Review: Master of Reality (33 1/3 series) by John Darnielle

Master of Reality

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John Darnielle hears [Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality] through the ears of Roger Painter, a young adult locked in a southern California adolescent psychiatric center in 1985; deprived of his Walkman and hungry for comfort, he explains Black Sabbath as one might describe air to a fish, or love to an android, hoping to convince his captors to give him back his tapes.


Most of the 33 ⅓ books focus on the production and reaction to the albums that they cover. All of them are interesting in the aspect that you are learning about the artist, the influences of the songs, and the way the world was either changed by the songs or the songs were changed by the world. Then you have John Darnielle analysis of Master of Reality by Black Sabbath . John Darnielle is the lead songwriter for The Mountain Goats (actually starting the Mountain Goats as just him with a guitar and songs written after his shifts as a psychiatric ward nurse), and he takes Master of Reality as the main subject of a fictional tale. The book is from completely left field, the John Darnielle way.

John Darnielle’s 33 ⅓ book is about Roger Painter, a kid who is locked up for observation at a psychiatric center. He thinks the thing that will really help him, more than drugs or therapy iso listen to his Walkman and his tapes, particularly his cassette copy of Master of Reality. This is Black Sabbath’s third album, and it is the one that really speaks to Roger, with it’s themes of Heaven and Hell, Jesus versus the Devil and the opening track, “Sweet Leaf” being a silly song about weed. Instead of getting into the deeper aspects of the album, Darnielle uses instinct and feelings, particularly the feelings that Master of Reality and Black Sabbath brings to Roger. Black Sabbath’s music and Roger are kindred spirits, and the music is telling him that life is filled with disappointment and darkness, but it’s okay because we are all in the same boat. 

There are a few things that stick out about Darnielle’s work as the Mountain Goats and the way that he writes about Black Sabbath. One of them is that Ozzy Osborne can’t sing very well, actually comparing it to a weed whacker, and him to a guy who makes change at a video game arcade. Even though he does not sing very well, Ozzy’s singing is unique. It makes you feel like they are a band of people that you know, and in the end, this is what makes Black Sabbath special.

He writes:

So we look up to Black Sabbath–or what we remember of them in my case. Even after we’re grown up, we do. Always. Because looking at Black Sabbath–at their album covers, at their handmade costumes, at their lyrics sheets, at the dumb faces they make in their videos now–we can see people like us. It’s nice….Maybe every other band in the world has more brains and deeper meaning, but only Black Sabbath sounds exactly like what my friends and I might have done if we had the equipment. (p. 81). 

This makes me think about the Mountain Goats and the trajectory of the band. Darnielle started working as a nurse, surviving abuse and drug use, and thinking that he could be in a band if he just had the equipment. He wrote and recorded the first Mountain Goats albums after his shifts. I do not know how much Black Sabbath influenced his starting to write and record albums, but I do feel like his attitude toward them, like this is a band he could have formed with his friends, gave him some confidence to make the music he has made. 

I love the 33 ⅓ books, and I know that some people do not like that this is such a departure from the series, but I would like to read more of them where the writer talks more about the feeling of the music with a fictional structure than that album statistics and production notes. 

This is a video of Black Sabbath playing “Children of the Grave” in 1974, and it fully illustrates the points that John Darnielle makes in his analysis. 

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