Black Sabbath – “Paranoid” (1970)

As the compact disc rose to ascendancy in the second half of the 1980s it appeared that vinyl was headed to the dustbin of history to hang out with Betamax tapes, rotary telephones, and disco.  Cassettes hung on for a bit, but it wasn’t long before the Walkman was replaced by the Discman and the CD completed its domination, having crushed all before it.  There were things we lost as part of this transition.  Music recorded specifically for digital fell victim to its own hubris, the loudness wars reducing sonic range.  Album art became less important with the smaller format. And, most importantly in my opinion, we lost the concept of the “album side”.

Having distinct album sides gave artists options in laying out their albums, providing a natural break between two groups of songs (or four if it was a double album).  Often this held little if any significance other than the leading singles generally occupying side A.  But occasionally the separation was like a line in the sand.  Side B of Black Flag’s My War was a complete departure from the band’s sound, a move that pissed off their fan base something fierce.  In 1968 Iron Butterfly gave over the B side of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” to a 17-minute version of the title track, one that took the entire side and became the litmus test of both heavy psych and, to some extent, self-indulgence.  Of course Blue Öyster Cult threw a curve ball at the whole thing with Imaginos, a concept album with a linear storyline but with the songs appearing in non-linear order, which is bizarre on a lot of levels.  But I digress.  The other thing albums sides do is give us the ability to break down an album into smaller parts.  Sure, we can talk about the greatest albums of all time.  But we can also talk about the greatest album sides of all time, the best four for five (or three… or six…) songs in a row, sides that force you to listen to them all the way through because they’re so perfect.  The kinds of sides that you play from start to finish, meaning you had maybe 15-20 minutes before you’d have to get up and put something else on the turntable.

Which brings me to Paranoid.  Side A of Paranoid is one of the all-time great album sides.  And I do mean all-time greats.

  • War Pigs
  • Paranoid
  • Planet Caravan
  • Iron Man

blacksabbathparanoid

Black Sabbath are one of the originators of truly heavy metal, revered by just about everyone and producing a list of hits as long as your arm.  And yet arguably three of their biggest all-time most popular songs appear on the four-song side A of their second album, Paranoid.  The anti-war “War Pigs” combines weight, shredding guitars, and completely music free stretches in which Ozzy basically sings a cappella.  Politicians hide themselves away / They only started the war / Why should they go out to fight / They leave that role for the poor.  “Paranoid” was written as a last-minute filler, a throw-away song that immediately caught on with it’s matter-of-fact depiction of mental health struggles.  I tell you to enjoy life / I wish I could but it’s too late.  And that brings us to the criminally underrated “Planet Caravan”, a psych trip of spacey grooviness, an acid-soaked journey through the inner space of the mind, the guitar work sounding more like something by Santana than by Sabbath.  Which brings us to “Iron Man”, a truly strange song both in structure and story.  The opening metronome-like kick drum followed by the tuned down distorted guitar, then launching into the heaviest and most plodding jam ever. The entire time you’re waiting for the pace to increase and it doesn’t; it stays relentlessly heavy and in time, never breaking free, like nails being pounded into your head.  He was turned to steel / In the great magnetic field.  A song about alienation and revenge.  Nobody wants him / They just turned their heads / Nobody helps him / Now he has his revenge.  It’s a comic book story come to life, only without a hero to come and save the day in the last 10 pages.  No.  This time there are no heroes.  Only revenge.

Four songs.  The powerful.  The fast.  The slow.  The heavy.  All excellent in their own rights, and fitting perfectly together across 21 minutes of grooved vinyl.

The B side of Paranoid is no slouch in its own right.  “Electric Funeral” is the love-child of “Planet Caravan” and “Iron Man”, all dense psych and great riffs, and all four of the flip side tracks are solid.  But that A side, that sweet, sweet A side, is a masterpiece and definitely one of the all-time greats.

