Black Sabbath

Runnin' with the devil

Black Sabbath pretty much defined heavy metal as we know the beast in the early '70s -- one can point to Led Zeppelin, but honestly, how many of Zeppelin's metal proteges actually sound like Zeppelin? Page & Co. were at one level a loud blues/folk band, merely an extension of a vein mined by record-collector obsessed British boys like the Yardbirds from the '60s. Sabbath, on the other hand, forged a distinct sonic identity that could not possibly be mistaken as the product of '60s holdovers: a robotic, coldly brutal metal machine-music version of riff-based rock that definitely was not in the least rooted in R & B -- the last an important, but overlooked difference between Sabbath and their forebearers Cream, Hendrix, and Zeppelin. That's to say that Sabbath sounded completely whitebread (which I am not using in a deragotory sense), except that they took the legend about Robert Johnson selling his soul at the crossroads a bit too much to heart and injected all these goofy lyrics about Satanism into their songs. Goth, death metal, gloom & doom merchants from Ministry to Marilyn Manson, not to mention this new breed of Scandinavian black metal bands who take their "evil" image way too seriously (hey, it's one thing to sing about killing people -- it's another to actually do it!) -- it all begins here, which is to say that while Sabbath are undeniably influential, not all influences are benign ones: in fact, I'm of the opinion that they probably did much more harm than good. Whether they truly realized what they were doing (rumor has it that they originally intended for their songs as warnings against the occult, but the message got garbled due to their, how shall I say it, poor communication skills), Black Sabbath created some of the most genuinely evil music ever created. They weren't some post-psychedelic, tongue-in-cheek pack of cynics like their main '70s rivals for the "evil metal" sweepstakes Blue Oyster Cult (though BOC's brains and instrumental sophistication kind of makes them more evil, now that I think about it) -- Sabbath seemed fairly sincere, if pretty dopey about it. I generally find their music interesting from a historical standpoint, but aside from Tony Iommi's crushing riffs -- no band has ever come close to creating the sensation of being buried alive by an avalanche the way those early Sabbath records do -- the band are mostly incompetent and often dull. Iommi's riffs -- he has to rate as one of the all-time greats at coming up with them -- are sometimes powerful enough to overcome any objections, but boy does this band have a lot of strikes against them: the lyrics totally blow (which isn't that big of deal -- anyone who's into metal for the lyrics needs to get their priorities straight); Ozzy's helium voice can grow annoying (especially when he sings along with the guitar melody on the early records); aside from Iommi's gift for heavy riffage, the band interplay is as clumsy as your average garage band (in particular I hate it when, once they've got a good slow grind going, they shift dynamics and try to get up and boogie -- I mean, boogie! Black Sabbath? Shudder); the band isn't terribly imaginative, as they are good and only good at their one patented style -- when they try to experiment, the results are shockingly atrocious (see Sabbath Bloody Sabbath); the pace can become unbearably slow (see their debut); and finally, there's just an air of Beavis & Buttheadpothead stupidity that hangs over all of their records. I mean, few bands make you feel the IQ points subtracting just by listening to the music the way Sabbath do. On the upside, however, nobody's ever done loud, heavy, slow, and stupid quite as good as prime Sabbath -- and that's gotta count for something.

P.S. An interesting fact is that several key scenes in This Is Spinal Tap were lifted almost directly from Sabbath's career -- including, yes, the infamous Stonehenge subplot. It seems that Tony Iommi once had the bright idea to recreate the ruins of Stonehenge on stage...

Reader Comments

maybe you should learn some grammar before you call them stupid. this band has never been about satanic anything, maybe you might want to listen a few more times. their music is not that simple either.

Thomas Rickert,

Just read your Sabbath reviews. You fall into the typical critical understanding of this band. Which is another way of saying, you don't really show any genuine insight into the music. For example, you accuse the band, much as Rolling Stone did years ago, of stupidity and intractibibility. Well, yeah. They were a bunch of under-educated kids. Of course they didn't have the lyrical finesse, instrumental chops, art-school fostered sense of vision. But there is more going on when you look closely, listen closely, and think about what they are trying to do as a total package. They invented what they did as they went along, following a strange, dark, perhaps twisted muse. That is called creativity. Their mistakes and mishaps are an integral, if not the most important, element of their sound and vision. And when it is done so darkly-beautifully by a bunch of working-class losers from a burned out English industrial town, then it's genius. (At least on the first six, before the real decline sets in and they start becoming unlistenable.)

Anyway, this way of looking at art is also the key to understanding punk, DIY, and other forms of unschooled art. It's also the reason Sabbath has been one of the most influential bands ever, despite your sniffing at the influence as being possibly bad. Certainly--and I agree with you on this--many terrible bands have arisen in Sabbath's wake, and great misunderstandings have been perpetrated in their name, and worse music. So what? That, perhaps, isn't the point. Over-romantizing evil, or witches, or sub-D&D imagery may not be your (or my) bag (and it wasn't Sabbath's either -- their evil tag was perpetrated on them primarily by their record company and retroactively by their legacy), but is it really more stupid than over-romantizing cars and girls, like early/mid-period Springsteen and countless others? I'm not so sure. But if you believe most rock critics and especially Rolling Stone, one of these is "authentic" and one is "stupid". I say, this kind of binary is counter-productive, and an insightful critique would dig deeper than that.

