Feeling a little run over after Stateside debaucheries, Black Sabbath returned to their native England, and booked Clearwell Castle for the recording of their fifth album. As lore has it, the castle was haunted, and the band that spent the previous four years scaring the daylights out of puritanical parents and priests, took to leaving the place before sundown to avoid its unfriendly, spectral keepers.
Also instructional to note is Tony Iommi’s debut case of writer’s block, and the much-heralded “riff that saved Black Sabbath” that came out of him wrestling with his creative demons. There must obviously be great frustration contained in any such struggle, to find the spigot run dry where once riffs gushed out at the slightest suggestion must bewilder and emasculate any real artist. An eventual victory over such a struggle, then, must naturally liberate tremendous amounts of energy, individual and collective, and the band has held testament to this narrative over the years.
To me, however, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the album, has always felt like a deescalation of hostilities from the band’s previous work. Oh, it’s a fine, even great, album in its own right, and it contains two of the best songs the band ever wrote, but it also seems curiously front-loaded – or should I say transitory, even distracted- in metallic intent, for all that. Black Sabbath were always known for wild transitions in mood within any given song, but those transitions worked and were anchored within the unshakeable, impossibly heavy righteousness of the Sabbath riff. There are riffs aplenty here, too, and none heavier than the two found on the eponymous song and ‘Killing Yourself To Live‘, but there also is a greater dependence on dream-like textures and progressive grandeur than before. Doesn’t the orchestral ‘Spiral Architect‘ remind you of Rush‘s ‘Red Barchetta‘ in its pastoral build-up, choral refrains, and general arrangement?
But those two riffs; you know, many people love Black Sabbath, and not just dyed-in-the-wool metal fans, either. More power to them, but it is my sincere belief that you would have to be a metalhead to understand the attitude and potential for self-empowerment that these little phrases contain. Because what they convey, without the aid of words, as absolute metal, is thoroughly compliant and congruent with the world and philosophy that metalheads have built around themselves and the music in the ensuing forty years. Slice them out, loop them over, bury them as a time capsule, or send them into orbit for little green men to discover when earth is an arid waste, and this will be just as true. The mainstream may have co-opted and packaged the fuck out of them, like they do with everything that is originally flagrant, but Black Sabbath belong to us.