the absolute jewel in the crown of the set is the full live show from the US 1975 tour spread across the second and third CDs
Following on from the recent release of the Deluxe Edition of the landmark Black Sabbath Vol 4 album (and Paranoid before that), the BMG luxury trip through the Sabbath catalogue alights on another classic, 1975’s Sabotage. This of course means that Sabbath Bloody Sabbath has been bypassed for now, but since the debut and Master Of Reality have also not yet appeared, it seems fairly sure that these will all be in the pipeline. Many consider Sabotage, the sixth Sabbath album, to be the last of their initial run of classics, and although I believe Technical Ecstasy in particular is very underrated, one can see the point in this view. This set is available in two configurations: four CDs or four vinyl albums with a 7″ single – I will be concentrating on the CD release, but the music is the same in any case. I’ll highlight packaging differences for collectors when summing up.
The album itself will surely be well known to any Sabbath fan worth his demon-repelling salt, but let’s have a look at it anyway, before we get to what I believe is the real musical meat of this release, the two CDs of live material. The Sabotage album has been remastered for this release, though that is less critical as it was for the Vol 4 set, since Sabotage has seen at least one great CD mastering job previously, whereas Vol 4 had, in my experience, been poorly served up to this point. It’s done well in any case, with the heavy punch of the album weighted nicely, and with perhaps marginally less brightness than one of the previous issues I have. This is something which is entirely in the aural preferences of the beholder, and I will leave exact forensic examination to those whose musical fun-time extends to lengthy A-B comparisons, waveform examinations and other things which suck the joy out of music! Suffice it to say, I turned it up and it leapt from the speakers and rocked as mightily as it ever did. The neighbours can still be made to complain, have no fear of that!
The album opens with Hole In The Sky, which sees the whole band swing in together with a huge, piledriving gut-punch of a riff, remarkable in the way that it lopes along at a mid-to-fast paced tempo, with a real swing provided by Bill Ward’s superb drum work, and yet is simultaneously skull-crushing in effect. Symptom Of The Universe ups even that high ante in the riff stakes, as it grabs the listener by the metaphorical lapels and dares you to stop listening. You don’t. The main riff is a dyed in the wool metal classic, but the bridging riff is also a thing of awe, containing some astonishing drum fills from a manic-sounding Ward. Ozzy’s trademark cries of ‘Yeahhhhh!’ after each verse are as effective as they always manage to be. The oddly jazzy coda always seemed a little bolted-on, but this is actually one of the parts very much improved by the new mix, with a lot more depth and substance to the bottom end, and it seems to make more sense than ever before. Closing the first side is the near-ten minutes of Megalomania, a classic slice of what would later come to be known as progressive metal. It opens with a chilling introductory section, complete with brilliantly echoed vocals from Ozzy (‘Obsessed obsessed obsessed obsessed obsessed with fantasy…’) before the three minute mark when Iommi kicks in with an insistent, propulsive guitar riff that simply cannot be resisted. The second side struggles to live up to the matchless first 20 minutes, but Thrill Of It All opens it up very well, spliced together from what seem like two different pieces. A juddering, staccato opening section suddenly shifts gear, speeds up, and a driving, infectious synthesiser hook (played by Iommi) carries it along joyously. Supertzar is an utterly unique piece, with Iommi’s guitar joining a massed choir which combine to give an Eastern European flavour with a sort of marching feel. In a famous tale, Ozzy arrived at the studio while the track was being recorded, saw the choir, and also a harpist who had been enlisted, assumed he had come to somebody else’s session by mistake and walked out again! Am I Going Insane (Radio) is a very catchy rocker which was released as a single but flopped unfairly, as it seems like a good chart fit. The ‘Radio’ subtitle is nothing to do with radio play incidentally, it actually refers to the rhyming slang ‘Radio Rental’, meaning ‘mental’. Finally, another closing epic The Writ – with lyrics unusually by Ozzy rather than Geezer Butler – sees all of the bile and frustration regarding the ongoing legal problems the band were having at the time spilled out into an angry and powerful song. It’s a fine close to a metal classic for sure.
However, fans will have the album of course, and this sort of release isn’t aimed at attracting the casual buyer. Without any studio work-in-progress recordings or alternative versions available this time, the absolute jewel in the crown of the set is the full live show from the US 1975 tour spread across the second and third CDs (three discs in the vinyl version). The live recordings included with the Vol 4 release were great, without doubt, but most had been already available (albeit differently mixed) on the Live At Last and Past Lives albums. This time out, only three tracks here have seen the light of day before (as part of Past Lives), and the whole show is astonishingly good. Even the sound is absolutely excellent. In fact, the first 40 minutes or so here is probably the finest live recorded Sabbath I have ever heard. It’s that good. Opening the show is a superlative Killing Yourself To Live, before the unsuspecting audience (this was just before Sabotage came out) are hit with stormtrooping versions of Hole In The Sky and Symptom Of The Universe. Oh yes, with the small matter of a brilliant Snowblind in between them. It’s time then for War Pigs, which never disappoints, before we get the best thing on any of the discs here – a quite unbelievable delivery of Megalomania, rehearsed to perfection and possibly even more powerful than the studio take. Why the track was dropped after this one tour is beyond me! Another surprise after that is the rarely-played Sabbra Cadabra from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. By this point the entire set has happily paid for itself and settled on your shelf with a smug smile as if to say ‘told you!’, but there is still plenty to come.
As always with ’70s Sabbath shows (and rock shows in general) the jams containing the guitar and drum solos are inessential, but they are relatively short, and all over and done with in the time it took Led Zeppelin to come back on after the solo in Moby Dick – and they are interspersed with Supernaut and Iron Man, so hey… it’s all good! The home straight then gives us Black Sabbath itself, a cracking, and unexpected, Spiral Architect, and concludes, of course, with Children Of The Grave and Paranoid. No live recording of Sabbath can ever adequately convey the energy and sheer power they conjured up, but this one makes a damned fine fist of it. This really should have been put out as a live album back in the day.
The fourth disc is rather odd, in that it simply contains both sides of a Japanese single, an edit of Am I Going Insane and the album version of Hole In The Sky again. In the vinyl set, this makes sense as it is a replica 7″ single, but as a two track CD it loses any reason to exist, and is a head scratcher to say the least! The rest of the packaging us superb however, with the 60-page hardback book (40 in the larger vinyl format) containing the story of the album via a host of quotes from the band (both at the time and later), and also plenty of reproduced press cuttings and reviews. There are also lots of alternate album cover designs from around the world, press ads, posters etc, and all in all it’s a lovely thing. That’s not all though, as there is also a complete reproduction of the US tour programme, as well as a reproduction of a poster advertising the gigs. Put that in a nice chunky box, individual sleeves and a classy ribbon to help get them out of their space in the box, and this is something to cherish.
Now, what album is going to be next? I for one can’t wait!