Boxed In; Part Five
As we ease ourselves into the fifth installment of Boxed In, we continue to review recent box set releases that give new clarity to classic records and offer new insights into the bands and the songs. This edition reviews two box sets paying tribute to arguably two of the most pivotal records in the heavy metal canon: Black Sabbath’s monumental 1971 record Paranoid, and Motörhead’s 1980 love letter to speed, Ace of Spades. After decades of worshipping these behemoth slabs of ballast, both records are imprinted on my DNA, so the real question is, how can perfection be improved? Read on to find out.
Black Sabbath – Paranoid 50th Anniversary Super Deluxe Vinyl Edition (Rhino/Warner)
First up is the 50th anniversary of what many would consider to be heavy metal’s first true calling card. Crushing riffs delivered by crunchy guitars, dark and foreboding lyrics that dared to move out of the pop/blues rock dominating the charts—all the heavy metal boxes are ticked here. It can be argued that Blue Cheer, Hendrix and The Stooges were getting into heavy a couple years previous, but none of them go this metallic. Heck, even the Sabs’ debut record featured the proto doom eponymous title track, but British blues jetsam still plagued most of the grooves on their initial run out of the gate.
What we get in the 50th anniversary box set of Sabbath’s sophomore gem Paranoid is the 2016 remastering of the record, plus an LP of the previously rare quad version of the album “folded down” into stereo, and two absolutely killer live records from shows in Montreux, Switzerland on August 31st, 1970, and Brussels, Belgium on October 3rd, 1970. Also, the mandatory goodies, but we’ll get to that a little later.
There are purists and trainspotting collectors that will insist that remastering is nothing but snake oil while clutching their $1000 UK Vertigo first pressings and I get it, I really do. For the rest of us who have modest playback systems, the recent rash of remastering can either enhance or curse mixes that were already great. However, on this remastered vinyl edition of Paranoid, we’re not subjected to the usual culprits of compression, glass-shattering high end and plummeting lows. The remaster never steps on the toes of the original mix but clears up high frequency information while adding extra punch and zing. Although Paranoid was recorded and mixed in two weeks in a ramshackle studio, it still manages to grab you by the marrow even on (gulp) computer speakers and ear buds, thanks to its simple but effective tracking and mixing. If you know the record as well as I do, you will find no hidden treasures in this modest remaster by Andy Pearce and Matt Wortham. That said, it will definitely make your scratched-up Warner Brothers version obsolete. Bonus points for the early-‘70s-era green Warner Brothers labels on these reissues btw.
Moving on through the box, things get far more interesting as we hear the “folded down” stereo version of the original quad mix (initially only released on reel-to-reel). A couple of neat things from this previously rare mix: the solo in “Paranoid” is an all ring modulator version, Iommi’s wah pedal is more pronounced on “Electric Funeral” and a jazz-laden piano is more front and center in “Planet Caravan”. Again, this mix does not flush out much extra information, but Ozzy’s glorious shriek definitely takes a bit of a back seat here to make more room for Bill Ward’s relentless pounding. For my money, Ward is the secret weapon to the Sab attack. While Iommi, undoubtably the ultimate riff creator, gets most of the credit for all things Sabbath, it’s Ward’s almost jazz-like expressiveness that really pushes these songs. Ward’s chugging propulsion is more evident in the quad mixes. Mixed with one instrument to a channel, they originally allowed the listener to make their own mixes on a four-channel system. The folded mixes simply combine the front and back (vocals and drums) channels into the left and right (guitars and bass) so, as expected, you get a bit more movement out of the stereo sound. Don’t expect anything too radical with these stereo mixes though—while they are indeed different, with only eight tracks used in the recording and overdubs kept to a minimum there was not much to play with here. Definitely worth multiple listens, but read on about possible missed opportunities below.
It’s the two live records that really have most of us drooling over this five-LP box, which features the two shows from the middle of one of Sabbath’s first tours in 1970. Still struggling with dynamics and lyrics, the band seems completely unaware of the sheer heaviness they were able to inflict. These sound board recordings are crisp and go far beyond bootlegs. The Montreux show fills side one of the third record here and is the show you will probably be returning to most. Housed in a triple gatefold, this is an absolutely gorgeous package. It’s warts and all for these tracks, as the show starts off with a silent crowd and the sound of someone hammering Ward’s kick drum in place. After that, it’s a blistering barrage of a set with the title track kicking things off at a good pace. Dynamics are yet to be galvanized, tempos are rushed but then quickly reined in with Ward’s signature behind-the-beat wallop. You will definitely cringe at Ozzy’s take on Geezer’s lyrics, inserting lines like “Iron Man, we love you” and other inanities, but hearing the audience respond to their first time ever hearing “Hand of Doom” and “Fairies Wear Boots” is nothing short of stunning. The sound quality is top notch here and truthfully has been my favourite listen in the box. In the second live show in Brussels, the band is more in command and confident but it doesn’t hold the same excitement or historical significance as the Montreux show when they were relatively unknown and Paranoid had just been released. We hear the same set list in a different order, except here the Sabs get ballsy and include the doom-laden “Hand of Doom” which makes for an awkward grinding of gears after the blast of opener “Paranoid”. Perhaps because this show was originally recorded for a television broadcast, the band are on their best behaviour with less improvising and chances taken here. That said, it’s nothing to sneeze at and would still crush most bands in a live setting in 1970. Little things like Iommi’s classical guitar intro to the title song were a bit superfluous but this still swings like a bag of hammers.
