Heavier than a Woolly Mammoth: Master of Reality

Master of Reality album cover which features distinct wavy text. Photo credit: Derek Knoblauch

When Black Sabbath released their third album Master of Reality in 1971, it was the heaviest album ever recorded. It wasn’t known at the time, but this band from Birmingham, England was setting the groundwork for the genre of heavy metal which would go on to dominate sales in the ’80s.

Black Sabbath were different than your average rock band of the era. Their self-titled debut album can almost be described as shock rock. The song “N.I.B.” is written from the perspective of the devil and asking listeners to “take his hand,” – unheard of on an album in 1969.

A rather unique injury gave way to Sabbath’s signature sinister guitar sound. Guitarist Tony Iommi lost the tips of his middle and index fingers on his right hand as a teenager working in a factory. Iommi played in a drop tuning to make it easier to bend the strings with his injury. By doing so, the guitar had a bigger and heavier sound.

Master of Reality opens with what sounds like someone coughing their lungs out for a few seconds. This jolting intro is followed by one of Iommi’s most iconic riffs. The track is “Sweet Leaf” and it’s an ode to marijuana.

A young Ozzy Osbourne sings, “Straight people don’t know, what you’re about. They put you down and shut you out. You gave to me a new belief and soon the world will love you sweet leaf.”

Iommi’s iconic fuzz distorted guitar wailing in the background along with rock solid groove provided by bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward. Marijuana was used heavily by young people around this time but there was never an anthem for the drug quite like this. This added to Sabbath’s shock value. An element in their music they were becoming known for.

Tracks such as After Forever and Children of the Grave hit you in the gut with chugging riffs from Iommi and blistering primal drums from Ward while Osbourne’s vocals soar over the mix.

These songs display their growth at the time as song writers. It was a bizarre writing process for Sabbath.

Iommi commonly wrote the riff they would build a song around; Osbourne would conjure up the vocal melodies and Butler would write the lyrics based off Ozzy’s melody. These two tracks display that song writing growth while being heavier than a woolly mammoth.

Lord of This World is also a major highlight on the record. Bill Ward puts on a masterclass of drum fills on this track. The guitar tone on this song sounds so deep and full.

If listening with headphones, you get lost in the haunting hum of Iommi’s guitar.

“You’re searching for your mind don’t know where to start,” belts out Osbourne. The track breaks into an unstoppable groove which will have you bobbing your head the entire song.

Now despite being the heaviest album around in 1971, Master of Reality does have a softer side. Tracks like Embryo and Orchid act as short guitar interludes between heavy tracks. Both songs are instrumental and are under a minute and a half. These tracks are pauses in the action if you will: the calm before the storm. They also showcase Iommi’s more delicate guitar playing.

The album concludes with its heaviest song yet: “Into the Void”. The intro riff sounds massive while crawling along rather slowly. Once the drums and bass kick in, the head-banging is inevitable. It’s so slow it almost feels like they are practicing but the speed makes the song sound like a giant sludging through a forest.

Master of Reality was key in the development of heavy metal. Sabbath took risks and experimented more than their first two LPs which translated into success. At the time, Master of Reality was the heaviest album to walk the earth.

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