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Article by Johan P.
The stylistically inclusive nature of progressive rock allows quite a lot of stretching of the genre’s musical boundaries. This part of Death Metal Underground’s 1970s Progressive Rock for Hessians series looks into the early, classic period of the English group Hawkwind – a group of sonic shaman-warriors who transgressed more than one genre border right from their inception. Well, almost. Their unconvincing 1970 self-titled debut album can rightfully be dismissed as a failed attempt at improvisational psychedelic folk rock, with songs that sound too much like flawed byproducts of the flower power era. Luckily, the following years saw the band re-forge their sound on In Search of Space (1971), articulate it on Doremi Fasol Latido (1972) and finally push their newfound style to its limits on Space Ritual (1973).
Article by Johan P.
The creation of this brief introduction to some of the more prominent bands of 70s progressive rock was directly inspired by David Rosales’ shooting down of late-60s/early-70s Pink Floyd. My article should not be viewed as a polemic against the conclusions drawn from ”A Sadistic Dissection of Classic Pink Floyd”. On the contrary, many of Floyd’s recordings – not least in a prog rock for hessians context – fall short in several respects compared to fellow prog rock groups of that era. The first section of my article (”Background”) serves as a necessary bridge between David’s article and what will follow below.
To keep the potential reader in mind, Pink Floyd might not be the most compatible progressive rock band for someone whose tastes run along the lines of the music promoted by the Death Metal Underground. Therefore, I will in this series offer a brief introductory piece on the genre, followed by a presentation of classics of progressive rock in an attempt to light a spark of interest among metal enthusiasts may become acquainted with this genre that developed in parallel with heavy metal. The focus will inevitably be on artists with British heritage, since most of the more prolific bands were English. Of course this doesn’t mean that prog rock was solely a UK phenomenon. There were loads of bands hailing from all over the globe; many good enough to reach the heights of the established British bands.
Before moving on to the presentation mentioned above, it might be a good idea to study the music of Pink Floyd with the purpose to discover why this band may not be the best entry point to the genre. There are at least three major reasons that could cause disappointment when listening to even the “best” (that is, the records closest to the more adventurous and ambitious side of prog rock and metal music) of Pink Floyd: shortcomings and discrepancies regarding song structuring, musical style and concept:
First, although some Floyd tracks (e.g. “Echoes”, one of their better numbers) features extended song structures or long compositions of an episodic character, they often lack the coherent narrative present in some of the more accomplished epics of progressive rock. For example, a composition featuring an “extended song structure” could be an ordinary rock song built around the usual verse/chorus/bridge components with the addition of one or more elongated parts that are to varying degrees connected to the main song. With “compositions of an episodic character” I refer to songs that are made up of several discrete musical events that are joined into one composition. Extended song structures is more frequently used by Pink Floyd than episodic compositions, although the latter method is very common in progressive rock in general (side note: an example of episodic song structuring gone wrong in metal is Satyricon’s first album, Dark Medieval Times). Quite a few Pink Floyd songs are long alright, but they are often built around roughly three extended song structure sections: first an introduction where the band presents a main theme, followed by a middle section with (often instrumental) excursions and some experimentation (creating atmosphere through electronic effects, guitar solos which builds up tension followed by a potential release, juxtaposition of found sounds, etc.), and finally a closing part, where the main theme returns. Or, if a long Floyd track follow the episodic song template, the compositional method appears to be taking several unrelated songs/ideas and forcing them together into one piece. This last method seems to be applied most carelessly on a larger scale in whole Pink Floyd albums as well. Several of their albums contain contrasting songs placed in an apparently random order, resulting in the works at large sounding both irrational and inconsistent.
The song writing procedure described above doesn’t necessarily count as a bad compositional method, but one of the bigger pitfalls of which the Floyd succumbs to all too often is that if done without enough finesse and thoroughness, these compositions end up with not much development or connection between the different parts. In many cases not just isolated to Pink Floyd, songs of this type end up being flawed by an arbitrary and fragmentary character. It could be the case that Pink Floyd did not have any sort of epic narrative, lyrical or musical, in mind when writing many of their longer tracks – or maybe they did, but just couldn’t pull it through. But why then did they chose to record such long, meandering songs then? Maybe it was more a question of shady conceptual ideas. Parts of the psychedelic/progressive rock ideology appears to have gravitated more towards the whimsical, escapist side of romantic art. Such an outlook shouldn’t be completely dismissed as inappropriate for a progressive rock band but it can pose problems if this attitude to romanticism isn’t backed up by adequate ideas of making a coherent statement. Especially in their earlier years, Pink Floyd made several peculiar attempts at playful and dreamlike tunes, which more than once failed because they turned out to possess an unfinished and pointless character. The reason these songs didn’t turn out so well is that they suffer from a lack of adequate compositional ideas suitable for creating the intended moods and visions.