Black Sabbath (1970) **

The debut only has five songs listed, though in truth there are more than five songs, as on several lengthy tracks Sabbath link several distinct songs through lengthy guitar solos -- unfortunately, their attempt at Abbey Road-style multi-sectioned pastiche doesn't cut the mustard, mainly due to Iommi's abysmally unimaginative solos; he's an able technician, but he's much better at grinding out rhythmic, repetitive riffs than guitar solos, which actually have to go somewhere. Ozzy sings in a lower register than he ever would again, and the band are surprisingly bluesful, but none of that makes any difference since the band can't cover up the fact that they are short on decent material. The quasi-Tolkien lyrics on "The Wizard," have dated horribly and should be despised for helping spawn the dungeons & dragons direction a lot of clueless metal bands later took. Aiming for a spooky goth atmosphere, Sabbath come close to that goal in the infamous title track, with Ozzy screaming, "No! No! No!" at the end of each line to his majesty Lucifer, but I find the track too melodramatic and slowly drawn out to sit through. Which is the album's other main flaw, aside from burying all the songs in mindlessly clumsy, endless jams -- the pace is way too slow; the volume's high, but there's a dearth of energy, which makes the album a drag. Even the best song, "N.I.B." gets buried amidst a sludgy Cream-imitating jam, and Sabbath hardly have Clapton & Co.'s instrumental skills (not that this type of thing was that interesting even when Cream made their attempts).

Paranoid (1971) ***

A big improvement, but still seriously flawed: no matter how awesome the hits are, the rest of the album doesn't come close to the level established by "Iron Man," (the one I'm sure you all know due its recent popularization by a certain MTV cartoon...c'mon now, raise your fist and grunt along) and the title track (which is - gasp! - a fast one. Sure, it's kind of a rip-off of Zeppelin's "Communication Breakdown," but you could make the argument that speed-metal and hardcore punk begin here -- well, kind of; I once saw some typically mediocre local punk band encore with this, and it was the one song that got all the short-hairs moshing the lecture hall). "War Pigs," begins decently enough, but the lyrics are laughably bad ("generals in their masses"/"like witches at black masses" - repeating the same word does not a rhyme make) and it soon descends into a pointless onslaught of dull riffage. "Electric Funeral," was ripped off by Cleveland punk legends Pere Ubu for their "30 Seconds Over Tokyo," but in this case, Pere Ubu came up with the better song (oh well, at least Sabbath are anti-pollution). "Planet Caravan," introduces the type of pothead bong ballad that Sabbath placed as a breather between the heavy numbers, and while such a gambit is a good idea, the acoustic ballads (all of them on every single Sabbath album I've heard) are laughably amateurish, the type of rubbish that not even the earnest folksinger singing for tips in the hat at the local coffeehouse could get away with. But that's not the nadir -- no, that's drummer Bill Ward's turn, the drum solo "Rat Salad." A drum solo -- how did kids in the '70s ever put up with that kind of crap? Still, a vast improvement over the debut; though the sound's thin, at least the murk's gone and Sabbath are writing more concisely, with Iommi managing to hit a few solid riffs here and there.

Master of Reality (1971) ***1/2

Tony Iommi tuned down his guitar two full steps, and hit upon an unearthly deep, richly crunching guitar tone -- this is a loose concept album based around that tone; take away Iommi's crushing riffs and you've got no reason to listen to this music, period, but fortunately the riffs are so crushing that this release stands as Sabbath's most consistently listenable album. In sum, the heaviest album the universe has seen (even to this day, nearly thirty years later) -- witness your speakers slowly sag into the carpeting when fuzzy rumble sinks in. And here's the kicker: the lyrics are Christian, not Satanist -- of course, they're still pretty stupid and far too obvious (they actually rhyme "pope at the end of a rope"). The attack is Sabbath's most basic and blunt, which is part of what makes it work - not much half-baked experimentation, and the witless solos are generally shorter and more tolerable than usual. There are a couple of acoustic ballads, still laughably bad, but here they work as a necessary spot of time to dig yourself out of the rubble created by the avalanches of "Sweet Leaf," (the ultimo pothead anthem), "Afterforever," (the most explicitly pro-Christian song), and "Children of the Grave," (its rhythmic slam nabbed by Blondie for "Call Me"). Even the lenghthy workout, "Into the Void," works; this may not have the big hits of its predecessor, but it's the better album.

