen things up again so that the jazzy feel of this straightforward chord chugging remains in play for the second verse.

Osbourne's voice has attained a new level of beauty here. It is this voice which would ultimately "sell millions." But the debut of this vocal style for him is here, and the organic quality to his singing is positively stunning. Not overproduced, clear and high in tone. The band then launch into Round 2 of the greatest synchronized riff ever conceived. Ward and Butler now lock down a bit tighter. The riff is played through twice again but this time in complete sync from Ward both times through. Incredible, tight drum fills wedge between a dark, descending chordal motif which seems to indicate the arrival of something new. And then ...


The band are absolutely in deep space here and even Hawkwind and their tone generators couldn't go much deeper. Iommi introduces the greatest middle section in a rock song this side of Never Happened. Background guitars drop in not as guitars but as meteors which spark through the sky as the Sabs are on a freaking rocket ship being driven by Butler and Ward; who are swinging on one note. Let me state that again: Butler and Ward are swinging on *one* note. Find that in your musical library! The simple becomes complex. UNREAL brilliance. Iommi soon takes the wheel and says: "I'm landing this baby." The guitar descends and the bass and drums fall into line as the backdrop. Osbourne and Iommi co-pilot through a melody which enables this spaceship its final descent to Earth, but not before the trio crash through the riff synced up again as visions of smoking gasses and rocket lava abound.

Like any good story, it's time for the finale. Osbourne's vocals remind of the point at hand. "So I've found that life is just a game. But you know there's never been a winner. Try your hardest you'll still be a loser. The world will still be turning when you've gone." It's the "blues" as conceived of not via the usual tales of love and heartbreak, but by a sense that most people feel betrayed by early references to tranquillity and simplicity. That life, in the final analysis, is really two lives. One of innocence and one of harsh reality.

That synchronized riff is back for the song's conclusion. It's locked and ready for its resting place. One of those uncanny Sabbath moments sits at the very end, where it almost seems as if each member stops for just a quarter second in mid air, then all three crash down in unison. Extraordinary.

Is it over?

Duh Dah ... it's Wheels' next movement, "The Straightener." Here is where that unique Sabbath discipline comes into play. A fairly straightforward drum and bass groove ensues. There are great players and then there are great musicians. Great musicians know when to get out of the way. Butler and Ward lock into a positively beautiful backdrop and allow Anthony Frank Iommi to take the reigns. What ensues are two tracks of some of the most mind numbing guitar improvisations ever laid down on tape. Very slowly he builds an introductory theme. And then, like explorers searching for the same planet on different paths, the two solos break off to explore the night on their own. Their paths intersect at times, even stopping to converse, and each seems to somehow play off the other. This is truly some of the most brilliant lead guitar work I have ever heard. Fast trills attack as jazzy phrasings run rampant. There are a couple of bends which are so "in the pocket" that they will practically pierce your left amygdala. I could quite comfortably listen to this soloing go on for ten minutes, but as is so often the case with Sabbath, they allow it to run free for what seems like the perfect length before fading to black.

That's the first song.

"Tomorrow's Dream" kicks the production up a notch. While "Wheels of Confusion" was a sort of sonic mud bath (Hey! Recording on Mars ain't easy!) and only served to come to true sonic life during the opening chords of "The Straightener," "Tomorrow's Dream" comes crashing out of the gate with incredible production and a guitar tone which Ronnie Montrose must have borrowed for his band's entire debut album. Thick, heavy molasses riffing ensues under a vocal melody that is to die for. Osbourne is reaching new levels here. Ward's double bass drum work is brilliant. It serves rather than overtakes. During the verses Butler is using a little trick here which is one of his greatest. Namely, during the verses, he sometimes allows the bass line to lag just about a half beat behind the riff, then syncs it up for the conclusion. And here, on that conclusion, he sometimes quickly adds a root and octave not once but on both the final two chords in the progression. Extremely effective because it pulls and then pushes the feel of the groove. This song is positively electric as a result. After a bridge from the Garden Of Melancholy, the band shift into a simple, fully intertwined and upbeat middle section which I can guarantee you could never be pulled off like they pull it off by anybody. It's got that "Sabs groove" fairy dust all over it. Back into the power break utilized after the first verse and then the last verse comes on strong. The trio sync up again for that power section and close with lawnmower space guitar fading into the night.

"Changes" was always a misunderstood track. "Down under" they got it straight away, and it was so successful there that the band even played it live on their January '73 tour of New Zealand and Australia. This is interesting in the sense that the Sabs never seemed to warm to idea of devoting a portion of their live shows to acoustic numbers. But then a Sabbath concert was usually a "get up, clap and dance your behind off" party, not a "sit back in your seat, sleep is half approved" gathering. My guess is that they simply felt those types of experiments were best left to the albums. But live, it's clear that the experiment could have worked. Osbourne's vocal delivery was excellent, Iommi's piano more than competent and Butler's mellotron sufficient. Still, the track was at its most powerful in the studio and Osbourne's vocal is breathtaking. It should be noted that Iommi's piano accompaniment is wonderful. Apparently this was really the first thing he came up with on piano, having only recently begun to play! In that respect, it is interesting how many people assumed Rick Wakeman performed on this track, when Tony was just a beginning piano player trying to further develop Sabbath's voice for ballads. The main riff has a playful, innocent quality which fits the lyrics. It's a simple blues at its essence. I think people miss this aspect. The lyrics in each verse are really connected to the "My baby left me" mentality but instead of a boogie woogie or blues back drop it's approached as a pop ballad. Quite innovative. The chorus sections are absolutely haunting. Iommi's piano and Butler's mellotron gently gliding and allowing Osbourne's voice to soar above them in the dark skies of lost love.

