sexta-feira, 25 de dezembro de 2015

BLACK SABBATH (UK) - Master of Reality (LP, Vertigo, 1971)

RATING: *****

You can only create a musical genre once, you know. Black Sabbath hinted at it with their debut album, gave it shape and a spirit with "Paranoid", and the twisted son they conjured - heavy metal, that is - is still thriving to this day and with a pretty promising future ahead, as we all know. But let's get back to 1971, around half a year after "Paranoid" took the world by storm, when the four geniuses who spawned it were trying to make their minds on what to do next. Consider you just discovered a completely new and unexplored avenue of musical heaviness waiting to someone to hit it: what would you do? See where such road can take you, of course. That's what "Master of Reality" is all about: doing everything that was right about "Paranoid" all over again, but with more riffs, more energy and with a thicker, gloomier atmosphere. And it works, you can bet your ass it does.

It's far from surprising that many tend to think "Master of Reality" is the best album from Black Sabbath, as it is indeed a sort of culmination for the band. Once everyone knew heavy metal was possible, there was a whole different battle going on among heavy rock bands - and Sabbath wanted to make everyone sure, from point one, that the king's crown belonged to them and no one else. The record starts heavy and catchy with "Sweet Leaf", it closes in the eeriest of fashions with "Into the Void", and it never leaves room for a doubt on its way. It takes little more than half an hour to make your ears ring and leave you begging for more. Even more subtle numbers like "Orchid" and "Solitude" are not exactly there to bring relief, as its more unusual nuances only add to the album's ominous, crushing personality. "Solitude" isn't an average ballad, for instance: it sounds hopeless and disenchanted without ever getting too soft for its own good, therefore teaching all the beginners just what kind of sensation a metal ballad should cause. It was the first time anyone would knowingly go to a record store to buy a heavy metal album, so I guess Black Sabbath wanted to make sure anyone would get what they deserved.

It's a slower album than its predecessors, perhaps even the slower album Sabbath ever recorded. Only "Children of the Grave" and some parts of "After Forever" speed things up a little, though never getting close to "Paranoid" (the song) in terms of pace. It's a conscious option, mind you, as the plodding riffage creates a baleful, almost tangible atmosphere of mystery and drama, which I guess is exactly what they had in mind. Something in no small part enhanced by the straight-on approach to instrumentation and singing. As on previous albums, Black Sabbath wisely chooses to use some few tools to perfection rather than wasting energy on learning new tricks - and though some may find the lack of technical prowess quite uncomfortable, raising such a criticism while listening to "Master of Reality" simply makes no sense whatsoever. Who gives a damn if Tony Iommi's playing is simple and unpolished, when he's playing one amazing riff after another? Who the hell cares if Geezer Butler is mostly playing along with the guitar, when it gives the songs a monolithic force almost unheard of? Who will remember to point out that Ozzy Osbourne's singing is blunt and ofter off key, when his voice perfectly and impressively conjures all the nasty things he's singing about?  It was never about virtuosity or being polished, it's about intensity and heaviness, and Black Sabbath was at the top of their game when recording this album. The production works beautifully on that BTW, enhancing the band's cohesive element through and through.

Though lacking the sheer historical impact of "Paranoid" (like pretty much every album released from 1970 onwards, as you can only invent the wheel once), "Master of Reality" is still an essential record for anyone who cares about heavy metal. It's even a final statement in a sense, as the classic Iommi/Butler/Ward/Osbourne line-up would sail increasingly non-metallic waters in future releases, with varying degrees of success. If you want to understand what Black Sabbath was all about, this is surely an LP to listen to, as the sheer impact of their music overbrims every single groove, with no distractions and without ever losing steam.

Ozzy Osbourne (V), Tony Iommi (G), Geezer Butler (B), Bill Ward (D).

01. Sweet Leaf
02. After Forever
03. Embryo
04. Children of the Grave
05. Orchid
06. Lord of This World
07. Solitude
08. Into the Void

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segunda-feira, 14 de dezembro de 2015

BLACK SABBATH (UK) - Paranoid (LP, Vertigo, 1970)

RATING: *****

All the promises were made in unequivocal terms on Black Sabbath's debut LP, but they were still to take the final step from Cream-obsessed, hard-rocking tunes to something completely new and exhilarating - and Satan knows that Osbourne, Iommi, Butler and Ward were the ones who could do it, more than anyone else in the whole damn world. It's truly remarkable that it took them little more than half a year to make it real. "Paranoid" is so immense a triumph that it defies proper description, one of the very few albums that will be heard through the centuries, a record so huge that you can hardly imagine modern music without it - it's not only heavy metal, it actually changed everything.

