Home Music Black Sabbath: Sabotage (Super Deluxe Edition)

Black Sabbath: Sabotage (Super Deluxe Edition)

Having churned out five genre-defining albums in only four years, Black Sabbath took a comparatively indulgent year and a half off from the studio before heading in to record their sixth LP, Sabotage, though the break could principally be attributed to legal issues with fired manager Patrick Meehan. The pressures of Meehan’s lawsuit hung over sessions, and it inspired something of a reset for a band that had been showing increasing ambition in their compositional prowess. Channeling their anger over professional and financial chicanery, Sabbath craft their nerviest, most antisocial record since their debut, translating the specifics of record-label swindles into a more relatable atmosphere of betrayal and lost trust.

Side one in particular is absolutely ruthless. After a deceptively tranquil pre-gap, “Hole in the Sky” blasts out as Sabbath’s most hellish opener since they kicked off their debut with their namesake track. Ozzy’s greatest strength as a vocalist was always the sense of real, overwhelmed panic he could put into his most frantic performances for Sabbath, and here he sounds absolutely unhinged as he screams “I’m looking through a hole in the sky/ I’m seeing nowhere through the eyes of a lie.” Behind him, Tony Iommi bangs out a riff that is processed through so many filters that the leaden heaviness of his tone is rendered fuzzy and bleary, the sound of a lapsed hippie rubbing the last vestiges of the previous night’s drug trip out of their eyes only to sober up to the sight of the apocalypse. And yet, the most crushing element of all is the rhythm section; Geezer Butler’s overdriven bass groans like a wounded behemoth while Bill Ward slowly, methodically smashes his cymbals with a kind of pagan intensity. Look at Sabbath’s five previous LPs and you’ll find a string of incredible opening tracks: “War Pigs,” “Black Sabbath,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and the like. “Hole in the Sky” comfortably sits in that company, immediately setting a tone of wild-eyed fury that pervades the album.

The remainder of the first side is devoted to similarly pummeling metal. After a brief interlude “Don’t Start (Too Late),” Sabbath lurches into an all-time classic in “Symptom of the Universe.” Iommi’s riff grinds into view unaccompanied before Butler and Ward crash into the proceedings and broadly invent the New Wave of British Heavy Metal while they were still consolidating the sound of the first wave. Yet the real gem of the A-side may be the least famous song of the bunch. Most people would think of “War Pigs” when asked to name Sabbath’s most epic track, but “Megalomania” deserves consideration as one of the most sophisticated songs of the Ozzy era. Slowly rising out of the murk on brittle, menacing guitar lines, “Megalomania” at first wallows lugubriously in Ozzy’s paranoid energy as he sings lyrics like “Obsessed with fantasy, possessed with my schemes/ I mixed reality with pseudo-god dreams” in a detached, almost narcotic state. Where “War Pigs” was content to lock into its groove and ride it into mind-fraying realms, “Megalomania” is more dynamic, abruptly uprooting itself halfway through and erupting into a crushing, anti-psychedelic fever dream that sounds, five years after the fact, like the definitive song about the acid burnout of the ‘60s dream. Ozzy, in perhaps his finest-ever vocal performance, comes absolutely unglued, shrieking bad-trip nightmare visions like “Well I feel something’s taken me I don’t know where/ It’s like a trip inside a separate mind.” Iommi’s supercharged riff explodes into solos and curlicue licks and Ward cements himself as the greatest power hitter of all the ‘70s drummers. That a song like this is a curio in the Sabbath canon is a testament to just how many great songs they racked up in this gold run, and it remains the hidden highlight of the album.

Prior Sabbath albums all had a conceptual unity to their sound, but something interesting happens when Sabotage reaches its second side. If the first four songs were some of the band’s heaviest, bleakest material, the back half finds the group starting to embrace a trendier hard rock sound. “The Thrill of It All” boasts a brighter guitar tone and arena-ready riffing, and there are, bafflingly, some handclap prompts and a few chant-along barks. There’s a sleazy, almost glam atmosphere, and Butler’s lyrics swap hellish visions for longing ruminations on morality and faith, asking “Won’t you help me, Mister Jesus/ Won’t you tell me if you can/ When you see this world we live in/ Do you still believe in Man.” “Am I Going Insane (Radio)” and the instrumental “Supertzar” (the latter a mainstay as Sabbath’s walk-on music from this tour onward) even have a bit of proggy, Queen-esque rock opera. The legal issues that soured the group return to the foreground on lengthy closer “The Writ,” which keeps the shimmering hard rock sound but marries it to another furious Ozzy performance as corrupt record company employees are compared to Nazi shock troopers. As Butler’s bass gurgles and warps in psychedelic hazes underneath Ward’s deliberate, marching tempo and buzzing riffs from Iommi, the band goes out with a strong argument that even if they were easing into a more generic rock sound, they could still be vicious and unnerving. Sabotage is often pegged as the least among equals of the band’s unimpeachable run of early albums, but this is every bit as ambitious and gripping as their best work, and if the group’s two subsequent Ozzy records had maintained the compelling angst of this record, their own embrace of glossier hard rock might have aged better.

Rhino’s erratic reissue series for Sabbath vaulted this ahead of deluxe reissues of either Master of Reality or Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, but for a crucial reason this is the best of the Sabbath deluxe editions yet released. Setting aside a fourth disc that contains only a reproduction of the Japanese single for “Am I Going Insane (Radio),” the real extra in this deluxe edition is the inclusion of a concert spread over two discs labeled “North American Tour Live ‘75.” Why Rhino decided on this titling is a mystery, as they could have drummed up more interest by foregrounding that they were giving an official and properly mastered release to Sabbath’s legendary August 8, 1975 gig at the Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey. One of the most widely circulated Sabbath shows among bootleggers, this concert runs through a generous sampling of the band’s output to that point, including material from all six records. The band is in top form throughout, and while the soundboard-sourced bootlegs always had real clarity, there is an added punch here to all of the instruments, as well as Ozzy’s vocals, which are remarkably powerful and clear as he croons, wails and barks through the setlist.

For anyone who has never heard this show, they’re in for a stunning display at Sabbath at their most developed and indulgent. This is the mid-1970s, which means there are, of course, extended guitar and drum solos, as well as a lengthy jam that stretches for 14 minutes in full. But compared to the often listless, addled solos that derailed, say, Led Zeppelin’s marathon shows, Sabbath never get lost in their soloing, maintaining an energy that renders angry anthems like “Killing Yourself to Live” and “Supernaut” as taut, snarling ragers. That Sabbath never released a live record during their original incarnation is almost absurd, and the consistent beauty and fury of this performance makes a strong case that had the band released this concert at the time, it would have gone down as one of the greatest live albums of the decade. Sabotage alone is a must-own for rock fans, but the inclusion of this holy grail recording makes Rhino’s new pressing one of the reissues of the year.

The capstone of Sabbath’s early, defining run of albums receives an excellent reissue boasting new mastering and a legendary 1975 show at last receiving an official release
95 %
Crushing angst

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