If you are seeking to understand the musical form that I have made reference to here on several occasions called doom metal, then you need to understand the musicians who invented it. And that means you need to understand the band called Black Sabbath. Although Black Sabbath had been kicking around the musical scene of industrial England (specifically, Birmingham) for several years, it was not until the band’s creative element reflected on why people go to see films specifically designed to scare them that they hit upon the idea that would distinguish them from the pack. A song called Black Sabbath was written, and the band found it such a great change in direction that they kept the name for themselves and resolved to write all of their future music in such a style.
Black Sabbath‘s first, untitled album is not where I recommend you start looking if you want to truly grok what made this band so great that countless thousands have followed in their footsteps to one degree or another. It is not a bad album in terms of material, but it takes a degree of getting used to. Add to this that it was recorded on a budget that Ed Wood would turn his nose up at, and pretty much live in the studio at that, and you basically have the same kind of debut album that most bands, great and small, have. A hint of what is to come, but not the unrelenting greatness that was about to be unleashed.
Standout tracks (that is, songs that manage to amaze listeners in spite of the low-fi production) on the first album include Black Sabbath, The Wizard, Behind The Wall Of Sleep, and on some editions, Wicked World. If you can find it anywhere, it is also worth checking out Type O Negative‘s version of Black Sabbath, a cover that demonstrates Type O Negative, and especially the late bassist/vocalist Peter Steele, grokked the band’s material in a way that almost no other artist can claim. The Wizard also demonstrates an instance of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne doing more than harmonising through his nose. Yes, apparently those harmonica notes really are him.
Behind The Wall Of Sleep is, without doubt or question, the best song on Black Sabbath‘s first album. Not because it is played any better, or has any better material than on the rest of the album. But in the days when I still trusted the bits inside my forearms to work well enough to play a bass guitar, it was one of the first songs that I learned when I really began to learn, if you get my meaning. I have learned at least parts of three different songs from this album on the bass, and Behind The Wall Of Sleep has the best bass parts, in my view. Behind The Wall Of Sleep combines all three of the primary influences the band have exhibited ever since. These being the blues, jazz, and to a lesser extent classical music.
But if you really want to grok what Black Sabbath as artists mean to me, then Paranoid is your first stop. Whereas the untitled debut was a quick essay in the craft, a dabbing of the toes on the surface of the lake, Paranoid is a dive into the deepest ocean. It is, to paraphrase a review of an album that came nearly two decades later, a blueprint for a zillion inferior facsimiles.
Paranoid is also the very foundation of what would become known later as doom metal. Although the song War Pigs, which opens the album, has been overplayed to a point where its impact is diminished, the same cannot be said of the rest of the album. The single Paranoid, after which the album was renamed at the last minute, was a three-minute throwaway B-side that the band felt was something to discard. So when it became a top ten hit in England, obviously it changed the whole approach the record company took to promoting the album.
Paranoid hits its stride in the middle. Whilst Paranoid might be their most commercially successful song, Black Sabbath are definitely best remembered for the song Iron Man. It is a great song. The structure of the song is fairly straightforward, but the riffs around which the song is built involve some interesting combinations of notes. But the song I keep going back to, time and time again, is Electric Funeral.
By now, a common joke about doom metal is that at least one title on every album has to involve the words iron, funeral, or both. There is even a song by a band that I will not mention by name here called Iron Funeral. Electric Funeral, the fifth song on Paranoid, tells a detached story of the world ending in a nuclear war. But what the song is about is not nearly as important as the middle and ending of the song. The middle is a free-form jazz run that, although completely out of place for a Black Sabbath song, clearly also has been an influence on more jazz-doom mixtures such as those associated with the like of Mr. Bungle. The ending… let us just say that if you cannot visualise the world’s ending to the end of Electric Funeral, there is something wrong with you.
Master Of Reality shows a Black Sabbath both enjoying and struggling with their success. It is the shortest of what I will refer to as the real Black Sabbath albums, a mere thirty-four and change minutes. It also offers the most curious songs in Black Sabbath‘s collection, with overtly religiously-themed songs that offer quite a contradiction to the usual themes about thinking for oneself and thinking independently.
You can also determine the quality of an artist’s output by the quality of the covers that other artists offer of that original material. Whilst the aforementioned Type O Negative cover of Black Sabbath will probably always hold the crown for the greatest Black Sabbath cover, the Butthole Surfers have covered two songs from Master Of Reality. And yes, they do qualify as covers in spite of how greatly they change tack from the originals. The first cover from Master Of Reality by the Butthole Surfers that I became aware of opens the Locust Abortion Technician album. Sweet Leaf, or Sweat Loaf as retitled by the Surfers, is a worldview-changing cover that will leave you wondering what the hell you just heard for days, weeks, months, years after the fact. But by far my favourite video to be associated with both Black Sabbath and the Butthole Surfers is this fan video for Dum Dum, a song based on one of the simplest riffs of Black Sabbath‘s catalogue.
