April 22, 2021

Wheels Of Confusion … morphs into a rolling, unstoppable riff, sounding like great tombstones being pushed down a hillside at midnight, and immediately the listener is sucked in

Before I even start on this, I have to declare right away what an enormously important album this is and was for myself personally. The first Black Sabbath album I heard, in about 1973 or 1974, it quite literally changed my musical life forever, sparking a life-long love not only of the band but of classic heavy rock/metal in general. Many other Sabbath albums have had a profound effect on me, but in terms of the ‘lightbulb’ going on in my head the very first time I heard Wheels Of Confusion, nothing could compare. I have owned this album in several vinyl, CD and digital incarnations over the years, but I can quite honestly say that there has never been a better way to own it than this lovingly-compiled four-CD box with hardback book and poster. The extras, and the packaging, are all fascinating, but let’s go back to the beginning, and look at the album itself – here remastered in 2020 by Andy Pearce and Matt Wortham, and sounding – to me at least – even more vibrant, dynamic and just plain, skull-crushingly heavy, than ever before.

Wheels Of Confusion, at over eight minutes, remains an incredible opener, as Tony Iommi’s strident guitar theme comes in with magisterial power over a funereal-paced, brutally heavy chord sequence. This morphs into a rolling, unstoppable riff, sounding like great tombstones being pushed down a hillside at midnight, and immediately the listener is sucked in. With the band producing themselves for the first time – and also perhaps owing to the blizzard of cocaine around during recording – there is a feeling of the music both breathing and paradoxically feeling claustrophobic at the same time. When Ozzy comes in declaiming ‘Long ago I wandered through my mind..’, it’s clear that Geezer Butler’s lyric writing  has moved into a somewhat more metaphysical area than his previous subjects, and this all adds to the epic feel which the track, and indeed the album as a whole, exudes. After a typically frenetic Sabbath mid-section breaking things up superbly, as the song winds to its apparent conclusion, a suddenly triumphant, celebratory coda emerges – separately titled The Straightener for the original US release only – with Iommi soloing over an irresistible, descending chord progression, and via a lengthy fade-out, we are at the end of a masterpiece. Tomorrows Dream, up next, is far more concise at around three minutes, and was plucked from the album for release as a single, but it failed to chart anywhere. Hardly surprising, as there isn’t all that much commercial appeal about the song in terms of mainstream chart fodder! With Ozzy delivering a sometimes hard to decipher lyric about having to leave his unhappy and stressful situation behind him, Iommi’s accompanying guitar riffs are satisfyingly churning, but far from a commercial earworm. Oddly enough, there is a chorus which offers a respite from the riffery, and actually has some melodic appeal which could have led to some commercial success, but it is unaccountably used only once during the song.

There is an immediate left-turn to trip up the listener who is expecting more of the same, with the quite exquisite piano-led ballad Changes. Played by Iommi after having just taught himself to play the piano in a rudimentary form, a similarly ‘new to the instrument’ Butler adds mellotron which he had also just about taught himself, having composed some despairing words based on Bill Ward’s marriage break-up. Altogether, it really shouldn’t work, as the piano accompaniment is basic at best, while the lyrics are not what could be described as particularly subtle or poetic. However, it was this very simplicity that enabled the song to pull at the heartstrings in its raw, honest way, and when Ozzy wails the heavily echoed chorus line ‘I’m going through Changes’, you really believe in him. Somehow, there is a magic which is hard to define, and the song has gone on to be widely celebrated, and deservedly so.

‘Magic’ is probably not a word to describe the following, mercifully short, FX, consisting of Iommi’s strings being hit repeatedly, including by his own dangling cross, and given a heavily-reverbed treatment – but really, I imagine you had to be there. Proof that even the best album can have some utter tosh in there and rise above it! Up after that, however, and wiping all ‘filler’ memories away at a stroke, is the immortal Supernaut – an utterly remarkable piece, which manages to simultaneously be one of the heaviest tracks ever recorded – by anyone – and yet also somehow swing irresistibly, like some nightmarish anvil-metal bossa-nova.The main riff that kicks the song off, delivered like a buzzsaw by Iommi, is a classic in itself, but the churning repeating figure that comes in four times before each verse is heavy on a previously unheard-of scale. It has that spring-heeled quality to it however, and a large part of the reason for that is the astonishing performance put in by Bill Ward. He drives the song, and the beat, along like a hyperactive piledriver, and even makes the almost samba-style percussion breakdown in mid-song work! Iommi’s solo sounds like the work of an adrenalised man searching to put extra notes and fills in as if the already fast pace is boring him, and the impression of constant barely-contained energy is reinforced again and again. Ozzy, meanwhile, is in magnificent voice here, soaring above the music with a range that he is rarely given credit for, and was in the finest vocal form of his career around this time. Small wonder that the track was named by both Frank Zappa and John Bonham as their favourite Sabbath song, with Zappa even going on to call it one of his favourite songs by anyone.

