50 Years Ago, Black Sabbath Pushed Heavy Metal Forward with Vol. 4

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It’s difficult to overstate how quickly Black Sabbath became the undisputed kings of heavy metal. Formed in 1968, the quartet took less than four years to put out three of the most celebrated LPs in the genre’s history — sequentially, Black Sabbath, Paranoid, and Master of Reality — and play venues across the world (amongst reaching many other accomplishments).

Unfortunately, their nonstop multi-year marathon of recording and touring led to them feeling quite exhausted physically and mentally, resulting in them relying on drugs as a remedy. In particular, the making of 1971’s Master of Reality saw the band delving deeper into “uppers, downers, quaaludes, whatever you like” (as founding drummer Bill Ward recounted in Steven Rosen’s book The Story of Black Sabbath: Wheels of Confusion).

Clearly, their much-needed break during the first half or so of the subsequent year was well deserved, as it allowed them to reconvene in May ‘72 with increased energy and imagination. In fact, Ward aptly surmised, “Master of Reality was kind of like the end of an era, the first three albums, and we decided to take our time with the next album.”

To his point, follow-up Vol. 4 — released on September 25th, 1972— found Black Sabbath pushing themselves further in several ways, not the least of which was through more adventurous and aspiring instrumentation and songwriting. Sadly, though, the group was also forcing its way through several personal obstacles.

For instance, bassist Geezer Butler told Rolling Stone in 2021, “Tony [Iommi, guitars] had just broken up with his girlfriend at the time, and Bill [Ward] was going through a divorce.” Plus, another one of the quartet’s favorite treats — cocaine — became such an integral and costly part of creating Vol. 4 that they were originally going to name the collection Snowblind. (That is — vocalist Ozzy Osbourne explained in his autobiography, I Am Ozzy — until Vertigo Records decided that they “didn’t want the hassle of a controversy.”)

Taking all of that into account, it’s easy to see why Vol. 4 remains such a remarkable LP half a century later. By mining their hardships for motivation and stretching their artistic limits, they made great leaps as songwriters and composers. Thus, the album’s expanded arrangements paved the way not only for 1973’s even weirder Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, but the birth of progressive metal.

In order to achieve their desired creative growth, Black Sabbath left London’s Regent Sound and Island studios behind in favor of Los Angeles’ bigger and fuller Record Plant. That switch — alongside having Iommi and then-manager Patrick Meehan take over for longtime producer Rodger Bain — granted the group enough freedom and opportunity to take its music to the next level.

Most notably, “Changes” — which is one of Black Sabbath’s most well-known songs in terms of mainstream awareness — essentially saw them trying out a new kind of ballad with new instruments (piano and mellotron). “I’ve never really played piano, and it’s one of those nights I happen to sit up and just tinkle around with it, and I started playing this tune,” Iommi recalled to Rolling Stone.

Likewise, “FX” is an experimental sound collage born out of Iommi unintentionally hitting his guitar strings with a crucifix; “Laguna Sunrise” is a lovely neo-classical acoustic guitar instrumental (with orchestration); and the forceful “Snowblind” adds subtle strings to the mix. In all of these ways, among others (which we’ll get to in a moment), Vol. 4 allowed Black Sabbath to get noticeably more sundry and sophisticated.

Obviously, another large part of the LP’s legacy is the photo on the album cover. Taken by Keith “Keef” Macmillan at a January 1971 concert at the Birmingham Town Hall, it captured Osbourne outstretching his arms and offering a triumphant hand gesture to the audience. “Sometimes you just catch one of those iconic images,” Macmillan once espoused. Likewise, Osbourne noted, “[The peace sign] was just a thing to do. Everybody was doing it, so I just did it. It wasn’t my thing. I was far from a peaceful guy.”

It’s a testament to those happy accidents that Vol. 4 became so legendary. Sales-wise, it more or less fared as well as its predecessors in the US and UK, and even some prior critical naysayers — namely, Creem’s Lester Bangs — praised it. Subsequently, the cover was referenced in releases by acts such as Sleep and Pantera, cementing the impact of its main imagery.

What’s more, “Changes” was later reimagined not only by Osbourne himself (as a duet with daughter Kelly for her 2003 debut LP, Shut Up), but also by soul artist Charles Bradley. Of course, that version went on to be the theme song for Netflix’s Big Mouth, and it also appeared in Big Little Lies and Black-ish.

Decades later, the record holds up extremely well, especially the previously discussed gems. Primarily, “Changes” endures as a beautifully atypical ode about lost love (specifically, Osbourne confirmed to Classic Rock in 2019, it was influenced by “the break-up Bill [Ward] was going through with his wife”).

Similarly, the undeniably Zeppelin-esque “Laguna Sunrise” survives as a wonderfully warm and symphonic dedication to Laguna Beach, just as “Snowblind” is a decorative classic rock tribute to the power of the aforementioned white powder.

While “FX” is admittedly negligible aside from its avant-garde boldness, the rest of the set is terrific. For example, one of Frank Zappa’s favorite songs — “Supernaut” — glides along with awesome guitar riffs and percussion. Elsewhere, the proto-doom devilishness of “Cornucopia” turned out exceedingly well considering how much turmoil and difficulty Ward had recording it. As for “Tomorrow’s Dream” and “St. Vitus Dance,” well, they’re relatively traditional yet nonetheless enticing.

Perhaps the biggest steps forward, though, come with the markedly multifaceted opener and closer: “Wheels of Confusion” and “Under the Sun,” respectively.  

The former is a spellbinding suite whose epic scope and cleverly dynamic transitions make it a clear forerunner to both their consequent efforts and prog metal in general. (Hell, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath featured Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman.) Simply put, the darker and feistier zigzags of “Under the Sun” walked so that future greats such as Iron Maiden, Queensrÿche,Fates Warning, King’s X, and Opeth could run.

In the same interview with Rolling Stone, Ward reflected: “We risked some things that we probably wouldn’t have dared to do, certainly not on the first two albums. I think it showed [that] the band was starting to discover themselves as individuals, and also was discovering themselves as a band. . . . Vol. 4 opened up enough room to say, ‘Oh, you can do that again on other albums.'”

Indeed, it simultaneously set a new benchmark for the band and the genre. Regardless of where you’d rank it alongside its eighteen studio siblings — Consequence gave it the top spot in 2017’s official catalog retrospective — there’s no denying that Vol. 4 is among the most important and iconic Black Sabbath records.

50 years later, it’s still an incredibly diverse and daring collection that introduced noteworthy changes for its creators and heavy metal as a whole.

Stream Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4 below and pick up a copy here.

50 Years Ago, Black Sabbath Pushed Heavy Metal Forward with Vol. 4
Jordan Blum

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