The main riff of Children Of The Grave, the song on which Dum Dum is based, consists of just three notes. One repeated at a rapid interval for a few bars before the other two are used for emphasis in time with the end of each statement that Ozzy sings. Another of the many anti-war protest songs of the era, Children Of The Grave distinguishes itself by refraining from the usual psychedelic fluff of a similar era and gives a good insight into the feeling of the time. The idealistic dream of the hippie era was fading away, and the reality that an overpopulated world with declining resources was going to experience more war, not less, was starting to dawn on people. Of the eight songs that are found on Master Of Reality, it is widely held to be the best (Solitude is also pretty awesome).
Black Sabbath‘s fourth album was put together in trying circumstances. Not because of any difficulties in securing funding or other resources, but because the growing drug habits of the band’s membership was making the creative process difficult. You would not know it from the resulting album, however.
Originally, the band had the idea to call the album Snowblind, after one of the songs. Although the term is not as well-known now, it was understood to be slang referring to being high on cocaine. And whilst Vol. 4, as the album was eventually titled, is still a great piece of work, certain warning signs were in evidence. Not helping matters was that it was the fourth album the band had released in just two years, reflecting a hectic schedule that left the band ready to fall apart. In spite of this, Wheels Of Confusion, Snowblind, Cornucopia, ST. Vitus Dance, and Under The Sun are some of Black Sabbath‘s best songs.
Long story short, if you are a fan of artists like Black Flag or Rollins Band, then Vol. 4 is an essential piece of listening. Just as Electric Wizard have done with the first album and Paranoid, Black Flag and especially Rollins Band spent much of their catalogue demonstrating that they listened to Vol. 4 very, very closely. Much of the lyrical content of Vol. 4 concerns itself with what would become the defining theme of subsequent decades, with Ozzy urging the listeners that they’ve “gotta go insane” and that he is “trying to save your brain”. This, to a great degree, is why the powers that be have tried so hard to diminish and vilify doom metal so much over the years.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is where the creative and personal fatigue of Black Sabbath shined through the most on their finished albums. It is not that it is a bad album, as such, but the material is pretty inconsistent from song to song. The titular song, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, is one of Black Sabbath‘s best cuts. A National Acrobat starts out well, but the temptation to break into an airy semi-instrumental proves too much at the end for Tony Iommi. In fact a lot of the songs on this album, especially Side B (the last four songs for those of you who grew up exclusively with compact discs) have a feeling of having been half-finished.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath aside, there are three other songs I bother with from beginning to end when I listen to this album. A National Acrobat is one of them. The opening section has a bass riff that every player, regardless of the style he is looking to adopt, should learn. Wide grooving harmonies followed by a sudden and abrupt burst of notes, it is one of those riffs one simply cannot not listen to. And if one prefers their riffs simple, well, the next lot of notes in the song have a nice little one… two-three pattern to give those challenged by the first lot a rest. Fluff is a light and airy instrumental, pretty much entirely on the keyboards, that lulls the listener into a false sense of security and relaxation in the classic Black Sabbath-style one-two punch.
Immediately after Fluff comes what I consider the piece de resistance of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath: Sabbra Cadabra. I cannot begin to tell you the riff that it is based around. Even trying to hum it out poses a bit of a challenge for me. But the first few minutes of the song pack a punch that really make me wish the rest of the album was that awesome. The rest of the song keeps up this punch, making it one of two or maybe three songs on the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album that is as powerful at the end as it was at the start. The last song on the album is also the best of the second side. Spiral Architect is far from the strongest cut on the album, but as a closer, it leaves a great impression.
By now, you might have gotten the impression that I do not like the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album. Whilst I think it is very overrated (one statement in a video, “Sabbath‘s finest hour”, earns the writer a good kick in the arse), it is a good album overall. However, I strongly believe that if you are in search of a good album to introduce yourself to Black Sabbath with, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is further down the list than a lot of people think it should be.