Bill Ward, Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler photographed with gold discs in 1973.
Photo: Avalon Red.

By this time, we might be punch-drunk, but the second half of the album opens with the legendary cocaine anthem Snowblind, with Ozzy’s whispered ‘Cocainnnnne…’ at the end of the first verse standing out more than ever, after being virtually inaudible on early vinyl pressings but lifted a little on earlier CD releases. The lyric is quite clever, and mixes some reasonably subtly couched drug references with images and metaphors of snowflakes, icicles and blindness, and as with so much of Geezer Butler’s best words, remains fresh and does not pale no matter how many times you listen. Musically, the song is based around one of Iommi’s simpler guitar riffs, but one which burrows into your brain and takes up immediate residence for decades. The song is also lifted above the norm by small touches of brilliance – the use of guitar arpeggios around the ‘My eyes are blind but I can see’ slow passage for one, and the two masterful guitar solos for another (one coming in with perfect timing as Ozzy wails despairingly ‘I feel the snowflakes freezing me!’, and the other right after the final verse, and playing the track out). The band even use an orchestra in the end section, in another superb embellishment of the sound, subtle though it is. Cornucopia, up next, offers a brilliantly-worded criticism of so-called modern material wealth, and the society which forces us to prize it. Musically, there is an enormous amount going on here in just under four minutes, and while all of the song’s disparate elements are excellent, and dovetail together extremely well, the real classic moment occurs just once, with Iommi’s irresistible, charging bridging riff in between the first two verses which is never repeated. The momentum produced at that point could power Tokyo.

A break is needed at this point, and it comes with Iommi’s beautifully orchestrated acoustic guitar piece Laguna Sunrise – less complex than Fluff, on the following album, perhaps, but to these ears better. Up after that is St Vitus Dance, which is an odd contradiction of a piece that only Sabbath could pull off. Another fast and heavy track, it nevertheless contains a solid bedrock of acoustic guitar and an insidious, serpentine lead guitar figure in between the verses, while Ozzy delivers a lyric similar in its concept to She Loves You by the Beatles, urging his friend to forgive the woman who has lied to him, and go back to her for both their sakes. To my mind, this is the song which could have been a hit if released as a single – but we’ll never know. Finally, closing the album, we are back in the land of the ‘ten ton weight on the head’ again for the monstrous Under The Sun! Beginning with a trademark slow, lumbering Iommi riff, it soon morphs into another churning, insistent mid-tempo groove which Butler and Ward again imbue with a marvellous feeling of ‘swing’. It’s quite remarkably infectious, while also being anvil-heavy in execution – quite some balancing act to pull off, and one the band were never better at than on this album. The mid-section abruptly changes to an extremely up-tempo couple of verses, with Ozzy delivering the lines so fast as to be hard to decipher at times. When the big riff comes in again, however, it comes as a massive relief of tension, and is perfectly judged. As with Wheels Of Confusion, there is again a coda to the piece, with a slower, descending chord progression and Iommi overlaying some great guitar work. The last thirty seconds of the track consist of the progression repeatedly slowed down more and more, until a final run-through which is so slow as to evoke glacial erosion, ends with a sudden climactic power-chord. Meanwhile, the lyrics rail against organised religion, and people being told what to do by preachers, religious demagogues and anyone seeking to control people’s minds. An inspired way to close an inspired album.

You might not play [the out-takes] every day, but you’ll love the fact that you have them, like some sort of Heavy Metal Dead Sea Scrolls. Priceless.

