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Like most great bands, Black Sabbath have tweaked and changed their sound gradually, maintaining a distinctive core sound, but experimenting with the way they choose to approach it. Everything since "Master of Reality" witnessed Sabbath moving ever closer to a more mellowed, progressive sound. While I felt invigorated as a listener to hear the band transform their heavy riffs into something refined and sophisticated, I could not help but miss the grit and ugliness that made the band's first two releases so great. By the point of their fifth album "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", I could have sworn that the godfathers of heavy metal had distanced themselves from metal permanently.
Of course, a masterpiece like "Sabotage" was enough to change my mind.
I had heard alot of great things about Sabbath's sixth album before finally giving it a listen. Many fans of the band would even go as far as to tell me it was their favourite Sabbath album. Although the winning streak of excellent albums would allegedly end after this, "Sabotage" is a glorious return to the heavy metal crunch, all the way keeping their more recent prog sensibilities in mind. Although the idea of a 'return to roots' intrinsically means to take steps back and regress, the progress Black Sabbath made with sophisticated rock arrangements has not been lost. Here, the synths are subdued in exchange for a rekindled devotion to Iommi's almighty riff.
Although Ozzy Osbourne and his vocal melodies still reach for the high notes (as was the case for "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath") his vocals feel more accustomed for it. I have never considered Ozzy to be the most technically proficient vocalist, but his dynamic performance on "Sabotage" demonstrates he is capable of much more than his solo career lets on. The incredible closer and highlight "The Writ" has his vocals fit whatever mold the music warrants. The song is first filled with some classic Iommi riffage, and Osbourne's performance matches it with an intense, belting voice. Keeping in line with their progressive side however, the song then breaks into a soft, unsettling moment where Ozzy sounds almost like some of Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters' more psychotic moments on "The Wall".
"Hole In The Sky", "Symptom of the Universe" and "Thrill of it All" are all powerful, rock-oriented songs driven by Iommi's thick riff mastery. At ten minutes long, "Megalomania" is a step above most hard rock in terms of its sophistication, fitting in crunchy guitars with piano and eerie soft spots. Although less than a minute long, "Don't Start (Too Late)" is an ample demonstration of Tony Iommi's skill with acoustic guitars, a haunting piece that sounds like a rendition of something Igor Stravinsky would do. "Am I Going Insane" is the obvious choice for a radio single here, despite being led with prog-canon moogs. Ozzy's vocals are schizoid and quirky, making it one of the catchiest tracks in Sabbath's discography.
Geezer Butler once said that "Sabotage" was so titled because the band felt that they as a band were being sabotaged by other people 'ripping them off'. Perhaps this concept may be seen as a heavy metal equivalent to Floyd's cynical dissection of the music industry in "Wish You Were Here". Although it's well-known that Black Sabbath weren't getting along too well at this point, "Sabotage" is among Sabbath's best work, perhaps rivaled only with "Paranoid" as their crowning statement. It's unfortunate that things would go downhill from here for the godfathers of metal, but I can't think of a better way for Black Sabbath to wrap up their classic era.