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Prog-Sabbath, come get yer Sabbath prog! - 93%

OlympicSharpshooter, September 27th, 2004

Ever onward and upward, Sabbath introduces us to a lighter side after the bristling metal fury of Vol. 4, lighter on the crushing Iommi, more of the experimental side of the band. Every reviewer previous has mentioned that here the drugs have begun to take their toll, and to a certain extent it's true. None but those possessed of earth-shattering genius or mountains of drugs could arrive at a creation so boldly experimental, so schizophrenically varied yet aligned in feel; having seen "The Osbournes" I'm forced to conclude that it was probably the latter.

That said, Sabbath was certainly more successful at experimenting than Deep Purple who, more often than not, appeared to be filled with a pathological hatred of metal to the point that they had to make up for their obligatory speed metal jam with a whole heapin' helping of annoying jazz and horrific white soul. Here Sabbath doesn't have much truck with funk or reggae or any of those other ill-advised muses that most seventies bands succumbed to. Instead we get a pinch of the classic Sabbath trudge mixed in with unique instrumentation, more melody, and yet more brave song choices. It's albums like this that shred the claim that Sabbath were nothing but the musical equivalent of apes swinging their clubs and going 'BAM BAM' on record.

Consider for a start the title track, probably the only song from this record that endures in the collective metal consciousness. Sure, the riffing is pretty damn heavy, but consider the strange melodic breaks, the totally off-kilter song-structures. The lyrics represent a return to the Satanic lyricism of the classic "Black Sabbath", but from the feminine perspective of a prospective parent of a "Rosemary's Baby". They express empathy for the protagonist, sadness and rage in equal shots all through these inappropriately sunny Wishbone Ash-y hippie acoustics before dropping back into one of the most bald-faced hammer-riffs in the whole catalogue. You bastards indeed.

This song is a microcosm for the album on the whole in the same way "Angel of Death" represents Reign in Blood or "Black Star" from Rising Force. That's not to say that the song is a formula though, it's just the feel of it. Really, none of the songs are in any way alike one another save for this pulsing lifeline of experimentation and the excitement of discovery running through the whole record and Geezer Butler's brilliant lyrics.

Consider the drenched cyborgian synths of "Who Are You", the white-noise shock of "F/X" applied to a real song. In a catalogue full of depressing plodding, it is perhaps this song that plods the most, treads the deepest. The sheer heaviness (in the psychological sense) of Ozzy's distorted vocals as he lays out the destiny of man can put your whole day in a darker mood.

Consider the full-length acoustic instrumental "Fluff", the first acoustic passage to resemble a true song in full. Consider the lively bounce of "Looking for Today", perhaps the first truly happy Sabbath song. That riff is just so damn bop-able, and the vocal melody is all drooling catchy joy. I love the percussion on this song, crazy Ward completely crazy while the rest of the band accompanies with well-timed claps.

I mentioned bizarre instruments earlier, but I think a list of the instruments used according to the liners might be in order to really sink it into the fleshy pink of your mind.

Electric Guitar
Acoustic Guitar
Steel Guitar
Fuzz Bass
Synthesiser (played by, of all people, Rick Wakeman!)
Fiddle, a whole orchestra of them
Anvil + Bathtub (yes, really although it's not in the liners)

It's stupefying that all of these are played on the same album that includes two world-class metal anthems in "Killing Yourself to Live" and the godly "A National Acrobat" (granted the second main riff is a little lame, but whatever), plus the stoner boogie-woogie metal of "Sabbra Cadabra" which is possibly the only Metallica cover that they truly fucked up. Their version has none of the infectious fun of the original, although when they drop the riff from "A National Acrobat" into the mix I am in heaven.

All of this builds up to what remains the most artistic song the band would ever do, and perhaps the best combination of symphony and rock I've ever heard. "Spiral Architect" contains perhaps the most poetic and oddly meaningful lyrics Butler ever wrote. The stuff is doggerel, it means nothing, and yet there is something indefinably grand about them, just like the rest of the song. It sounds like what might be played on the path to heaven as one looks back on their life. It sums up the Sabbath experience without being very Sabbathy, it sums up life without being lively. The instrumentation is precise, delicate, and perfect, more reminiscent of flute music than anything generally performed on a guitar.

There is something oddly delicate about the album on the whole, the production slightly weak, the music vaguely sad and on the whole dreary like an English rain. At the same time it's invigorating to hear such unique music. This is progressive like no other music on the planet, and even on the proggy Sabotage its delicate style has never been re-captured. You know, if the Sabs wanted their respect back an album along these lines rather than absurd, desperately out-of-it attempts at modern thud metal would be the best way to do the job.

Stand-Outs: "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath", "Spiral Architect", "Looking for Today"