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)
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)
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.