Black Sabbath – “Technical Ecstasy” (1976) and “Never Say Die!” (1978)

My first exposure to Black Sabbath was, remarkably enough, via a post-Ozzy track.  “Trashed” (released on 1983s Born Again) appeared on the Masters Of Metal compilation in 1984, and I wore that tape out.  Shortly thereafter I discovered “Iron Man” and fell in love with side A of Paranoid.  While I did spend some time absorbing the Ozzy-era catalog, for whatever reason I never moved beyond Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.  I’d run across the last two Ozzy Sabbath albums, Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die!, all the time at the used record stores (and still do…) and just on visual impact alone they didn’t seem to fit the Black Sabbath mold at all.  It’s not that I didn’t like the covers.  On the contrary, I think the front of Technical Ecstasy is one of the great all time jackets.  But they certainly don’t fit the psychedelic doom-and-gloom of the band’s earlier releases.  At that time I had no concept of Hipgnosis, but the separation from prior albums makes sense when you realize the design duties had been turned over to a team with deep artistic sensibilities.

After years and years of flipping past these titles and thinking, “Someday I’ll pick these up…”, they came my way as part of a big batch of freebies.  In fact the load included the first nine Sabbath records.  Unfortunately most had covers that were molded and rotted from water damage (though the records were pristine and came out looking like-new after a cleaning).  That is all except for Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Day!  It was like it was meant to be.

Technical Ecstasy (1976)

sabbathecstasy

The record opens strong with “Back Street Kids”, a driving rhythm overlaid with other-worldly vocals from Ozzy.  A bit of the self-indulgent, existential doom that inspires so much of Sabbath’s vocals returns for us on “You Won’t Change Me”, but that’s followed by the very un-Sabbath-like “It’s Alright”, a sort of proto-shoegaze song if there ever was one.  The guitar solos feel like they’re influenced by what was happening elsewhere in rock at the time – the jam at the end of “Gypsy” has elements that would have been just at home on a Pink Floyd or Van Halen track from the same period.

The B side opens with the groovy “All Moving Parts (Stand Still)”, all blues rock riffs and steady pacing.  And the keyboards on “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor”?  They’re straight out of 1950s first generation rock ‘n’ roll.

For someone like me (and seemingly for a lot of other people, given the reviews this received) Technical Ecstasy is a very un-Sabbath-like record.  I wonder what my reaction would be to it if it had been done by a band I’d never heard of before.  I’d probably like it more than I do.  Which isn’t to say it’s bad; it’s just not your typical Sabbath album.

Never Say Die! (1978)

sabbathneversaydie

The recording of Never Say Die! appears to have encompassed every cliche of a rock band melting down.  Too much drug and alcohol use.  Firing the lead singer, then having him come back and refuse to sing the songs the band wrote in his absence.  Booking a studio in another country sight-unseen and not being able to capture your band’s sound in it.  And in fact it was the last album Ozzy did with Sabbath for three decades, finally returning to the fold in 2013 for the recording of 13.

Despite all of that, there’s a lot to like on Never Say Die!  The title track is bad-ass and “A Hard Rock” has some pretty sharp edges, the pair being way harder than anything that on Technical Ecstasy.  In fact the entire A side of this sucker is rock solid, though I confess my opinion may be influenced by listening to it immediately after Technical Ecstasy, as Never Say Die! clearly has more in common with early Sabbath.  The only criticism I have of the side is that the recording quality is a bit inconsistent – it sounds like the last three songs on are quieter than the first two, to the point where I needed to actually turn up the volume.  On the B side the much-maligned jazz influences come out, but despite that I’ll go out on a limb and say that “Air Dance” is one Sabbath’s best songs, and I don’t just mean on Never Say Die!

I know this album isn’t as heavy as the early stuff, but it holds up well.

