It’s difficult to overstate how quickly Black Sabbath became the undisputed kings of heavy metal. Formed in 1968, the quartet took less than four years to put out three of the most celebrated LPs in the genre’s history — sequentially, Black Sabbath, Paranoid, and Master of Reality — and play venues across the world (amongst reaching many other accomplishments).
Unfortunately, their nonstop multi-year marathon of recording and touring led to them feeling quite exhausted physically and mentally, resulting in them relying on drugs as a remedy. In particular, the making of 1971’s Master of Reality saw the band delving deeper into “uppers, downers, quaaludes, whatever you like” (as founding drummer Bill Ward recounted in Steven Rosen’s book The Story of Black Sabbath: Wheels of Confusion).
Clearly, their much-needed break during the first half or so of the subsequent year was well deserved, as it allowed them to reconvene in May ‘72 with increased energy and imagination. In fact, Ward aptly surmised, “Master of Reality was kind of like the end of an era, the first three albums, and we decided to take our time with the next album.”
To his point, follow-up Vol. 4 — released on September 25th, 1972— found Black Sabbath pushing themselves further in several ways, not the least of which was through more adventurous and aspiring instrumentation and songwriting. Sadly, though, the group was also forcing its way through several personal obstacles.
For instance, bassist Geezer Butler told Rolling Stone in 2021, “Tony [Iommi, guitars] had just broken up with his girlfriend at the time, and Bill [Ward] was going through a divorce.” Plus, another one of the quartet’s favorite treats — cocaine — became such an integral and costly part of creating Vol. 4 that they were originally going to name the collection Snowblind. (That is — vocalist Ozzy Osbourne explained in his autobiography, I Am Ozzy — until Vertigo Records decided that they “didn’t want the hassle of a controversy.”)
Taking all of that into account, it’s easy to see why Vol. 4 remains such a remarkable LP half a century later. By mining their hardships for motivation and stretching their artistic limits, they made great leaps as songwriters and composers. Thus, the album’s expanded arrangements paved the way not only for 1973’s even weirder Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, but the birth of progressive metal.
In order to achieve their desired creative growth, Black Sabbath left London’s Regent Sound and Island studios behind in favor of Los Angeles’ bigger and fuller Record Plant. That switch — alongside having Iommi and then-manager Patrick Meehan take over for longtime producer Rodger Bain — granted the group enough freedom and opportunity to take its music to the next level.