Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I only owned two Black Sabbath albums when I was a teenager: Paranoid and Master Of Reality. I enjoyed both but didn’t listen to them as often as my favorites, so they’ve always been a band I like rather than love. I’m not sure why, since they had many of the elements that were important to me: pounding drums, great guitar riffs and a unique lead singer, among others. Perhaps it was because of the muddy production on those albums, or the fact that none of the four band members (guitarist Tony Iommi, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler and drummer Bill Ward) were virtuosos. At the time, my favorite bands (like Led Zeppelin, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, Rush, Van Halen, etc.) featured amazing musicianship, which at that age (and being a young musician myself) was just as important as the songs. Therefore, anyone with lesser musical abilities was (wrongly) dismissed by me and my friends. Of course, I was just a teenager then, and I soon learned that great musicianship doesn’t necessarily mean great music. Don’t get me wrong; the guys in Black Sabbath could really PLAY, but individually they didn’t make as much of an impact on me as other musicians. So beyond the handful of songs that I thought were cool (“Paranoid,” “Iron Man” and “Sweet Leaf,” to name a few), I didn’t return to those records as often as I should have.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I started checking out some of their other albums, including the two they recorded with former Rainbow frontman Ronnie James Dio in the early-80s, yet I still never spent much time with their music and didn’t get to know any of the albums that well. In 2002 I bought a copy of The Complete 70s Replica CD Collection box set, which packaged remastered versions of the eight original Ozzy-fronted CDs in replicas of the original LP sleeves. Not only did this save me some shelf space over standard CD jewel cases, but it was also the first time I got to hear the final two albums they did with Ozzy. These records didn’t have the best reputation, but I remember enjoying them more than I expected. Of course, I probably only listened to them a couple of times before I filed away the box set, and it’s been close to ten years since I’ve spent any time with their music. After they parted ways with Dio, they released several albums in the ‘80s & ‘90s with numerous musicians and singers before the original lineup reunited in 1997 for a live album released the following year. I only listened to the 2-CD Reunion a couple of times but I remember them sounding surprisingly great. About 5-6 years ago, I made digital copies of the post-Dio/pre-reunion CDs from a co-worker, and they’ve been on my hard drive since then. So in addition to revisiting the original dozen or so albums (including three live CDs), I will finally check out those “lost years” and hopefully find some unheralded gems. Before Dio passed away in 2010, that lineup reformed as “Heaven And Hell” and released one studio and one live album. I don’t own either of them, but I might seek them out soon so I can comment on them here, since they were Black Sabbath in all but their name. I normally end my “Thoughts On An Artist” posts without addressing individual albums, but I’ve been listening to the first two for over a week, and I’m ready to share my comments on them now.
For years I believed their debut, Black Sabbath (1970), was a minor release because I never heard any songs on the radio (and none of my friends owned it), so I assumed it was just them finding their way before striking gold with Paranoid. I recall getting a copy of the CD when I was in my mid-20s and, much to my surprise, it completely floored me. The first song, “Black Sabbath,” is a true statement of intent. It’s so powerful, ominous and (most of all) heavy that I was convinced my speakers would crash through the floor of my apartment and end up several stories below. Fortunately I now live in a house, and my music room is in the basement, so I no longer have to worry about plummeting speakers. From the opening sound effects of rain & thunder, until that first monstrous power chord, this album opens unlike any other that came before it, as if the gates of hell have opened up. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no devil worship here. It’s more about fearing evil, like a great scary movie. At around 4:35, the song kicks into a higher gear, setting a slow-to-fast template that Iron Maiden and countless other metal bands would later emulate. The album isn’t all heavy metal, though, as “The Wizard” is a heavy blues featuring Ozzy on harmonica. This one reminds me of early Jethro Tull or Fleetwood Mac. It has a great, percussive groove and some killer start-stop guitar riffs. It’s apparently about Gandalf from The Lord Of The Rings, and how “evil power disappears, demons worry when the wizard is near.” There’s actually a jazzy swing feel on “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” that gives way to a slower groove with a cool guitar riff (Iommi seemed to have an endless supply of those). It’s not one of my favorites, especially Ozzy’s grating vocal melody, but I really like the music.
[Black Sabbath – “N.I.B.”]
“N.I.B.” is erroneously believed to mean “Nativity In Black,” but the title was simply a description of Bill Ward’s beard (like a “pen nib”) according to Geezer, who wrote the lyrics. This is one of my two favorite songs here, along with the title track. Not only is there a mega powerful riff, but the lyrics are interesting as well, sung from Satan’s perspective. At first it seems like he’s trying to steal another soul, but then it becomes clear that he’s fallen in love for the first time and wants to change his ways (“You are the first to have this love of mine”). I love the sparse chorus, which is mainly Ozzy singing on top of light percussion and whole notes on bass & guitar (“Your love for me has just got to be real…”). Iommi’s super-melodic guitar solo was clearly influenced by Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, but he adds his own unique touch. There are two cover songs here: “Evil Woman” and “The Warning.” The former was originally by a late-60s blues-rock band called Crow. Even though it’s crunchy and pounding, there’s really a bouncy pop song underneath. I like this one, but I have a feeling they chose it more for the title than the music. The latter was originally by The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. It’s a 10-1/2 minute plodding rocker with a great vocal hook (“I was born to love you baby, but my feelings were a little bit too strong”), followed by more stinging, Jimmy Page-inspired guitar. At around the 3:20 mark, it turns into an extended instrumental that I imagine was a highlight of their early concerts.
