Like all Black Sabbath albums, I remember the first time I heard each one. During of the mid 90’s when I was adding to my collection, Black Sabbath cassettes were kept separate, apart and in order of release. Some of the tracks on Volume 4 were heard when someone loaned me the tape of the 1975 collection, “We Sold Our Soul For Rock and Roll”.
Hearing “Tomorrow’s Dream” and “Snowblind” drove me to acquire “Volume 4” as soon as possible. It was not kicking around at any of the used tape places. Once I had the cash saved it was ordered from one of the local music stores. By the time the cassette arrived, my familiarity with some of the songs was there and my critical mind wanted to see how well the rest of the album fit in. Volume 4’s opener “Wheels of Confusion” still reads as a perfect starter song. It was sludge-laden doom metal riffing that could go in any direction tempo or melody-wise. There is a sense and feel of sustained orchestration in certain parts with multiple guitar tracks swirling through the airwaves. Bill Ward shows the depth of his timing with a variety of ear-catching fills. The closing section of this song, referred to as “The Straightener” changes the tempo, fading into silence with the Mellotron-generated Organ sounds and added acoustic guitars and percussion.
Lyrically, my initial reaction to “Wheels of Confusion” was in line with how I was feeling at the time. It was teenage rage willing to take a look at the world for what it really is while maintaining a flicker of optimism. It is a person rolling with the wheels of a confusing society attempting to influence the population in a mostly negative way. It’s a message where like most of Sabbath’s catalogue, still wields a strong banner half a century later. Watch the news for a minute to get a glimpse of it, if you must.
“Tommorrow’s Dream” takes a darker turn lyrically while maintaining a sense of optimism. The dream of a better tomorrow becoming reality. It leaves with a hope that getting away on a quick-moving train can be part of that escape. There is room in the heart for more things and more memories besides failed relationships. The riff is heavy on it’s own. Play it on an acoustic guitar and electric at the same volumes, and it hears like something that weighs the same on your ears. The rolling bass part has always been one of my many favourite recorded performances of Geezer Butler. He anchors the riffs while offering a sense of where the melody is going next by about a half step.
“Changes” is a track that even some non-fans of Black Sabbath are familiar with. While I appreciate the significance and historical importance of this song, it is now one of the few tracks I skip over along with the Technical Ecstasy sapper “She’s Gone”. Even so, it can be safely considered one of Ozzy Osbourne’s finest recordings as a vocalist.
Tony Iommi has referred to the instrumental “FX” as “a total joke”. Maybe so, but it is a nice break after the balladry of “Changes”. The experimentation used in recording the track is another reminder that fun moments are generated from pure improvisation with sounds. Those sounds were created with random objects striking Tony Iommi’s guitar strings, after he accidentally struck the guitar with the crucifix around his neck.
“Supernaut” brings the pace of the album up to a frantic level. Killer riffs aside, it really is a showcase for Bill Ward’s percussion prowess. At times I have referred to it as a drum solo with accompaniment. It is another one of those songs that Sabbath fans recognize instantly from the riff.
In my view, Volume 4’s most memorable track is the cocaine tale “Snowblind”. A crushing riff with one of Ozzy Osbourne’s best recorded vocal performances in his career. It represents another real and raw blueprint of doom metal that Sabbath printed. Like many of their storied riffs, there is nothing like it and metal fans and historians know it the way they know “Paranoid” and “Iron Man”.
Following “Snowblind”, “Cornucopia” takes a darker turn with a lower-key riff and another percussive thrashing clinic from Bill Ward. The song has a great set of tempo changes that fit so well that a listener does not really notice them right away. I remember first hearing it and thinking it was one of the heaviest songs ever for the time. Geezer Butler bass track incorporates riff-doubling with very punctuated slides, a continuing roll throughout, leaving no space unfilled.
“Laguna Sunrise” is an acoustic guitar showcase for Tony Iommi accompanied by an airy and swirling orchestral arrangement. It makes for an interesting break in between two very heavy tracks. Like “Embryo” and “Orchid” from the album “Master of Reality”, it displayed a musical range that was beyond something that would be considered in heavy rock or metal.
“St. Vitus Dance” brings the album’s pace back to a higher-paced level of heaviness. It is lyrically interesting because the title has no known connection to the lyrics, much the same way “NIB” did from the first album.
Volume 4 closes with “Under The Sun/Everyday Comes and Goes”. It is perhaps an underrated doom track of the Sabbath catalogue. Another down-tuned riff, with a strong story of personal belief in oneself. As an Atheist I find this song comforting because of the reminder to live in the real world. I find reality comforting even though we are in a troubled society. I’ve added an interpretation to this song where it servers as a reminder to look hard at toxic people and the negative influence they can create. Best to leave those people behind.
Fifty years after its’ release, Volume 4 remains a favourite of Black Sabbath and metal fans the world over. The legacy and influence of Black Sabbath continues with these albums being discovered by younger generations of heavy metal fans. It was another piece of the ever-expanding heavy metal puzzle with an evolving palette of sounds to inspire the many sub-genres of metal that followed. It rightfully has earned a place on the favourite album lists of many listeners.