When it comes to style, Pink Floyd were an early bird among late 60s prog rockers, even pioneering some techniques in a rock music context (experimental use of synthesizers), exploring multisensorial experiences through psychedelic music, live light-shows, and drugs. As Rosales’s Pink Floyd article correctly points out, it often led to nothing but “interesting”, fragmentary, and meaningless ideas. While the band members’ lack of virtuosity doesn’t necessarily pose a problem, it’s a disadvantage that throughout their career they never dared to step too much outside the boundaries of the blues-derived rock style like so many other progressive bands did.
The confused, fragmentary, and unfinished nature of many Pink Floyd songs stems from lack of conceptual substance. Many of their compositions leave the listener with promising impressions left unfulfilled or worse bored with the bads subtly ironic stance working as a defense against such accusations. Few were probably surprised to watch the band (especially band dictator Roger Waters) growing more and more cynical in relation to their own work, their fans, and the music industry as the years passed after their massive public and critical success with Dark Side Of The Moon.
However it would be unfortunate to end the story of progressive rock here. Even Pink Floyd managed to put worthwhile compositions together once in a while. I have a soft spot for the space-rocking live concert part of the double LP Ummagumma, where, surprisingly, there is less trace of whimsy. These compositions are allowed to breathe and linger on to reach the conclusions missing on less adventurous Floyd records. The four tracks on the first disc of Ummagumma are actually live re-workings of older songs performed with a possibly more refined sense of dynamics and texture than in their original studio forms.
If you take a look at the more established narratives of rock history, you will learn of a horrible aberration of 70s rock called “Progressive Rock”. Presented by many rock critics as a genre made up of spoiled middle-class kids trying to impress others of the same ilk with their pseudo-high-art, when all they really produced was kitsch. These musicians’ attempts to become accepted as members of the cultural elite (or the cultural underground for that matter) were, according to “rock history”, crushed with the arrival of punk in the mid-70s. After a dark century of both stadium spectacle and general pretentiousness, people could resume enjoying down to earth authentic rock once more. Some of this might sound reasonable but in several respects, this tale doesn’t live up to reality.
First, although the creative momentum of the original movement had started to wane considerably by the mid-70s, progressive rock bands were more popular than ever among the public in this period. This is an indicator of the survival of progressive music in the aftermath of punk’s simplicity. Furthermore, as the 1980s dawned, a new generation of underground progressive groups set about revitalizing the genre. Although I would say that not much prog rock produced post-1970s can compete with the original wave, the assumption that Sex Pistols and their ilk obliterated progressive music is plain ignorant. The legacy and influence of the progressive old guard may be heard and seen in much contemporary popular music, including metal.
Critics pointing at the corporate selling out and stadium rock syndrome of the bigger progressive groups but a defense may be raised for the accused. Progressive rock interestingly differs in one important respect from most rock music. With prog it is not just a matter of smaller, more worthy bands getting overshadowed by the larger established ones, even if this surely happened. Some of the biggest bands of the genre,somehow managed to perform grand stage productions that still carried meaningful art. The established critical narrative may be a result of the situation of the music industry at the time: record labels, fat and rich thanks to the decades of explosive growth in post-war media consumption, were convinced that obscure groups playing this new form of rock music were highly marketable. Parallels may be drawn to the various metal sub-genres. Those lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time could get considerable production budgets, granting a creative freedom never experienced before in the music business.
Pinning down the characteristics of progressive rock (or any musical genre for that matter) is not the most grateful of task. Neither is this the purpose of this series. Instead, it will contain rather brief background information and descriptions of the featured bands, giving more space to the musical and conceptual content of the selected albums. Hopefully this approach will make sense and awaken an interest of discovery of a genre that I believe has a lot to offer, not least for fans of extreme metal. Some sort of framework might be needed so let’s go back to the infancy of the movement to see where it started off.
