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By 1976, Black Sabbath were struggling, and it was obvious. Perhaps it was the toil of heavy touring schedules, or living up to expectations of fans and dealing with being critically battered (they were never a press favourite), but it's more likely to be the mountains of drugs and lakes of booze that had formed around them. It's pretty rare that a band's creative output can withstand such toxicity, and Black Sabbath were no excpetion.
Their first six albums are huge, monolithic pieces of rock and metal that stand up as some of the best work in the genre, but 'Technical Ecstasy', the penultimate album with Ozzy on vocals really can't be described in the same way. Experimentation and branching into new directions is no bad thing, and can be done successfully as shown on 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath' and 'Sabotage', but the majority of songs on this record are really underwritten or forgettable, and for quite a lot of it they don't really sound like Black Sabbath. 'Back Street Kids' could easily have been written by Slade, and 'Gypsy' sounds more akin to something that The Who would put on 'Tommy' or 'Quadrophenia'. It's not that they're bad songs as such, just that they don't have the sonic muscle or invention that they had developed over the last few years. 'You Won't Change Me' and 'All Moving Parts' are probably the only tracks on here that can rub shoulders with their stronger material from earlier albums. Even the song titles are a dead giveaway - it's a bit naughty to judge a song by its name but are songs called 'It's Alright', 'She's Gone' and 'Rock n' Roll Doctor' really going to have the same atmosphere and menace as 'Electric Funeral', 'Wheels of Confusion' or 'Megalomania'? Here's a clue - they don't.
Perhaps the first sign of a really big crack in the band is that for the first time, somebody other than Ozzy takes the vocal spot. Bill Ward does a pretty good job on 'It's Alright', which sounds a bit like something the Beatles might have done; in fact Ward sounds quite a lot like Paul McCartney. When described like that it sounds even less fitting for the band, but it's still a better ballad than the bloody awful 'Changes' from Volume IV. 'Rock n' Roll Doctor' is perhaps their most embarrassing song to date - it's a fairly feelgood tune but its lyrics are so lazy and unchallenging I really would expect more from primary lyricist Geezer Butler, who had so evocatively dealt with topics such as madness, substance abuse, alienation and all manner of apocalyptic scenarios of biblical proportions it seems like they can't be bothered any more. 'Dirty Women' is utterly sleazy and is more of a chance for Tony Iommi to show off his axe-work than anything else, and as a piece of fretwork it's quite impressive - along with 'All Moving Parts' is does show the more technically proficient sound he was developing that would turn up on 'Heaven and Hell' and 'Mob Rules'.
This record is often dismissed by fans of Black Sabbath, but I found it not to be a terrible album, just one that doesn't sit easily with their earlier, mightier offerings. It can barely be called heavy metal, it's got too many glam rock and even pop influences in it, and while that's not necessarily a bad thing at all it would have helped if the song-writing had been of the same calibre. In its favour, the band are incredibly tight throughout - the presence of Yes keyboard sorcerer Rick Wakeman on their previous album has clearly had an influence on them, as this record showcases some of their most bizarre and finger-melting time signatures and phrasing of their whole catalogue. It'll certainly quieten anyone who says Sabbath were plodding and incapable of variation.
Not a total disaster then, but certainly not a record that is going to be talked about in the same breath as 'Master of Reality' or 'Paranoid'.
The penultimate offering from Black Sabbaths classic line-up is evidently the start of the bands decline. Far from the gloomy and gothic evil blues of their debut and the more refined heavy metal sound they pioneered shortly after, Technical Ecstasy attempts a more commercial hard rock avenue to their traditional back streets, reluctantly smashing through fences and driving over peoples gardens and patios in the process. Well, you get the idea.
Technical Ecstasy isnt the bands worst offering by any means, but its inclusion as part of the recently released Black Box simply for falling in at the tail-end of the Ozzy Osbourne era offers a spotlight it doesnt deserve, especially compared to the excellent revival of the bands spirit with their next vocalist Ronnie James Dio.
1. Back Street Kids
2. You Wont Change Me
3. Its Alright
5. All Moving Parts (Stand Still)
6. Rock and Roll Doctor
7. Shes Gone
8. Dirty Women
The first three tracks of this album are fairly promising, and their location together means that I usually only play this trio before quickly ejecting the CD and listening to something more worthwhile. Not that these tracks compliment each other perfectly by any means; Back Street Kids is a catchy, synthesiser-influenced rocking opener, although nothing too special, while You Wont Change Me and Its Alright are both ballads. The former is an electronic power ballad with some uncharacteristically good vocals from Ozzy that manages to keep interest throughout its fair length, while Its Alright is a very unusual inclusion that somehow works really well: a soft acoustic song that sounds almost Beatlesesque, with drummer Bill Ward taking vocal duty for the first of several occasions. Its actually a really pleasant song, even if purists would criticise its inclusion on a Sabbath LP.
