I've been lucky enough to hear several versions of Black Sabbath Vol. 4. The first one I bought was the Earmark reissue, with the nice clear vinyl. The sound was pretty good for me, and I enjoyed it more than either the standard CD or the Black Box. Unfortunately, the Earmarks are all digital, and the inferiority really shows when you listen to the album in analog.
My second Vol. 4 is the 180 gram NEMS reissue. I have no idea where this album comes from, but the NEMS pressings for Vol. 4 and Paranoid are regularly stocked at the Uptown Cheapo in Minneapolis. I've yet to learn just who is responsible for this, whether it's even new or just some old stock pulled from a forgotten warehouse someplace. In any event, that doesn't matter, because this version completely kicks ass.
The NEMS 180g of Vol 4 is one of my favorite sounding records. The guitars just growl, the drums kick and thump all over your walls, the dynamics are terrific, and of course there's that mysterious tape echo that follows guitar riffs. The album cover is orange, instead of the usual yellow, and I think that sums up its sound. It's more colorful, darker, heavier. It has more grit and texture.
I've been bragging about this pressing as long as I've owned it. You really should give it a try and see what it does for you. If the vaunted Vertigo originals are better than this, I would really be amazed.Needless to say, poor Earmark just gets shattered to pieces in mere seconds. Ditto for all the digital versions. And I think that's also the case for the '70s WB pressing as well.
I did pick up a WB Vol 4, and it was nice to have a gatefold sleeve (NEMS has none), but the sound is more mellow, a little bit more watered down. It's in keeping with the other WB Sabbath albums I've heard (although Sabotage for some reason is far better sounding than the others). Here's my personal theory for why this is, and I'll throw it out there so you can debate it.
Vol. 4 was the first time Sabbath was completely in charge of the production. It was in keeping with the move to California and the expansion of their sound. They were really working to expand and grow, and especially put more effort into the production. But it's pretty clear that Tommy Iommi and crew don't have much experience behind the soundboard. They commit what I expect is a rookie mistake - the sound of the album isn't properly equalized.
I'm not sure if that's the right term, but I mean that the finished album has to balance its sound across all the songs, so it's all on an even level. That didn't happen here. The volume levels of the songs, the guitars especially, vary from track to track. St. Vitus' Dance is the perfect example. Or maybe F/X would be another...I'm sure Sabbath took a lot of flack for this at the time, but funny enough, I think this unbalanced sound is one of Vol. 4's greatest strengths. It gives a real dynamic style to the sound. It shows that an album can be greatly varied in tone and volume, even if they're all guitar rock songs. For me, this is a great revelation, because of its influence on my favorite music period of my lifetime - the Seattle grunge rock scene.
To my ears, Vol. 4 is one of the cornerstones of the Seattle sound. Master of Reality would be the other. I suppose Neil Young would fit in as well. But the heavy swampy sound from Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Soundgarden is all taken from here. That wonderful '90s obsession with guitar tones, so varied and wild and free, owes its very existence to this Black Sabbath album. At least, that's my take.
Listening to the WB version of Vol. 4 seems to confirm this theory. To my ears, it sounds as though the Americans tried to balance out the volume and tones across the tracks, and it does sound more even as a whole unit. If that's your definition of a good sounding rock album, then you'd be happy. But I think the crazy anarchic spirit of the original recordings is compromised. Why do the American record labels always insist on making edits and changes to these classic albums? They always tried to "improve" those old records, and the results were so often the same.
Anyway, that's my take on Black Sabbath Vol. 4.