Released: 2004, Rhino Music
Reviewer: Lord of the Wasteland
Black Sabbath are the epitome of heavy metal, plain and simple. Their sound has shaped thousands of bands since the release of the self-titled debut way back in 1970 and made a household name of its vocalist. The first three albums are essential to any heavy metal fan’s collection spawning track after track of sludgy, riff-based, doom and gloom. After releasing 1971’s MASTER OF REALITY, the band experimented and grew as musicians but even at the base level, that signature sound was always there. The original lineup lasted for eight years and eight seminal releases before Ozzy Osbourne was fired from the band and eventually replaced by ex-Rainbow singer, Ronnie James Dio, in 1980.
It is these first eight albums that are given the royal treatment on BLACK BOX: THE COMPLETE ORIGINAL BLACK SABBATH 1970-1978 and for anyone doubting whether or not to spend over $100 to purchase this set, put those fears to rest as you have not truly heard Black Sabbath until now. Each album has been remastered under direct supervision from the band and not only is the analog tape hiss that plagued the original Warner releases in the late 80s gone, but there are actually new things that can be heard, as well. Not “new,” as in recorded in studio in 2004 and slapped over top of the original music like Megadeth did, but the music is so crystal clear that drum fills and guitar riffs that have always been present can finally be heard. BLACK SABBATH, PARANOID and MASTER OF REALITY could have been recorded in 2004 and someone not in the know could easily be fooled—they are THAT GOOD! The sound is so much fuller, thicker, clearer and just downright impressive that it is mind-blowing how poor the music has sounded all these years without anyone knowing what they were missing.
Right from the get-go, the improvements are obvious. It is as if thirty five years has been shaved off this music and timeless tracks like “The Wizard,” “Paranoid,” “Fairies Wear Boots” and “Children of The Grave” sound new again. “Fairies Wear Boots” is significantly better sounding, for example, with each instrument clearly separated and rich-sounding. Ozzy’s intoxicating vocals on moody numbers such as “Planet Caravan” and “Solitude” are clean, clear and crisp. Even “Black Sabbath” and “War Pigs” take on a new air of ominous doom. VOLUME 4, SABBATH, BLOODY SABBATH and SABOTAGE (the best of the middle period albums) are heavily experimental compared to the first three albums, with extensive use of strings, keyboards and choirs that sound dated. No amount of studio “fixes” can take that away but these albums still sound better than ever. The ultra-heavy middle section of “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath” really rumbles here and “Hole In The Sky,” one of the most underrated and heaviest Sabbath tracks ever, thumps along with a thunderous groove. Unfortunately, the non-existent bass drum of Ward is still missing from VOLUME 4, which can only mean this is how the band recorded it to the original source tape in 1972. Even the painfully disjointed TECHNICAL ECSTASY (“Gypsy” and “All Moving Parts [Stand Still]” are atrocious and I wish Bill Ward’s vocals on “It’s Alright” could have been “fixed”!) and directionless NEVER SAY DIE saw the band as a shadow of their former selves. The “woo-ooh-ooh” vocals of “Shock Wave”?!?!? Horns on “Breakout”?!?! The jazzy “Air Dance”?!?!? Come on!! And who let Ward behind the mike again on “Swinging The Chain”?? Still, fans can revel in the fact that despite their low importance in the Sabbath catalogue, the later albums are given just as much attention as the early classics.
Besides the eight audio CDs, a four-track DVD is also included with the set that comprises what has become known as “The Beat Club Footage” over the years. These are the trippy performance videos with the psychedelic background that MTV and Much Music have been playing over the years. The footage looks better than it ever has but this piece isn’t much to get excited over. What is a handsome draw, though, is the 77-page hardcover book that accompanies the set. Included are loads of never-before-seen photos, authorized lyrics to all the songs, a timeline that explains key dates in the band’s history and two essays packed with fascinating information for the Sabbath trivia buff.
Much debate has been sparked with the release of this box set. Sabbath’s catalogue has been released and re-released dozens of times over the years with unscrupulous companies slapping together sets like THE OZZY YEARS among others. Even the Castle Records remasters that were released in the U.K. in 1996 pale in comparison to the versions found on BLACK BOX: THE COMPLETE ORIGINAL BLACK SABBATH 1970-1978. Granted, there isn’t much in terms of extras and bonuses—-musically, only “Blow On A Jug” and “Evil Woman”—-but this is still the definitive Black Sabbath collection…PERIOD! For new fans, this is truly the (un)Holy Grail of heavy metal and the chance to hear Ozzy Osbourne before he became a cartoonish mockery of himself on television. Even long-time fans can experience the music for the first time here and have fun listening for that extra “noodle” from Iommi or cymbal hit from Ward. While $120 may seem steep, the upgrade is worth every penny without a word of a lie.