Friday, February 21, 2014
BLACK SABBATH – TECHNICAL ECSTASY
Popular opinion is a strange beast. On the one hand you can lie back and allow yourself to be caught up in the stream and follow suit or you can haul anchor and paddle like fuck against it. When it comes to Sabbath’s controversial 1976 offering “Technical Ecstasy” I will paddle like my life depends on it!
Sabbath emerged in 1970 with one of the most striking and influential debut albums of all time and virtually single handedly invented heavy metal. Over the next six years they expanded and evolved whilst never losing sight of what made them great in the first place; Tony Iommi’s mighty crushing riffs, Bill Ward’s kinetic, jazz infused drumming, Geezer Butler’s meandering and propulsive bass lines and Ozzy Osbourne’s acidic and compelling vocals. Collectively the band composed, not so much songs as mini symphonies, dark, brooding yet ponderously heavy suites that shifted and changed in unconventional fashion. By 1976, however, the band were reaching the peak of their drug intake, were living the lifestyles of rich young rock stars and the cracks were starting to appear…and thus “Technical Ecstasy” was born.
Now, granted, I will admit “Technical Ecstasy” does fall a little short against the six albums that had preceded it but I ask you your honour, is this any reason to completely disregard it? For most people their relationship with an album will depend on a number of factors; are they a fan of the band already? How old were they when they heard it? How did you hear it? Any number of factors can influence your perception of an album. In my case I was 13 years old, my mother was in the midst of a fairly brutal nervous breakdown and one day she bought me, at my urging, Black Sabbath’s “Live Evil” album (another much maligned classic but that’s another story). I took it home to my room, my sanctuary from the misery in the house at the time, and put it on. The second “Neon Knights” kicked in I was utterly hooked. I’d never heard any Sabbath before yet this was the most brutally heavy thing I’d ever heard. It took approximately four bars and they became my favourite band…and have remained so unwavering for 31 years! At this point I knew nothing of their history, I didn’t know that Ozzy Osbourne used to be the singer. I didn’t know which albums were rated highly and which weren’t…I was a blank page free from preconceptions and I set about filling that page voraciously buying up everything I could afford, as a 13 year old kid, that had the Black Sabbath name on the front. Tellingly the first album they released upon my new found fandom was “Born Again”…yet another album that has been pilloried in the press and by the fans but hey, guess what…I fucking love the shit out of it! To me, “Technical Ecstasy” was just another album in a catalogue I simply had to own so I bought it…and played it to death. Here we are 31 years on and it’s still one of the Sabbath albums I turn to most regularly.
So let’s start at the start. In the good old days before MP3 downloads, your first introduction to an album would be the cover artwork. This is where I learned an interesting lesson in how an album looks can influence your perception of how it sounds. The previous albums had all been housed in dark, ominous covers featuring, dying souls tormented by demons, spooky women in derelict locations, warmongers, Bill Ward in tights amongst other things. “Technical Ecstasy” on the other hand looked positively bright and breezy as well as uncharacteristically hi-tech. When putting the album on for the first time having seen the cover I almost expected this to be reflected in the music. I couldn’t be more wrong. The only concession to the modernist tendencies of the cover was a slicker, more tempered production and greater exploration of musical technology through the use of synthesizers…etc. This was still a bastard heavy album by any standards though and still delivered on all the Sabbath trademarks whilst adding a little something new.
Over the previous six albums the band had gradually moved away from their simplistic blues origins into something far more progressive and expansive and “Technical Ecstasy” pushed the band further down this road. That said, opening track “Back Street Kids” was a brash, defiant opener. Iommi’s guitar chugs and pushes the track forward ahead of Ward’s simplistic beat. Ozzy’s vocals are laced with bile and attitude that an upbringing on the streets of post war Birmingham instils in you no matter how much cash you have in your pocket and how much cocaine you shove up your nose. The synthesizers add a progressive edge to the middle section although, untypically the band employ a fairly conventional structure, even going as far as to have, gulp, a chorus that once heard will not shift from your mind!
Defiance is the key to the next track, “You Won’t Change Me”. A song that appears to be about retaining your identity within a relationship, it is full of the doom and gloom sound that Sabbath had invented and defined. Iommi’s guitars almost seem to take a back seat here to organ and piano but the song is no less heavy as a result and Iommi still pulls off a stinging solo. Those wishing to denigrate this album would surely have a hard time criticising the quality of Osbourne’s dramatic melodies if they were to actually listen properly and set aside their prejudices.
