Happy 40th birthday to… Black Sabbath’s Volume 4

By Sean Palmerston

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the official release of what I consider to be one of the greatest albums ever made, Black Sabbath‘s fourth studio album Volume 4. While many consider the two albums previous (Paranoid and Master of Reality) to be the band’s high point, the progressiveness of Volume 4 made it my Sabbath album.

Recorded in Los Angeles in May of 1972, the band was heavily into cocaine at the time and there is a dedication in the album “to the great COKE-Cola Company”. Ridiculous? Absolutely, but please remember these were four tough hooligans from the streets of Birmingham, England who literally became famous overnight and, being the metal gods they were, assuredly took advantage of every thing put in front of them. I can’t say I would have done different had that been my life. This white powdered substance also became the main subject of one of the album’s tracks, “Snowblind”, which features Ozzy singing “Cocaine” after each song verse. However, having said that, this isn’t even one of my favourite album tracks.

“Supernaut”, “Tomorrow’s Dream” and “Cornucopia” have been my favourite songs on Volume 4 for over two decades. The first has perhaps the best riff ever written. Tony Iommi’s gnarly lead-off riff rips your head open each and every time the song starts. It’s a song so good that Frank Zappa claimed it was his favourite Sabbath song on many occasions. “Tomorrow’s Dream” is a close second, with the chorus being particularly strong to me, while “Cornucopia” is an underappreciated gem in the Sabbath catalog. During my brief time working at Relapse Records in 1996/97 the band Brutal Truth were looking for a Sabbath song to cover for a Hydra Head tribute 7″ I convinced Rich Hoak and Gurn from the band to switch from the song they were going to do (“Children of The Sea”) to “Cornucopia”, feeling that they would make it into a grind classic. They fucking nailed it too!

My wife points out that one of the most noticeable things on the album is the emotional quality of the guitar work. Indeed, some of Iommi’s finest solos are contained within these tracks: the solo at 2:21 of “Snowblind”, not to mention the song opening solo at the beginning of “Wheels Of Confusion” as well as the proper solo at the 2:36 mark that leads into the song’s peak. All incredible. Of course, the album’s second instrumental “Laguna Sunrise” is also one of the prettiest acoustic guitar pieces Iommi ever created.

I think for me, it feels like there is a sense of exploration in many of the tracks that previous Sabs records didn’t have. A piano and mellotron song would never have worked on the other albums, but with “Changes” Iommi and Osbourne hit it out of the park for one of the weirdest, coldest Sabs songs ever. I also love that major change in “Wheels of Confusion” at the 3:00 mark that makes the song take a completely different route. Volume 4 is the album where they proved they could bludgeon you in more than one way in a single song.

When I had the opportunity to interview Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler in person back in 1998 I brought along two pieces of vinyl to get them to sign: my original pressing copy of Volume 4 and my Vertigo Records German pressing of “Tomorrow’s Dream”, the lead off track from said album. They are two of my most beloved musical treasure. Here’s a pic of them from late last night:

Oh, and if you want to read quite possibly the worst album review ever written about Volume 4, then pop on over to read this 1972 review from Rolling Stone

Sean is the founder/publisher of Hellbound.ca; he has also written about metal for Exclaim!, Metal Maniacs, Roadburn, Unrestrained! and Vice.