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Each album that Black Sabbath released up to the point of "Volume Four" had showcased some sort of development. After all, most great bands are rarely satisfied with staying in the same place for so long, and it would be natural for these Birmingham gents to want to explore their 'heavy metal' invention in different ways. Although the diversified approach of "Master of Reality" surprised me when compared to what came before it, "Volume Four" is an even greater leap forward for the band, at least stylistically speaking. Here, the progenitors of heavy metal are embracing the progressive rock movement that was reaching its peak around 1972; if not accepting it with open arms, then at least acknowledging it with a nod and a wave. For all of the new possibilities that Sabbath open for themselves here however, I cannot help but miss the heaviness of their earlier work.
Although I do not hide my love for progressive rock, much of the reason that albums like Black Sabbath's debut and their masterpiece "Paranoid" appealed to me so much was due to Tony Iommi's mastery of the almighty riff. Not only that, but his guitar tone was heavy and thick, even by today's standards. While "Volume Four" has not entirely lost these traits, it's clear from the uncharacteristically mellowed intro to "Wheels of Confusion" that Black Sabbath are trying to do something different with their music, for better and worse. While "Volume Four" may not be as heavy as what came before, the incorporation of prog rock and American psychedelia is an exciting change of pace. The eight minute rocker "Wheels of Confusion" and beautiful mellotron-laden "Changes" are major tips of the hat to prog, which was reaching its artistic peak that year with albums like Yes' "Close To The Edge" and Genesis' "Foxtrot". Among the other unconventional pieces on the album is a listless sound experiment in "FX", and "Laguna Sunrise", an acoustic piece accompanied by full-blown string orchestration that could easily score the happy ending to a Spaghetti Western film.
"Supernaut" has Tony Iommi evoke the spirit of Jimi Hendrix with a playful central riff that ranks among the band's best. "Snowblind" is a rocking fan favourite involving the band's love of the Businessman's drug. Although the instrumentation generally feels less defined and powerful than it did on earlier albums, Ozzy Osbourne gives one of the best vocal performances of his career here, his distinctive voice complimented with a trembling vibrato and greater range than previously expressed. The result is an album that often feels more like hard rock than metal in the traditional sense. The songwriting is layered with keyboards, and tricks that the band innovated on "Master of Reality" have been developed further here. Although this is the most musically sophisticated album the band had made yet, it lacks the same atmospheric intensity I felt so profoundly with their early work. Although they have sacrificed an aspect of their sound on "Volume Four", Black Sabbath's newfound progressive outlook on their music would open a world of new possibilities for them.