Like hard rock and heavy metal, progressive rock stems largely from the late 1960s psychedelic milieu. This was a time of experimentation with not only drugs and alternative lifestyles, but new sounds, musical ideas and approaches. With the aid of mind-altering substances, younger artists took pleasure in finding new meaning in pushing the frontiers of the staling and commodified art forms of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz. These psychedelic explorers (primarily males of European descent from an upper middle-class background, although counterexamples abound) founded groups that in the late 1960s lingered ever closer to becoming progressive rock. In addition to rock and jazz, they also brought into their bands an interest in classical, choral and folk music. However as with any historical narrative, there are of course other factors that could be addressed as well as contradictory and arbitrary information. Take Yes for example, one of the most prominent prog bands to promote virtuosic musicianship and toss classical music topes into the stew. Contrary to common assumption, their guitarist Steve Howe is a self-thought musician who never bothered with learning notes or formal music theory while their ethereal singer Jon Anderson came from a working class background.
There is another facet of progressive rock with a notable parallel in heavy metal music and culture that needs to be addressed: it’s relation to the Romantic Era. This connection is thoroughly stressed and analyzed by Edward Macan in his excellent book on progressive rock, Rocking the Classics: English Progressive Rock and the Counterculture. Macan explores not only the ideological roots of progressive rock, but manages to highlight the more crucial musical influences that helped create and crystallize the genre. He shows progressive rock’s origin in late 1960s psychedelia and what caused the music to take its particular form. As a tribute to Macan’s groundbreaking work, I will conclude this introduction with two interwove quotes from the aforementioned book:
Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with progressive rock is usually aware that it represents an attempt to harness classical forms into a rock framework, to combine the classical tradition’s sense of space and monumental scope with rock’s raw power and energy. Understanding the role classical forms have played in progressive rock, then, is essential to understanding the genre as a musical style.
For musicians of the late 1960s who wished to continue with instrumental music – and these were increasingly drawn to the emerging progressive rock, jazz-rock, and heavy metal styles – the question became how to bring a sense of organization, variety, and climax to the music without completely destroying the spontaneity and sense of timelessness which characterized the best psychedelic jams.
The musicians who pioneered progressive rock found their answer in limiting the role of improvisation to one or two sections of a piece, and carefully organizing the rest of the material along the lines of nineteenth-century symphonic forms. […] Nineteenth-century music and psychedelic music are both Romantic in the fullest sense of the word, sharing the same cosmic outlook, the same preoccupation with the infinite and otherwordly, the same fondness for monumental statement (often conveyed through very long pieces), and the concern with expressing epic conflicts.
Stay tuned to this series for the successive revelation and discussion of some of the best and genre defining albums of progressive rock!
Interview video sourced from Metal Wani
The legacy of Suffocation continues, at least in some form, as the band is currently writing material for a new album, possibly to come out some time in 2016 if all goes well. Suffocation’s recent works have lacked the strong organization of their 1990s peak, and it seems unlikely that this one will be a significant improvement. However, a fiscally successful album release may lead to a new cycle of touring, and possibly a chance for our readers to see the band perform some of their old classics in a live setting. An actual review of the as-of-yet unnamed album will probably show up on this site closer to its release date.
During the heyday of death metal, Swedish band Altar and Finnish band Cartilage banded together to release a split album entitled Ex Oblivione / The Fragile Concept Of Affection . Long sought-after by collectors, it is being re-issued by Xtreem Music as a 2-CD set with other early recordings. The label made the following statement:
It was in 1992 when two promising bands from the swedish & finnish Death Metal scenes, released a split album, that now, 23 years later, it’s one of the most cult splits ever released in the early 90’s. Unfortunately, CARTILAGE never recorded anything after that and although ALTAR did a few demos later on, they disbanded shortly after.
But the legacy still lives here and this split album originally released through former Xtreem Music label Drowned Productions, gets a re-issue in form of a double CD with 7 bonus tracks by each band taken from their early demos, a total of 14 songs (60 min.) from each one.
