on 9 January 2006
Let’s be honest, the cover of this album is complete rubbish. I know the album was originally going to be called War Pigs, and as such there should logically be some kind of military figure on the sleeve. But even if this had remained the title, the cover would still be awful: some geezer dressed in a motorcycle crash helmet, wearing his underpants outside his pyjama trousers and brandishing a sword? Sounds more like a care in the community case than a fearsome futuristic warrior. Happily though, this is one of those “Don’t judge a book (or album) by its cover” scenarios, because the music here is arguably the best that Sabbath ever produced. This is all the more surprising given that it came mere months after their relatively poor self-titled debut.
After that album’s – at times – schlocky material and patchy playing, the music here is much stronger; better written and better played, more varied and featuring a much more confident and consistent performance from John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne. There is also another hint that Sabbath can be regarded as - at least partly - Progressive. Certainly in as much as their songs often feature distinct sections (notably ‘War Pigs’, ‘Hand Of Doom’ and ‘Iron Man’) and that they were exploring new ideas and directions, particularly in their use of loud/quiet structures.
Oddly, this album begins similarly to the way Black Sabbath ended, with a song, ‘War Pigs’, upbraiding politicians for sitting around in safety while sending others off to die. ‘Wicked World’, the closer from the previous album, made exactly the same point. Similarly oddly, this album closes with ‘Fairies Wear Boots’, which refers explicitly to the group’s drug use, while the first track on their next album – Master Of Reality – is ‘Sweet Leaf’, a paean to the joys of the weed. If nothing else, I suppose it gives a neat unity to their first three albums.
Whereas Black Sabbath was quite tiresome in places, there are lots of things to enjoy here and the album rarely gets bogged down. One of the chief pleasures is the title track itself; this song must be to Sabbath what ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is to Led Zeppelin: their calling card, the thing they’ll always be remembered for, and consequently something of a musical albatross around their collective neck. That’s a shame, as it’s still a fine slice of Rock: chunky riffing, a tight rhythm section and Iommi’s nicely distorted guitar solo, while Ozzy’s performance suits the song to a tee: strung out, haunted…paranoid.
Aside from this though, there’s the excellent ‘War Pigs’, featuring a similarly dark and weighty intro to ‘Black Sabbath’, but where that song dragged and ultimately disappointed, this explodes into life, raging with righteous anger, rather than dripping with fake blood. It’s one of their finest efforts, where the ferocity of the playing reflects the (slightly naïve) fury of the lyric, railing against the warmongers who stay alive while so many others die at their behest. The power of the music and the timeless nature of its lyrical concern really make this one of Rock’s evergreens.
As a whole the album marks a move away from the Hammer inspired theatricality of Black Sabbath and towards the more typical obsessions of Sci-Fi, drugs, war and fantasy. This would mean no less of a preoccupation with death, but less with Satan and Black Magic (although ‘War Pigs’ manages to mention death, war, black masses, Satan and witches). ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Planet Caravan’ are cases in point: the former featuring a crushing riff backing a Frankensteinian lyric about supernatural mutation, revenge and space exploration, while the latter is something of a musical departure; a mellow, spacey arrangement evoking the likes of Santana, or a less playful Caravan, while Osbourne’s distorted vocals recount a romanticised tale of interstellar travel. It seems a little incongruous to place this track between the drug-induced trauma of ‘Paranoid’ and the Science Fiction violence of ‘Iron Man’, but it’s a fine track and adds texture to what would otherwise be a relentlessly heavy album. ‘Hand Of Doom’ meanwhile exploits a darkly sinister loud/quiet backing to bookend a faster, driving, middle section in another song about the pleasures and perils of drug abuse. That the various sections of the song hang together so well is a testament to both the strength of the material and the commitment of the musicians to their work
The same really applies to the somewhat tongue in cheek drug song ‘Fairies Wear Boots’ (“’cause smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do”). In fact, the lyric aside, this song almost appears to be a catalogue of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal clichés, from the phased guitars of the intro, through the opening bars, to the chugging main riff. But when this album was released these weren’t clichés of course. That’s really the important thing to remember here: although this album has flaws (the clunky ‘Electric Funeral’ being a major one), it is seminal Hard Rock, and as such carries influence to this day.
The riffs aren’t as bold as Zeppelin’s, the playing is nowhere near as good as Zeppelin’s or AC/DC’s, and at times the sound is far more sludgy and muddled than either of those bands would ever have tolerated, but the music has a power and visceral energy that shines through any sonic murk. Alongside Led Zeppelin’s I – IV and Physical Graffiti, AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock and Back In Black and Deep Purple’s In Rock and Machine Head, it’s an album every Rock fan should own. Whether you’re just beginning to explore Hard Rock in general or Sabbath in particular, this is required listening.