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Black Sabbath Vol. 4

Vertigo (1972)
Rating: 9.5/10

Album number four comes thick and fast off the tails of Master Of Reality, but surely Black Sabbath can’t live up to the magic of that heavyweight classic? Well, they can. Vol. 4 boasts another classic cover, seemingly more rock ’n’ roll than sinister, and yet this opus boasts some of Sabbath’s heaviest stuff, as Sabbath themselves take over the production duties from Rodger Bain, who twiddled the knobs on the first three records.

This time around the band find themselves in their darkest corner, drug-induced up to the eyeballs with cocaine spilling from the speakers, and yet still the four-piece plough on, churning out another set of astonishing tunes.

Album opener is the dirty dirge known as ‘Wheels Of Confusion’, the sort of track that seems to suggest the band are wallowing in their own self-pity, a world now riddled with booze, blues and drugs. Even so, the riff, despite lumbering along, is once again killer, with Bill Ward, although at the end of his tether, is rattling away as if his habits depended on it. For some, the track is too self-indulgent, an eight-minute rambler that incorporates what has become known as ‘The Straightener’ and it’s the sort of jam one would expect for an album closer rather than the opener.

Track two is the bubbling ‘Tomorrow’s Dream’, a heavy blues-laced chuggernaut that once again features another Tony Iommi riff sent down from the gods, while Geezer Butler adds further weight to matters. Such is the darkness now that smothers the Sabs sound, that Ozzy Osbourne seems almost intoxicated by the grey haze of fumes. Strangely, ‘Tomorrow’s Dream’ was released as a single but not surprisingly failed to chart, especially when one considers that the B-side was the baffling instrumental ‘Laguna Sunrise’, which also features on the album.

‘Laguna Sunrise’ is another of those wistful Sabbath moments to break up the doom, and sits alongside the weirder spook-fest that is ‘FX’, an instrumental that sounds more like a message from space rather than a piece of music.

However, weirdness aside, Black Sabbath really shines on the momentous ‘Snowblind’. If ever there was a drug anthem it’s this, Ozzy’s vocals drowning in a sea of powder as Iommi’s riffs fill the ears with star-dust and Ward’s drums dance with the fairies.

‘Snowblind’ is Black Sabbath at their most epic, but for me the strongest segments of the record has to be a certain trio of tracks which includes ‘Cornucopia’, an absolute metal mammoth of a track that lumbers with the grace of an aged ogre. The second of the terrible trio is the merriment that is ‘St. Vitus Dance’, an upbeat rocker featuring some of Iommi’s best work. But the almost joyous structure of the tune is contradicted by the track which I still believe is Sabbath’s heaviest of all time – the doom sludge that is ‘Under The Sun / Every Day Comes And Goes’, a truly punishing number in which Ozzy barks, “I don’t want no teacher telling me about the god in the sky”; his cries suffocated by Iommi’s well-soiled riff.

Strangely, despite my obsession with these three tracks, Vol. 4 will probably be best remembered for the ballad that is ‘Changes’, which Ozzy would bring back to life several decades later in a duet with daughter Kelly. The message in 2003 was revised, the track being a wistful hit despite originally being written about love lost. Despite the irritating track it’s become, ‘Changes’, in its original form, is a beautiful song, led merely by piano and Ozzy’s grief-stricken twang.

Vol. 4 may not be the Black Sabbath album that everyone talks about, but it’s another vital cog in the wheel of a band that at the time, despite their habits, could seemingly do no wrong.

Neil Arnold

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