"FX" is what happens when drugs and what I suspect was some level of interest in the experimental avant garde combine forces. Iommi messing about on acoustic guitar using his jewelry or some such. It serves it's purpose, I guess, as it gives one a chance to mentally prepare for arguably the greatest tour de force in heavy rock for its time or since; "Supernaut."

"It don't mean a thing, if it ain't got that swing." The Sabs are in full flight here and swinging like no rock band before or since. The main riff beats the output of entire genres, and the verses have a level of jazz-influenced swing which should make even the jazz purist blush. Ward is on this like a snake on a handicapped rat. And Osbourne is on fire! Yelling each line in perfect tone from the skies again. It's easy to understand why Frank Zappa rated this song so highly and I dare say it takes a pretty accomplished musician to understand some of the intricate interplay going on here. Butler again uses his "trick" of dragging the beat through the verses ever so slightly with a variation on the riff, then as each verse concludes, walks down the scale with a sort of jazz sensibility only to come up for air in perfect unison for the stop. The riff of the century comes in again. Butler slides up a bass that must have a hundred frets, and we're off to Verse 2. This song would be a gem if that's all there was to it, but after a guitar solo with trills that are actually lightning bolts in disguise, the band are suddenly a house band in Trinidad playing Calypso with some guy who is juggling forty things with hands and feet posing as a drummer. Ward is unstoppable here! The double bass drum work is remarkable because it is so rhythmic and not based prominently on force. The snare break gives way to Iommi allowing that sliding run to ring open for one bar instead of muffled. He then palm mutes and it's back to Osbourne's hollering: "Got no religion. Don't need no friend. Got all I want and I don't need to pretend. Don't try and reach me 'cause I'd tear up your mind. I've seen the future and I've left it behind." Geezer Butler, ladies and gents. Geezer Butler.

"Snowblind" was always one of my favorite Sabbath tracks There's a "snap" to it which I've frankly never heard any other band attain and it's mostly down to Bill Ward, who had the foresight to know that breaks don't always have to run through entire bars. They can be used briefly to great effect. The way his drums work through this song is absolutely, positively brilliant. His hi-hat work is extraordinary, and the way his snare breaks up the riff is just out of this world. The song has incredible dynamics. It's yet another example of what The Seth Man talked about. In this song, Sabbath take a set of simple ideas and execute in a manner that is highly complex. No matter how many bands cover this song, none of them will likely get it to sound like it does here. It's magical. And I must point out that Osbourne's vocal works against the riff just beautifully.

"Cornucopia" introduces yet another guitar tone and this one is a real mess of sonic sludge yet somehow seems cleaner on top. I suspect Iommi's obsession with guitar tones by this point was guiding him to every corner of the fuzz universe, so he figured this idea had to be explored. The opening riff is pure Iommi, which then yields to what one might describe as verses of Sabsjazz. The beat which Ward accomplishes here should be applauded by every musician on the planet. It swings like a mother but syncopates beautifully to bring out the textures of the riff. So difficult was this track that Ward apparently became frustrated with the patterns to the point of fearing he might quit or be fired. The final result stands as a testament to his musicianship. Not only did he get it right in the end, he absolutely brings it with a truckload of energy and yet never overplays. Drumming on live versions of this track is off the edge of the planet. Frankly, I'm not sure any other drummer could play this stuff. It's just too specialized. Too unique.

"Laguna Sunrise" is a gorgeous acoustic piece. The thing I always enjoy about Iommi's acoustic work is that I can never really trace it to anything. Certainly the case here. Is it from folk music? Eh, not really. Classical? Well, a bit ... but in the end it is a highly original idea, executed well. Not my favorite acoustic work of his, but solid nonetheless.

"St. Vitus Dance" is a catchy little gem of a tune for which I've always held a soft spot. It sounds like something they probably put together fairly quickly and it serves its purpose well. Basically, setting the mood for a closing number by getting your mind up and moving again. It's a twisting little riff and the power chord verses spin it back into a sound that is purely Sabsland.

"Under the Sun" is yet another guitar tone from the city of Never Been Done. By this point, Iommi was printing the maps of the future to much of rock guitar. Nobody was going to catch him. He had fully branded this sound and to this day any guitarist who tries to sound dark and heavy will be traced to him. The lyrics here are sensational and it's evident that Sabbath weren't buying into any one philosophical concept except self-empowerment. Heck, this was like self-help before the term was officially coined! The tricky arpeggio runs from Iommi that break things up between verses are yet another example of an idea for which I'm uncertain of the influence. The song's abrupt change into the "Everyday Comes and Goes" section is perhaps not one of their best ideas but Ward's drumming makes it all interesting. The closing section is utterly gorgeous as the descending melody takes shape while a second guitar with an ascending melody works its way into the proceedings. This last section was actually pulled off live very well in '72 (listen to the Hollywood Bowl show from that year as one example) but for some reason dropped when the song reappeared on the most recent tour. It's very tricky to do without the additional guitar overdub but they pulled it off beautifully. After some restrained, melodic soloing takes place, the riff is then stripped down to its core harmonic component via power chord riffing and slowed and slowed again. This culminates in possibly the most resounding "thump" of a note to ever grace an album. Heavy not just in concept, but in execution.

In my view, Vol. 4 is the album where the fans who really get what this band are about begin to fall totally and completely in love with the sound which these musicians were able to coax out of their collective musical souls. It is at once of space and the earth. A freight train moving too fast around a corner yet never leaving its tracks. The album has a certain looseness about it. A certain organic musical authenticity where the music sounds fresh and exciting, yet it's often tight and focused to the point of musical rigidity. It will never be repeated. Probably couldn't even be properly copied. It is a band playing with fire and confidence, but as it relates to the serving of an innovative musical philosophy. A team of musicians striving for a collective sound.

Jeff Carney | 5/5 |


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