Book Review: 33 1/3: Black Sabbath's Master of Reality by John Darnielle [Continuum Books; 2008]

“FUCK YOU ALL GO TO HELL” is the first line of John Darnielle's critical text about Black Sabbath's Master of Reality, released this spring as part of the 33 1/3 series by Continuum Books. This is a book about Black Sabbath, and it is also a book about a kid stuck in a mental institution for behavioral problems. Ultimately though, this book by The Mountain Goats songwriter says “fuck you” to the sterility of music criticism.

The book is a collection of fictional journal entries written from a mental hospital, where Darnielle's teenage narrator Roger Painter languishes. You never find out what this kid did to get locked up, but you do get the message that he has anger issues. His journals are written from Roger to his psychiatrist Gary, keeper of his Black Sabbath tapes.

Roger is trying to show Gary the genius behind Black Sabbath so that he will get his tapes back. He tells Gary that “I thought if I could really show you how it felt to be listening to that music by myself in the dark, totally illegal, you would know what it is like in my heart.”

I am 25 and have mostly forgotten what it is like to be young and angry. It amazes me that Darnielle can still channel that feeling and make me feel it, too, especially considering that he is in his late-30s. But having seen The Mountain Goats perform "The Best Metal Band To Come Out Of Denton," "This Year," and "Dance Music," I can tell you that he has not forgotten.

Most musicians I see are shy about their skeletons, instead obscuring their insecurities with a general attitude of whatever-ness. Some of the kids out West don't even finish their whatevers, giving up two syllables in so that you're left with whatev. Not Darnielle; he puts cheap ugly lipstick on his skeletons, shoots their feet, and tells them to dance. John Darnielle would never say whatev.

This book is covered in seeming whatever-ness: formality is abandoned for the true passion of a teenage boy who loves Black Sabbath as much as he hates his life. There is, however, craft hidden behind the book's simple structure. Consider again the first line of the book:


This artfully opposes the last line of the book:

“Fuck you all. Go to Hell.”

In the course of the narrative, Roger has matured from a deliriously angry teenager to an adult whose rage has simmered to allow for such things as punctuation and lower-case letters.

I, the reader, conversely, go from not caring about Black Sabbath to understanding why someone would. Ozzy is an Everyman for anyone who feels crude or inadequate. Roger writes to Gary that “some of the hardest things in the world are also very simple like for example a sword or even a big rock. [...] This is really why Black Sabbath is my favorite band. They are not trying to show off all the stuff they can do even though I am pretty sure they could be as complicated as they want to be. They just put all of their energy into this one riff and let it loose like an avalanche. Dunn-dunn, duh-duh-DUNN DUNN, dunn dunn-dunn.”

Darnielle could use words like “affecting” and “powerful” and well-placed semicolons and could reference influences and all these other tricks I am still trying to learn, but he instead decides to describe Sabbath with the unhinged passion of a teenage fan.

Describing Bill Ward's drumming: “It's like he is the secret underdog weapon of the band carrying everybody around on his back. I was so into those drums in the dark. Dark dark dark. The clink-clink-clink sounds in the part where there's no singing, and then when he goes apeshit on the cymbals during the guitar solo.”

Just like Black Sabbath throws big rocks at subtlety and Roger's manifesto-journal channels anger towards the mental health establishment, Darnielle's book obliterates the sterility of music criticism. I imagine him reading reviews of his work and building up all of this disdain, deciding finally that he's going to do it better. Ultimately, Master of Reality critiques criticism itself, an institution that encourages us to thrash apart the art of others -- without offering any blood of our own.

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