In the modern era of music it’s generally expected that artists will take a minimum of around two years between studio releases, and if you’re a well-established act, maybe double, even treble that number. It’s staggering to think in hindsight that Black Sabbath took less than 18 months to deliver three of the most pivotal albums in heavy music history. Their primal March 1970 self-titled debut laid the foundations for it’s monumental follow-up Paranoid, released in September of that same year, and it was a mere 5 months later that Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward found themselves back in the studio to craft their third release, Master of Reality.
Having become two full-lengths the wiser (not to mention unexpectedly successful), the Birmingham four-piece went into London’s Island Studios with a slight reprieve from the time-crunch pressure that had followed them in the past. Instead, it had been replaced by a measure of relative musical ease, with the freedom to focus on sonic experimentation, strengthening the production values and honing their song-writing abilities. The results from this extended studio time speak for themselves, and while only clocking in over half an hour and featuring six tracks proper (excluding the two short minute-long instrumentals “Embryo” and “Orchid”), there is no excess fat on show; every riff, tempo change, instrumental break and vocal passage feels a vital as what preceded it.
One creative decision that played a large part on close to half of Master of Reality was Tony Iommi’s decision to down-tune his guitar a step and a half to C# standard. Whilst initially done out of a sheer necessity to ease the tension and discomfort on his (in)famously damaged fingertips, its resulting lower, and frankly evil, sound added another layer to the band’s already renowned heaviness, helped by the backbone of Geezer Butler’s immense bass tone and Bill Ward’s rock-solid drumming. This act would shape the way that metal guitarists would view their instrument, with down-tuned 6 strings (and beyond) becoming the staple in the genre. Ozzy Osbourne’s voice never sounded better, having become stronger and more commanding thanks to the previous couple of years of studio work and touring, and was yet to succumb to the decades of hard-living that was to follow. And while Ozzy was of course Sabbath’s iconic frontman, it was bassist Butler who crafted the lion’s share of the lyrics, something equally as important to their legacy as the musical content; whether it be celebrating personal freedom and opening one’s mind, or the more morbid tales of man’s folly and premature demise.
Opening with the now legendary sample of Iommi coughing up a lung, “Sweet Leaf” would have to go down as one of the earliest examples of an explicit ode to marijuana, as well as essentially providing the template for the stoner-rock sub-genre. A filthy riff drives the tune along as Osbourne heaps his affection onto the plant, before moving into a rollicking bridge section with Ward’s rolling drums and Iommi’s under-rated lead guitar work. “After Forever” is the album’s most uptempo number, featuring a deceivingly joyous opening passage, before moving into more familiar, crushing territory. Lyrically, it’s surprisingly pro-Christianity, perhaps something of a knee-jerk reaction to the hackneyed ‘Satanist’ accusations delivered towards the band from the start of their career.
The timeless “Children of the Grave” could be a strong contender for Black Sabbath’s greatest track, with the ahead-of-it’s-time chugging main guitar part serving as the track’s centerpiece, before a doom-y bridge section slows the pace down, before picking up again to bring the song to a powerful climax. It’s no surprise that it remained a staple in Sabbath’s set for years to come, as well as Osbourne’s when he went solo – its structure and composition has been copied an infinite amount of times in the rock and metal world, yet it has lost none of its original power some five decades later.
The mysterious, progressive folk of “Solitude” stands as something of a spiritual follow-up to Paranoid’s “Planet Caravan”. Osbourne’s vocals are as restrained as the music behind him, with a hypnotic bass line subtly moving along the song, with sparse hand percussion and Iommi’s flute playing adding to the overall atmosphere. It’s low-end focused, almost muffled mix works well to draw the listener into the album’s calming, sedate penultimate song, before dropping into the album’s monumental closer, “Into The Void”. Master of Reality’s twisting and turning finale is another riff masterclass, opening with an almost lumbering pace, before picking up the speed as the vocals enter. Its structure is unorthodox, with no true chorus, and different tempos for the bridge and verse sections, yet its unrelenting weight, both musically and lyrically, makes for another Sabbath classic and a tremendous way for the album to sign off.
Master of Reality took the formula of the first two Black Sabbath LPs and expanded it in every direction – faster, slower, heavier, more melodic – whilst putting the focus on conjuring some of the most iconic heavy music ever created. It’s influence on the decades of artists that followed it is almost immeasurable, with every sub-genre of metal having taken elements of the Sabbath sound and imagery on display here. Sadly, the wheels began to slowly fall off for the band shortly after Master of Reality was unleashed, mostly thanks to their collective growing drug and alcohol problems. Black Sabbath would release two great LPs after Master of Reality (1972’s Vol. 4 and 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath), but they never hit the same heights as they did with their third album. What we are left with is a time capsule of a moment in metal history that will be cherished and revered as one of the genre’s most important cornerstones.