“Masters of Metal” Compilation (1984)

If you’re a burgeoning codger like me, you remember this decade we had back in the day referred to as “The Eighties”.  Women wore lots of make-up and used lots of hairspray, and they wore outfits that involved massive shoulder pads and often ankle boots with heels.  Dudes used colorful bandanas as fashion accessories, doing so unironically, and the one-earring look seemed highly rebellious and edgy. (♥)  MTV was changing the game, and in the early part of the decade we were still buying our music on vinyl and cassette because CDs were still trying to get a piece of the market and Al Gore hadn’t invented the internet yet.  If you wanted music you could either hear it on the radio, see it on MTV, or had to go down to the store and actually buy it.

Of course, buying music was also a challenge when you were a young teen living out in the sticks a 20 minute drive from anything in a place that didn’t even have a bus stop you could reasonably walk to.  You had to wait for those opportunities when you could tag along with your mom or dad when they went into town or, very rarely, to the mall.  Those were not to be passed up, especially if you wanted to buy something on your own, and music wasn’t one of those things you could trust your parents to get for you.  Given the cover art, I don’t think my mom would have bought me a Dio or Mötley Crüe album even if I’d begged; shoot, I was lucky I once convinced her to pick me up a copy of Judas Priest’s Defenders of the Faith – “Judas Priest?  What the hell kind of name is that?”  At that point there were still albums I had to sort of hide to make sure they didn’t meet an untimely demise at the hands of a room-cleaning mom.

Which leads me to how I came to own a copy of Masters of Metal when it came out in 1984.  It was one of those tag-along trips with one or both of my parents and I’m pretty sure we ended up at a Pay ‘n’ Save store.  If you grew up in the Seattle area, you know what I’m talking about.  If not, think of a huge drugstore version of K-Mart.  They carried a bit of everything, so at the very least you had stuff to look at while your parents shopped.  And what they also had in a locked rotating case up by the cash register were cassettes.  Cassettes!  This was an unexpected opportunity!  Unfortunately they were all locked away behind pexiglass, so while I could read the artist and album names there was no way to check out the cover art or see the names of the songs.  And since you had to have a manager come over and unlock it for you, it’s not like you could just stand around and look at one after another while he stood around and waited, especially if you were just some punk kid.  So I convinced my parents to let me by Masters of Metal based entirely on the title.  It was probably the first time I did a musical roll of the dice.

mastersofmetal

Masters of Metal was put out by K-Tel, a brand that, if you’re of a certain age, you remember for putting out all kinds of music compilations, as well as all kinds of other “As Seen on TV” type products back before “As Seen on TV” was an actual thing and brand of it’s own.  You can check out some of their old commercials on YouTube, including for some of their later metal comps – and they’re absolutely stunning, so perfectly 80s that it hurts.  But anyway… Masters of Metal‘s 13 tracks were a combination of bands I knew (Van Halen, KISS, Twisted Sister) plus a bunch more I hadn’t heard of (Y&T, Zebra, Krokus), and it became sort of my primer into the world of heavy metal, expanding my horizons with classic bands like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. (♠)  Of course, it lead me down a couple of dead ends too, for example making me think that the post-Ozzy / post-Ronnie James Dio “Trashed” was in some way representative of Black Sabbath’s style.  But hey, I still like “Trashed” even if Born Again is a pretty widely despised album.  Regardless, this was the closest thing to a heavy metal encyclopedia that I could put my hands on.

I’ve been looking for a copy of this for the last two or three years, always checking the rock and metal compilations sections no matter where I find myself.  And every time I got shut out.  So the other night after a couple of cocktails I said “screw it”, found a nice copy on Discogs and ordered it.  Turns out it came to me from some guy just down the highway in Federal Way, Washington.  I wonder if he bought this copy at a Pay ‘n’ Save too…