Before this LP hit the shops, there was no heavy metal as such; with its arrival, heavy metal was destined to be perennial. In a sense, everything after "Paranoid" is a long and mostly pleasant exercise in futility: it is the most important heavy metal album of all time, eternally unbeatable and never to be matched. You can only do it once, you know. I mean, is there any way an opening number can beat "War Pigs" in terms of bombastic, near-hypnotic wickedness and bite? Can any other song ever scare the shit out of you like Tony Iommi's inhuman riffs and Ozzy Osbourne's ominous singing about a war to kill us all did? And does anyone have any hopes of replicating that final guitar harmony, perhaps the most perfect heavy metal sequence ever commited to tape (and I mean it)? It was done by Black Sabbath, it all happened through "War Pigs", and now we can only try our best to live our lives.

The aforementioned track is perhaps the pinnacle of this LP (and the best heavy metal song ever written, as a consequence), but "Paranoid" still have plenty of genius to offer after its supreme masterpiece is over. "Paranoid" (the song) is another killer of a track, with a main riff that single-handedly created headbanging, while "Electric Funeral" was doom metal more than a decade before anyone would come out with such a concept. "Iron Man", not to mention the unparalleled main riff, is perhaps the earliest example of what I would call 'heavy metal storytelling': morbid and/or dramatic lyrics with intense imagery and a narrative you can follow from start to finish, often far from subtle and usually far removed from the typical rock and roll poetry. The subject matter of the entire album deserves a mention BTW, with a tendency towards the dark side of things (war, mental illness, substance abuse and all sorts of disasters) which was virtually unheard of. Even less unmistakeably metallic songs like "Hand of Doom" or "Fairies Wear Boots" are miles away from what anyone did before, its multi-section arrangements and minor-key chord progressions taking things to a whole new level of intensity and musical menace.

The album has an eerie, cathartic atmosphere of its own, and quite curiously it owes much to the band's individual shortcomings: Ozzy Osbourne lacks vocal technique, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward are more than often playing disparate things, Tony Iommi is anything but the typical guitar hero. But together they gelled like nearly no band did before or ever since, and these imperfections actually give "Paranoid" a sense of urgency, like this monster of a statement couldn't wait for them to be more skillful or musically refined. It's no surprise it took a while for critics to acknowledge the album's merits, while people were falling over themselves to get a copy. Naysayers are forever bound to lose here: "Paranoid" will kick their asses time and time again, until the world reach its very end. And all this waits for you behind a pretty pathetic front cover!

Ozzy Osbourne (V), Tony Iommi (G), Geezer Butler (B), Bill Ward (D).

01. War Pigs
02. Paranoid
03. Planet Caravan
04. Iron Man
05. Electric Funeral
06. Hand of Doom
07. Rat Salad
08. Fairies Wear Boots

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BLACK SABBATH (UK) - Black Sabbath (LP, Vertigo, 1970)

RATING: ****

Draw the family tree of heavy metal will never be a straightforward endeavour, you know, but most attempts out there take the quintessential 1970's debut LP from Black Sabbath as a root and pretty much expand from there. I don't want to play the smartass and say it's a completely wrong approach (most of all because, quite obviously, it's not), but I'm afraid "Black Sabbath" (the album, I mean) is not that much the birth of heavy metal as people use to think, not only for heavy metal as a genre, but for Black Sabbath themselves. And PLEASE believe me when I tell you I don't mean it as criticism: it's just that Black Sabbath was not quite there yet in early 1970.

Lester Bangs, who reviewed this album for Rolling Stone back in the day, received a lot of later criticism for calling it "just like Cream, but worse" - and though I'm sure he got it all wrong when it comes to Sabbath's songwriting relevance, his choice for comparision is spot on. At least half the tunes around here are pretty much following Cream's footsteps, employing the same blues rock backbone to create very similar jams with Clapton-ish guitar histrionics - though Tony Iommi, for good (mostly) and bad, is nowhere near the virtuoso Eric Clapton used to be. The results are mostly good enough, but there's no way an inquisitive reviewer can listen to a song like the mammoth "Warning" and honestly treat it as a trailblazer: it's an efficient attempt to emulate Cream (and I love it for what it is), but it's far from being the most original thing released in 1970, if you know what I mean.

