Greetings, Glancer! Or should I say ‘Greeeeeeeee-tiiiinnnnnnnnngs, Glaaa-aaa-aaaanc-eeeerrrrrs’? Because that’s Doom Metal – slow, foreboding, and pretty much single-handedly created by Black Sabbath. Hailing from the ‘why would anyone want to live there’ town of Birmingham, featuring Ozzy, Tony, Geezer, and Bill Ward, Sabbath is the band most people would call the first true Heavy Metal band. Now I know there’s a whole argument surrounding when Metal as a genre truly started, and that there were Metal or Metal-esque songs before Black Sabbath. In reality, that’s all bullshit. Other acts had been playing heavy music before, other bands had even coined the term, and other artists had been writing lyrics about war, death, demons, and all of that creepy stuff years earlier, but the fact is that Black Sabbath was the first to mix it all together and craft it into a uniquely evil sound – the riffs, the tone, the vocals, the foreboding bass, the thunderous beat, the lyrics and image and surrounding hysteria all swirled into a single package, and thus Heavy Metal as we know it today was born.
Some of my personal feelings on Black Sabbath; I’ve probably mentioned it elsewhere on the blog, but I’m much more of a Black Sabbath Greatest Hits kind of guy. I’m almost certain I’ve heard this album (and others) the whole way through, but in general it’s the same key songs I listen to. It’s not like Metallica or Maiden or any of my other favourite bands where I enjoy the mid-album, non-single tracks as much as their hits, no, with Sabbath it’s mainly their hits. Mainly, as there are a few non-hits I have in my rotation. With that being said, it’s a while since I’ve listened to a full Sabbath album and so I’ll be rectifying that today with their 1970 self-titled debut.
The seven songs here feature two cover versions, both given that Sabbath once-over, but it’s their original material and their title track which are the most infamous. The band was critically derided when they first arrived on the scene as sub-standard heavy blues rock with silly lyrics, but their debut was nevertheless a commercial success. Later critics would come around. It’s funny that all of the Satanic Panic hogwash was assigned to the band by their followers and the surrounding media, rather than the band themselves. Of course, they would lap it up. Before we get stuck in, lets have a gander at that cover art:
Now I don’t know about you, but that artwork has always struck me as genuinely creepy. The washed out colours, the desolate surroundings, the apparently begotten building, and of course, the pale faced banshee blasting a cursed gaze into our souls with her pit black eyes. Is she a demon? Is she a nun? Is she even a women, because with the right amount of liquor she kind of looks like Ozzy. You can see where a thousand Black Metal bands got their artwork inspiration from. When most Metal bands try to be sinister or scary it comes off as ridiculous, like when a toddler tries to punch your shin in a genuine attempt to cause serious injury. Here, I feel it works – that creature, though forlorn, has clearly been up to no good in that house in the background; she’s probably killed a family, stolen the baby and stashed it up her habit, and is now walking towards us – with every diseased step pressing decay into the very Earth, scorching the ground for eternity, with every step she gets closer to reaching out through the artwork in your hand and placing her maggot-wet fingers around your throat, squeezing as the first shimmer of a smile creeps from her lips. Or maybe she’s just the woman from the Scottish Widows commercials who got caught short on the way to pick up some Insurance. Life Insurance. For her dead husband. WHO SHE MURDERED AND ATE!
Black Sabbath: I’ve spoken before in these posts about the critical importance of first impressions. Your first song has to nail it. That’s exactly what Sabbath does with their self-titled track. It’s not a pleasant experience. Remember, this was 1969/70, the height of hippy happiness and love and all that balls. These guys open their career with the sound of rain and funeral bells. Then that huge riff comes in like a bomb, the final note wriggling like bait on a hook, while Ozzy announces the immortal ‘what is this that stands before me’. It must have been a shock when it was released, and taken as a whole there wasn’t anything else like it. There’s an ounce or two of theatricality as Ozzy howls ‘oh no no please God help me’ and when the song gets up to a gallop they unleash an unholy noise which kicked soil over the eyes of the hippy dream.
The Wizard: It wouldn’t be 70s without some harmonica. Even it is given an evil spin, yawning out like an ogre stretching out of bed before an morning snack of bones. The guitar follows the yawning before branching off into a set of furious riffs of its own. Ozzy’s vocals aren’t amazing technically, but they are unique and fit the overall tone. Even with the volume and Ward’s manic drumming, this is a jive.
Behind The Wall Of Sleep: A lesser known song, it still packs a punch. It feels like an improvised jam, but it’s very tight. It’s the central riff – not one of Iommi’s best – which brings the whole thing together. It’s another mixture of blues and heavy rock with a little taste of funk, but the growl of the guitars and the technicality send it firmly into the realm of metal.
NIB: One of the most famous bass solos ever – probably the most famous until For Whom The Bell Tolls. Then the main riff comes in, and it’s very Cream inspired. That’s fine as they crush it with sledgehammer power. It’s the first song where the lyrics seem Satanic, calling out Lucifer by name. Even though it’s a love song where the devil becomes good. It’s the middle section I really love here, on top of the great riff – everything from the ‘my love for you’ melody, all the way through the extended instrumental section is terrific. Then they swirl it all around and run through it again.
Evil Woman: Not an original I was ever familiar with until I searched it out to see what the fuss was about, Sabbath’s take is slower, lower, and grimy. It does feel quite poppy, especially that chorus, and almost doesn’t align with the tone of the rest of the album. In the US the song was replaced by the original Wicked World which probably is a better tonal fit even if it is a pretty upbeat and bouncy song too.
Sleeping Village: Yes, back on track with a sinister opening and some sort of Didgeridoo stuff going on. Apparently it’s called a Jew’s Harp, but that sounds offensive. The song loses its way after the intro and doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, beyond a series of random chords and tumbling drums. If anything it’s a showcase for how good Ward and Butler are.
Warning: We close with a cover, and it’s a long’un. 10 minutes plus. Again, I’m not familiar with the original. I don’t think I have any real need to hear it. I do like how the previous track bleeds into this one only for a funky riff to take over. It’s mainly an instrumental and each member gets to show off, but it shows how tight they were as a collective unit too. Solos and rattling and rumbling all tip over each other, compliment each other. There’s some crazy guitar in the middle of this, proving that Iommi wasn’t just a riff master but could shred with the best of them too. And it just keeps going.
Definitely a case of the first half being stronger than the second. The second isn’t bad by any stretch, but it doesn’t compare with the near perfect first half. The best of this and the best of their next album would have made for one hell of a record. As it stands, it’s still one of the great debuts and a must-listen for anyone really. Even if you’re not a rock or metal fan, no music fan should pass it over as a vital part of history. If you are a rock and metal fan, then there’s no excuse. Some of these songs should be etched into your being.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Black Sabbath!
Nightman’s Playlist Picks: Black Sabbath. The Wizard. NIB.