Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
For nearly two months in 2012 I dove into Black Sabbath’s complete discography a few albums at a time, and wrote about the head-banging, brain-melting experience in a 7-part series. The original lineup of singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward released eight studio albums in the ’70s. Most of them are considered classics and, although their 1970 eponymous debut didn’t get quite the same accolades or record sales as some of the others, it’s now rightly hailed as “heavy metal ground zero.”
For more information on this series, please read the opening paragraph of the first post, which featured the debut album from Led Zeppelin.
For years I believed their debut 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.
“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).
I’m curious where Sabbath fans, especially those who are more devoted to the band than I am, rank the debut in comparison to the rest of their catalog. I love their first five albums just about equally, but I appreciate how Black Sabbath is more musically diverse than anything that followed.