All songs have been remastered (not remixed!) for an optimal sound, preserving the essence from the originals and this release comes with a new cover artwork, a remake of the original one made by cult finnish artist Turkka Rantanen. Of course, original cover art is included on the release and booklet comes with extra photos, flyers & demo covers to complete this cult re-issue. However, we know that purists won’t be satisfied with this release, so they can always go and pay a fortune on eBay to get the original (if they can). No hard feelings! For the rest, here you have a new chance to get this gem in an improved and extended way at a reasonable price. A vinyl version with the original split album tracks, will follow in the future.
Release date for the ALTAR/CARTILAGE “Split Album” 2-CD is set for August 20th and in the meantime, you can listen to one track by each band on the following links:
On the heels of much conjecture, and his own denials that an expulsion had taken place, David Vincent has announced his departure from Morbid Angel with a softly-worded press announcement:
Austin, TX – June 19, 2015
DAVID VINCENT Encourages
Fans To Stay Morbid
I had good communication with Trey yesterday and we agree that there are incompatibilities with regards to us working together.
Trey and I have accomplished amazing things together over the past 30 years and I wish him the best with his future projects. Out of respect for the legacy of these accomplishments, I encourage Morbid Angel fans to not take sides because, I am not.
I look forward to sharing my new endeavors with all of you in the near future. Until then, stay Morbid! ~David Vincent
While this may be disappointing to many, it represents new ground for Morbid Angel, which just hired Steven Tucker again, lost drummer Tim Yeung and guitarist Destructhor, and appears to be re-organizing itself more toward its last good material produced, 1998’s Formulas Fatal to the Flesh. Given the immense dissatisfaction with the most recent Morbid Angel album which took the band in a more Rammstein/nu-metal direction under Vincent’s guidance, this re-organization looks like the band orienting itself more toward metal material.
The cast of Gruesome, the Schuldiner-hailing collective featuring members of Exhumed, Possessed, Malevolent Creation and Derketa, today untethers a very special cover of Slayer’s “Black Magic.” The band’s latest reconfiguration of the old-school appears on the deluxe digital edition of the band’s Savage Land full-length.
We chose our cover tunes the same way we tried to write the album,” relays guitarist/vocalist Matt Harvey. “We just did what Chuck [Schuldiner] would have done. Death was never a band particularly known for their cover song repertoire, but they did occasionally close their set with a rendition of ‘Black Magic’ and it’s a cover that dates as far back as an old 1984 Death/Mantas rehearsal, so we felt it would be appropriate. We were considering ‘The Exorcist’ by Possessed, since Death started recording a cover of it during Individual Thought Patterns, but since [Gruesome guitarist] Dan [Gonzalez] is in Possessed, it was a bit weird. Again, we tried to approach the song as Death doing a Slayer cover, so… hopefully we came close to the mark.
Gruesome pays homage to the mainstream’s and non-death metal listeners’ most celebrated American acts, Death. As such, their debut full-length, Savage Land, released last month Relapse Records, is an addictively punishing exhibition of late-’80s/early-’90s Florida-styled death metal that keeps the true sound and spirit of Chuck Schuldiner and Death alive and well.
Gruesome was borne out of guitarist/vocalist Matt Harvey (Exhumed) and drummer Gus Rios’ (Malevolent Creation) mutual involvement with the Death To All tours. After discarding the idea of putting together another incarnation of DTA to focus exclusively on Death’s first two albums, Harvey half-jokingly suggested writing their own songs in that vein. The idea gained traction, and the band had five songs written. Rios later recruited Possessed guitarist Daniel Gonzalez and Derketa bassist Robin Mazen to record the material in Florida. Savage Land was tracked by Rios and Gonzalez at Riversound Studios in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, mixed by Jarrett Pritchard at Mana Studios in St. Petersburg, Florida, and features a guest guitar solo on “Closed Casket” by James Murphy as well as cover art by legendary illustrator Ed Repka (Death, Megadeth, Massacre, Athiest et el).
