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Snowblind in the Sun - 70%

Frankingsteins, September 2nd, 2006

After recording heavy metal’s definitive unholy trinity, Black Sabbath under the helm of guitarist Tony Iommi entered an experimental era that would soon see the band’s popularity and credibility plummet over the course of the decade. The un-cryptically titled ‘Vol. 4,’ the band’s self-explanatory fourth album, represents a thoroughly impressive and inspired cliff edge from which the band would later throw themselves like a kindle of coked-up Brummie lemmings.

Originally to be titled ‘Snowblind’ after the album’s happy cocaine anthem, but soon changed for pretty obvious reasons, ‘Vol. 4’ is one of Sabbath’s very best albums, paling only in comparison to its immediate predecessor, the gritty ‘Master of Reality.’ Rather than replicate their established and massively influential sound, Sabbath instead focused on a more hard rock direction incorporating progressive elements, and for the most part it’s a success. The band continued to pioneer heavy metal as an original genre, and this lack of established guidelines granted them enormous freedom to experiment: as such, ‘Vol. 4’ is more varied and adventurous than most metal albums that would follow, it’s nearly all excellent, and often pleasantly poetic.

‘Vol. 4’ is primarily let down by a generally thin production sound, and a lack of imagination as the album draws to a close. Whether the latter was due primarily to fatigue brought about by rapid album releases, disagreements between band members or the increasingly worrying amount of drugs the band was taking, I can’t be sure. Nevertheless, when this album is good, it really rocks. The unimpressive production is especially disappointing after the spectacular sludge of the ‘Master of Reality’ album, and gives the guitars and drums a more traditional hard rock sound akin to Led Zeppelin. The predecessor’s tightly edited thirty-five-minute playing time is also lost this time around, as the blues influence returns somewhat and causes most songs to over-run with unnecessary jams.

The lyrics predominantly display fear of an approaching insanity, similar to but less eloquent than Roger Waters’ preoccupation in Pink Floyd, and at a stretch this could be considered an unintentional concept album. ‘Wheels of Confusion’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Dream’ both describe a blur between fantasy and reality, while ‘Changes’ is a more simplistic cry for help after bereavement, perhaps indicating the need to escape, and this is picked up on in ‘Cornucopia’ and ‘St. Vitus’ Dance.’ ‘Under the Sun / Every Day Comes & Goes’ offers the final solution, advocating the escape from “their world of make-believe,” and only in the controversial ‘Snowblind’ are the speaker’s eyes opened thanks to the power of drugs. It may not have been intentional but it works pretty well, and likely provides an insight into the band’s collective psyche at this early and successful point in their career. Life is one big overdose.

1. Wheels of Confusion / The Straightener
2. Tomorrow’s Dream
3. Changes
4. FX
5. Supernaut
6. Snowblind
7. Cornucopia
8. Laguna Sunrise
9. St. Vitus’ Dance
10. Under the Sun / Every Day Comes & Goes

Longer Black Sabbath songs have been divided into ‘movements’ right from the debut album, but this is taken a step further when bluesy, hard rocking opener ‘Wheels of Confusion’ morphs seamlessly into a piano-led guitar jam from Iommi. The first note is abruptly loud and clear, but sadly acts as a perfect demonstration of the weak production sound. Ozzy sings Geezer Butler’s customarily pointless fantasy lyrics in a noticeably more irritating whine than the lower pitch of the previous albums, but his trademark cringe-inducing singing style wouldn’t properly develop until the next record. Taking this into account, the second (instrumental) half of this song is far more impressive, as Iommi’s seemingly relentless solo plays perfectly over the simplistic repeated bars of the piano. Depending on my mood, this song could be much, much, much longer.

‘Tomorrow’s Dream’ is the most commercially viable song on the album, and was rightly selected as the single. Taking cues from the earlier ‘After Forever’ and predicting all the big numbers on the next few Sabbath albums, this is a relaxed song that veers on ballad territory but is a bit too heavy on distortion to allow it. Ozzy sings inoffensively for a change, and there’s a nice jazz-influenced break towards the end of the song allowing Iommi to show off some groovy guitar and keyboard tricks, in something of a failed attempt to emulate psychedelia in metal. The next song takes the balladic leap, and it’s not a pretty sight.

I’ve heard that Ozzy and his daughter re-recorded ‘Changes’ a couple of years ago and it somehow got to number one. I haven’t heard it, but I’m very sure it’s godawful. Sabbath’s original is lacking in depth for all the wrong reasons; Ozzy’s echo-enhanced voice is more irritating than it’s ever been before or since, especially when required to fill a vast chasm occupied only by Iommi’s feeble piano ditty that sounds like something a seven-year-old could have come up with. (Then again, much of Basil Poledouris’ soundtrack for ‘Conan the Barbarian’ was based on melodies his seven-year-old daughter improvised. I’m not sure what point I’m making here, but it’s a funny fact). This is one of my all-time least favourite Black Sabbath songs, including their pitiful output from the eighties and nineties – and that’s saying something.