Its after these three songs that the album takes a real downturn, and the couple of entertaining moments across what is left of its 39 minutes and 59 seconds dont redeem the lacklustre performances and uninspired hard rock. Gypsy and Dirty Women are both attempts at rockier offerings that dont convince, although there are moments of good guitar work from Iommi in the second; his performance in the first, as well as through much of the album, is very disappointing. Both songs feel like they outstay their welcome, something that isnt aided by the over-repetition of lyrics.
Rock and Roll Doctor is frankly a very rubbish song, but the band strangely performed it for many years. An infuriating chorus and seeming lack of effort (or perhaps ability) from all band members foreshadows some of Ozzys weaker attempts at rock and roll anthems in his up-and-down solo career. Shes Gone isnt too bad, yet it is a third ballad-type song on this rather short album that ruins the concept somewhat. The song does get some points for including a violin, and I suppose its a nice evolution of the famous Changes from the Vol. 4 album, but Im not a fan of these less subtle melodic songs or the way Ozzy carries them out.
To end on a more positive note, All Moving Parts (Stand Still) is quite good, but nowhere near the level of the bands earlier masterpieces. The chorus is memorable and the synthesisers are actually used fairly well here, creating the image of the technology mentioned in the title but nowhere near the level of Pink Floyds Welcome to the Machine.
Theres no such thing as a perfect Black Sabbath album, but everything they patched together in the early seventies showed that they were at least a force to be reckoned with, and not the dying, argumentative, drug-addled rockers responsible for the pompously titled Technical Ecstasy. For all its forays into different genres and accompanying synthesisers, this album isnt even as experimental as their earlier classics Vol. 4 and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, relying too much on ballads and attempted radio friendly tracks that ended up being heard by no one.
Iommis guitar skill is really understated here, despite many opportunities for him to show off in the solos, and Ozzys vocals have really started to grate by 1976. The only real surprise here is how well Bill Ward can sing the softer side of Sabbath, and he would take over once again for the final track on the following album, either stealing or saving Ozzys swan song. That album, Never Say Die, shows that the band really didnt learn any lessons with this disappointing release, but at least some of them finally got the message that it wasnt working out and decided to sack Osbourne and make a fresh start.
Id recommend Paranoid or Sabbath Bloody Sabbath as an introduction to the band, although one of the many best-of collections could be a good starting point too. Technical Ecstasy is only really for the fans, and even then theyll only play the first three songs. I suppose we should have all been warned by the cover, featuring two robots having a sort of sexual intercourse while travelling on escalators. Im not sure exactly what that warning is.
I'll be merciful with 'Technical Ecstasy'. Black Sabbath, having well and truly established themselves by 1976, had to be allowed some space to toy with. It's true that 'Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath' was also used as an exploration module by the group, but there were other factors at play for them three years on. One star has to go because of 'Gypsy' and, to a lesser degree, the backfiring anti-hit 'Rock and Roll Doctor'. A further star really needs to be taken off to reflect how unmetallic Sabbath's substance had become by this point even though there were mitigating circumstances at hand. Perhaps it was their drugs or the wives, perhaps the friction between Osbourne and Iommi or maybe the group felt trapped and didn't know where else to go. Whatever the explanation, 'Technical Ecstasy' comprises a diversity of sounds and styles. 'Back Street Kids' is an excellent 'kick-off' track and, despite its synth saturated texture, it can keep you replaying it so many times that it may take a week or two before you can bear to part with it and check out the rest of the album. 'You Won't Change Me': a long, soul-searching power ballad that's arguably the finest written entry on here. It's sensitive, powerful and eerie and could easily be the reason for purchasing the album. 'It's Alright' - a straightly played ballad with Bill Ward on vocals. It's poignant, nicely done and memorable, however its inclusion on the album and not as a 'B' side on a single is questionable. 'Gypsy' - mediocre and dogged with structural ineffectiveness. It sounds like Iommi is completely at a loss for where to go from bar to bar. The change in tempo and silly piano bit is particularly counterproductive. 'All Moving Parts (Stand Still)' is a better work than 'Gypsy' thanks to a stronger chorus section but it still creates the impression of an overambitious T
ony Iommi trying to convince the other Sabs to play along with the charade. 'Rock And Roll Doctor' - Black Sabbath try to get back to basic rock and roll and screw up. Too repetitive, too banal, this track (oddly a band favourite) is wholly classifiable as filler because it sounds that way. 'She's Gone' - Ozzy does a duet with a violin. Boo Hoo..... Yes, this track is very sad and Ozzy puts his all into it but it goes about two steps above 1972's 'Changes' in ickiness. Also, seeing as 'Technical Ecstasy' already had 'It's Alright' to soften it up, why ever did they want to put more souffle into the vinyl? 'Dirty Women': 'Technical Ecstasy's hard rock salvation piece. A seven minute smoulderer, this song proves that somebody was home with the lights on during the album's recording session
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Back Street Kids
2 You Won't Change Me
3 It's Alright
5 All Moving Parts (Stand Still)
6 Rock 'N' Roll Doctor
7 She's Gone
8 Dirty Women