Rhino have definitely gotten on top of their quality control with the 200-gram records here pressed with nothing but inky black silence between songs and all the dBs you could possibly pump into the grooves before brick-wall compression would take over. This is far more than I can say about the poor pressing of past Rhino releases (I’m looking at you, Replacements For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986 ). As far as vinyl sound goes, this is as good as it gets, with enhanced crisp highs that were nowhere to be found in the original U.S. first press. This mix is derived from the same mastering that delivered the CD box version in 2016, but gone is the digital sheen as my moderate vinyl playback system knocks down the crystal highs and can’t handle the bloated low end. If you did buy the CD box set version four years ago it is a little questionable whether you should upgrade to the vinyl box as there is no additional material and the same swag. The difference in sound really just comes down to whether you are anal for analog or a digital devotee.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a box set without the swag, and the Super Deluxe box definitely offers up the goods. Again, if you already have the CD box set, nothing new to be found here, but for those of you who missed out the first time, this is a cornucopia of delights. The moment you lift the box lid you are greeted with a 12x12” hardcover 40-page book written by Kory Grow, which does manage to shed new light on this monolithic record. Mr. Grow deserves a tip of the cap as the book is well researched and all of the major players weigh in, including Bill, Tony, Geezer and Ozzy, but what really makes it special are the long-lost rare pressing covers, never-before-seen photos taken during the recording process in June of 1970, and gig posters. Also included are a massive full color poster that will most likely live out its existence folded away in the box, and a reproduction of the ‘71 Paranoid U.S. tour program which is truthfully a little goofy but succeeds as a historically-accurate relic that lends to the overall passion put into this box set.
As for missed opportunities, one would be not including the instrumental mixes that reared their heads in the 2016 two-CD edition. The muted Ozzy version fully revealed what a pile-driving rhythm section Bill Ward and Geezer Butler were. I will be combing through discogs now as these instrumental mixes are mighty, but this will now mark the fifth version of the record I own, remastered or otherwise. Another slight was not including the 2009 Steven Wilson quad version on DVD formatted for a 5.1 playback system. Full surround mixes by Wilson and others have had folks taking 5.1 systems out of mothballs or snatching them up in pawn shops, so it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. The inclusion of that mix would’ve really put this set over the top with presumably barely a dent in the retail cost.
In conclusion, I would definitely say it’s still worth shelling out the money even if you already have the CD set as the remastering really does add extra heft and the added material definitely makes for a better deep listen. If you have merely a passing fancy for heavy metal, I would suggest checking out “that certain auction site” for CD versions of the Super Deluxe as there are sure to be a ton of people dumping their CD counterparts in favour of this massive vinyl set.
It would be Sabbath’s next record, Masters of Reality, where they would truly come into their own, tuning down and turning it up. Oddly, Rhino is giving that record a skip in their vinyl deluxe packages, but they are accepting pre-orders for Sab’s second-greatest stand, Volume 4, to be released in February 2021. Keep your eyes peeled here at Godberd to get the skinny on the next molten ball of heaviosity.
Motörhead – Ace of Spades Box Set (Sanctuary/BMG)
Sweet mother of pearl!! This surely must be one of the greatest box sets dedicated to the one of the best records ever released. Now celebrating its 40th year of liquefying the fillings in your teeth, Lemmy and company’s greatest aural assault Ace of Spades makes its rightful box set stand and I couldn’t be more giddy.
In the second edition of Boxed In (which you can find here) I hipped you to the utterly gorgeous Motörhead1979 box set which celebrated the 30th anniversaries of the Bomber and Overkill LPs and hinted that surely a box must be planned to converge with the anniversary of Ace of Spades, which was originally released at the dog end of 1980. The importance of this game-changing record cannot be overstated, as it provided the perfect bridge between the late-‘70s punk rock scene and what would later be deemed hardcore, not to mention one of the biggest influencers of speed/thrash metal ever. In 1980 anything else would be considered tepid placed against this formidable pummeling and it has stood the test of time. If you think bands like GBH and Discharge weren’t worshipping at the feet of Lemmy, Philthy Phil Taylor and Fast Eddie Clarke, just give album-closer “The Hammer” a spin. While Lemmy would flirt with the punk scene for a short spell by appearing with the Damned and hanging out at the Roxy, this record would single-handedly open the door for the new wave of British heavy metal that would go on to directly influence bands like Metallica, Slayer and the like.
