35 minutes is all it took Black Sabbath to confirm themselves as the new rock overlords. Yes, of course, bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were still going strong at this point; in fact, they were arguably only hitting their peaks, but Sabbath brought with them something that can never be denied — change. An evolution of style and pace meant that, whether they knew it or not, Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward were laying down the blueprint for rock’s journey with their album Master of Reality.
The sixties had been about creative integrity and the freedom of youth. It had championed an incandescent sense of self and an unbridled feeling of potential about to erupt and save the world. Of course, in 2021, we know better. But, 50 years prior, Black Sabbath knew better too. The turn of a new decade had dyed technicolour dreams a deep shade of black that nobody could escape from. The debauched hell of the seventies was beckoning, and Black Sabbath produced a doom-laden album to precede it.
The record wasn’t only a natural evolution from the previous decade and saw Black Sabbath morph into the heavy metal heroes they would soon be known as. Though their self-titled debut and the follow-up, Paranoid were far from sweetness and light, they were still tinged with the pop dreams of being a member of The Beatles. Master of Reality, however, kicked things into overdrive and set sail for the most dangerous horizons.
There is a supreme rawness to this effort that means any fans of the band who had heard them on the radio were soon cut adrift. The group tuned down their instruments and let the boom of their own nihilism ring out like the crooked church bells. This was surely the moment that Black Sabbath became the band they were always meant to be; from the first moments of ‘Sweet Leaf‘, an obvious ode to marijuana, the group were confirming that they were not everyone’s cup of tea, and they didn’t want to be.
As well as their artistic creation, musically, they also pushed themselves forward, “We did some stuff that we had never done before [on Master Of Reality],” lead guitarist and songwriter Tony Iommi recalls in his autobiography Iron Man. “On ‘Children Of The Grave’, ‘Lord Of This World’, and ‘Into The Void’, we turned down three semitones. It was part of an experiment: tuning down together for a bigger, heavier sound.”
It is these three songs that truly render this album to perfection. There’s not an ounce of gloom left unused on the record, and with the murky waters of the aforementioned tracks, the band were able to bring to life a record that emerged from the dark, primordial soup with a self-awareness that few rock bands could match. Black Sabbath didn’t need to rely on fantasies about Lucifer or any other occult-adjacent frivolity to get across their vision of the world; they pointed to the growing depressive nature of society itself.
This notion has led many to draw the line between Master of Reality and punk rock. Though the record never truly picks up the pace beyond a slow trot, instead preferring to march to their doom, the no holds barred reflection of society as well as the refusal to conform to any particular method of making money for music, provided a unique viewpoint that punk rock would soon adopt, in the process, leaving out Sabbath from their figurative cultural book burning.
Truth be told, this album is difficult to pigeonhole because it is incredibly unique. Of course, there is a strong taste of metal in our mouths when we listen now, one could even call this the very first doom metal record, but that would be far too limiting. The only true ‘first’ that this LP can attribute itself to is the first album Black Sabbath really found their sound.