Saturday, May 19, 2007

DNA: Into The Void

Master Of Reality was a bit of a culmination for Black Sabbath - the very last album to be recorded entirely in their original, lead-footed proto-stoner metal style. Starting with Vol. 4, the band, perhaps miffed by critical derision, perhaps sparked by their move from herbs to powders by way of recreational accessories, began infusing more diversity into their sound, some good, some bad, some interestingly ugly. From the orchestral-kitsch melodrama of 'Supertzar' to Ozzy's truly inexplicable stab at neurotic pop music, 'Am I Going Insane (Radio)', stranger sounds would emerge from future Sabbath albums, along with a modicum of classics of course.

But in 1971, the Sabbath was still a heavy, sludgy cornucopia of turgid yet sinewy riffs. No song on Master Of Reality epitomises the brilliance of this phase of Sabbath as much for me as the album closer, 'Into The Void'. Clocking in at 6 minutes and about 12 seconds, it throws at least 4 riffs at us with typical-at-the-time Iommi generosityl all played on guitars that are tuned a whole one and a half steps lower than standard tuning. The ascending figure of the intro sounds like a determined yet halting march, a combination of martial threat and ambiguous uncertainty. Butler's pusling bass underscores the threat, the fills that Iommi breaks into keep the more cryptic side of the riff in sight. A quick bridge underscores the same tension between a free-flow and a plodding stacatto, while bringing the drama with some scalar development that leads back to the introductory figure. This quickly moves into a more filled-out, chugging riff that still carries on the thematic tendancy of breaking up a solid motif with note-bending fills. Iommi introduces this riff, and then the band joins in, with Ozzy coming in after another measure, laying down a very straight, monotonous vocal line that gives the lyrics, which juxtapose images of environmental decay against a space race, a sense of weight and pathos that a more dramatic rendition might have lost. Two verses pass in rapid succession, before Iommi takes a split-second break to bring in a new riff, a more dynamic, groovy and circular passage, complete with vocals, that's gone almost as soon as it arrives, leading back to a third verse in a similar arrangement as the first two. This time, Ozzy takes the story further, talking of space travellers escaping into the void and leaving the earth to Satan's legions. The riff gradually gives way to Iommi's solo, which itself moves into one of the most remarkable musical passages in the Sabbath canon, with another circular riff giving way to a call-and response passage where Iommi replies to a simple chordal figure with increasingly flamboyant and daring bends, which ultimately take him all the way out of a predictable pentatonic minor progression, before he breaks the tension with a fluttery licks in the gaps and then a few more measures of the double-tracked soloing he favoured at the time. The circular motif that preceded this remarkable series of bends returns to see the song with a quick wind-up.

And that's it. The song begins with a slide-up to the tonic, and ends with a reverb-drenched final chord. Emphatic bookends to a song that charts a fair amount of territory in between, without breaking the grey, grim spell of its atmosphere. Just guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and mostly penatonic minor scales spiced up in typical Iommi fashion with a few exotic note choices in just the right places. It all seems simple enough when you think about it, and the lyrics aren't even that awesome, but the collective impact of this song is immense. Each riff continues to reveberate in my head long after the last note fades from the speakers. This may not be the definitive Sabbath song - they've writen too many contenders for that title - but I think it is very definitive of something very special, original and brilliant in Sabbath's music, something that has found adherents as diverse as Melvins' Buzz Osborne and Candlemass' Leid Edling, to name just two. There's something about distortion, a de-tuned guitar, deliberate, controlled speeds verging on downright slowness and the proud iteration of a good motif as many times as it needs to really breathe that began with songs like this, and will hopefully remain in the wider world of rock music until we all burn fuel through the night sky at last. At the risk of hyperbole, I will say that I believe a song like this is not just a memorable moment on a classic album - it's a musical Rosetta Stone, a key to musical esoterica that people are still using to unlock new sonic chambers.


Ravi said...

aha. Awesome album/track review. I'd say this was my fave Sabbath album except that I also love Sabotage, Sabbath bloody Sabbath and ah fuck it! This album sadly caused my music system to go into a tailspin that it's never been able to recover from. In a quest for more bass, I very stupidly maxed out the bass settings on my amp and on the EQ. I then settled back to hear the remaster of Master of REality and was ....disappointed. And then some two songs in there was a 'phut' sound and my amp blew out. I later found I'd been sitting in the eye of a bass storm and when I stepped out things were quite chaotic - the resultant bass explosion had knocked stuff off shelves all over the hall and my parents were supremely pissed off. Yassir. I blew my speakers with rock n roll and it wasn't any fun at all.

JP said...

Haha, great story! I'm not surprised at all - a lot of the action on those early Sabbath albums is nearly subsonic as it is, and I've distressed quite a few rickety old woofers with enhanced bass settings and the repeated playing of early Sabb too!

bob_vinyl said...

This is probably my favorite Sabbath album. Their debut challenges it with its trippiness, but I think they really made the definitive metal album here.

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

and that, was a hell of a review, dude