“This couldn’t come more highly recommended. Buy this and take a trip back to the ’80s when death metal wasn’t all about blast beats and gutturals.” – Stereokiller
“This isn’t your crusty, nasty, run-of-the-mill retro death metal. Hell no. This the advanced, dripping-rot-from-the-corners-
of-a-coffin, putrid, vile death metal throwback that you’ve been waiting for. Observe.” – Metal Injection
“The enthusiasm alone on Savage Land is awe-inspiring… this is a fun romp through the rehearsal space of a bunch of longhairs who love a band so much it hurts. 8/10” – Exclaim
“…just so goddamned fun.” — MetalSucks
“Metal needs more albums like Savage Land… The legacy and sound of Death lives on ever so faithfully through bands like Gruesome, and wherever he is, Chuck Schuldiner is undoubtedly windmilling ferociously and smirking ear to ear at the deathly sounds of Savage Land. 4/5” – HeavyBlogIsHeavy
Swedish melodic death metal band turned melodic speed metal band At the Gates finished recording its latest album At War With Reality and plans release on October 27th in Europe and October 28th in North America via Century Media Records.
Vocalist Tomas Lindberg issued the following statement:
We are very excited to finally have finished this new album. An album that we’ve been working on for over a year now. It’s by far the most challenging record that we have made, but it’s an honest album and I think that you will feel that it is faithful to the legacy of AT THE GATES.
We have, through the process of creating it, been true to ourselves and our art. From hearing the first demos that Anders presented to the band last summer, through the extensive stages of songwriting, pre-production, rehearsals, recording and mixing, we now finally got the finished album in our hands.
We are very happy to have managed to produce an album that we feel is truly ‘us’. Something we can all stand behind one hundred percent. I can’t wait ’til you all get to hear it!
Recorded with Fredrik Nordström at Studio Fredman and mixed by Jens Bogren at Fascination Street Studios, At War With Reality shows the return of the classic At the Gates lineup with their first new material since best-selling but fan-disappointing Slaughter of the Soul, which showed the band drifting toward Metallica Ride the Lightning era speed metal given the melodic Swedish metal treatment.
The band recorded this in-studio statement:
Simultaneously, the band have announced an international tour for 2015. Dates are as follows:
AT THE GATES + support:
20.11.2014 – Tampere (Finland) – Klubi
21.11.2014 – Jyväskylä (Finland) – Lutako
22.11.2014 – Helsinki (Finland) – Nosturi
AT THE GATES, GRAVE, MORBUS CHRON:
27.11.2014 – Göteborg (Sweden) – Trägårn
28.11.2014 – Stockholm (Sweden) – Arenan
29.11.2014 – Malmö (Sweden) – KB
AT THE GATES, TRIPTYKON, MORBUS CHRON:
04.12.2014 – London (UK) – Forum
05.12.2014 – Manchester (UK) – Academy 2
06.12.2014 – Glasgow (UK) – Garage
07.12.2014 – Birmingham (UK) – Academy
08.12.2014 – Cardiff (UK) – Solus
10.12.2014 – Essen (Germany) – Turock
11.12.2014 – Hamburg (Germany) – Markthalle
12.12.2014 – Eindhoven (The Netherlands) – Eindhoven Metal Meeting
13.12.2014 – Leipzig (Germany) – Conne Island
14.12.2014 – Wien (Austria) – Arena
16.12.2014 – Aarau (Switzerland) – Kiff
17.12.2014 – Munich (Germany – Backstage Werk
18.12.2014 – Antwerpen (Belgium) – Trix
19.12.2014 – Cologne (Germany) – Essigfabrik
20.12.2014 – Berlin (Germany) – Postbahnhof
AT THE GATES – live 2015:
08.01.2015 – Istanbul (Turkey) – Jolly Joker
09.01.2015 – Athens (Greece) – Stage Volume 1
10.01.2015 – Thessaloniki (Greece) – Principal Club
31.01.2015 – Dublin (Ireland) – Academy
26.02.2015 – Oslo (Norway) – Vulkan Arena
29.05.2015 – Johannesburg (South Africa) – TBA
30.05.2015 – Cape Town (South Africa) – TBA
Since the days of being a small child I have been fascinated by how things fall apart. At an early age I could recognize decay, but knew it was separate from the tendency of human efforts to disintegrate once they grew past their initial effort.
A simple example was our veterinarian. He started out with a group of other animal doctors. Then people realized this one guy does great work. He struck out for himself. Soon he had too much work to do. He expanded, hiring more people and getting a new building. Soon he was no longer doing great work and he was more expensive. It took people a decade to find out. Most of them were still telling each other the accepted truth that he was doing great work.
