Category: Master of Reality


I spent the first 10 to 15 years of my life with a pretty black and white idea of Christianity and the world in which it exists. Christianity was completely true and all other religions, paths, practices and philosophies were completely false. In high school, I started to perceive a few shades of grey; my mind started wandering into things that ended in question marks and ellipses rather than periods. That made me curious but uncomfortable, so I confined my search for answers to my own internal logic, what I could figure out on my own. It was a bad move.

When I got to college, the number of my questions just exploded. Uncertainties were coming at me from all sides and I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. My only recourse was to dispense with the uncomfortable feeling and barrel on ahead. It got to the point where I was questioning just about everything. When I was young, all things were certain; now, very few things were.

A couple of things stayed true: God was real, love was real, and God loved me. I’ve always been certain of that. But every other thing was up in the air, and they’ve slowly been coming down to a more graspable height ever since college. They still fly away sometimes, but I know I’ve got a firm hold on the really important stuff.

The most important thing I’ve learned since high school is that there’s not a lot of difference between Christians and non-Christians. I used to think there was this thick black line dividing them, and that line ran along who treated you well and who didn’t. What, little Ben cut in front of me in the line for the drinking fountain? He must be going to hell! But who treats you well has to do with their own battle with their sin nature, not whether or not they carry the label “Christian.” Christians can be just as vile as other people, and they even have a corner on the market of certain types of vileness. And quite often some deep truths about God, love and the nature of both come from seemingly “heathen” sources.

Since their first record and for about 10 years after, Black Sabbath had been fighting against insinuations and outright statements that they were Satanists. Every time the question came up in an interview, they flatly denied it. Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler made no secret of the fact that they were brought up Catholic. The image was brought on by their dark, doomy music and references to Satan in their lyrics, but the public took it several steps further. Sabbath eventually learned to live with it, and then to use it to their own advantage, but it had to be frustrating. And around the time of their third album, they decided to fire back.

Master of Reality contains some pretty bold statements about the goodness of God, the evils of Satan, and some unabashed references to love. The songs “After Forever” and “Lord of This World” lay the groundwork for Christian metal, even if no Christian artist under the sun will admit that it’s true. “After Forever” takes an incredibly direct approach to God and the question of his existence, even having the narrator (which would most likely be Geezer himself) say “I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways.” Furthermore, he warns the person he’s addressing against denying God in front of their friends, and  says “God is the only way to love.” Gospel message? Maybe. Something a Satanist would say? Definitely not.

“Lord of This World” takes the opposite tack, being a letter from Satan to a hapless victim whom he deceived. But rather than laughing in victory, Satan seems a little sad, like taking the person’s soul was a little too easy. There’s no longer any need for deception on Satan’s part, so he just lays it bare. His victim chose “evil ways instead of love” and made him the “master of the world where [he] exist[s].” Satan might as well be saying, “Why did you follow me instead of God? I’m freakin’ evil, dude! Get a clue!” Christian ministers who preach hellfire and damnation can’t even do it as effectively as this.

At the cap there’s “Into the Void,” a futuristic account of the few people who know the truth leaving the earth in spaceships forever because it’s too corrupt, and searching the galaxy for a place to start anew. The earth is filled with hatred, evil, misery and death, and it’s all Satan’s fault. I have a feeling those who left the planet did so because they were looking for heaven, and Earth too closely resembled hell.

There is a very important distinction to draw here, one that could make or break your decision on Black Sabbath, if you haven’t already made up your mind. Sabbath’s message on Master of Reality is pro-God and pro-love, but not necessarily pro-Christianity. Jesus is never mentioned explicitly, though God is. The principles Sabbath presents here are found in an undiluted form in Christianity, but they’re careful to avoid throwing their hat in with the Christian crowd (or any crowd).

And I can’t talk about Master of Reality and its Christian themes without also talking about a track from their very next album Vol. 4, called “Under the Sun.” It’s a cover, but it captures BS’s spirit very well. It’s a call to not let anyone’s philosophy intrude on your own, to make your own path. This is stupid, of course; everyone’s philosophy is a collection of things they’ve heard and have chosen to hang onto. The reason I mention it is that they make a reference to “Jesus freaks” in the first line, where the narrator is laying out all the people groups he doesn’t want telling him what to believe. That list also includes “black magicians,” but the slap in the face to Christians remains. “Under the Sun” basically says the singer already has it all figured out, and doesn’t want anybody telling him what’s what; a revelation of arrogance, naivety, and plain old stupidity.

