Vol. 4 is the fourth studio album by English rock band Black Sabbath, released in September 1972. It was the first album by Black Sabbath not produced by Rodger Bain; guitarist Tony Iommi assumed production duties. Patrick Meehan, the band’s then-manager, was listed as co-producer, though his actual involvement in the album’s production was minimal.
In June 1972, Sabbath began work on their fourth album at the Record Plant studios in Los Angeles.
“It’s the first album we’ve produced ourselves,” observed Ozzy Osbourne. “Previously we had Rodger Bain as a producer – and, although he’s very good, he didn’t really feel what the band was doing. It was a matter of communication. This time, we did it with Patrick, our manager, and I think we’re all very happy… It was great to work in an American studio.”
The recording was plagued with problems, many due to substance abuse. In the studio, the band regularly had speaker boxes full of cocaine delivered.
Struggling to record “Cornucopia” after “sitting in the middle of the room, just doing drugs”, Bill Ward feared that he was to be fired: “I hated the song, there were some patterns that were just horrible. I nailed it in the end, but the reaction I got was the cold shoulder from everybody. It was like ‘Well, just go home, you’re not being of any use right now.’ I felt like I’d blown it, I was about to get fired.” According to the book How Black Was Our Sabbath, Ward “was always a drinker, but rarely appeared drunk. Retrospectively, that might have been a danger sign. Now, his self-control was clearly slipping.” Iommi claims in his autobiography that Ward almost died after a prank-gone-wrong during recording. The Bel Air mansion the band was renting belonged to John du Pont and the band found several spray cans of gold DuPont paint in a room of the house; finding Ward naked and unconscious after drinking heavily, they proceeded to cover the drummer in gold paint from head to toe. According to Sharon Osbourne’s memoirs, a Doberman at the mansion got into part of the band’s cocaine supply, laced with the baby laxative mannitol, and became ill from the effects of the drug.
The Vol. 4 sessions could be viewed as the point when the seeds were planted for the demise of Sabbath’s classic line-up. Bassist Geezer Butler told Guitar World in 2001: “The cocaine had set in. We went out to L.A. and got into a totally different lifestyle. Half the budget went on the coke and the other half went to seeing how long we could stay in the studio … We rented a house in Bel Air and the debauchery up there was just unbelievable.” In the same interview, Ward said: “Vol. 4 is a great album, but listening to it now, I can see it as a turning point for me, where the alcohol and drugs stopped being fun.” To Guitar World in 1992, Iommi admitted, “LA was a real distraction for us, and that album ended up sounding a bit strange. The people who were involved with the record really didn’t have a clue. They were all learning with us, and we didn’t know what we were doing either. The experimental stage we began with Master of Reality continued with Vol. 4, and we were trying to widen our sound and break out of the bag everyone had put us into.” In the liner notes to 1998’s Reunion, Iommi reflected, “By the time we got to Bel Air we were totally gone. It really was a case of wine, women and song, and we were doing more drugs than ever before.” In his memoir Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath, the guitarist says, “Like Tony Montana in the movie Scarface: we’d put a big pile (of cocaine) on the table, carve it all up and then we’d all have a bit, well, quite a lot.”
In his autobiography I Am Ozzy, Osbourne speaks at length about the sessions: “In spite of all the arsing around, musically those few weeks in Bel Air were the strongest we’d ever been.” But he admits, “Eventually we started to wonder where the fuck all the coke was coming from … that coke was the whitest, purest, strongest stuff you could ever imagine. One sniff, and you were king of the universe.” Osbourne also recounts the band’s ongoing anxiety over the possibility of being busted, which worsened after they went to the cinema to see The French Connection (1971), about undercover New York City cops busting an international heroin-smuggling ring. “By the time the credits rolled,” Osbourne recalled, “I was hyperventilating.” In 2013, Butler admitted to Mojo magazine that heroin, too, had entered the picture: “We sniffed it, we never shot up … I didn’t realize how nuts things had gotten until I went home and the girl I was with didn’t recognize me.”
Vol. 4 saw Sabbath beginning to experiment with the heavy sound they had become known for. In June 2013 Mojo declared, “If booze and dope had helped fuel Sabbath’s earlier albums, Vol. 4 is their cocaine … Despite their spiraling addictions, musically Vol. 4 is another ambitious outing. The band’s heavy side remains intact on the likes of ‘Tomorrow’s Dream’, ‘Cornucopia’ and the seismic ‘Supernaut’ (a firm favorite of Frank Zappa, featuring Bill Ward’s soul-inspired breakdown), but the guitar intro on ‘St. Vitus Dance’ possesses a jaunty, Led Zeppelin-flavoured quality, while ‘Laguna Sunrise’ is an evocative neo-classical Iommi instrumental.” After being up all night and watching the sunrise at Laguna Beach, Iommi composed the song. In the studio, an orchestra accompanied Iommi’s guitar, although they refused to perform until their parts were properly written out. The same orchestra performed on “Snowblind”.
