Master of Reality is the third studio album by English rock band Black Sabbath. Released in July 1971, it is widely regarded as the foundation of doom, stoner and sludge metal. It was certified double platinum after having sold over 2 million copies. Master of Reality was Black Sabbath's first and only top 10 album in the US until 13 forty-two years later.
Master of Reality was recorded at Island Studios, in London, during February and April 1971. The album was produced by Rodger Bain, who had also produced Black Sabbath's previous two albums; this was to be his final collaboration with the band.
On the tracks "Children of the Grave", "Lord of This World" and "Into the Void", guitarist Tony Iommidowntuned his guitar three semi-tones to produce what he referred to as a "bigger, heavier sound". This also reduced string tension, thus making the guitar less painful for him to play; Iommi had two of his fingers partially severed in a factory accident years earlier.Geezer Butler also downtuned his bass guitar to match Iommi. "It helped with the sound, too," Butler explained to Guitar for the Practicing Musician in 1994. "Then it got to the point where we tuned even lower to make it easier vocal-wise. But Osbourne would then sing higher so it sort of defeated the object." In the 2013 biography of the band Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall writes that "the Sabbath sound took a plunge into even greater darkness. Bereft even of reverb, leaving their sound as dry as old bones dug up from some desert burial plot, the finished music's brutish force would so alarm the critics they would punish Sabbath in print for being blatantly thuggish, purposefully mindless, creepy and obnoxious. Twenty years later groups like Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden and, particularly, Nirvana, would excavate the same heaving-lung sound...and be rewarded with critical garlands." In his autobiography I Am Ozzy, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne states that he cannot remember much about recording Master Of Reality "apart from the fact that Tony detuned his guitar to make it easier to play, Geezer wrote 'Sweet Leaf' about all the dope we'd been smoking, and 'Children Of The Grave' was the most kick-ass song we'd ever recorded."
In the liner notes to the 1998 live album Reunion, drummer Bill Ward commented that Master of Reality was "an exploratory album." In 2013, Mojo magazine called Master of Reality "...the sound of a band becoming increasingly comfortable in their studio surroundings." Iommi believes the band might have become too comfortable, however, telling Guitar World in 1992, "During Master of Reality, we started getting more experimental and began taking too much time to record. Ultimately, I think it really confused us. Sometimes I think I’d really like to go back to the way we recorded the first two albums. I’ve always preferred just going into the studio and playing, without spending a lot of time rehearsing or getting sounds." The song "Into The Void" was especially problematic, with Iommi revealing in the same interview, "We tried recording 'Into The Void' in a couple of different studios because Bill just couldn’t get it right. Whenever that happened, he would start believing that he wasn’t capable of playing the song. He’d say, 'To hell with it — I’m not doing this!' There was one track like that on every album, and 'Into the Void' was the most difficult one on Master of Reality." In his autobiography Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath, Iommi describes the difficulty Osbourne also experienced recording the vocal: "It has this slow bit, but then the riff where Osbourne comes in is very fast. Osbourne had to sing really rapidly: 'Rocket engines burning fuel so fast, up into the night sky they blast', quick words like that. Geezer had written all the words out for him...Seeing him try was hilarious." The song "Solitude" showcases guitarist Iommi's multi-instrumental talents, featuring him playing guitar, flute, and piano. A delay effect was later added to Osbourne's vocals on the song as a means of doubling the vocal track.
During the album's recording sessions, Osbourne brought Iommi a large joint which caused the guitarist to cough uncontrollably. Iommi was recording acoustic guitar parts at the time, and his coughing fit was captured on tape: a fragment of Iommi's coughing was later added by producer Bain as the intro to 'Sweet Leaf', a song which was admittedly an ode to marijuana use. Iommi recalls "We all played "Sweet Leaf" while stoned." In an interview with Guitar World in 2001 Butler recalled, "I do remember writing 'Sweet Leaf' in the studio. I'd just come back from Dublin, and they'd had these cigarettes called Sweet Afton, which you could only get in Ireland. We were going, 'What could we write about?' I took out this cigarette packet, and as you opened it, it's got on the lid, 'The Sweetest Leaf You Can Buy!' I was like, 'Ah, Sweet Leaf!'" Writing in Mojo in 2013, Phil Alexander observed, "To most it is the quintessential stoner anthem, a point borne out by Sabbath's own Olympian consumption of hashish during their early days." In the Black Sabbath concert film The Last Supper, Ward ruminates, "Did it enhance the music? Well, you know, we wrote 'Sweet Leaf' ... 'When I first met you/didn't realize', that's about meeting marijuana, having a relationship with marijuana ... That was part of our lifestyle at that time."