At the Gates have announced their reformation as part of the 2013-inspired wave that saw Gorguts and Carcass return. Unlike the 2009-wave of returning bands, like Asphyx and Beherit, this retro-underground-revival has featured classic bands “modernizing” their sound. It also generally exhibits bands who had already cast aside their metal roots for musical reasons. Where the previous wave was more a sense of bands returning to pick up where they left off, the new wave seems to be about bands participating in the new metal scene and trying to siphon off some of that interest, newsworthiness and cash flow.
At the Gates started from the ashes of Grotesque back in 1990. They quickly released an EP, Gardens of Grief, followed by an LP, The Red in the Sky is Ours. These two works constitute the important artistic output from At the Gates because they were so radical in death metal. First, they incorporated melody as a structural device, where previously it had been used as a technique and worn to death. Next, they showed song development that surpassed what most bands were doing. Finally, their use of single-note picked riffs and spacious drumming produced a greater range of dynamics for death metal. Between At the Gates and other Swedish death metal acts that used melody such as Therion and Carnage, the roots of black metal were laid.
After that, things got confused. With Fear I Kiss the Burning Darkness followed in 1993 but lacked the clarity of the early work, showing a band in conflict over whether it wanted to follow its initial style, or get more power chords and catchy choruses in there. This led to the departure of original member Alf Svensson and regrouping with guitarist Martin Larsson, formerly of House of Usher. At this point, the band reformulated their sound to be more like regular death metal and yet also more like accepted rock music, including displaying the technical chops expected in that field. Now, like countrymen Dissection, At the Gates sounded like a death metal wrapper around a regular rock band, and a good one at that. Interest soared. The band released Slaughter of the Soul to grand acclaim despite the album having more in common with the speed metal of the mid-1980s than the death metal of the 1990s.
After their most popular album ever, the band fragmented when the Björler brothers moved on to form The Haunted. Most metalheads recognize that moment as the ground zero for melodic metalcore, which combined the 1980s speed metal approach to songwriting with the late hardcore tendency to value random riffs stacked together in carnival sideshow music style. However, for a new neurotic generation, this distraction-oriented music was a perfect soundtrack, and The Haunted became a success in its own right. At the Gates put out a few retrospectives and occasionally re-united but basically was dead.
In 2014, it’s hard to imagine the band not making Slaughter of the Soul II. It was their greatest success and introduced themes of self-pity, such as suicide, which are always popular with the youth of narcissistic parents who essentially feel doomed from puberty onward despite living in relative luxury. Slaughter of the Soul was a clear precursor to The Haunted which took the frenetic randomness of bands like Discordance Axis and Human Remains and made it into a new style that, by using the sweet sounds of Iron Maiden-styled harmony, found mass appeal.
At the Gates made the following statement:
We know you are all curious about the new material, and to make a simple explanation of where we are at musically, we would describe it as a perfect mix between early AT THE GATES & ‘Slaughter of the Soul’-era AT THE GATES, trying to maintain the legacy and the history
This leaves us wondering what they consider “early” At the Gates since presumably that’s everything before Slaughter of the Soul, and they did not specifically mention the first EP or LP by name.
The resurgence of Black Sabbath following the success of their new album 13 presents an ironic success when compared with the more substantial legacy of their earlier work. Without the first five albums, metal as we now know it would not exist. And on one album in particular, Black Sabbath laid the groundwork for three subgenres — stoner metal, thrash metal and doom metal — such that future generations could pick up the hint and fully develop these new alloys of the raw metal that Black Sabbath forged forty years ago.