Looking at the gaps in years between albums, it is easy to see that it was getting harder and harder for Black Sabbath to come up with material. Part of this can be associated with the fact that when they started, Black Sabbath were literally one of a kind. They remained one of a kind for so long that the mainstreamist norms almost forgot about them until bands like Cathedral or Electric Wizard began to rise to take their place. But by far the biggest problem was the drug abuse and interpersonal conflict within the band. The complexity of the material was not helping, either. Black Sabbath‘s untitled debut album was recorded in about a day, on a budget of maybe a thousand UK Pounds. Sabotage, on the other hand, was more than a year in post-production alone.
It was a year well spent. Multiple styles and ideas of this odd music that they had invented are explored here. Every thrash band, especially Brazilian ghetto-thrash-death rebels Sepultura, quite obviously listened to Symptom Of The Universe very carefully. And why not? Although the first three quarters of the song seem to be a competition between Geezer and Tony to see who can make the angriest-sounding notes, the closing acoustic flourish, partly through the former’s poetry, brings images to the highly visualising mind (eg. mine) that do a crap on the explicitly-promoted romance novels we know and love from a great height.
And if you want to know where the bands that make epic-length songs that take up massive fractions of hours yet seem to only last a couple of minutes get their ideas from, Megalomania is your first port of call. A nine and a half minute epic dealing with an unnamed protagonist’s struggle with religious deprogramming, Megalomania is a tour de force of awesomely powerful rhythms and high harmonics that takes a number of listens to fully grok. Add to this songs like Thrill Of It All, Supertzar, and The Writ, and you have one of the few albums that I will hold in anywhere near the same regard as Paranoid. Hence, if you are new to the Sabbath thing and need a means to acquaint yourself with the madness, Paranoid and Sabotage are the places to start.
So far, you have heard me attempt to explain which of Black Sabbath‘s albums are the best to start with, depending on your inclinations. Now, I can tell you something that applies to all people of all inclinations. If you are looking for the first Black Sabbath album to acquaint yourself with, then I strongly advise exhausting yourself on albums one through six very thoroughly before bothering with seven and eight.
No matter who you ask, it seems that Black Sabbath‘s seventh album, Technical Ecstasy, always gets the worst rap. After taking the time to listen to it and think about my reactions, I can see why. It is not that Technical Ecstasy is a bad album, it is just that it lacks the oomph of the six albums that came before it.
Part of the problem is that the band, especially vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, was by this point so drugged up that they could not quite make up their mind what they were doing. For the previous five years, Black Sabbath were setting down a path that hundreds, if not thousands, of future bands would be following. Doom metal has literally transcended its roots in the blues and become something so widespread that even bands in as disconnected places as Croatia play it, and play it well. So when Technical Ecstasy offers up slices that sound like emulations of Pink Floyd or even The Bee Gees (It’s Alright), it does not sit well with a lot of listeners. And when the album veers into stereotypical wock en woll (Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor), it becomes clear that the innovative creativity that was once this band’s hallmark has taken its leave for the time being.
Does that make Technical Ecstasy a complete write-off? No. But irrespective of how you approach it on the first listen, you need to prepare yourself for something very different from the previous six Black Sabbath albums. That, I suspect, is the biggest reason behind the overwhelmingly negative reception it has received ever since it was released.
Never Say Die was the last (so far) album of new material that Black Sabbath recorded with Ozzy Osbourne. Like Technical Ecstasy before it, it is held in lower regard than albums one through six. As with Technical Ecstasy, this is for a credible reason, although of those two albums, it is also the better. The attempts to transition into another genre continued, and were somewhat more successful this time around, but the clash between the core audience and whomever Black Sabbath were trying to branch out to remained in effect. The problem, essentially, is that if people want to listen to “la la la” pop rubbish like KISS, they will go and listen to KISS. Black Sabbath had established a reputation as being above and beyond such shit, and that is what counted most against them on all of their post-Sabotage albums.
That does not mean there are no standout tracks, of course. But I must repeat my earlier cautionary note. Make damned sure that you have listened the hell out of the other six albums before you bother with these two.
As I have also said, Never Say Die is the better of those two albums. That puts it slightly above half as good as Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, if you want to get into relative terms. And to be brutally honest, I think that when Ozzy left or was fired from Black Sabbath for the “final” time after this album, it was for the best. Ozzy, for his part, would embark on a solo career that yielded one great album (Diary Of A Madman). Black Sabbath, for their part, continued with an ever-changing roster of musicians and released a cavalcade of albums that grew more embarrassing with each release. The only constant in the membership being guitarist Tony Iommi.
I hope that this quick guide to the Black Sabbath albums that count has enlightened readers who are unfamiliar with this great band. For those who are already familiar with this great band, or if you wish to share an insight that can help others embrace the greatness, the comment box is always open. If you are still wondering about the greatness of this band, then I hope I have given you a good place to start investigating.
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