Black Sabbath eventually came to accept their slightly demonic image, and in 1980 they started fostering it. Ozzy had been fired, and an essential part of Black Sabbath’s image was gone. Nature abhors a vacuum, but rather than replace Ozzy, they shifted their image and musical direction, hiring Ronnie James Dio as the new lead belter. With the addition of Dio, they started leaning into the suggestions of Satanism, or at least started embracing the devilish side of their public face.

Ronnie James Dio

The Dio Sabbath always made me uncomfortable. With Ozzy, the suggestions of Satanism were a hysterical joke, made tragic by that some people took the joke seriously. With Dio, though, they seemed somehow authentic. I fear they started dabbling with things they shouldn’t. All in all, Black Sabbath’s Lucifer influences are a lot of bluster without any substance, but they came dangerously close to making them real in the early 80s. For that reason, I’ve always preferred the Ozzy years to Dio. After Dio… well, it’s not worth mentioning.

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I’m sure you can visualize the scene: two long-haired gadabouts clad in dirty black cargo pants and Slayer t-shirts go to the home of one of them to smoke a bag of weed they just scored. They go to the tool shed in the backyard, converted to a drug haven for the two potheads, with metal posters on the walls, a lava lamp and an old, smelly couch with the upholstery spilling out of the cushions. The only thing needed to complete the scene before the two wastoids light up is some groovy, crunchy tunes. One of them goes to the CD player and very ironically puts on Master of Reality, and the first sounds of Tony Iommi coughing (presumably from marijuana smoke) starts in, and the other one nods and says “niiiiice.”

There; how’s that for completely unqualified knowledge from a guy who’s never done an illegal drug in his life?

A lot of people point to Master of Reality as the birth of what’s called “stoner rock.” It usually involves very distorted guitars, minor keys and simple, repetitive figures. An entire song can consist of one riff of two measures repeated for 4 minutes.

If you ask me, I’m not sure “stoner rock” really exists; it might be no more than music scholars having too much time on their hands but needing to validate their choice of career, and thus creating sub-sub-sub-subcategories for everything under the sun. I shouldn’t speak too ill of them, though, since I definitely wouldn’t turn down someone offering to pay me actual money to invent terms like “stoner rock.” The more I think about it, the more it’s sounding like a really good gig.

Here’s my argument. In my mind, stoner rock is music that provides a good soundtrack for getting high, and it helps if there is a positive reference to the uses and powers of drugs. Under that definition, Phish would be stoner rock. So would the Black Crowes. And Cypress Hill. So would Bob Marley, Enya, the Spin Doctors and Enigma. In fact, a case could be made for almost any band having at least one song that qualifies as stoner rock, which is what makes the label so problematic.

The questionable status of stoner rock aside, Master of Reality does have plodding guitars and lazy approach to musicality (simple and bluesy, not a lot of adornment), both of which make it particularly suited to leaning back and getting wasted. That combined with the opening track being a romantic ode to marijuana and it’s easy to see why Master of Reality gets associated with the drug culture. If there is such a thing as stoner rock, “Sweet Leaf” is the quintessential song of the genre, but it’s really the only qualifying one on the entirety of Master of Reality, and arguably in Sabbath’s entire catalog.

Hippies were really ancestors of modern-day stoners, and Black Sabbath shares some lyrical commonality with them on this album, if not musically. In 1971, The music culture was reacting to the hippie movement, and acts like Black Sabbath, the Stooges and David Bowie had an opposite aesthetic to hippie bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, even if they sometimes had matching lyrical themes.

“Children of the Grave” is a breath away from being a protest song, very in line with the hippie movement. While it has very dark and doomy music, it promotes revolution through non-violence and passive resistance. The title is a little deceiving; it makes you think it’s about zombies or something, and it takes a slightly more sardonic and fatalistic tone. You might not expect it from a band so often associated with Satanism, but “Children of the Grave” is quite positive. It centers on love.

Love, believe it or not, is a big theme of Master of Reality. Metal bands nowadays have a huge aversion to themes like love, forgiveness, joy and positivity. Instead, they myopically focus on suffering, evil, torture, self-loathing and chaos. Love is uncool. Yet here, on what is largely agreed upon to be one of the bedrock albums of heavy metal, Black Sabbath are talking about not only love, but (gasp!) God.

