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Black Sabbath were in a bad way by 1975. Years of drug and alcohol abuse had obviously taken their toll, and the stress of constant touring throughout the early years of the decade had also worn down the cohesiveness of the group considerably. This is most apparent on the last two releases from this lineup, the dire Technical Ecstasy and the equally odious Never Say Die, but for one final moment Sabbath were prepared to outshine everyone else in the scene in their full glory.
The album opens with "Hole In The Sky", and it's readily apparent that something is different this time: the guitars sound thicker and fatter than on any preceding Sabbath album, with much more 'crunch' to their tone; the tempo of the song is faster than almost anything in the rest of the Sabbath discography; and the feeling of sublime mania has been replaced with an aggressiveness not yet seen in heavy metal. Gone too are the flirtations with progressive rock displayed on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; this is a pure mid-paced heavy metal anthem decrying the greed of the modern age.
"Don't Start (Too Late)" follows on from "Hole In The Sky", serving as nothing more than a beautiful acoustic flourish intro into "Symptom of the Universe". A word must be said about "Symptom...", namely that this is probably the first thrash metal song ever recorded and one which wouldn't sound at all out of place on a later album like Dehumanizer. Osbourne's howls are as chilling as ever, effectively elevating the simple-yet-heavy riff and hard-thrashing drumline into the upper stratosphere. One of Iommi's best solos in his career comes careening through the song near the four-minute mark, before slowing down into a strangely placed instrumental piece vaguely Latin in nature. This might confuse the listen upon first hearing this track, but I've never found it at all out of place, and consider it an admirable attempt to progress the trademark Sabbath sound without relying on pop-music staples.
"Meglomania" is next, and it is, for me, the absolute highlight of the album. Opening with a wondrous, darkly alluring orchestral piece over which Osbourne utilizes his nasally vocals to great effect, this song really kicks into gear about two and a half minutes into the piece, revealing a monumentally doomish riff which only accentuates Ozzy's misery, effectively creating the template from which doom and goth metal bands would draw to this very day. Following a short piano piece, however, the song really catches fire, breaking lose with a riff which can only be called triumphant as Osbourne shrieks in rebellion against the sorrows which have so plagued his life. Like the previous track, this song displays Sabbath's unique ability to completely alter the mood of a song without making it disconcerting in the slightest.
"Thrill of it All" proceeds "Megalomania", opening with a slow yet catchy riff before breaking out into another splendid solo. This track has a groovier feel to it than anything else on this album, and possesses a certain defiant attitude unmatched on anything else in the Sabbath discography. This is another 'upbeat' Sabbath track, which dispels firmly the old myth that the band, and heavy metal itself, is nothing more than angst-ridden whining. The following track, "Supertzar", opens with a riff which could have been utilized more effectively (in an actual song) and a lovely choral backing, but unfortunately fails to amount to anything more than another in a long line of Sabbathian instrumental experimentations.
"Am I Going Insane" picks up the pace, opening with a siren-like squeal before disintegrating into an almost joyous semi-rock song which sounds more like something The Beatles would have written than anything relevant to heavy metal. "The Writ", however, really saves the last third of the record, serving as the closing epic to both this album and the most productive period in Sabbath's long, illustrious and infamous career.
Save for two plodding cuts which could have been left out without sacrificing anything on the record, this album is a pinnacle in the Sabbath discography. I prefer Sabbath Bloody Sabbath both for its mood and its structuring, but the production values displayed on this record completely outshine anything the band had previously attempted. This would, of course, work to the detriment of the succeeding two records, but that's for another review.