While Motörhead’s second and third records, Overkill and Bomber, indeed provide a perfect wind up after binning their early pub rock sound, on Ace of Spades, the trio were already firing on all pistons. Amps on 11, bullet belts on hips and heads swimming in biker crank and tins of Special Brew, the band hit pay dirt with utter blasters like “Shoot You in the Back”, “Love Me Like a Reptile”, “We Are the Road Crew” and of course, the mighty propulsion of the title track. Hardly a duff track in the bunch, and miraculously still sounds every bit as dangerous as it did when it was originally released, swagger and attitude intact.
Knowing full well you already have a copy of this classic record, BMG do indeed sweeten the deal with a brand-new remastering from the half-mastered original tapes. Herein lies the joke, as this is one of the least audiophile records ever to hit the racks, but I’ll be damned if this remastering hasn’t breathed new life into these 40-year-old songs. On a modest vintage system, it easily beat my first issue vinyl and CD versions, with guitars possessing far more bite in the upper-mid range while the kick and bass definitely have more grunt and low-mid range slam. I know this sounds crazy, but I may never reach for my original pressing again.
So, okay, it sounds moderately better—but should you shell out the clams to buy this record again? Well, the curators of this box make it impossible for any Motörhead fan not to pick it up. If you gave the1979 box a pass last year, you simply have to jump on this. The swag is increased this time around, and presented with complete respect and reverence to one of the greatest heavy metal records of all time. Once you slip off the bullet belt obi that holds the box together, you lift the lid off of the western-themed package to reveal an inner board for the dice game “snake eyes”. At the top of the pile of vinyl is the Western Union packet which contains a 10” with instrumental versions of seven songs that were outtakes from the session, an amazing 40-page book bound in faux-leather, authored by Kris Needs on the making of the record, a pretty much toss-away of a comic book that was published after the original release of Ace of Spades (hey, it can’t all be good) and a faithful reproduction of their 1981 Ace Up Our Sleeves Tour program. Tucked in the bottom of the box is a set of dice to be played in the inner lid, and for you tech-heads (lol), a DVD with Motörhead’s television appearances from 1980 to 1981, and believe it or not, a 5.1 mix, which seems oxymoronic for such a lo-fi record and which I am willing to bet will be listened to by absolutely no one.
But now we really get into the good stuff. If you start off listening to the 10” of instrumental tracks you are going to absolutely love diving into the two-LP gatefold of The Good, The Broke and The Ugly, which houses all of the alternate takes, B-sides and other rarities. Listening to the embryonic stages of “Ace of Spades” and “(We Are) the Road Crew” reveals no rare gems as these versions indeed pale to the galloping power of the final versions, but sneaking glimpses at these songs taking shape in the studio is a great behind-the-curtain reveal. If you aren’t lucky enough to be sitting on a rare copy of the Motörhead/Girlschool EP collaboration St. Valentine’s Day Massacre 12” then you get the utterly mandatory cover of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Please Don’t Touch” and Girlschool’s great version of “Bomber” as well as the utterly mandatory Motörhead deep cut “Emergency”. Truthfully, it’s this double record of rarities that should motivate you to scoop up this box.
If you are a big Motörhead fan you are probably already sitting on some of the twenty or so official live releases, but the Ace of Spades box scores with two great shows in Orléans, France, and Belfast, Northern Ireland, culled from the Ace of Spades Tour of 1981. Although not possessing the crisp sound of their classic live jammer “No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith”, these two live shows reveal the band well in their cups and exchanging jokes between songs, showcasing the rare chemistry that bound the trio together. Again housed in double gatefolds, the set lists barely deviate from either of the shows that bookend the 1981 tour. Listening to the nonchalance and punk attitude of the Orléans show, compared to the steamroll power of the Belfast concert, definitely gives the upper hand to the former. Audiophiles may turn up their nose at the slight tape hiss and odd acoustics but the gasoline, speed, beer, piss, sweat and blood is all here. In fact, if an aural document could ever truly capture this genius band at their zenith, it would be probably be these two live shows from their majestic 1981 tour.
If you love rock and roll and are thinking about getting what I consider to be the best box set to come out this year, be ready to fall in love with your favourite record all over again. Simply one of the greatest records ever released by God’s favourite rock and roll band – questions?