Master of Metal has an interesting roster of bands, and possibly an even more interesting selection of songs.  The tracks were all contemporary, with 10 dating from 1983 and the others (♣) from either 1981 or 1982.  Black Sabbath was hardly relevant at the time but their inclusion can be excused as giving the comp some sort of old-school cred, even though it did come off a much-maligned album.  KISS had arguably been in decline during the period until they took off the make-up and scored a big hit with “Lick It Up,” so that one makes some sense.  Twisted Sister was still on the verge of their mega-breakout album Stay Hungry, so I can’t fault the selection of “You Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll.”  Y&T, Zebra, and Rainbow were bands I’d never even heard of up to that point, which may say more about my tenuous connection to the early 80s metal scene as it does about those individual bands.  Which brings us to the last song on side B, Van Halen’s “Dancing in the Streets.”  First of all, I never understood how anyone ever thought, even for one second, that Van Halen was metal.  I get it – lots of people did.  But outside of the intricate technical guitar work of Eddie Van Halen there is nothing even remotely metal about the band, and that goes double for their sound on “Dancing in the Street,” a cover of the 1964 Martha and the Vandellas hit that had already been covered previous by the The Mammas & The Pappas, The Kinks, the Grateful Dead, and Black Oak Arkansas (and was covered again in 1985 by David Bowie & Mick Jagger).  Sorry kids, but there’s nothing metal about any of that.

Did I mention, however, how absolutely awesome this comp is?  It was so pivotal in my life that I quite literally wore out my copy I played it so many times.  To this day I can’t hear “Run to the Hills” or “Who’s Behind the Door?” during an all-80s weekend on the radio without belting out my best falsetto.  I love this record.  I used to trace the cover art into my school notebooks.  Lasers.  Bad-ass font (before I even knew what a font was).  Killer metal.  Songs about drunk driving, women who treat you like crap, the massacre of Native Americans at the hands of the US cavalry… uh… huh… not sure I actually recognized those themes at the time… a bit darker lyrically than I remember… But that’s metal, baby.  Throw the horns!

There are so many high points on Masters of Metal.  The guitar riffs on “Mean Streak” and “Breaking the Chains”; the vocal power of “Rainbow in the Dark”; the folk-ish “Who’s Behind the Door?”; the synths on “Street of Dreams”.  Look, I get it, this isn’t what metal sounds like today.  But it IS what metal sounded like in 1984 or so.  The first wave of thrash was only just starting to bubble under the surface, but that was considered extreme at the time and not getting any mainstream attention.  And I could buy it at the local Pay ‘n’ Save, which was about the best I could do in 1984, until I finally got to high school and there was a shopping mall across the street that had not one but two actual music stores in it.

Thank you, whoever at K-Tel who put this thing together.  It meant something to a lot of us.

(♥)  The decade came to an end with both genders primarily wearing flannel shirts and hiking boots.

(♠)  K-Tel put out a Canadian version of Masters of Metal the same year and with the same cover, though with a few changes to the roster.  Triumph and Van Halen were replaced by Mötley Crüe and the Canadian metal band Helix, while Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” was ditched in favor of “The Trooper”.  They released similar metal comps in the UK and New Zealand in 1986. 

(♣)  The other three were Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (1981), Iron Maiden’s “Run to the Hills” (1982), and Van Halen’s “Dancing in the Street” (1982).

Soundgarden – “Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas” (2016)

I was able to get both of the records on my RSD Black Friday “want list,” Alice In Chain’s Live Facelift and Soundgarden’s Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas.  Fortunately for me Easy Street Records always makes sure to have TONS of copies of the Seattle limited releases on hand – I think I’ve only come away from there empty-handed once over the last three years.

Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas is a five track EP on purple vinyl, and I believe it’s limited to 3,000 copies.  Now, to be fair I don’t think there are any new tracks on this thing – all these songs have appeared before on other Soundgarden releases, some only as part of maxi-singles.  Side A consists of three covers:  soundgardensatanBlack Sabbath’s “Into the Void,” Devo’s “Girl You Want,” and “Stray Cat Blues” by the Rolling Stones.  Soundgarden has always had a pretty strong cover game, and these three tracks are no exception.  I got turned onto their version of “Into the Void” way back in 1992-ish when it appeared on a CD maxi-single for “Outshined”. (♠)  Different versions of this CD exist with differing track lists, and mine happens to the one that includes “Into the Void” (as well as “Girl U Want”). Cornell and the crew took the song in a bit of a different direction, though, substituting the original lyrics with the words of Chief Sealth, the Native American who Seattle is named after.  I won’t lie, I’ve always preferred this version to the original, but for a long time most people had never heard it.  Now it’s out there for a new generation to discover, and it even got played on KEXP the other day.

