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How Black Sabbath pushed the boundaries of heavy metal with ‘Master of Reality’

When looking at the origins of heavy metal, it’s hard to look past Black Sabbath. The strange occurrences in the lives of the four working-class boys from Birmingham led to the birth of one of the most beloved – and heaviest – music genres. Vocalist Ozzy Osbourne had taken a job as a teenager in an abattoir and, being surrounded by the entrails of dead cattle, led him to write some of the darkest and most evil lyrics ever penned for the band he would later join; happy pop songs these were not going to be.

Meanwhile, guitarist Tony Iommi had an accident at his workplace in a sheet metal cutting factory, losing the tips of his left hand’s middle and ring fingers. He was told he would never play the guitar again. However, determined not to be resigned to such a fate, Iommi fashioned some thimbles out of old Fairy Liquid bottles, detuned his guitar by a few steps, and once again, he could bend his strings and form chord shapes.

Together, Osbourne and Iommi formed Black Sabbath, along with Geezer Butler on bass and Bill Ward on drums. Their name was taken from a horror film that the band saw screening one night across the road from a venue they were playing. The film’s popularity – despite its darkness – along with the smog-filled backdrop of Birmingham’s factories and warehouses, made the band want to write downright evil music.

Yet, much of metal finds its roots in blues music. Sabbath was originally formed as the Polka Tulk Blues band and initially performed covers of many of the blues standards of the time. Sabbath’s new sound, however, was so evil sounding because it was essentially played in the minor pentatonic and blues scales but detuned to make it sound darker and more profound.

After the success of Sabbath’s first two albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid, both released in 1970, the band wanted to push their dark sound even further on their next record, Master of Reality, a year later. Drummer Bill Ward once said of the album: “I believe Master Of Reality was a lot heavier than anything we’d attempted before. We had a lot more confidence and really wanted it to use this properly. On the previous two records, we had so little time that all we could do was record as a live band – that was our strength, anyway. We’d done so many gigs that we were very tight. But this was the first time when we didn’t have gigs booked in, and could just focus on making the album a landmark.”

The hectic touring schedule after Sabbath’s first two records had made the band incredibly tight, as exemplified on Master of Reality. Butler and Ward are persistently locked together, so much so that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish where Ward’s kick drum starts and Geezer’s sludgy basslines end.

Sabbath were also a band never to hide their drug use. This was evident in the album’s opening track ‘Sweet Leaf’, which begins with a sample of a spliff-induced Tony Iommi coughing fit. Iommi once revealed: “That’s me. Ozzy rolled this big joint… I had a couple of puffs and nearly choked myself. They left the tape running and it turned into the ideal start for ‘Sweet Leaf’.”

‘Sweet Leaf’ was, in fact, an Ozzy-penned love song to the leafy drug. “We used to smoke pounds of the shit, man,” he once said. “We used to buy it by the fucking sackful. We used to be so fucked-up all the time. Wake up in the morning, start the day with a spliff, go to bed with it”.

While the album opens in a somewhat comical fashion, the dark tone that would go on to define the heavy metal genre finds a place on the record, too, in a self-reflective sense of existential dread, with ‘Children of the Grave’ a warning of the end of the human race, and ‘Into the Void’, the story of leaving a doomed Earth for a new frontier in space.

Elsewhere, acoustic and medieval-sounding efforts are found in the instrumentals ‘Embryo’, ‘Orchid’, and the Led Zeppelin-esque ‘Solitude’. The latter showed a band who, whilst undoubtedly trying to push the boundaries of heavy metal music, were also unafraid of expressing their dark themes more subtly and sensitively.

Ultimately, Master of Reality was the effort of Black Sabbath attempting to expand the frontiers of the genre they helped to birth, while the kids of the late 1960s and 1970s were tucking into ‘Paranoid’ during its extensive radio play. Sabbath were outsiders; they were poor kids from Birmingham, not destined to be pop stars. They had bigger things to take care of, like spreading the message of the joys of weed and the impending doom of the human race.

“I know people feel that Sabbath invented heavy metal with our debut album – and that is true to some extent, but I believe that it’s with Master Of Reality that we proved the potential and power of the music,” said Bill Ward. “It’s also a record when we weren’t afraid to show our vulnerable, sensitive side.”

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