Vol. 4 (1972) ***

Unfortunately, Iommi misplace his guitar tone this time, or maybe the production's too thin, because the sound here isn't nearly as crushing as on the last album -- sigh; that Panzer tanks brutally lumbering through the village, oafishly knocking down everything in their way, sound was the only reason to listen to Sabbath in the first place. Sabbath compensate by branching out in tentative experimental directions; sometimes the experimentation works, sometimes it doesn't -- most embarrassingly on the travesty entitled "FX" which mercifully ends after 40 seconds. However, I like the eight-minute quasi-jazzy epic "Wheels of Confusion," which sports an endless series of riffs and seems to keep constantly going in different directions, until the wheels spin off -- Sabbath have come a long way crafting multi-part songs since their debut, generally keeping the lengthier numbers interesting by shifting riffs rather than filling space with ten-minute guitar solos. The piano ballad "Changes," has a fine melody, but is utterly ruined by the lyrics -- "I'm going through changes," has to rank as one of the tritest things I've ever heard. "Supernaut," is usually everybody's favorite from this album, and while it's nice and kind of speedy (relatively to Sabbath) it runs second to "Wheels of Confusion," for my pick as best. Sabbath's experimentation isn't very interesting or accomplished, but it does keep them from falling into the monotonous rut they would have dug into if they had released Master of Reality, Vol. 2.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) **1/2

Sabbath continue to push their musical boundaries, but this time it flubs more than it succeeds. The opening title track smoothly interweaves acoustic guitar between the hard choruses and stands as perhaps Sabbath's most fully realized composition, and while "A National Acrobat," isn't as powerful as the Sex Pistol's "Bodies," or as thoughtful as Graham Parker's "You Can't Be Too Strong," it is a quite spooky pro-life number. After those two tracks, the album starts losing its way; track three is the aptly titled harpsichord instrumental "Fluff" -- and did I mention that Rick Wakeman guests on at least one other track? Sabbath simply don't possess the talent to steer away from their patented formula and keep things interesting; the irritating synth-based plodder, "Who Are You?" ranks as one of their worst-ever songs (and that's saying something). The more straightforward rockers work ("Killing Yourself To Love"), but aside from the title track, gone are the crushingly heavy pounders of yore, replaced by a much less interesting, more mainstream sound -- if you're looking for the "classic" Sabbath style, this definitely isn't the place to go.

Sabotage (1975) ****

Who would have expected it -- out of left field, near the end of their prime years, Sabbath released their best and definitely most underrated album. The experimentation they had mucked around with on the last two albums finally blossoms forth into something actually interesting, but Sabbath don't forget their greatest strengths: the first two songs, "Hole In The Sky," and "Symptom Of The Universe," are the definitive heavy metal songs. "Symptom Of The Universe," in particular is a stunner, a speedily ominous rip without which many of the '80s breed of New Wave of Heavy Metal bands couldn't exist. All of the songs are interwoven together with no breaks, and the gambit works surprisingly well -- the album is consistently enjoyable and ocassionally revelatory as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Not that some of the parts aren't interesting; apart from the first two songs (which set a towering level the rest of the album, good though some of it may be, can't really match) multi-parters such as "Megalomania," and (especially) "The Writ," merge heavy with progressive in quite sumptous ways, as if Sabbath actually took that collaboration with Wakeman seriously. There's one complete suckjob, the gaudy "Thrill Of It All," but aside from that even the weaker tracks have something interesting going on -- "Supertzar" amusingly melds medieval monk chants on top of typically spooky Iommi guitar patterns. I'm genuinely shocked at how good most of this is -- I didn't expect Sabbath to have enough talent to pull their prog-rock conceits off.

Technical Ecstacy (1976) *1/2

At this point even hardcore fans begin bashing the life out of Sabbath, as it's obvious the drugs were numbing the band out to just another mediocre heavy metal band -- Iommi's fount of riffs have suddenly dried up to generic, by-the-numbers power-chords, Ozzy's voice sounds shredded and out of tune, and overall the band sounds like they've permanently lost the old black magic. Resembling a straight hard rock band more than ever before, which isn't such a bad thing, there's not a single head-smashing classic to be found -- even the best songs ("All Moving Parts Stand Still," "You Won't Change Me") don't rise above the level of "just OK". Amidst the headache-inducing tunelessly generic screechers such as "Rock'n'Roll Doctor," and "Dirty Women," (jeez, all you have to do is look at the titles to gauge how worthless those songs are - Sabbath as lusty cock rockers?! Gimme a break), Ozzy wails his sensitive side on "She's Gone," an icy ballad that is not a cover of the Hall & Oates hit, though I almost wish it where - at least it'd be better than this tripe. The only track of any real interest is Bill Ward's solo turn, "It's Alright," a simple, Beatlesque tune that's certainly no slice of pop heaven, but does provide relief from Ozzy's caterwauling and boasts the album's only strong melody.

Never Say Die (1978)

Their last with Ozzy.

Heaven & Hell (1980)

Their first with Ronnie James Dio. I've got this and I don't think I like it at all; their prime days are long over, and now they sound like a generic metal band -- a pretty good generic metal band, but not the type of thing I'm particularly interested in.

Mob Rules (1981)

Their last with Dio.

Born Again (1983)
Seventh Star (1986)
The Eternal Idol (1987)
Headless Cross (1989)
Tyr (1990)

Well, the Nordic title sounds more ominous than Tuesday (that's an etymology joke...)

Dehumanizer (1992)
Cross Purposes (1994)
Forbidden (1995)

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