Review: Black Sabbath ‘Paranoid’ (Quadio)

I’m lucky enough to remember precisely where and when I first heard what I would later understand to be Heavy Metal. I was 9 years of age, and I was sat in my front room in suburban Merseyside with my Mum. Is there a more perfect time to discover a 7-inch single with Black Sabbath’s Paranoid on the A-side and The Wizard on the flip?

Black Sabbath 'Paranoid' (Quadio) Artwork
Black Sabbath ‘Paranoid’ (Quadio) Artwork

As it turns out, the single didn’t even belong to my parents – my dad very vaguely remembers borrowing it from his younger brother, and it made so little impression on him that he simply forgot to ever give it back. I have continued the family tradition and still have the swirly-Vertigo-labelled black disc in my collection – I’m pretty sure Uncle Rob doesn’t have a turntable these days anyway…

Having worn out the grooves of the 7-inch, I fairly quickly ended up getting hold of a cassette copy of We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll, which to this day is a really well-sequenced compilation. What feels almost unbelievable in this age of music streaming is that the original studio albums themselves weren’t very common in UK record shops until 1996 when the first set of remasters came out, so it wasn’t until then that I experienced them. In the interim I picked up a scratched old vinyl copy of Live At Last, so I knew that the song Paranoid was maybe not entirely representative of Black Sabbath.

I won’t bother boring you with my ever-changing order of preference for the first six Sabbath albums. Suffice to say that they have been the cornerstone of my listening habits ever since I bought the CD remasters in order of original release the summer before I went away to university. However, over the years I reckon my revisiting of the Paranoid album has been less and less frequent. As my fascination with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage have grown, my overfamiliarity with the Sabbath tracks that most commonly turn up on TV, film, and on rock radio have led to a certain resistance to Paranoid’s charms. I’ve spent lots of time and money buying the best possible sounding versions of all the Sabbath albums (even including Forbidden!) but Paranoid still hasn’t really come back up to the top of the pile.

I’ll have to be honest, Iron Man just isn’t very good. Ozzy was clearly hungover the day the band brought him that song, so he just decided to sing the same tune as the guitar. And as for Paranoid itself; well, do we ever need to hear this again? I was lucky enough to attend the last ever Sabbath show in Birmingham, and I really wish they’d finished with Children Of The Grave or literally anything else from the first six albums rather than this three-minute filler! I’m being hyperbolic, but you get my point all the same… side 2 remained a wonderful trove of doom treasures, but side 1 has outstayed its welcome!

I’ve spent lots of time and money buying the best possible sounding versions of all the Sabbath albums…

Another factor in my neglecting Sabbath’s second child is that two of the tracks on side 1 were subject to probably my favourite cover versions. Faith No More’s version of War Pigs from the Live At Brixton album is a firm favourite, and Pantera’s faithful rendition of Planet Caravan did a great job of smothering any pangs of loss that I might otherwise have felt at not hearing those two songs. Having heard Pantera do Planet Caravan live on more than one occasion, it really did disappoint me that Sabbath themselves didn’t introduce it to their set in the later years. Although I suspect one aspect of performing it may have been quite taxing, so they may have opted not to do it in order to save someone’s blushes (naming no names, but it rhymes with Fozzy…).

One opportunity for Paranoid to come back into my life like a conquering hero was the 2009 deluxe triple disc release (I’ve lost count of how many times this album has had a ‘deluxe’ edition) – the third disc of which was a DVD with the long-lost and much-whispered about quadrophonic mix of the album.

For those of you who have no idea what that last sentence means, ‘quadraphonic’, or ‘quad’ as it was and is often shortened to, was the first example of surround sound in the home. A typical quad set up would involve four equally sized speakers set in each corner of the room, and the mixes were often wildly different to their stereo (and sometimes still mono) counterparts. Quadraphonic sound as a concept and commercial enterprise shot itself in the foot just a few years after it started in the early ‘70s. It’s the usual tale of a technical advancement being released in numerous subtly different technical formats – none of which were really compatible with each other – and all of which were far more expensive than a stereo set-up. So, many of these quad mixes have been lost to the mists of time and the vagaries of people’s memories.

So, as a staunch advocate of surround music mixes (there are precious few examples of quality surround metal mixes, which made the prospect of quad Paranoid even more alluring) you can see why I was so excited. The problem with the DVD in that deluxe set was that they hadn’t bothered to find the master tapes – and instead, they basically shoved four cheap microphones in front of the speakers whilst they played an incredibly battered old original vinyl copy of the quad mix. The result was almost unlistenable, and, it has to be said, a massive disappointment.

Fast forward almost a decade and a half and Rhino Records, out of nowhere, have released four of these old quad mixes on blu ray discs, and one of ‘em is Paranoid!… and they are properly sourced from the original master tapes, so they should sound fantastic.