Even ultra-classic tunes like "The Wizard" and "Behind the Wall of Sleep" are more like transitional songs than anything else, with some definite metal features (the lyrics, the dialogue between guitars and bass, the slightly intimidating atmosphere) still trying to find a way out of the late-60s blues-rock psychedelia they are sunken in. That all said, it's remarkable how Ozzy, Tony, Bill and Geezer indeed sound like a heavy metal band here, even if the tunes they are playing are not strictly heavy metal - there's no doubt Black Sabbath was the very first act to cause such an impact, and it would be foolish, even childish to underrate them.

And there are two little tunes here that indeed made all the difference for the heavy metal universe, compositions that paved the huge metal avenues that million bands cross even today: "Black Sabbath" and "N.I.B". The title track is surely one of the most bombastic songs ever written by a metal band, still able to scare people over 45 years into the future with a riff that no band will ever be able to match - and "N.I.B" is perhaps the first song to completely transcend the psychedelic and bluesy roots of heavy rock music and become something unique, unmistakably heavy metal through and through. These are the two songs that definitely forged the spirit of heavy metal, and though Black Sabbath would perfect their formula in subsequent releases, the elements to create a huge, fascinating and ever-expanding heavy metal scene were all already there. I will never be able to thank them enough for that.

Ozzy Osbourne (V), Tony Iommi (G), Geezer Butler (B), Bill Ward (D)

01. Black Sabbath
02. The Wizard
03. Behind the Wall of Sleep
04. N.I.B.
05. Evil Woman
06. Sleeping Village
07. Warning

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OZ (FIN) - Roll the Dice (CD, Black Mark, 1991)


Though not really a huge disaster, "Decibel Storm" was in many aspects the end of the line for Oz, as dwindling album sales were followed by significant line-up changes. The most dramatic departure was of bassist/songwriter Jay C. Blade, who was lured away by an offer to join a promising band based in USA called Princess Pang. Guitarists Speedy Foxx and Spooky Wolff would soon walk out the door too, and who would bet a dime on a tired horse like Oz at this point? Well, it seems that Ape De Martini (now adopting yet another soubriquet, Tapani Anselm) and Mark Ruffneck weren't really willing to accept defeat, and after a long while a stable lineup with Michael Lundholm (G), Fredrik Thörnblom (B) and Jörgen Schelander (K) was secured. The sole surviving product from this collaboration, "Roll the Dice" was a hopeless effort almost from inception, but it does have enough interesting features to deserve a mention, so let's give it at least the courtesy of a proper review.

Not that it is a load of garbage, mind you. The new faces are undeniably competent and the overall musicianship cannot be faulted, so it's not like you're heading for torture when you push the 'play' button. Things start perfectly well with the title track BTW: despite a very dull and unnecessary keyboard intro, the song itself is reasonably strong and presents a charming and catchy chorus. But proceedings get quite monotonous soon after that, with a bunch of songs that does not have much to show and present no truly memorable moments whatsoever. Not to mention the perceivable shift towards accessible waters, a choice that immediately contradicts almost all the good predicates we're used to associate with Oz.

Jay C. Blade may not have been a true genius of innovation, but he sure knew his trade as a songwriter, and "Roll the Dice" suffers from a perceivable lack of creative ideas due to this absence. You soon realize that the riffs are mostly bland and predictable, Tapani Anselm's voice is too soft for its own good (though he sure tried to liven things up with some high-pitched singing in places), the chorus are far from impressive and the keyboards serve no purpose but to tenderize songs that are not that heavy in the first place. Studio production doesn't help matters either, as everything sounds pale and bereft of energy. There's nothing blatantly wrong with tunes like "Lost Generation", "Rock On", "Night Crime" and "Thousand Miles" - but still you won't remember a thing about them after they're gone, as they show no genuine appeal or any signs of real metal substance. Some tunes, such as "Out of Touch" and the aforementioned "Roll the Dice", fare slightly better, but still far from enough to change the feeling of overall dissatisfaction.

After perilously flirting with self-parody, Oz metamorphoses into a decadent form of watered-down heavy metal with no true bite and nothing interesting to say - hardly the most efficient way to resurrect a career, I'm afraid. If few would pay a dime to listen to the former, who would want to have anything to do with the latter? I will give the lads credit for trying their best, but I'm sorry to say they got it all wrong, as I seriously doubt anyone but the most diehard fans of Oz will have this album in high regard. It will therefore cause no surprise to learn that "Roll the Dice" failed to sell in substantial quantities at the time of its release, and soon Oz would realize the writing was on the wall for them. Disbanding was most probably the only choice left after their latest CD flopped into oblivion, and no noise would be heard from Oz for no less than 20 years. A much needed time to regain their metallic strenght, I would add, as their latest activities are more than enough to demonstrate.