Although the album jacket credits Iommi alone as the composer of "After Forever", Iommi admits that the song's lyrics were in fact composed by Butler. Butler was (and remains) a Catholic and the song focuses entirely on Christian themes. At the time, Black Sabbath were suspected by some observers of being Satanists due to their dark sound, image, and lyrics. "After Forever" was released as a single along with "Fairies Wear Boots" in 1971.
The vinyl release of Master of Reality used black-on-black raised lettering for the album's title.
The first editions of Master of Reality came in an 'envelope sleeve' containing a poster of the band, and with the album's title embossed in black lettering, visible in relief. Later editions lacking the embossed printing would render the album title in grey. This was the first Black Sabbath sleeve on which the lyrics were reproduced on the back of the sleeve. In his autobiography Iommi describes the cover as "Slightly Spinal Tap-ish, only well before Spinal Tap."
On the first North American editions of the album, several songs had subtitles given to segments, making it appear that there were more songs than there actually were. The intro of "After Forever" was given the title "The Elegy", the outro of "Children of the Grave" was called "The Haunting", the intro of "Lord of This World" was titled "Step Up", and the intro of "Into the Void" called "Deathmask". This treatment had also been used on the North American editions of Black Sabbath's previous two albums. These pressings also incorrectly listed the album title as Masters of Reality. Subsequent editions corrected the album's title and removed three of the four subtitles (all but "The Elegy").
Master of Reality peaked at number five on the UK Albums Chart, and at number eight in the United States, where it achieved Gold status on advance orders alone. It eventually sold two million copies in the US. Despite the album's immediate commercial success, it was viewed with disdain by several contemporary music critics. In his review for The Village Voice, Robert Christgau called the album "a dim-witted, amoral exploitation".Rolling Stone magazine's Lester Bangs described its music as "monotonous" and hardly an improvement over Paranoid, although he found the lyrics more revealing because they offer "some answers to the dark cul-de-sacs of Paranoid".
In 1994, Master of Reality was ranked number 28 in Colin Larkin's Top 50 Heavy Metal Albums. Larkin described it as Black Sabbath's "first real international breakthrough" and "a remarkable piece of work". Writing in MusicHound Rock: The Essential Album Guide (1999), authors Gary Graff and Daniel Durcholz described the album as a "brilliant skull crusher", singling out "Children of the Grave" and "Sweet Leaf" as "timeless" tracks. In 2001, Q included the album in their list of the 50 Heaviest Albums of All Time, calling it "malevolent ... casting Black Sabbath as a Titanic-style house band on the eve of Armageddon, cranking it as the bomb drops." A critic for the magazine cited it as "the most cohesive record of [the band's] first three albums." In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked the album number 298 in their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. They described the album as representing "the greatest sludge-metal band of them all in its prime".Billy Corgan, the leader of The Smashing Pumpkins, considered Master of Reality the album that "spawned grunge".John Stanier, drummer for Helmet and Tomahawk, cited the record as the one that inspired him to become a musician. In 2013, Sabbath biographer Mick Wall praised Iommi's "ability to incorporate more neat riffs and sudden unexpected time-changes in one song than most bands would contemplate on an entire album."
Note that, while the overall timing of "Deathmask/Into the Void" is approximately correct, the apportioning of time of "Deathmask" to "Into the Void" may be arbitrary, as the 3:08 mark of the song falls during "Into the Void"'s middle-8 vocal ("Freedom fighters sent off to the sun ..."). The revised US pressing timings, shown below, compound this likely error.
Revised US LP Pressing, with Subtitles Removed
Note that the timing of "Orchid" on revised US pressings is incorrect, as it includes the "Step Up" introductory section of "Lord of This World." The timing of "Solitude" on these pressings is similarly incorrect, as it includes the first half of "Into the Void"; the timings of "Deathmask" and "Into the Void" should have been grouped instead.
US-made compact disc pressings of Master of Reality continue to list the incorrect timings of the Revised US LP pressing on the CD booklet. The songs are not indexed on the CD using those timings, however, with breaks between songs properly placed.
A two-disc deluxe edition was released in the UK on 29 June 2009 and in the US on 14 July 2009 as an import. This deluxe edition was remastered by Andy Pearce who also did the deluxe editions of Black Sabbath and Paranoid.