Black Sabbath’s 1975 album Sabotage was recorded at a time of turmoil for the band, and it showed in the eclectic mix of tracks. Previously, on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, they had experimented with synthesizers and unusual instruments. That direction was still evident on Sabotage, but it also included an acoustic song, a thrash metal song, and plenty of moments dark and heavy enough to remind the listener of their early work. As they fought frustrating legal battles with their former management, who had been keeping their earnings from them, Sabbath sought simpler times by looking back to their roots while still developing their sound in new ways.
The album kicked off with “Hole in the Sky,” which in true Sabbath tradition was built around a catchy, driving riff from Tony Iommi and a heavy bassline from Geezer Butler. This hypnotic force was enhanced by Ozzy Osbourne’s ethereal vocals, which completed their signature mixture of heaviness and eeriness. After the more experimental sound of the previous album, “Hole in the Sky” reminded fans that Sabbath could still play a back-to-basics rock song in their own style.
“Don’t Start (Too Late)” was a beautiful instrumental piece where Iommi played acoustic, harmonizing with himself on multiple overlaid tracks. The abrupt transition to this intricate melody was a shock, but was perhaps intended as a reminder, after recapturing the metal purist’s interest with “Hole in the Sky,” that as artists they were capable of more than just the style they were known for.
Then it was right back to Black Sabbath’s heavier side with “Symptom of the Universe,” which is now considered an early instance of the thrash metal subgenre which was further developed in the 1980s by bands such as the “big four”: Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax. Even the way the melodic “Don’t Start (Too Late)” acted as an introduction to the heavier, thrashier track was a clear influence on Metallica’s distinct style. Bill Ward’s drumming stood out here as Iommi stepped back from the lead and played a rhythmic background riff for much of the song; between the simple verses, which were carried mainly by Osbourne, Ward’s rapid, complex rhythms formed the bulk of the sound. The song smoothly transitioned through different phases, ending on a softer, psychedelic note with a melodic outro that Black Sabbath developed in a day from a jam session in the studio.
“Megalomania” was a heavily atmospheric, nearly ten-minute epic. The lyrics dealt with insanity and isolation, which Osbourne captured with his despairing, tormented vocals over the subtle, creepy instrumentation; Osbourne’s best work often appeared in songs that required him to express the emotions of a character who was beset by demons, whether physical demons or their own internal ones. The jarringly repeated lyrics at the beginning of the first couple verses pushed the listener into an uncomfortable place mentally, enhancing the tone—unsettling, but effective. Fortunately, a third of the way through Iommi interrupted the dread with an energetic riff on an unexpected piano. The listener was abruptly brought out of the dark and back to Earth, a transition mirrored by the lyrics, “Well I feel something’s taken me, I don’t know where. It’s like a trip inside a separate mind.” From there the song became a bold, hard-rocking tale of the narrator’s journey back from madness.
“The Thrill of it All” cut to the chase with a shredding guitar solo within the first minute, then slowed down as it hinged for too long on one simple riff that felt repetitive after the progressive preceding track. However, it hit its stride halfway through and became a refreshingly upbeat anthem with plenty of more dynamic riffs to go around and another solo to wrap it up.
A choir’s vocalizations dominated “Supertzar,”—no lyrics, just dark and fantastical vocal harmonies. In his memoir I Am Ozzy, Osbourne described the day it was recorded: “I walked into Morgan Studios and there was an entire forty-member choir in there along with an eighty-six-year-old harpist. They were making a noise like God conducting the soundtrack to the end of the world.” The song was a dramatic offering unlike any other Sabbath song. The choir and harp veered between a light and airy sound and the spooky and somehow supernatural tone that Osbourne described. At times they were accompanied by Iommi, who kept it heavy and sounded larger than life riffing alongside the choir as if leading the apocalyptic charge.
Continuing the trend of major shifts in tone from song to song, “Supertzar” was followed by the single “Am I Going Insane (Radio)”—the “(Radio)” comes from the rhyming slang “radio rental” meaning “mental.” This one was commercially successful but widely disliked by fans and critics. Considering that Sabbath had already covered insanity far more creatively and provocatively on the same album with “Megalomania,” the inclusion of this repetitive, synthesizer-ridden tune on the same topic was a baffling choice. It lacked depth and didn’t contribute much to the album, though it was catchy.
Finally, the over-the-top insane cackling on “Am I Going Insane (Radio)” faded into sobbing over a somber bassline to introduce “The Writ.” This was one of few Black Sabbath songs with lyrics by Osbourne (most were written by Butler). Musically it was rambling and experimental, including more melodic, acoustic interludes where Osbourne’s voice was particularly expressive, perhaps because he’d written the song to express his own personal frustration with how Sabbath’s former manager had taken advantage of them.
After Sabotage, Sabbath’s original lineup only lasted another two albums (until their 2013 reunion), both of which were badly received. They were already beginning to fall apart at the seams due to financial trouble, drug abuse, conflicts between band members, and confusion over their musical direction. The result was an album that had no consistent sound, but several gems could still be found amid the chaos—“Symptom of the Universe” and “Megalomania” in particular are tracks no Sabbath fan should miss.