Sunday, September 25, 2016

Black Sabbath's "Technical Ecstasy" at 40: An Eclectic Moment in Metal

… And on their seventh album, Black Sabbath rested.

Forty years ago today, Black Sabbath released Technical Ecstasy, the follow-up to 1975's Sabotage. A love-it-or-hate it line in the sand for many Sabbath fans, the eight-song record finds the band (singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler and drummer Bill Ward) at their most experimental. According to Ward, Technical Ecstasy also found Sabbath starting to feel the considerable effects of years of hard and reckless living.  

 “We’d done such a lot of touring by the time Technical Ecstasy was written and recorded...There was some wear and tear on the band.”

To record Technical Ecstasy, the band set up shop at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida, where they would often bump into fellow musicians like Mick Fleetwood or Andy Gibb. It was a location as far removed from the group’s humble beginnings in Birmingham, England as you can imagine.

[Criteria] was becoming a popular studio,” Ward says. “We were always looking at what advancements were being made at [a particular] studio technically. We also had an opportunity to kind of live in a quieter world where we could all get some sleep…We were always looking for a place of refuge. (laughs) In general, all of us had the idea that if we moved to somewhere that’s comfortable, we’d write better or we’d play better.”

What resulted from the change in scenery was unquestionably the most eclectic and polarizing album in Sabbath’s history. Although there were plenty of softer moments before this time (“Planet Caravan” on 1970’s Paranoid, “Solitude” on 1971’s Master of Reality, "Changes" on 1972's Vol. 4), nearly the entirety of Technical Ecstasy reflected a shift from Metal to radio-friendly Hard Rock. Strings permeated the mournful “She’s Gone,” while more than a few moments on the record could have found a comfortable spot on a Foreigner record. Ward recalls that this new direction developed organically.  

 “I think it was something that happened as the process moved along. As far as I know, we’ve never been a band that’s gone, ‘Oh, let’s do this.’ We didn’t design it and then go in and play it. It’s always been something that actually shows up whenever we get together. It’s like, ‘What’s going to show up, and how is it going to be?’ In hindsight and just thinking about Florida and the way it was, it was pretty laid back. That could have easily reflected, in part, the way some of this music came about. Looking at it now, I can see where it may have had some influence on the musical ending of that album… There are definitely departure points that I think were quite quite risqué. But at the time, it all seemed to fit perfectly okay. To me, we seemed to be okay with it. I wasn’t aware of any grumblings that we’d gone too far left or right and we weren’t the same band that we used to be. I think there was some unique playing on some of the tracks. It sometimes reminds me of a band that’s been working so hard and they become a little tired – which happens to a lot of people. They become more laid back or they need to breathe in longer or rest longer.”

This lighter approach is felt throughout Technical Ecstasy, with the band’s trademark distortion largely replaced with piano and keyboards courtesy of future Robert Plant collaborator Gerald "Jezz" Woodroffe.  

“We needed a keyboard player, and Jezz was a friend of mine,” Ward explains. “We were adding more and more stuff to our music; we we doing more 'stringy' things, and we needed extra support. I got the job to ask Jezz; I said, ‘Would you like to play with the Sabs and see how it goes?’ He joined, and I think he had a very hard entrance into becoming part of the band. He was teased a lot; at times, my heart went out to him. [It was like], ‘Oh My God! Give the guy a break!’ But he actually did very, very well. He’s a very, very good musician. I think the work he did with Robert Plant was excellent, and he is a nice guy. I was a friend with him way before he happened with Sabbath.”

Perhaps the band’s greatest departure on Technical Ecstasy is Ward’s gorgeous, Beatlesque ballad, “It’s Alright,” which also featured the timekeeper taking over lead vocals for the first time on an album.

