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NEMS (1975)
Rating: 10/10

This is without a shadow of a doubt Black Sabbath’s worst album cover; one which comes complete with Bill Ward’s checked underpants visible through his equally bizarre red tights, as seen on the back cover (nice idea with the inverted mirror though!).

And yet, even the peculiar fashion sense doesn’t prevent this from being my favourite Black Sabbath album of all time. For its 43-minute duration Sabotage is a mesmerising experience that, like its predecessor Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), doesn’t require overtly occult connotations to sell it.

Immediately we’re thrown into the mystical mix with the timeless ‘Hole In The Sky’, a magical wailing smorgasbord of a cut taken to higher levels of the imagination by Ozzy Osbourne’s coyote yowls which are rushed along with Tony Iommi’s pleasing yet cutting riff. ‘Hole In The Sky’ is Sabbath in full flow, as fresh as a daisy – musically anyway – showing wondrous progression, clean cut in its appearance, yet merely a façade to disguise the inner frictions.

The peculiarly unexpected instrumental ‘Don’t Start (Too Late)’ – a mere tumbling acoustic guitar – makes way for the titanic riff of ‘Symptom Of The Universe’, the type of song plucked from the most heavenly plateau and laid out before us like some sprawling tapestry.

In a sense, Sabotage feels relentless despite the mellow and often melancholic passages. ‘Symptom Of The Universe’ takes a breather three-quarters in with an almost summery trickle of Ward’s tip-toe drums and Iommi’s breezy acoustics, but these moments of enlightenment are misleading as like a trickster spirit we step behind the cascading waterfall only to be drowned in the sorrowful cess-pit that is ‘Megalomania’.

‘Megalomania’ is a track that has no need to rock hard, as it swoons, floats, sighs and merely whispers, only occasionally stirred by Iommi’s cavorting chords as Ozzy begs, “Why don’t you just get out of my life now? Why doesn’t everybody leave me alone now?”. The four-piece then have the audacity to inject the track with an almost poppy piano before another buzzing riff intervenes.

Before we’ve even flipped over to side two, Sabotage has already swept us away. The first four tracks are peculiar whirlpools of joy and angst combined; the imagery is stark yet kaleidoscopic, and Ward’s drums are almost jazzy in their structure, Geezer Butler’s bass flowing like wine, the mighty quartet refusing to let doom lead the way as inside it feels like we’ve dropped a tab and been whisked into that mirror which adorns the cover.

‘The Thrill Of It All’ is another driving rock-fest featuring another of those cool, razor-sharp riffs as Ozzy Osbourne’s siren-like voice rises above the waves of depression. However much I play ‘The Thrill Of It All’, time and time again I’m consumed by what seems such a simple song, yet one which is multi-layered as the synths wheeze, the drums tumble and those infectious hooks get their talons in one more time. There’s something so joyous about this song, summing up the almost hysterical nature of Sabotage.

But like all fairy stories there has to be a dark side, and Black Sabbath’s sixth album most certainly has one. The cosmic goth sound of ‘Supertzar’ drags you in like some ultra-weird movie soundtrack; complete with gospel choir it’s a magical ride to the far side as those chants echo across the universe, becoming one with that serpentine guitar.

Sabotage is truly a bizarre album, unlike anything you will ever hear. It’s the sort of opus that the band, and rightly so, could never better; a true mountain of a record that has no low valleys. Even the miserable ‘Am I Going Insane (Radio)’ is genius; Ozzy almost commentating on his own personal issues as all manner of musical effects are strewn about the place.

And just when you thought it was safe to get off the merry-go-round, ‘The Writ’, in its glorious eight-minute structure, comes looming out of the shadows, and then, after another conflict of emotions, we’re done.

Sabotage is Black Sabbath’s crowning glory, a record so vast that after just one listen it feels as if you’ve been there for several hours, not realising of course that the magic carpet ride has taken barely more than 40 minutes.

Neil Arnold

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