Next up: Black Sabbath says “God is the only way to love…” wait, what???

Master of Reality – Black Sabbath – 7/21/1971

You’ve probably already had an inkling that I’m a Christian. While I’m very much aggrieved at the misunderstanding the use of that term causes (people assume all sorts of stuff they shouldn’t…), I’m also not ashamed of it, and I can’t change that I’m a Christian any more than a bumblebee can change that it makes honey. So of course, my Christianity plays a big role in what I see through my Coke bottle glasses.

Everybody has Coke bottle glasses. They’re why two people can get completely different things out of a piece of art, why there’s such a thing as political parties, and why historical events look different the more time that’s passed. Some things look the same through everyone’s, but art isn’t one of them. Art, in some cases, can have as many interpretations as there are people interacting with it.

Suffice to say, my own Coke bottle glasses usually look at a thing and see God reflected in it, however he may be disguised. So what do they see when I look at the Black Sabbath song “Sweet Leaf?”

“Sweet Leaf” is an ode to the wonders and miracles of the ganja, though you might not know it at first due to the sappy sentiments the lyrics put forth. They’re downright gushing, like a teenage girl in love with her first boyfriend. Its squishy romanticism would be touching were the love it portrays not for an inanimate object, and an illegal one at that. As such, it’s pretty unabashed. It stops just short of actually mentioning marijuana by name.

The music is in deep contrast to the lyrics, however. Ozzy sings about his romance with weed with the same snarling intensity he would have if he were describing a witches’ coven. The guitars are slow, sludgy, unyielding and repetitive; the perfect soundtrack for getting completely stoned.

There is, however, an alternate interpretation (my own), one that doesn’t involve pot at all. Keep in mind this is absolutely not what the author intended when he wrote “Sweet Leaf.” There are few songs that are more obviously about a thing (and likewise not another), but I can’t help but think about Jesus when I hear it, just like I can’t help but chuckle at that thought.

That’s right, I said Jesus. Why couldn’t “Sweet Leaf” be about how much the singer loves Jesus? The rhetoric in the song is strikingly similar to what new believers say about their new-found love of Christ (“my life is free now” and “you gave to me a new belief”). The gushing adoration “Sweet Leaf” shows could easily be transferred to Christ. Heck, it even has biblical support. Consider this line:

You introduced me to my mind

 Hebrews 8 says, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Also, consider this:

 Straight people don’t know what you’re about / they put you down and shut you out

 In Acts 19, some of the people Paul was telling about God “became obstinate,” “refused to believe,” and “maligned the Way.” Then there’s this:

 You gave to me a new belief / And soon the world will love you, sweet leaf

 God had this to say, speaking through the prophet Isaiah: “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will confess.”

Remember what I said awhile ago about Christians who use the bible as a means to support what they already think, and how you shouldn’t do it? Pretty ironic, huh? It’s okay, though; I’m wearing my self-awareness hat.

It’s almost silly how blinding and obvious the parallels are between the love of pot and the love of Christ. Or at least, they’re obvious to someone with my Coke bottle glasses. So why not? Why can’t “Sweet Leaf” be about Jesus?

I’ll answer my own question, if you don’t mind. There are some very glaring inconsistencies within the text of “Sweet Leaf,” things that simply don’t make sense under this interpretation. Here they are:

You introduced me to my mind / and left me wanting you and your kind

I love you, sweet leaf / though you can’t hear

hey, don’t let me stop ya

The “you and your kind” line is enough to kill it right there. There’s no way for that to make any sense if the song is about Christ. “Your kind” would be who? Buddah? Mohammad? Vishnu? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? In addition, the “you can’t hear” line doesn’t even make sense if the song’s about pot. Of course marijuana can’t hear; it’s a plant. The most intelligent thing I can come up with is, “duh.”

Of course, I’m not saying “Sweet Leaf” is really about Jesus Christ. I’m only saying, “Wouldn’t it be weird/ironic/hysterical if it was?” I do this to illustrate two things. The first is that with art, truly nothing is off-limits. The second is this: where’s the fun in art if you’re not allowed to come up with outlandish and indefensible  theories from time to time?

Tomorrow: what is “stoner rock?”