Black Sabbath is widely acknowledged by critics and fans as the beginning of heavy metal. From the eerie tri-tone chills of “Black Sabbath” to the menacing crawl of “Electric Funeral,” from the sludge of “Cornucopia” to the pop sensibility of “Killing Yourself to Live,” the black stamp of Black Sabbath radiates forward into the future, culminating in a reprise of their career (including post-Ozzy line-ups) in 13. Ranking the first five Black Sabbath works on a scale of one to five, a convincing argument could be made for either chronological sequence going from best to least. It’s a toss-up for fans and critics alike. Paranoid garners most of the nods as the most influential album from all corners, and many fans cite Vol. 4 as their favorite. Numerous others consider Sabbath Bloody Sabbath the salvation of Black Sabbath, bringing a newer sound to the band
But whichever direction you go, Master of Reality stands in the center. It is the first, and maybe the last, Black Sabbath album from the Ozzy-era (and perhaps from the entire canon) to purge extraneous elements and render a pure metal, so pure that other alloys — especially stoner metal, thrash metal, and doom metal –- would not exist without it. While seeds of different genres surely exist on the other four albums mentioned, I will be arguing that Master of Reality not only undergirds these three subgenres of heavy metal but may well be the finest classic Black Sabbath album.
From start to finish, Master of Reality casts a dark, heavy, menacing, and philosophical spell on the listener. Perhaps “uncompromising” describes it best. As an artifact judged solely on its own composition and delivery, Master of Reality may be the first metal album conceived of as a metal album. While the first two Black Sabbath albums undeniably forge many elements of heavy metal, each deviates at certain points. Black Sabbath has numerous forays into jazz and blues. It’s heavy when it’s heavy, but an almost exploratory vibe pervades about one-third of the album. Paranoid, while certainly heavier overall and much more consistent than Black Sabbath, retains blues and jazz elements that do not appear on Master of Reality. The first two albums stand as classics of the genre, and valid arguments for their status as primordial metal albums absolutely exist. However, the unity and purposefulness of Master of Reality indicate that these albums were like drafts of an essay, brimming with good ideas and clever phrases but ultimately collections of elements rather than unified wholes. Master of Reality starts heavy, grows heavier, and finishes heaviest. As the analysis below will demonstrate, the thematic consistency of this album far exceeds that of its predecessors. The lyrical expression of the themes reflects a deeper and more reasoned understanding of the issues involved. Musically, the songs are tighter and more direct. While the free-form jams of the first two albums are quite interesting and in my opinion as good as anything of the era, they reflect yet again a collection of elements. Master of Reality offers much more stylistic consistency, indicating a more holistic approach to the project.
The opening track, “Sweet Leaf” stands as a blueprint for stoner metal. The lyrics celebrate marijuana as a window to another dimension only the enlightened perceive: “Straight people don’t know what you’re about / They put you down and shut you out / You gave to me a new belief / And soon the world will love you sweet leaf.” The plodding riff that dominates the song permeates the descendant genre. Then the break from around 2:35-3:25 shifts into a proto-thrash mode (especially evident in Bill Ward’s drumming) that will show up again and again on this record. The song concludes with the stoner plodding that begins it.
“After Forever” and “Children of the Grave” carry the proto-thrash elements to the next level. While many critics have begun to agree that “Symptom of the Universe” off Sabotage inaugurates proto-thrash, one hearing of Master of Reality should be adequate evidence that the thrash style was being perfected, not invented, by the time “Symptom” was pressed into vinyl. Taking on religion (and ironically deciding in its favor, saying “They should realize before they criticize / That God is the only way to love”), the shouted lyrics of “After Forever” offer a direct exploration of the question of the soul versus the institutionalized mechanisms that supposedly provide for its sustenance. Both of these themes persist into thrash metal. The up-tempo opening and subsequent power chord extravaganza stand as a stark contrast with the opening track. “Children of the Grave” is pure thrash. Again featuring a shouted vocal, the song amplifies lyrics that challenge war and societal manipulation with verses like “Show the world that love is still alive you must be brave / Or your children of today are children of the grave.” The lyrics of this song presage two of the most prominent themes in thrash metal. Like “Paranoid” before it, “Children of the Grave” chugs forward, adding sustained chord progressions above it. The break from 2:10-2:20 proves itself worthy thrash to this day. Bill Ward’s work heralds the prominence of drums in thrash. Taken together, these two songs form the blueprint for thrash metal.
