For all the talk of how the digital age has eroded the modern attention span, when Black Sabbath dropped ‘Sabotage’ in July of 1975, there was much made of how it had been nearing two years since Birmingham’s finest had released an album. A fickle pop industry decades away from TOOL-worthy waiting times would go as far as to use the dreaded ‘comeback’ term while speculating endlessly on what the apocalyptic quartet had been doing between tours - as it turns out, quite a lot. Over half a decade into their career, and rock star status firmly cemented, shady-business dealings and legal issues raised their heads and forced the band into ongoing battles between managers, lawyers, and fighting for their financial freedom. While second manager Patrick Meehan had undoubtedly helped the group become an international success, his openness towards earnings and ownership left a lot to be desired. The boys were living the dream, but if they owned it was another story.
Desperately needing a break after their previous effort, ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,’ the group ended up returning to the studio stressed, stoned, and distracted. Despite trying to expand their business knowledge as well as their sound simultaneously, ‘Sabotage’ stands as an amazingly coherent record 46 years on, one that often gets short shrift when looking back at their early work. Now, there’s no denying that ‘Sabotage’ can’t hold a candle to the peerless work preceding it. In large part, this is due to the genre-defining power of the first three records. While ‘Vol. 4’ and its follow-up also saw experimentation in the studio, ‘Sabotage’ is the first record where their metallic core is noticeably melted away and replaced with hard rock tendencies. The songwriting is sharp and more complex than ever, but the fire burning beneath is dimmer.
These well-known critiques aside, the album still proudly displays some absolute belters that sadly never saw much love live after the initial tour promoting their release. Opener ‘Hole In The Sky’ is a gnarly beast showcasing one of Iommi’s best riffs as Ozzy belts out some classic trippy imagery. ‘Symptom of The Universe’ chugs along with grungy energy that predates the explosion of punk by over a year. At nearly ten minutes, ‘Megalomania’ sails happily into prog territory as does closer, ‘The Writ,’ a pissed-off highlight that has the band tearing their treacherous ex-manager a new one. While single ‘Am I Going Insane (Radio)’ failed to bother that chart much, Ozzy’s use of a Moog synthesizer saw the band embrace contemporary fare while also foreshadowing the more air-friendly style his solo career would follow five years later.
Musically the most fascinating number is ‘Supertzar,’ a cinematic ode to 70s excess that features The English Chamber Choir, a Mellotron, strings, and is what I imagine cocaine logic sounds like when given studio time and a budget modern bands can only dream of. Again, props must be given to the metal overlords for somehow bringing all this together and making a strong record under ungodly stress. ‘Sabotage’ stands as the last true burst of brilliance before the wheels had truly begun to fall off for the original lineup.
Like the other recent super deluxe editions, this misunderstood classic has been presented as a collector's deepest fantasy. Your hard-earned moolah will nab you a 2021 remaster of the album itself, a faithful recreation of the 1975 Madison Square Garden concert booklet, colour tour poster, 40-page hardback book on the history of the album, and a nifty replica of the 7” Japanese single for ‘Am I Going Insane (Radio).” This time around, the project leads have wisely ignored pressing outtakes and rough demos to vinyl and have opted for a 3 disc live album taken from their ‘75 North American tour, complete with rock god drum solo passages and fine guitar wankery. It’s always a pleasure to hear Sabbath in their prime.
While the impact of ‘Paranoid’ or their debut will always dominate the group’s legacy (and rightfully so), it’s good to see so much love and care go towards an album so often seen by fans as ‘the beginning of the end’ or ignored by the band itself. Sabbath’s sixth effort is a fine slice of hard-rocking fun when such hairy men were seen as deities in questionable outfits.
Words: Sam Walker-Smart
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