Sabbath Press Shot 1973. Photo: Duffy @Duffy Archive

Now, having been familiar with the original album (albeit never sounding quite so good as this), the $64,000 question is how does the additional material stack up? The second and third discs contain various previously unheard out-takes, false-starts, embryonic versions and studio chatter which is like opening up a hitherto undiscovered window onto a scene in which you thought you’d seen everything. These out-takes are actually remastered by Steven Wilson, which is an unusual treatment for these sort of versions to receive, but it works, as it means it is all sonically on a par with the main album. Being just studio run-throughs, with all four members playing at the same time, there are odd moments when your brain wants to fill in some guitar overdubs which you have always heard, but apart from that simpler element to the renditions, what comes across is just how superb Sabbath were as a band, with the chemistry between them astonishing at times. The first disc has mostly complete versions, but with some fascinating lyrical variants. Wheels Of Confusion is here in its original guise as an ecological cautionary tale (‘Long ago this world of ours was green…’ it begins), and while the final lyric which was clearly swapped out quite late in proceedings is undeniably better, this is an amazing alternate reality that we are introduced to! Changes also has different words, as does Supernaut, with the percussion overdubs shorn from the mid-section, and the guitar riff oddly overcomplicated, lessening its effect. Again, fascinating stuff. Snowblind has partially the same words though different in places, with an entire verse seemingly half-improvised, but the funniest moment comes after each verse when Ozzy abandons all subtlety (as he would do in similar fashion live) by bellowing out ‘Cocaine!’ – but in this guise he yells it in such joyous manner as to sound like some sort of pharmaceutical cheer-leader! An instrumental Under The Sun is powerful, with some incredible drumming from Ward, but without vocals doesn’t really work, while the stop-start Laguna Sunrise is also essential only for Iommi’s stoned confusion during a pause, but the rest of the disc is gold dust.

The third disc is more of the same, but with more studio chatter and some false starts and incomplete versions. The opening track is just the start of a take of Wheels Of Confusion, included for some immortal chat, as the engineer’s voice can be heard asking what the track is called, Ozzy responds with a cry of ‘Bollocks’ and the deadpan engineer announces ‘Bollocks One…’. It’s hilarious every time you hear it. Admittedly the four consecutive takes of Wheels following this (without The Straightener added) will rarely be listened to in one 20-minute session, but they are notable for those early lyrics changing slightly from take to take. The band are incredibly consistent in their playing, and seem to be able to turn it on almost without error on demand. There is also the joy of hearing one take introduced as ‘Bollocks Three’, as the name has clearly stuck! A great separate take of The Straightener follows, with a particularly corruscating solo from Iommi. Again, missing the overdubs, but marvellous for all that. We get a take of Supernaut at a slightly different tempo and rough lyrics (‘I wanna love you, every night’ was never going to make the album!), followed by a rather laborious thirteen minutes or so of aborted takes of the same song, then another Snowblind with embryonic lyrics. Best of all though, closing the disc, is the second of two takes of Under The Sun, this one with a ‘guide vocal’ of Ozzy clearly working out the eventual vocal melody by singing along with ‘da-da-da-da’ – illustrating the undervalued contribution he always made with the vocal melodies when the songs were written. You might not play these discs every day, but you’ll love the fact that you have them, like some sort of Heavy Metal Dead Sea Scrolls. Priceless.

Vinyl Edition

The final disc, ‘Live In The UK 1973’ may not be strictly new, with most of it having previously surfaced on the Live At Last and Past Lives albums – but once again, to these ears, it sounds crystal clear and powerful in comparison to my old Live At Last vinyl! Reportedly remixed from newly-uncovered 16-track master tapes intended for a planned live album at the time, the tracks have also been resequenced correctly to represent the show as it was, along with an even longer version of the Wicked World jam / medley (should you want it!), and three of the tracks are actually from different shows than previously released. Again, no overdubs are present, obviously – but while that audio massaging might have been added at the time if released, it does again show what an absolutely astonishing live band they were. Rarely can there have been a group of more underrated musicians than these, and here is the proof. Dynamite.

Lastly, there is the accompanying book. Note, not ‘booklet’, this is an actual hardback book full of the thoughts of all four band members from contemporary and retrospective interviews, the story of the recording of the album and associated touring, and perhaps best of all an embarrassment of photographic delights, complete with press cuttings from the time, copious band photos, alternate packaging and labels from around the world, various trade advertisements – and of course, all of the photos contained in the original vinyl album’s gatefold booklet. In fact, there are full details of that show from which those images come, which we learn are all from Birmingham Town Hall in January 1972, along with more photos from the same gig. There is even the chance to see the iconic front cover photo of Ozzy, until now heavily processed, in its original form as a full definition photograph – facing the other way and with Tony Iommi also in the shot behind him (removed for the cover image). That’s the first time I for one have ever seen that untreated photo, and it is that sort of thing which lifts this a further notch. As a final extra, there is a poster reproducing an unused US promo advertisement from when the album was still provisionally titled ‘Snowblind’.

If you’re a Sabbath collector, with a particular interest in the first decade with Ozzy – and few collectors won’t have that interest I would imagine – you will absolutely need this. On top of everything it looks beautifully handsome on the shelf! There is also a vinyl edition, which is even weightier, containing five discs, the live show being spread over two, which will certainly be the lure of choice for those who regard vinyl as the one true collectors’ medium. However, don’t just get this to store it in mothballs – get it to listen to! History has seldom sounded so good.