Tapani Anselm (V), Michael Lundholm (G), Fredrik Thörnblom (B), Mark Ruffneck (D), Jörgen Schelander (K).

01. Roll the Dice 4:29
02. Lost Generation 3:45
03. Rock On 4:24
04. Midnight Lady 3:56
05. Runaways 3:55
06. Out of Touch 2:55
07. Thousand Miles 3:32
08. Alive 3:24
09. Not Enough 3:56
10. Night Crime 4:39

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sexta-feira, 4 de dezembro de 2015

OZ (FIN) - Decibel Storm (LP, RCA, 1986)


After standing out in the crowd with the brilliant "Fire in the Brain" and cementing their reputation with the mostly interesting "III Warning" (and now under the wing of RCA, a record company more than capable to give the lads a much needed financial backing), it's only natural to assume Oz wouldn't want to rock the boat that much, giving pretty much what their fanbase wanted to hear and not much else. Indeed, if we wish to describe "Decibel Storm" with only a phrase or two, we won't have to go any further than that: Oz playing safe, not-very-complex European 80s metal to make their fans happy. Still, as this LP is widely regarded as the beginning of the end for the Finnish metal merchants, I'm obliged to say that it didn't exactly strike the right chord with the metal scene at the time of its release - and it doesn't sound any better in retrospect either, as it's hardly the most exciting slice of vinyl you will ever hear. Oz done what they were used to do, and still it didn't work out as planned: what went wrong?

Opening song "Eyes of the Stranger" bring some good indications on what's to come. It's reasonably pacey and intense, but does little more than recycling ideas already put to better use in the past (am I the only one or the "Eyes of the stranger, oh woo woo" bit is the exact same formula of "Turn the Cross Upside Down"?). It's like watching a magician pulling the rabbit out of the topper for the umpteenth time: it may still be a good trick, but it simply doesn't work that well anymore. "Starrider" (with one of the most predictable let's-repeat-the-name-of-the-song choruses ever penned) and "Sound of Speed" are as metal-by-the-numbers as they could possibly be, its supposedly intense and fast-paced delivery failing to stand beyond mediocrity. "Black Tattoo" is way worse, a pitifully poor cock-rock bullshit that should never have been committed to vinyl.

But the aforementioned tunes aren't even the real problem, you know. The most detrimental aspect of "Decibel Storm" perpasses the whole album, and it lies in its absolute inability to sound convincing. Maybe "Disaster Dreamer" is the track that best resumes the album's shortcomings: after an immensely dull and unnecessary intro, we have a very average mid-pace heavy rocker with another title-track-turned-into-chorus and without a single hook to grab the listener's attention. And it drags on for nearly 7 minutes! C'mon guys, you used to need no more than 13 minutes to fill the A-side of a kickass LP! One should never move too far away from what one do best, and Oz used to be at its strongest when grabbing you by the neck and saying "bang your head, you bastard". A band like Oz just can't lay off the gas pedal and play safe: it's sounds like cheating, plain and simple. And who would be enthusiastic about a record that never fulfills its promises?

"Teenage Rampage" (originally recorded by The Sweet) is hardly the most typical Oz tune you'll ever hear, but I must admit I have a strange kind of sympathy for it - I don't know, perhaps because it's pretty much the only genuine surprise in stock? "Firestarter" and "Exterminator" are also OK I guess, perhaps in the same league of "III Warning" LP, and "The Show Must Go On" turns out to be quite funny actually, its let's-fake-a-live-show vibe working to good effect and rendering it the most pleasant tune here by far. But it's too little, and a little too late, so no one should be astonished to learn that "Decibel Storm" was the swansong for the most recognizable line-up of the group, their thunder being irremediably stolen by much more forceful and dynamic acts all over Europe and USA. Though not exactly a huge flop, "Decibel Storm" shows a band perceivably running out of steam, and it took a while until they were really ready for another round.

Ape De Martini (V), Speedy Foxx (G), Spooky Wolff (G), Jay C. Blade (B), Mark Ruffneck (D).

01. Eyes of the Stranger 5:58
02. Starrider 4:50
03. Teenage Rampage 3:35
04. Disaster Dreamer 6:40
05. Firestarter 4:30
06. Exterminator 5:35
07. Black Tattoo 4:18
08. Sound of Speed 4:00
09. The Show Must Go On 5:30

Have you been involved with any of the bands mentioned here? Have any extra info and/or corrections? Please e-mail me at and let me know!