I’m a fan of the other two covers on Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas as well.  Soundgarden’s version of “Girl U Want” is slower and heavier than the original, though with just a hint of longing in Cornell’s voice, fitting given Soundgarden’s style at the time this was recorded back in the Badmotorfinger era.  “Stray Cat Blues” is definitely tuned down, sounding much more like a Soundgarden song than one written by the Stones.

The B side is given over to two original tunes, “She’s a Politician” and a live version of my favorite Badmotorfinger track, “Slaves and Bulldozers”.  The former has a bit of an earlier sound, reminiscent of something that might have been part of the Louder Than Love (♥) sessions.  As for the live number, it’s pretty good… lacks a bit of punch though, and the high notes that are so awesome in the studio version are more screamed than sung.

Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas is worth it solely for how good “Into the Void” and “Girl U Want” are.  I know I’m going to be dusting these off on my iPod and cranking them in the car again for the first time in a couple of decades.

(♠)  I don’t remember where I bought this, but it still has the price tag on the front – $11.99.  I’m surprised I still have it after all these years!

(♥)  A painfully underrated album, IMO.  It might be my favorite Soundgarden LP.

Black Sabbath – “Born Again” (1983)

I think I qualify as being more than just a casual Black Sabbath fan.  Not a super-fan, but still.  At least for the Ozzy era. I know I’ve owned the first three albums at various points in the past, along with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and I was excited by underwhelmed by Headless Cross when it first came out in 1989.  But I can probably sing you every song on Side A of Paranoid, which is one of the top five all-time sides of music of any rock record ever in my opinion.

Which brings me to 1983s Born Again.  Why, pray tell, did I buy the demon baby record?

Well, because of the opening track.  “Trashed.”

I thought “Trashed” was amazing as hell the first time I heard it on the 1984 compilation Masters of Metal, and I recently bought a Y&T record for the same exact reason.  At this point I need to stop and reconsider whether I’m just better off buying that comp online so I can exorcise my hair metal demons, otherwise I’ll end up piecing the whole thing together myself buying copies of each of the albums that originally featured the tracks that made up that comp.  Though in a way that would be kind of cool.

blacksabbathbornagain

But back to Born Again.  This was the only album featuring Ian Gillan, formerly of Deep Purple, on the mic.  And frankly it’s been pretty widely panned for a host of reasons – the creepy-ass cover, the songs that are a bit more rock and less metal than standard Sabbath fare, and the poor recording quality.  The last of these is legit – this thing is recorded low and flat.  I doesn’t sound all that great, like it was made inside an oil drum.  And that instrumental “Stonehenge,” well, the less said about that the better.

But there’s some cool stuff on here.  I of course dig the car racing song “Trashed,” and “Zero the Hero” is a pretty solid rocker that at times gets Black Sabbath heavy.  Gillan’s vocal styles are a departure for the band, nothing at all like the possessed Ozzy nor the operatic Ronnie James Dio.  Gillan sings hard rock songs.  That’s how he rolls.  “Digital Bitch” might be the most Deep Purpl-ish tune on Born Again, one that seems to fit Gillan like a glove and has a pretty sweet guitar riff.  “Hot Line” is another good driving number.

I’d agree Born Again is a bit uneven, and yes, the recording quality isn’t great.  But if you stripped the Black Sabbath name off of this and went into it cold, you’d think it was a decent early 80s hard rock/metal record, and you’d be right.