“Way before Technical Ecstasy, I had a song called ‘It’s Alright.’ I first recorded it at Field Farm way back in the early '70s, [along with] a lot of other stuff as well that I’ve still got lying around somewhere. I never thought any more of it; I just liked the song, and we recorded it... I never dreamed for one second that it would end up on a Black Sabbath record. At the time, I might have had aspirations of maybe one day making a solo album, which is what I think everybody goes through in a Rock ‘n’ Roll band (laughs) But we were just writing as individuals as well as collectively as a band that jammed together…We were all growing as musicians, and this [track] had been around for a long time. I'd play it every once in a while when we were in the studio, or I’d sing it if we were in the car. The guys in the band really liked it; they [said], ‘Oh, that’s a great song, Bill,’ and that’s as far as it went. I think at the time [of the recording of Technical Ecstasy], we were one or two [songs] short, so ‘It’s Alright’ came up as an idea to put on the album. I felt really, really nervous about it because it was something that’s private to me. It’s kind of like some of the softer songs that I write, [like] ‘Light Up The Candles’ [off my 1990 solo album, Ward One: Along The Way] or other things that I've written over the years. I have that in me as well; I do like to write soft melodies and things like that. 'It’s Alright' would be the part of me that likes to write the softer songs. But the idea came up; I don’t know who suggested it. I think it might have been Ozzy, but I’m not sure. At the time, I think it was he who suggested I sing it as well, which I felt really uncomfortable with. I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of me singing on a Sabbath album; it didn’t feel right. But eventually, I stepped up to the post and did the best I could in singing the song. In hindsight, the whole thing felt a little bit awkward for me. I like the outcome; I thought, ‘Well, that sounds really good.’ I like what Tony did in the huge guitar solo. I had the bass drum part in the middle worked out, but when we were trying to mix it, I asked Mick Fleetwood to give me his ears and listen to that bass drum because I got really tied up with it in terms of, 'Is it sonically okay?' 'It is too loud, or does it need an extra dB or minus a dB?' I remember asking Mick if he could listen to it. (laughs) He was really a gentleman; he was actually quite amicable about listening to it and giving his thoughts to it.”

“It’s Alright” returned to the world’s attention in the early '90s, when Axl Rose would perform a solo piano cover of the song live with Guns N’ Roses. (A recording can be found on the band’s 1999 collection Live Era '87 – '93.)

“I thought [Guns N’ Roses] did a great version, and I was ever so pleased,” Ward says. “I was pleased about that because it validated me as a songwriter. I thought their version was like, ‘Yeah, fucking great!’ I’ve enjoyed listening to other bands' versions of Black Sabbath’s music… Some of the bands have really done great work on re-doing a Sabbath song, which actually gives credit to Sabbath in terms of how much longevity is in those songs.”

Created by iconic sleeve designer Storm Thorgerson (1944-2013) of Hipgnosis, the cover art for Technical Ecstasy was a dramatic departure from previous album visuals – and it hit a sour note with Ward. 

“When I first saw it, I thought, 'You’ve gotta be kidding,' because there’s nothing dark about it or anything. I saw it as something of a joke. It was okay; it seemed to fit with whatever else we were doing at the time, [but] I’m not blown away with it. My favorite album cover is Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; that, to me, is the best album cover that we’ve ever done. I’ve never really been that pleased with the Black Sabbath album covers. I guess I’m just a fussy bugger, you know?” (laughs)

In addition to showcasing a different sound and vibe, Technical Ecstasy represents the final time Black Sabbath released an album without a lineup change. Following the tour in support of the album, Osbourne quit the band and was replaced for a handful of months by former Savoy Brown/Fleetwood Mac singer Dave Walker. (An extensive feature on Walker, including his thoughts on his time in Sabbath, will appear on this website in the not-too-distant feature.) Although Ozzy rejoined in time to record 1978’s Never Say Die! the fractures within the band never healed, and the singer was sacked and later replaced by Ronnie James Dio for 1980’s Heaven and Hell. Ward says that he knew something odd was in the air when the band agreed to have him sing "It’s Alright" in the studio instead of Ozzy.

“Even though everybody was saying, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s great; let’s do it,’ and Ozzy was like, ‘Yeah, sure, go do it. It’s a good song,’ I didn’t like the idea of replacing what could have been an Ozzy Osbourne vocal... It felt a little strange.”

Despite the internal turmoil that was just around the corner for Black Sabbath, Ward feels that Technical Ecstasy possesses some strong musical moments that still stand up four decades later.

“I think the rhythm section on 'Back Street Kids,' and the feel on it, is really, really good. Tony played some marvelous guitar throughout [the album], but I really like Tony’s playing on ‘Back Street Kids.’ On the end of ‘Dirty Women’ – which you cannot hear, but I assure you I was doing it – there’s a huge double bass drum build-up that goes on. It’s full of crescendo and actually lasts for about two minutes. When we did ‘Dirty Women’ live, I would crescendo those bass drums for at least two to three minutes. We’ve actually made the end a little bit longer on stage live. That takes a lot of work; I was just pushing the crap out of the bass drums on the end of that song.”

Another highlight of Technical Ecstasy was Ward’s explosive, tom-heavy intro on “Gypsy.”