“Snowblind” is the band’s most obvious reference to cocaine, their drug of choice during this period. Snowblind was also the album’s working title, but Vertigo Records executives were reluctant to release an album with such an obvious drug reference. The liner notes thank “the great COKE-cola” and, in his autobiography, Osbourne notes, “Snowblind was one of Black Sabbath’s best-ever albums – although the record company wouldn’t let us keep the title, ‘cos in those days cocaine was a big deal, and they didn’t want the hassle of a controversy. We didn’t argue.”
Although most of the album is in the band’s trademark heavy style, some songs demonstrate a more sensitive approach. Perhaps the best example is “Changes”. Written by Iommi with lyrics by Butler, it is a piano ballad with mellotron. Iommi taught himself to play the piano after finding one in the ballroom of the Bel-Air mansion they were renting. It was on this piano that “Changes” was composed. “Tony just sat down at the piano and came up with this beautiful riff,” Osbourne writes in his memoir. “I hummed a melody over the top, and Geezer wrote these heartbreaking lyrics about the break-up Bill was going through with his wife. I thought that was brilliant from the moment we recorded it.”
“FX” came about unexpectedly in the studio. After smoking hashish, the crucifix hanging from Iommi’s neck accidentally struck the strings of his guitar and the band took an interest in the odd sound produced. An echo effect was added and the band proceeded to hit the guitar with various objects to generate odd sound effects. Iommi calls the song “a total joke”.
Of “Wheels of Confusion”, Henry Rollins said: “It’s about alienation and being lost in the wheels of confusion, which is the way I find myself a lot of the time. Sabbath could be my favourite band. It’s the ultimate lonely man’s rock. There’s something about their music that’s so painful and yet so powerful.”
The album, Tony Iommi told Circus’s sister magazine Circus Raves, “was such a complete change – we felt we had jumped an album, really … We had tried to go too far.”
The album cover features a monochrome photograph of Ozzy Osbourne with hands raised throwing the peace sign, taken during a Black Sabbath concert. The album’s original release (on Vertigo in the UK, on Warner Bros. in the United States and on Nippon Phonogram in Japan) features a gatefold sleeve with a page glued into the middle. Each band member is given his own photo page, with the band on-stage at the Birmingham Town Hall (and photographed from behind) at the very centre.
The album’s original cover art has proved iconic, and has been imitated and parodied on numerous occasions, such as on the 1992 Peaceville Volume 4 compilation album, the 1992 Volume Two EP by the band Sleep, and the 1994 Planet Caravan EP by Pantera.
The U.S. 8 track and cassette releases of the album feature alternate artwork. A yellow background with Ozzy silhouetted in black.
Vol. 4 was released in September 1972, and while most critics of the era were dismissive of the album, it achieved gold status in less than a month, and was the band’s fourth consecutive release to sell one million copies in the United States. It reached number 13 on Billboard’s pop album chart and number 8 on the UK Albums Chart. The song “Tomorrow’s Dream” was released as a single but failed to chart. Following an extensive tour of the United States, the band toured Australia for the first time in 1973, and later Europe.
Rock critic Lester Bangs, who had derided the band’s earlier albums, applauded Vol. 4, writing in Creem, “We have seen the Stooges take on the night ferociously and go tumbling into the maw, and Alice Cooper is currently exploiting it for all it’s worth, turning it into a circus. But there’s only one band that’s dealt with it honestly on terms meaningful to vast portions of the audience, not only grappling with it in a mythic structure that’s both personal and powerful but actually managing to prosper as well. And that band is Black Sabbath.” Bangs also compared the band’s lyrics to those of Bob Dylan and William S. Burroughs. In June 2000, Q placed Vol. 4 at number 60 in its list of The 100 Greatest British Albums Ever and described the album as “the sound of drug-taking, beer-guzzling hooligans from Britain’s oft-pilloried cultural armpit let loose in LA.” In his 2013 biography on the band Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe, Mick Wall insists the “Under The Sun” would become the “sonic signpost” for bands that would follow Sabbath in years to come, such as Iron Maiden and Metallica. Frank Zappa has identified the song “Supernaut” as one of his all-time favorites. (In a 1994 interview with Guitar for the Practicing Musician, Butler revealed, “I loved Zappa’s lyric approach. That influenced me lyrically, definitely”.) “Supernaut” was also one of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham’s favorite songs.
Kerrang! magazine listed the album at No. 48 among the “100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All Time”. Rolling Stone ranked it 14th on their 2017 list of “100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Time”. The album was also included in the book 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
Thomas Gabriel Fischer of Triptykon and previously frontman of Hellhammer and Celtic Frost cited Vol.4 as highly influential on his musical formation and stated he “learned to play guitar from that album”.
Ozzy Osbourne – vocals
Tony Iommi – guitars, piano, mellotron
Geezer Butler – bass guitar, mellotron
Bill Ward – drums, percussion