With slightly different musical accompaniment, the first two minutes of “Sleeping Village” could be mistaken for a Doors song, with Ozzy doing his best Jim Morrison impression. The lyrics are as far from heavy metal as you can imagine (“Soft breeze blowing in the trees, peace of mind, feel at ease”), but the music does pick up near the end with a fast paced lead guitar groove. The U.S. version of the album, which I also own, has the song “Wicked World” in place of “Evil Woman.” This one swings, especially the jazzy hi-hat, until a heavier groove takes over a minute into the song. The unexpected hippie side of the band shows itself in the lyrics, addressing untrustworthy politicians, domestic poverty, and reaching out to the needy in other countries. Not your typical heavy metal themes but they were still finding their way, while at the same time writing the blueprint for a brand new genre (which they would take to even greater artistic and commercial heights on their next release).
Most bands would kill to write three definitive songs in their entire career, yet Black Sabbath accomplished that feat on just one album, Paranoid (1970). Released less than a year after their debut, they continued the eclectic nature of the first album but kicked things up several notches. The title track, “Paranoid,” is their answer to Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” a fast & concise rocker with a chugging riff, and it was rightfully their first hit single (in the U.K., at least). This is a true classic, and even though the lyrics (about mental instability) are dark, they still contain a positive message (“I tell you to enjoy life, I wish I could but it’s too late”). “Iron Man” is one of those songs that all of us rock fans have heard hundreds of times over the years, and we often take for granted how great it is. Listening to it again with fresh ears, I was blown away by the various rhythmic shifts throughout, and once again they lay the groundwork for countless metal (and especially prog-metal) bands to come. I was also surprised to discover that it has nothing to do with the Marvel Comics superhero of the same name. Geezer’s lyrics are based on his story about a man who travels to the future, sees a coming apocalypse, comes back to warn the world but upon return is encased in iron and rendered mute, and when he’s ignored he turns against society and plots the destruction of mankind. Sounds like geeky sci-fi (which I guess it is), but with the pummeling riffs, thunderous drums, and Ozzy’s powerful wail, the song is a monster. I can also hear how Iommi’s melodic guitar lines near the end were a huge influence on Kiss, specifically their album Destroyer.
The other definitive song here is album opener, “War Pigs.” The amazing barrage of riffs and drums hides another hippie message, this time anti-war. It begins at a slow-as-molasses pace, with air raid sirens, until the stop-start riff is introduced nearly a minute in. Comparing military generals to “witches at black masses,” the last verse turns the tables, as the war pigs are “crawling, begging mercy for their sins” when judgment day comes. Iommi really shines here, proving himself to be a one-of-a-kind guitarist (while still revealing the occasional Jimmy Page or even Ritchie Blackmore influence), with killer riffs, a smoking solo and a melodic outro. “Planet Caravan” is the opposite, a slow, moody and psychedelic song with processed vocals by Ozzy and Ward on bongos throughout. The sound is spacey instead of dark and ominous, with trippy lyrics like “The earth a purple blaze of sapphire haze in orbit always.” Iommi’s guitar sound is unusually clean, while Geezer’s bass really carries the tune. “Electric Funeral” returns to a slow, almost dirge-like pace, with a fantastic nine-note guitar riff repeated throughout. Although I’m not a fan of the vocal melody (like the previous album’s “Behind The Wall Of Sleep”), that guitar riff, as well as Geezer’s liquid bass melody and Ward’s pounding drums, turned the song around for me. There’s also a great shift at 2:20 (“Buildings crashing down…) before going back to the original groove.
“Hand Of Doom” is an anti-drug song, with lyrics written for a friend who’s become a junkie (“Oh you know you must be blind, to do something like this…you’re giving death a kiss”). Each time I listened to it I liked it more, and although it may not be quite as essential as the first three songs I mentioned above, it’s pretty close. They shift gears throughout the song but all the parts work together extremely well. The instrumental “Rat Salad” is their answer to Led Zeppelin’s “Moby Dick” (which was a showcase for their drummer, John Bonham), although Ward’s manic tempo is more in line with Deep Purple’s Ian Paice or Mitch Mitchell from The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The album ends with “Fairies Wear Boots,” which has an Iommi guitar riff that’s brighter and less crunchier than anything he had done before. I can imagine a young Eddie Van Halen listening carefully and incorporating this into his repertoire. It’s a cool, mindless song with some silly lyrics (by Geezer, I believe) about a dream he had, and how his doctor assumes he’s on drugs. This one’s all about the music, and on that level it’s an excellent way to close out an album that is rightly considered not only one of the greatest heavy metal albums, but one of the best and most influential rock albums ever released.
When I return with my next post, I’ll be addressing the three albums they released between 1971 and 1973, which many fans consider the peak of their career. Hopefully by the time I’ve played them over & over again this week, I’ll love them as much as, or possibly more than, the first two. As I type this, I’ve finished listening to all three just once, and I’m already looking forward to hearing them again tomorrow.