Black Sabbath’s maligned seventh album deserves the super deluxe treatment
“You can only trust yourself and the first six Black Sabbath albums” reads the popular t-shirt.
Of course the original Henry Rollins quote only specified “the first four.” Thankfully public opinion over the decades has rightly enshrined Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage as top tier entries in an impeccable catalog, and Etsy got the message.
Technical Ecstasy is their seventh record, so why would you need a four-disc box set of this material?
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
If (like the guys in Black Sabbath) you’re a Beatles fan, you could just as easily ask why you’d want an expanded Magical Mystery Tour or Let It Be, when Sgt Pepper’s… and Abbey Road are considered their best works. Obviously the answer is that more is more, and poking into the nooks and crannies of the greatest bands’ catalogs is its own reward.
Behind the scenes in 1975, Black Sabbath were parting ways with their second abysmal (mis)manager Patrick Meehan. It was an ugly dispute, with lawyers serving the band papers in the studio during the recording of their pinnacle album Sabotage. These circumstances found their way into songs like “Megalomania” and “The Writ.” As a result, the fantastic achievement that is Sabotage was a miserable scenario that the band does not remember fondly. They rarely played any of that material in later years, which is a damn shame.
By 1976, guitarist Tony Iommi was ready to reinvent the band and prove its mettle amidst an ever-changing musical landscape. Now managing and producing themselves, Black Sabbath aimed to create new, progressive music at the cutting edge of late seventies, pre-disco, pre-punk rock culture. After several weeks of writing sessions in England, the band flew to the ultra chic Criteria Studios in Florida to cut Technical Ecstasy.
Everything about Miami affected the album. While Iommi’s bandmates enjoyed sunny beaches and sweaty nights, he labored over the songs. In the lesser studio where Sabbath had inadvertently booked themselves, the mixing board was so clogged with cocaine from previous sessions that the machine had to be cleaned before Sabbath could even get to work. Next door, in the better rooms, Fleetwood Mac and The Eagles were tracking Rumours and Hotel California. Nevertheless, in six weeks Technical Ecstasy was in the can.
It’s to Iommi’s credit that he wanted Sabbath to remain an exploratory venture. Back in 1970, before anyone had heard of heavy metal, they’d released their first album on progressive rock label Vertigo. Throughout their remarkable career, tunes like “Planet Caravan” and “Changes” and “Supertzar” proved that they were more than just the monolithic inventors of a loud and burgeoning genre.
Iommi intended to show off the musicianship and versatility of the band. Technical Ecstasy was a purposeful trajectory toward a new era in a time when bands like E.L.O. and Kansas were enjoying huge sales. Led Zeppelin’s abstruse Presence album had just charted at number one on both sides of the pond. Surely Sabbath could surf this same wave, especially with an album made in Miami.
With no managers or producers breathing down his neck, Iommi was able to make the album he envisioned without compromise. Sometimes though, a second opinion can be valuable.
This eclectic set of songs, wrapped in a white-bordered jacket that depicted–as Ozzy colorfully phrased it–“two robots fucking on an escalator” was more than enough to convince a great many fans that Sabbath had lost their way. But I would argue that the biggest issues were simply the muddy, coke-addled mix job, and the sequencing. Had the album not been so frontloaded with curveballs, opinions on this rewarding record might be more in line with what it’s always deserved.
I get why the modern, high energy “Backstreet Kids” was chosen to kicks things off. Bands like Boston and Foreigner were on the cusp of huge success with shiny hard rock songs of this ilk. With the right producer this song could have been hammered into shape for FM radio and the masses. While “Backstreet Kids” has more than enough raw personality to keep it properly Sabbathian, hearing the creators of heavy metal singing joyfully about “rock and roll” was a misstep, especially on the album’s lead track.
AUDIO: Black Sabbath “You Won’t Change Me”
The ship rights itself immediately with “You Won’t Change Me.” The doomiest dirge on the album, this would have fit right in on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath or Sabotage. Why it’s almost never cited as one of the band’s classic tracks is a head scratcher. One imagines that this was placed second in order to reassure the hardcore fan base that depressive doom was still on the menu. And that might have worked if the third track was equally heavy.
Instead they gambled on a long shot with “It’s Alright.” I adore this song. Apparently so did Axl Rose–since he covered it on stage during the Use Your Illusion tours. This piano-driven rock ballad sounds positively Beatlesque, thanks to a lead vocal turn by drummer Bill Ward. He’s got a great voice, and the song stands strong on its own. But as the third track on Technical Ecstasy it was a big ask of the audience, who by now were shaking the album sleeve and trying to see if any remaining metal bits might fall out.
As if in answer, “Gypsy” closes out Side One, with Sabbath’s hand of doom flexing in its new fingerless glove. Frontloading the album with this track, and relegating “It’s Alright” to Side Two might have created a very different impression. An undeniable A-side backed with a B-side full of scraps certainly worked for 2112, released the same year. It is interesting that both Rush and Sabbath imbued their music with science fiction themes and imagery mere months before Star Wars fever took the world by storm.
No doubt R2-D2 and C3PO would have approved of the weirdest song on Technical Ecstasy, “All Moving Parts (Stand Still).” That is, until Ozzy starts howling “I love choking toys.” With Geezer Butler’s proto-disco bassline, it’s a batshit crazy number, and a late addition to my favorite Sabbath tunes.
This is the song I used in my not-very-scientific-but-extremely-nerdy comparison of the original vinyl with various CD remasters from 2006, 2009, and 2021. Unsurprisingly, the best sound by far was the Super Deluxe new album remix, followed closely by the original LP. All of the various remasters were loud, snarling, harsh, and superfluous.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor” has always received my vote for the worst song on Technical Ecstasy, mostly because of the boner title, and the basic boogie verse riff. Recent reevaluation has led me to appreciate the massive intro, though, and the groovy outro vamp. This little tune is the shortest on the album anyway.