“Lord of this World,” “Solitude,” and “Into the Void” constitute a “doom suite.” As Osbourne’s plaintive wail pierces our eardrums, evil, demonic possession, psychological instability, and societal collapse penetrate our consciousness like a needle pushing a drug under the skin. The lyrics reflect a pessimism only hinted at in the preceding songs. The song titles themselves indicate a doom ethos. Try to imagine a darker or doomier final song than “Into the Void.” With the exception of a break in “Into the Void,” the tempos, riffs, and rhythms slow to a sometimes mechanistic, sometimes mournful, sometimes throbbing, always menacing procession of deliberate despair. The churning “Lord of this World” offers a view of demonic influence based not on Satan’s assiduity but human apathy: “You made me master of the world where you exist / The soul I took from you was not even missed.” The naysayers vilified in “After Forever” have won, and the dim hope that “God is the only way to love” offered in “After Forever” is snuffed out like a candle after a mass. “Solitude,” a slower, softer song expresses the ennui of a person suffering from self-directed pessimism. Ostensibly about a woman, the lyrics also sustain an interpretation of addiction or perhaps depression: “Crying and thinking is all that I do / Memories I have remind me of you.” The theme of hopelessness would become a staple of doom metal. “Into the Void” comprises interesting movements and perhaps one of the best introductory and main body riffs in all of Black Sabbath. The theme of contradictory practices, probably based on the co-occurrence of the Apollo missions and the Vietnam War, ultimately rests on the fact that hope is an illusion and the only peace that exists comes from journeying into the void — not on a rocket ship but in a grave on a planet “left to Satan and his slaves.” Again, the hope expressed in “After Forever” falls to the psychological manipulation of the children of the grave. The thematic consistency across the album is summarized and re-presented as a void that ultimately becomes the only option: a dark, heavy, menacing, and philosophical elaboration of the pessimism that will come to characterize heavy metal.
Master of Reality presents an overall coherence and depth reflective of a band that has realized its vision. Working out the details during the production of their first two records, Black Sabbath tempered that vision with experience. The musical, lyrical, and thematic sophistication of this album leads to an even heavier sound than had existed before. While it may be that down-tuning contributed to a darker sound, the beauty of this album emerges not from lower notes but from higher understanding. Some may suggest that Vol. 4 goes the next step further, but I would argue that it is the first step down-less consistent, less profound (although of Vol. 4 possesses a rather remarkable lyrical finesse). Sabbath Bloody Sabbath seems in the main a different enterprise than the first four albums (though it does elaborate some of the elements started on Vol. 4.) Some may suggest that Black Sabbath was an almost miraculous first outing, therefore making it best. I would agree that it laid the foundation for the genre but lacks the unity and purpose of Master of Reality, which is the album that confirmed the genre. Some may suggest the commercial success and exposure of Paranoid makes it the best expression of Black Sabbath’s ethos. Paranoid ranks as one of the greatest albums in the Sabbath canon, and many arguments could be made about the songs on Paranoid being their best work. But this analysis seeks to determine the best album. And Paranoid lacks the lyrical, thematic, and musical consistency of Master of Reality. In fact, from my perspective this level of excellence does not reappear until Heaven and Hell. But that album resulted from a new line-up and a new vision. In the end, I have to choose Master of Reality over Heaven and Hell.
A true testament to the importance of this album appears in the track list for 1997’s live collection Reunion. If we accept the postulate that Black Sabbath intended this collection to be a compendium representing the legacy of the Ozzy era as it stood at that time, the importance of Master of Reality becomes clear. Only four songs from the final five albums of the era are included. Only three are chosen from the eponymous first album. That leaves five songs each from Paranoid and Master of Reality (I’ll concede that “Orchid” is less important than any of the songs from Paranoid, yet there it is). With many fine tunes available from the final five albums, Black Sabbath included two-thirds of Master of Reality (four of six full-length songs). Surely they would not have featured so much of this album (and so little of the final five) if they did not want it to represent their legacy.
At the very least, Master of Reality caps the most important three-album sequence in the history of heavy metal. Although the first two albums present fierce, fatalistic, and fear-laden songs, songs with symphonic sensibilities and fusion-based energy, Master of Reality far exceeds both of them as a holistic project. The musical consistency and thematic pessimism of this album refines the ethos and aesthetic of the first two albums into a tighter work of art, at once more controlled and more innovative, perhaps because of the greater degree of precision and planning. Further, the variety of styles and increasing darkness of the themes and lyrics as the album progresses create the design signatures for the stoner, thrash, and doom metal of today, making it more influential than a cursory understanding would indicate. As a result Master of Reality reigns as the finest Black Sabbath album.