“As I drummer, I play orchestrationally. As soon as I’ve got a little bit of what Terry might play or what Tony might play or what Ozzy might sing, I reflect that. I try to put the drum in there as if the drum was a voice. All I had to hear was Jezz’s opening chords… As soon I feel anything, I go to where I think the drums are going to be the most effective. That’s how I play; I try to play to really support the track. The idea was [to have] a lot of toms in that, but I played a lot of tom music anyway in Black Sabbath.

“I don’t play beats; I’m not very good at playing rhythm,” he adds. “I don’t really like playing 'time' or rhythm in those terms. I like to respond with my heart and feel what might come out overall and give [the music] a big orchestrational feel.”

While it may not be every Sabbath fan's to-go release, Technical Ecstasy proved that Black Sabbath were still more than willing to take major chances seven albums into their career. With more and more people discovering the album each year, Technical Ecstasy could vey well end up being the sleeper hit of the entire Sabbath catalog.

“I think we risked a lot; I think we stepped out from our mold or [from] what most people conceived us to be,” Ward says. “We took the chance of being whoever we were at the time and allowed that to come out. That’s always been one of Black Sabbath’s standards – Be who we are, play what we are and be true to our music.”

Bonus Feature-
Sabbath Disciples: Musicians Share Their Thoughts on Technical Ecstasy and the Fathers of Metal

Brant Bjork (ex Kyuss/ ex Fu Manchu/various projects)
"I think Black Sabbath pretty much defined what heavy Rock was and would be. There’s no other band like Black Sabbath. I’ve had a 25-year friendly debate going on with a friend of mine from the desert about Zeppelin versus Sabbath, and I always, always proudly and shamelessly take Sabbath…To me, Black Sabbath was a freak of nature in the most beautiful way. They completely just personified – musically and spiritually and everything – what it means to be in a Rock band. They were a Rock band, and Bill Ward was a huge part of that. He’s one of my all-time favorite Rock drummers; there’s no one like him. Even though he’s celebrated, I still think he’s underrated. Technical Ecstasy is a fun record. Back then, bands were around for a long time and they put out a lot of records, and that’s the way you did it. A band like Black Sabbath put out so many good records that they were bound to put out some records that people might not have celebrated on the same level as some of the other [ones]. That’s just natural and kind of inevitable. I would arguably say Technical Ecstasy is one of those records, but it is a good record. You can still hear the greatness, and you can hear some exploration and you can hear some exhaustion. But it’s awesome; it’s still real and still authentic. I don’t put it on every day, but when I do stumble upon it, I always enjoy listening to it. I always kind of get off on those records in certain bands’ catalogs that are kind of like the one that sits in the corner. The one that people just kind of don’t celebrate too much is the one I always like to pick up from time to time."

Karl Willetts (Memoriam/ex Bolt Thrower)
"I have lived all my life in Birmingham, and I am very proud of the musical heritage of the city, which I often refer to as the Metal Metropolis. Black Sabbath are the premier product of Birmingham, and I have grown up listening to their music; it has formed the soundtrack to my life. Black Sabbath have been hugely influential in the music that has been created in the bands that I have played in throughout my career in music, with both Bolt Thrower and more recently with Memoriam. I come from a Punk music background and play in an extreme Metal band. Black Sabbath stand head and shoulders above the other bands from the Heavy Metal genre, with the sheer heaviness of their doom-laden riffs and intensity of the music that they create. They are a band that any musician aspires to be like, and I consider them to be a major source of inspiration."

"It took me a while to dig Technical Ecstasy in the deserved manner. It is not the obvious first choice among the high ranks of your favorite Sabbath albums. Maybe it is the not-very-typical artwork. After all, I have to confess that I did pick many records as a teenager led by a magnetism towards certain visuals. When you’re 14 and you’re standing in a record shop with enough money for one record, you have to make a very painful choice between several equally appealing albums. In my case, I went for the first Sabbath album to start with. Technical Ecstasy just wasn’t dark enough visually and musically to me then. When you really love a band though, you’ll luckily inevitably end up with the hidden gems working your way through their discography. And Technical Ecstasy is a gem and an underrated one, too. I deeply love the production and songwriting of this album now, and I did fall in love with the artwork, having become a huge fan of Hipgnosis, the English design group responsible for many of my favourite sleeve designs, like Led Zeppelin's Houses Of The Holy, UFO’s Phenomenon or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. I often DJ, and I never leave the house without my vinyl copy of Technical Ecstasy. Favourite spins here are usually the galloping 'Gypsy,'  the moody 'You Won’t Change Me' and when the night is getting drunk on booze and conversation, the sentimental 'It’s Alright' - so touchingly sung by Bill Ward because Ozzy was too strung out to show up at the studio that day, if I remember correctly. 'It’s Alright' is one of my all-time Sabbath favourite songs, and I sometimes wish Bill would have gotten a few more numbers than this and 'Swinging the Chain,the only other song he ever sang on a Sabbath recording. He had such a humble and sincere way about him. My former band The Oath was heavily influenced by Technical Ecstasy. In fact, we paid tribute to this album by ripping off the 'Dirty Women' riff (no pun intended!) directly for the ending of 'Psalm 7,' the last song on the The Oath’s album. For Lucifer, you can absolutely say the same. Our guitarist Gaz Jennings is very influenced by Black Sabbath and counts Technical Ecstasy [as] one of his faves as well. Our songs mirror this influence very much, I think. This is a beautiful album and up there in my top 20 of favourite albums of all time."