While the Beatles’ “Doctor Robert” provided them with acid, Sabbath’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Doctor” reportedly gave them uppers in the morning and downers at night. He’d been employed by Elvis prior to working with Sabbath. Pretty sweet resume, Doc!
In the boneyard position is “She’s Gone.” This is one of the most contentious songs of the Ozzy era, often cited as a least favorite tune among the more macho and less emotionally secure Sabbath listeners. Personally I think it’s one of their standout tracks, and pairs nicely with other lovely ballads like Judas Priest’s “Before the Dawn.” In its album mix, “She’s Gone” features a plaintive Ozzy vocalizing loss in love. Iommi’s melancholy guitar line glides over a gorgeous foundation of synths and strings.
VIDEO: Black Sabbath “Dirty Women”
The album ends with a bang. “Dirty Women” may have been a trite subject for Sabbath, but it’s the only killer tune from this era brought back for the Reunion sets in the late ‘90s and beyond. As a showcase for Iommi’s lead guitar, it still shines bright. Gerald “Jezzy” Woodroffe had been enlisted to play keyboards and assist with song arrangements from 1975-1977. He claims to have written most of this song, though he remains uncredited. Fortunately he got his due later on by working with Robert Plant on Pictures At Eleven.
Critics continued to pan Black Sabbath, and sales slumped further. The Technical Ecstasy tour was a success, but Iommi’s confidence was shaken. Ozzy wanted to start his own band, focused on the meat and potatoes metal that fans craved. Sabbath was able to limp across the finish line with one more baffling record before parting ways with their iconic singer, who was ultimately replaced by Ronnie James Dio.
The only reevaluation Technical Ecstasy has received over the last 45 years seems to be from fans like me. We were so smitten with Black Sabbath, and so exhausted by overplaying their greatest works, that we found ourselves digging deeper. The new Super Deluxe version is aimed at intrepid listeners, ready to immerse themselves in the spirit of ‘76. Along with the four CDs, there’s a foldout poster, a replica of the 1976 tour program, and a full-color hardbound book.
Knowing that only serious fans are likely to pick up this set, a flat master of the original tapes would have been the wisest choice for Disc One. Instead, yet another loud, over-EQ’d remaster just takes up space. None of the remasters of Technical Ecstasy have ever solved its original mix issues. This latest is no different.
Whether or not you already own a copy of Technical Ecstasy, the best possible version is now Steven Wilson’s 2021 remix, available only as Disc Two in this Super Deluxe set. He employed a respectfully light touch, keeping the guitars and vocals intact while liberating the rhythm section from the murk under which it was buried. The clarity of bass and drums is a revelation. Hearing the excellent performances of Geezer Butler and Bill Ward exhumed will bring a smile to any punter’s face.
The album still sounds like the one that true believers grew up with, only a bit better. The synth intro of “You Won’t Change Me” has been brought into focus. The a capella outro after “Dirty Women” is a great little wink from Wilson. The only thing missing from this new improved version of the album is a remix of “It’s Alright.” Since the multi-track masters for that song couldn’t be found, a mono b-side “single mix” sits somewhat awkwardly in its place.
The Outtakes and Alternative Mixes on Disc Three reflect Technical Ecstasy through a funhouse mirror. Most of the album reappears in alternate form here, sometimes with the raw band playing the song, often bereft of keyboards, additional overdubs, or double-tracked vocals. Early alternate lyrics crop up on some of the tunes. Two great revelations are an original quintet version of “She’s Gone” with bass, drums, and keys, as well as a sublime instrumental mix that drops the band out entirely. For the obsessive, this is another compelling reason to own T.E. Super Deluxe.
Disc Four is billed as Live World Tour 1976-1977. But Internet sleuths swear that it’s really the Pittsburgh Dec 8, 1976 show in a different track order, with an intro flown in from who knows where. More appalling to extremists is the fact that audio from this show exists on tape, but was sourced for the Super Deluxe from lossy downloaded mp3s. Regardless, it’s a great performance and sounds fine, despite some hiss. Tape traders may have heard this before, but the other 99.9666% of us simply hadn’t.
Along with spirited performances of classics like “War Pigs” and “Black Sabbath” the live disc is particularly enthralling thanks to the inclusion of rarely heard songs like “All Moving Parts (Stand Still)” and “Gypsy.” I personally hadn’t heard a live version of either track before, and I’m a nutter for Sabbath. This set also showcases the heavy lifting of keyboardist Jezzy Woodroffe, who really fills in the gaps, especially during Iommi’s fiery leads.
The Black Sabbath Super Deluxe boxes have suffered to date from a lack of extra tracks or archival access to multi-track masters. Vol 4 came closest to hitting the mark, with a disc of new mixes of alternate takes…but no proper album remix. Technical Ecstasy isn’t quite a home run, but it is the best in the series to date.
The last two entries in Sabbath’s titanic initial eight-album run from 1970 to 1978 inarguably belong in their own category. Both Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! were created by a band that had finally freed itself from the shackles of managers and producers; that freedom from oversight allowed Iommi to continue exercising his progressive tendencies. And while an outside producer might have helped him achieve a better sound or more coherent vision, instead we are left with an unadulterated, pure strain Sabbath. That might not satisfy the band’s accountants, but it is still something to celebrate.
Here’s hoping the Never Say Die! box is right around the corner. Then the t-shirt can finally be revised to say what it always should have: “…the first eight Black Sabbath records.” Trust me on this.
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