Black Sabbath 'Paranoid' - 7" & Quadio Disc
Black Sabbath ‘Paranoid’ – 7″ & Quadio Disc

My money was slapped down as soon as the discs were available, and after an anxious wait of a couple of weeks (the Sabbath disc is only available in the US due to the complicated licencing/ownership of their music) an internationally stamped parcel dropped through my letterbox. The Gods were with me that day, as the Royal Mail mercifully decided not to bother collecting import duty and VAT for the parcel, so my excitement grew still further!

I’ve bored you with an unnecessary narrative for long enough, what you want to know is whether this new/old quad version of Paranoid brought my love of the album back from the dead and whether you should invest in disrupting your living room to such an extent that you can listen to it properly?! Well, the first few things to say are that the clarity of the mix is excellent, and Geezer’s basslines in particular thunder through the speakers in a way I’ve never heard them before. It’s also worth noting that unlike some other notable quad mixes, the performances and takes used in this mix aren’t different from the stereo mix that you are so familiar with – so there’s no chance of a slightly different guitar solo all of a sudden unveiling itself. Every so often though, you will notice a piece of instrumentation that had never presented itself to you before. This is the Paranoid you know so well, but with you sat in the middle of it, rather than being an external observer.

War Pigs for many is the quintessential Sabbath track, and this mix does it justice, starting with the air raid siren coming from all corners of the room. The highlight is the ping-ponging between speakers of Iommi’s guitar lines. Whilst this sounds like it might be disorientating, it really isn’t, as the bass remains fixed front and centre – driving the track forwards in the way that only Butler can. The drums are at times chasing around the room as well in a way that you hear in these ‘70s quad mixes but not so much in modern 5.1 tracks. For me, it only adds to the excitement.

What can possibly be done with the track Paranoid to make it fresh and new?… well the answer (according to the guy who did this mix) is mixing the tambourine and shakers in the rear speakers at the same level as the snare drum. I’ve got to be honest, it’s really annoying, and once my ears latch onto the tambourine everything else kinda drifts away leaving me in a state of near madness. The rest of the mix is actually really conservative, which means there is nothing to shake me out of the tambourine fixation. Altogether, this is the one real fail on this version of the album in my opinion.

Planet Caravan is surely built for surround?  Strangely enough, the track starts in what sounds like flat stereo with the bongos nicely spread across the front speakers. Thankfully, after around a minute, the instrumentation slowly grows in the rears, and by the time Iommi’s solo comes in, the track is fully immersive – it’s a very clever trick.

And so, to my Black Sabbath nemesis – Iron Man… and to be honest this mix does the job of stopping me from reaching for the skip button, so it’s a winner from that perspective. The guitar work moves around the room, and this really helped me appreciate just how good the solos are. Don’t get me wrong – Iron Man isn’t suddenly going on my personal ‘best of sabbath’ mixtape, but this version has reinvigorated my interest in one of the most over-exposed tracks in the heavy metal catalogue.

I never had any worries about whether the quad mix of side 2 would be up to my exacting standards – the music found on that side of wax is so good that they could have played a mean joke and mixed it into mono and I’d still listen to it. Thankfully though, objectively speaking from a quad mix perspective, side 2 is a more consistent and involving listen than side 1 (just as it is from a musical standpoint).

Geezer’s basslines on Electric Funeral have never sounded funkier. We have Ozzy’s fantastic vocal performance on Hand Of Doom bouncing between the speakers. The Rat Salad mix is as close as you’ll get to actually sitting on Bill Ward’s knee whilst he smashes the tubs all around you, and Fairies Wear Boots sounds stronger and better than ever with the album closing (fittingly) on Iommi’s guitar swirling as it fades away.

This is a niche release without doubt. However, initial reports from within Rhino Records are that sales of these new quad blu-rays have been double what they forecasted. So, I think it’s safe to say that the small number of people who are interested in quad mixes are fervent in their buying of them when they do become available. This initial batch also saw the release of the long-lost mix of Alice Cooper’s Billion Dollar Babies, which is twice as adventurous as the Paranoid mix, but then the material literally invites that sort of lunacy!

I’m not going to be daft and suggest that everyone wander out and invest in a surround system just to listen to this version of Paranoid – that would be ridiculous – this is a fantastic way to listen to the album, but we’re not talking about the Road to Damascus here (look it up… it’s in that really big book). What I would say is if you already have a surround system and you have even a passing interest in Iommi, Ward, Butler and Osbourne then do not hesitate to pick this blu-ray up. And if you are a massive Sabbath fan who doesn’t have a surround system… well you need to try and make a new friend who does, otherwise you’ll forever wonder how Ozzy swirling around the room might have made your life better.

Label: Rhino Records
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Scribed by: David J McLaren