Dave Ingram (Hail of Bullets/various projects/ ex Benediction/ ex Bolt Thrower)
"At age 7, I was introduced to Sabbath by my older sister, and it was a moment of musical crystallization for me. I remember it well, and every other time afterwards that an unheard Black Sabbath album came into my possession. Technical Ecstasy was one I got to purchase some years later and, even at a young age, I picked up on the controversy that release had on the scene at the time. That didn’t bother me one iota though, as I still air-guitared my way through it. My first band at school covered - badly - the track 'Dirty Women' and years later, I made the mistake of playing 'It’s Alright' at my sister’s funeral. Now I can’t listen to that song without being deeply moved. 'Tech Ec' - as it got nicknamed - stands as a classic and somewhat criminally underrated slice of Rock history. Those Back Street Kids from Brum sure did well."

Stephan Gebédi (Hail of Bullets/ Thanatos)
“Getting into Heavy Rock around 1978 via KISS and growing up on new exciting NWOBHM bands, I must admit I did not delve too much into Heavy Rock’s originators apart from buying a few compilation albums like 24 Carat Purple  and Attention! Black Sabbath in those early years. I loved the Sabbath album and went out to buy their debut album and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, because those two had the most evil-looking album covers. But since they were releasing great albums with Dio in the early '80s as well, I didn’t get the complete back catalogue until some years later. Technical Ecstasy was one of the later Sabbath albums that I added to my collection, probably because it didn’t have the status of the first five to six albums and didn’t have that many ‘hits’ or rather well-known songs on it. But once I finally got it, the album started to grow on me. Obviously, it’s pretty different from the first couple of albums, but giving the album another spin right now, songs like 'Back Street Kids,' 'All Moving Parts [Stand Still]' and 'She’s Gone' still sound great and maybe were somehow ahead of their time; a band like Mastodon have obviously also listened to the aforementioned "All Moving Parts [Stand Still].' All in all, still a really good Sabbath album that definitely deserves another chance.”

Fred Schreck (The Ancients/Crush/Satellite Paradiso)
“Black Sabbath was one of the earliest and most influential groups in my career. The first album unsettled me so much as a 10-year-old kid; I was almost afraid to listen a second time. But I did. Over and over again. Everything about them spoke to me in a way that was so much more powerful than anything I'd heard before. Ozzy's lyrics provided a sort of working class profundity that I could understand and relate to. Especially being from an environment not unlike the one he was probably from. I anticipated each album with great enthusiasm, and they never disappointed me. That is, until Technical Ecstasy. It's not that it was bad record; it's just that I had been so spoiled with the previous six. Each of those, in my opinion, were perfect in their execution. There wasn't a bad song on any of them, and each of them had a strong thread to connect them. While there are some great songs on Technical Ecstasy ('Back Street Kids' and 'Dirty Women'), it was the first time, as an avid fan, that I felt they may be losing the plot - and worse, breaking apart. My fears were confirmed on the follow up, Never Say Die! That being said, six perfect albums is an extraordinary feat for any artist. They cemented Black Sabbath's legacy as one of the most important bands in Rock and Roll history. I never cared much for the later incarnations of the band. I know a lot of people loved the Dio era, but it was a different band to me, and just not my cup of tea. I followed Ozzy's solo career for a few years, but I thought that he increasingly became a caricature of himself. Still love him, though. The last album [13] was quite good, and brought back great memories of those early days. I just wish Bill Ward had played on it. With Black Sabbath as a unit, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.”


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