Part of Master of Reality’s power is how much critics hated on it when it came out. Though the album was a commercial success for the band, rock journalists at the time absolutely despised Black Sabbath‘s complete immersion in shadowy marijuana worship; The Village Voice‘s Robert Christgau apparently described the record as “a dim-witted, amoral exploitation.” Perhaps that is why Master of Reality has become such a landmark for metalheads: it wasn’t for everyone, especially not for the people eyeing rock and roll with a judgmental outsider’s eye. While Black Sabbath and Paranoid were renowned for their overdriven singles, this record was for the cultists, the ones who were here for a band darker, louder, and more clouded in smoke than anyone else.
Since today marks the 50th anniversary of Sabbath releasing this unbridled gem, we decided to rank the skull-splitting tracks thereon. Here’s how the space cake crumbles…
Well, yeah, obviously “Embryo” is at the bottom of this list — it’s less than half a minute of interlude guitar. Not that it’s a bad track, of course; in fact, it actually creates a really nice bridge between “After Forever” and “Children of the Grave.” But compared to the thick-riffed heavy-hitters on this record, it’s still, well, just an interlude. So it goes.
That “Solitude” has become a fan favorite from Master of Reality probably speaks more to how much herb was being burnt at the time of the record’s release release than the track’s strengths. The song’s ambling folkishness feels a little derivative of Sabbath peers Led Zeppelin, and the watery vocal effect is decent but not awesome. Still, the song shows how Sab were more than just eardrum-defilers, and gives the record decent texture.
6. “After Forever”
Given the power of its riffs, “After Forever” would be higher on this list — if not for the lyrics. As it is, the track is just a little on the nose with its attempt to dispel the rumors of Sabbath’s satanic allegiances. Lyrics like, “Do you wanna see the Pope at the end of a rope?” and “God is the only way to love” try too hard, and would be better couched in metaphor (see slot #3 below). An absolutely killer track, just not the best Sabbath song on here.
Here’s where the beauty of Sabbath’s softer moments really shines through on Master of Reality. “Orchid” not only illustrates Tony Iommi’s technical talent, it also lends a certain spooky zen to this otherwise nihilistic record. The track sounds like cobwebs blown in a warm autumn breeze, its steady, sweeping twangs evoking images of grass rolling in the wind at dusk. A dulcet calm between raging storms.
4. “Sweet Leaf”
You ever heard the birth of a metal tradition–on WEED? It’s easy to laugh at “Sweet Leaf,” given that it’s a ballad to marijuana. But that central riff is no joke, as catchy as it is supremely headbangable, and dedicating a song purely to cannabis in 1971 was pretty ballsy given how much folks were still reeling from the Love Generation’s dissolution under the Manson Family. The song is a perfect example of how metal’s heaviness could be coupled with a type of dirtbag positivity that everyone enjoys, even if in secret. Hey, man, try it out.
3. “Lord of this World”
The opening of “Lord of this World” is the soundtrack to an atom bomb exploding in the distance. That kick is the kind of drop that makes the listener instantly want to throw their beer and go charging for the front of the stage. The diabolical skipping riff that follows only adds a jaunty mischief to the track that keeps it from being too stark overall. And finally, there are the lyrics, which confront spiritual malaise without ever getting too blatant with it (see slot #6 on this list). An under-worshipped B-side that real metalheads know as one of Sabbath’s finest.
2. “Into The Void”
While most of Master of Reality is chock full of backhanded positivity and good-natured stonerdom, “Into The Void” surges head-first towards the shadows. Part of this is the song’s lyrical theme of leaving the shattered earth for the endless night of space. But more than that are Tony Iommi’s crunching, misanthropic guitar parts, coupled with swampy rhythms courtesy of Geezer Butler and Bill Ward. To close out an album this stygian and rebellious, Black Sabbath needed a song that was without mercy, and boy, did they deliver with “Into The Void.”
1. “Children of the Grave”
With “Children of the Grave,” Black Sabbath opened wide the gates of the abyss and unleashed metal as the world would forever know it. The song has it all — unstoppable biker momentum, white-hot guitar wails, and lyrics that are both morbidly apocalyptic and aggressively optimistic. While previous classics like “War Pigs” and “N.I.B.” laid the groundwork for the genre, this track is the one that summoned the Church of Metal out of the fertile soil of the musical underworld, and a new generation of bummer-fed anti-hippies rejoiced to be seen so clearly. Fifty years later, this remains Master of Reality’s finest moment, if not the greatest metal song of all time.
Words by Chris Krovatin