Concluding this undemanding sophomore section of the album, ‘FX’ is nothing but an entirely pointless interlude. The band’s probably trying to sound spacey or surreal, and indeed it might have been pretty cool for the acid-drenched hippies, but two minutes of nothing but random amplifier feedback makes even the most obtuse Tangerine Dream composition sound palatable. I tend to lump it along with ‘Changes’ as the part of the album that it’s always necessary to skip. Things can only get better, and the off-road swinging ‘Supernaut’ doesn’t disappoint. Led entirely by a selection of Iommi’s brilliantly simple riffs, a technique we’ve seen does not translate to piano, this is a relatively roundabout and circular four minutes of rolling guitars and sparse vocals with a fantastic steel drum refrain. One of the high points of the album and a genuine Sabbath classic, perhaps because it really doesn’t go anywhere.

The album takes a more epic turn with ‘Snowblind,’ the band’s not-so-secret song about cocaine that even features a very loud whisper of “cocaine!” after the first verse. Considering the pressure put on the band to remove most of the more oblique references, this really stands out as an effective mockery of Warner records. Laugh in their hypocritical snow-covered corporate faces. The music is slow and dingy, although not to the extent of past classics like ‘Lord of this World’ and ‘Black Sabbath,’ but the tempo and style shift excellently between verses, choruses and instrumental sections. This is the most technically accomplished song on the album and one of the very best, although after the simple fun of ‘Supernaut’ it may take some time to really grow on the listener. Ozzy’s voice defies expectation by sounding really good in the sing-song verses (akin to ‘Into the Void’), and Iommi seems to have finally grasped the potential of keyboards in providing effective background ambience.

‘Cornucopia’ desperately yearns for the production sound of ‘Master of Reality’ or ‘Paranoid,’ and would sound a whole lot more impressive if this had been granted. The trademark sluggish guitars don’t sound anywhere near as powerful in the opening section, and the song doesn’t really pick up until the pace is increased and Iommi adds a couple of solos. Everything about this song sounds like a last-minute re-hash of previous material, but thankfully it doesn’t last too long to become tedious. This is followed by the pleasant but overlong ‘Laguna Sunrise,’ the only acoustic instrumental on this album following the previous release’s ‘Orchid’ and ‘Embryo’ and unfortunately lasts for longer than the combined length of both. At just under three minutes, there shouldn’t be much difference between this repetitive ditty and ‘The Straightener’ so long before, but this one is a whole lot duller. Iommi plays a single repeated riff on a Spanish-sounding guitar that I’m not technical enough to provide any more information about.

Following the instrumental is another below-average-length song, but this time Ozzy contributes some vocals. ‘St. Vitus’ Dance’ has a bluesy feel to it, and acts as a weaker companion to ‘Supernaut’ in its focus on repeated riffs. It’s a nice song, especially for its length, but this time the lack of progress acts as a hindrance rather than an advantage as it was earlier. These things work very strangely. The final song is something of a caged beast, again restricted by weak production from being the Sabbath classic it perhaps deserves to be. Ozzy’s vocals over the guitars remind me a lot of several points on ‘Master of Reality,’ but this song doesn’t work quite as well, sounding repetitive for the most part but saved by some creative guitar by Iommi and a speedy departure into ‘Every Day Comes & Goes,’ which is effectively a different song in-between two halves of ‘Under the Sun.’ Butler’s bass can be heard clearly for the first time under Iommi’s solos. The album ends in excellent fashion, with overlapping melodic guitars soloing their way into the fade in a way Iommi would unfortunately never be able to play live, having only two hands. The final crushing note ends as abruptly as the wail that opened the first track forty-four minutes earlier.

Black Sabbath’s first three albums already contained progressive elements, especially in the Medieval-style ballads that remind most strongly of patriotic English prog bands such as King Crimson and Genesis. With ‘Vol. 4,’ keyboards are introduced and it becomes a lot easier to incorporate established prog traits, most notably the mellotron lurking in the background of ‘Changes,’ a fond staple of progressive music to this day. Only with ‘Snowblind’ does the synthetic sound genuinely add to the song, and the piano / guitar outro to ‘The Straightener’ is a real highlight, if a little self-indulgent at such an early point in the album. The loose and jazzy structures also detract from some of the songs, leaving only ‘Supernaut’ and ‘Snowblind,’ and perhaps ‘Wheels of Confusion / The Straightener’ sounding like true classics, the first of which could quite conceivably be traced as the direct origin of the ‘groove metal’ scene that dominated much of nineties metal, led by bands like Pantera and Machine Head.

A few too many liberties are taken with unnecessary jams in the weirdest places, and for every cool musical innovation (especially in Bill Ward’s percussion) there follows a blatant rip-off of earlier material. The band would proceed to incorporate synthesisers more strongly in their following albums, especially 1973’s ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ which manages to feature both an accomplished cameo by keyboard virtuoso Rick Wakeman and an absolutely abysmal composition by Ozzy Osbourne that’s up there with ‘Changes.’ Not down here in Hell where all of Black Sabbath’s best songs really belong.