Black Sabbath, metal gods. Their presence in the early 70s resonated so strongly that even now, we feel it. They continued to produce album after album throughout the years, and by 2008 had completed 18 studio albums, but only a few are actually well-known by people beyond a certain level of Sabbath-worship. There is the eponymous debut, and of course Paranoid. Vol. 4 is a popular one, as is Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and perhaps Sabotage could be included as well. With Master of Reality, this set completes a list of the first six Black Sabbath albums, as well as the most popular, and (in the minds of many) the best. Concerning the original incarnation of Black Sabbath - that is Iommi, Butler, Ward, and Osbourne - no albums can approach these six in terms of greatness.

Master of Reality came out in 1971, third after Paranoid earlier that year and Black Sabbath in 1970. People who embraced the first two would find more of the music they fell in love with in this one, and Black Sabbath took advantage of this opportunity to experiment a little. Solitude, Orchid, and Embryo are all significant departures from the sound they had established for themselves. Another change was the detuning to C#. It is said that the reason for this was to reduce the string tension for guitarist Tony Iommi, who is missing two of his fingertips. Geezer Butler detuned his bass likewise. This adjustment set a precedent in music, inspiring hundreds of punk, rock and metal bands to detune their guitars and achieve the heavy sound that Black Sabbath founded.

Sweet Leaf is, fairly obviously, an ode to marijuana and all its wonders. This wasn't novel or new; The Beatles sang about pot in Got to Get You Into My Life and With A Little Help From My Friends, and Bob Dylan did it with Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35. Sweet Leaf continues the tradition, and brings the subject matter into the world of heavy metal and hard rock. It opens with a now-instantly-recognizable loop of Ozzy coughing. This single song is probably responsible for countless stoner rock/doom metal albums and bands that engage in weed worship. The lyrics speak of appreciation and affection for the drug, but they also address enemies of it, the message being, "don't knock it if you haven't tried it."

The next song is After Forever, a look at faith and religion, especially Christianity. It is never explicitly anti-Christian, despite the Satanic hype that was built around Black Sabbath. In fact, in some parts it criticizes Christian followers for not acting more in accordance with their beliefs. This is the focus of the second half of the song. The first half deals with the concept of blind faith and the importance of forming your own ideas concerning religion. The first four words of the song, "Have you ever thought..." sum up the song pretty well. If a person is adamant in their beliefs, one should be able to assume they have put a lot of thought into them. This isn't always the case. After Forever never rejects religion, but puts forward a suggestion: think about it.

There is a short guitar interlude called Embryo. It doesn't even reach thirty seconds, but serves as a quick break between songs. Embryo has a very medieval sound to it.

As a rumbling bass line approaches, Children of the Grave begins. This is a classic Sabbath song, low and heavy but still with energy and punch. From the lyrics of revolution and oppression, to the sinister breakdown at the halfway point, to the guitar solo near the end, there isn't a dull moment in this song. That is, until the last forty seconds, which are full of eerie, moaning guitar feedback and whispers.

Orchid is another short instrumental song in the vein of Embryo. It is much longer, and features mostly fingerpicking as opposed to chords. In the background is a faint, low sound that may be a bass, but it is barely noticeable. Compared to the rest of the album Orchid and Embryo are completely overshadowed. Neither one is a song that stands out by the end, but nonetheless when they are playing they hold their own. As a whole, the album works better with them, because while Black Sabbath was the heaviest band around at the time, they don't sound too heavy anymore. With Orchid interrupting the mood with light acoustic guitar, the presence of the longer songs seems that much more impressive.

Lord Of This World is another of the slow heavy ones, though it is fairly upbeat and groovy compared to the others. The guitar riffs and solo occasionally sound very similar to an earlier Black Sabbath song, War Pigs, although they may have been intentional self-references. The lyrics seem to be sung from the perspective of the Devil, to a human who has sold his soul. The Devil is taunting him and lamenting his poor decision, as if even he can recognize the mistake that was made.

In addition to adding a weight to the longer songs, Embryo and Orchid serve to set up Solitude. The softer songs increase in length, slowly and secretly building up to the full-length Solitude, which was a total change of pace for Black Sabbath. The rhythm is dictated by bass; there are no drums. There isn't much guitar either, except for the occasional arpeggio. To make things even more unusual, Solitude includes sections for Iommi on pipes and piano, a first for Black Sabbath. It's one of the few dreamy, soothing Black Sabbath songs along with Planet Caravan off Paranoid. Hearing it gently wash in after the dirty rock sound of Lord Of This World crashed to a close echoes the experience of hearing I Talk To The Wind after 21st Century Schizoid Man on King Crimson's In The Court of the Crimson King.

Sure, it would have been nice to end the album right there, as Solitude coasts off, but it just wouldn't be Sabbath. Into The Void cranks it right back up to where we left off with Lord Of This World. This song stomps around, marking its territory with a cocky glint in its eye, and then takes off like the rockets in its lyrics. The song is about leaving the Earth and all its violent inhabitants before everyone is killed, either by pollution or famine or war. It's a completely pessimistic and irresponsible view of the world and our situation as humans, preferring to flee rather than work for a better future. Walking away in the face of a challenge is cowardly, unless the situation is hopeless. That seems to be the message we are left with as the album is drawn to a close. However, let us not forget that there is hope. Choosing to embark on a mission to start again (once all hope is lost) isn't cowardly or irresponsible, but staying behind is. There is the message: at first glance the situation is hopeless, and every choice seems wrong. Look closer, and unseen options make themselves known. the music of Into The Void doesn't convey hopelessness at all, but a persistent, spirited resolution.

Master of Reality: one of the greatest albums by one of the greatest bands. I can barely conceive the thought that people exist who don't like Black Sabbath, but if you are one of those imaginary people, steer clear. For everyone else, this is a classic album, and as such is required listening. I assure you, it doesn't get better than this.

1. Sweet Leaf (5:05)
2. After Forever (5:27)
3. Embryo (0:28)
4. Children of the Grave (5:17)
5. Orchid (1:30)
6. Lord of This World (5:26)
7. Solitude (5:02)
8. Into the Void (6:13)

Master of Reality - Black Sabbath - 1971 - Vertigo Records/Warner Bros.

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