Ok, prejudices are justified for the next track, the Bill Ward sung “It’s Alright”. A cloying piano ballad that Paul McCartney would have been deeply embarrassed by. This is undeniably a massive shit-sack of a song that can’t even be saved by Iommi’s dramatic guitar interlude in the mid section. Arguably the worst song ever recorded by Sabbath, I have often pondered if this song alone has coloured peoples’ judgement of the album to the extent that it has damaged the ongoing reputation of “Technical Ecstasy” as a whole. Skip it!!!!
Back on track “Gypsy” kicks off with a samba inflected drum figure…yes samba. Don’t be rolling your eyes, they did the same thing in the middle of “Supernaut” and everyone loves that right? Before you know it the band kick into a lecherous tale of the titular woman, riding on a riff that is pure fist-in-the-air rock and roll power. Again keyboards play a large roll in the song but never cloud Iommi’s wall of fuzz guitar playing as the song shifts moods in an almost schizophrenic fashion. Sonically this is one of the densest songs Sabbath had attempted up to this point as layers of guitars, keyboards and backing vocals combine to push the song on to an epic conclusion.
“All Moving Parts (Stand Still)” sees the band employing a looser, almost funky vibe. Again this isn’t exactly new territory for the band, go back and listen to “A National Acrobat” from “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” for a similar effect…nobody complained then did they? Despite this, the song is still moody enough and heavy enough to satisfy worshippers at the Sabbath altar and Iommi’s lead playing, after handing over the baton for a rare keyboard solo, has lost none of its bite and dexterity.
Now straight up rock and roll is something that Sabbath had rarely touched upon but on “Rock and Roll Doctor” they bring the good times on a swinging riff, some honky tonk piano and Ozzy proves he can do the blues. Yes it may be atypical for Sabbath but so what, it’s still a great song and a lot of fun…real punching the air kind of stuff. For some reason this song has always reminded me of Saxon. There’s something that I can’t quite put my finger on but it just seems to have that Saxon quality to it…and no-one complains when they do it do they? Do they fuck!!!!
Ok, so they’ve attempted a ballad on this album already and fucked it up royally. One could question whether they need another one but fortunately on “She’s Gone” the balance is restored fully and then some. For me this is probably the finest ballad Sabbath ever wrote…not that they did many and I’ve never been a fan of “Changes” if I’m honest…especially after Ozzy and Kelly bent it over a barrel and fucked it to within an inch of its life!!!! A delicate acoustic guitar picks out the chords whilst Ozzy’s plaintive vocals are backed up by mournful strings/mellotron. It may lack Sabbath’s trademark bombast but makes up for it with their usual sense of darkness and impending misery.
Now Sabbath have truly left the best til last. “Dirty Women”, a sordid tale of “professional” ladies, is, for my money, one of Sabbath’s finest yet most unsung songs. A fact that the band seem aware of to this day as, post reunion, it continues to feature in their live set…and deservedly so. Iommi’s dark, orchestrated guitar backs up Ozzy’s evocative lyrics before the band lock into one of the most bad-ass, rockingest riffs they ever wrote. Sabbath throw everything at this song, epic solos, doom, kick ass metal and show that, despite the burgeoning punk scene of the time, they still pretty much owned heavy rock and roll.
And we’re done, the album ends on a high…you can roll over, wipe yourself off and pay the lady before slipping out into the street. So why has this album been such a critical failure in the eyes of the press and the fans? That’s hard to ascertain. I believe that “Technical Ecstasy” is a victim of the band’s success. By that I mean that Black Sabbath between 1970 and 1975 recorded, not only six of the best hard rock/heavy metal albums ever recorded but six of the best albums ever recorded period. These six albums would be hard for any band to top and, let’s face it, how many bands manage to record to record six albums in their whole career let alone six albums of such stunning quality. At some point there is bound to be a dip, particularly when the aforementioned drugs and lifestyle start to take a hold. There’s no denying that this album doesn’t live up to the sheer awesomeness of its predecessors but that doesn’t make it a bad album…it just makes it less good than those before. Place it up against all the other albums released in 1976 and it’ll probably still kick the arse of a hell of a lot of them. In fact if “Technical Ecstasy” had been recorded as say, Sabbath’s second or third album I dare say it would be hailed as a ground breaking triumph and its history would be a lot different…and you wouldn’t be reading this now! So, I would suggest you go to your old vinyl collections, I’m guessing you probably don’t have this on CD, and dig through to find your copy…it’ll probably be near the back covered in a coating of dust…stick it on, plug in the headphones and listen to it, really listen to it…without prejudice, without preconceptions, without expectations. Listen to it, if it helps, as though this is a new album by a new band you’re just discovering then maybe, just maybe you’ll be hearing it in a similar context to the way I first heard it and maybe, just maybe it will reveal itself as the sleeper masterpiece that it really is.