Review Summary: Here layeth the roots of heavy metal...Prologue
‘Still falls the rain, the veils of darkness shroud the blackened trees, which, contorted by some unseen violence, shed their tired leaves, and bend their boughs toward a grey earth of severed bird wings, among the grasses, poppies bleed before a gesticulating death, and young rabbits, born dead in traps, stand motionless, as though guarding the silence that surrounds and threatens to engulf all those that would listen. Mute birds, tired of repeating yesterdays terrors, huddle together in the recesses of dark corners, heads turned from the dead, black swan that floats upturned in a small pool in the hollow. There emerges from this pool a faint sensual mist, that traces its way upwards to caress the chipped feet of the headless martyr’s statue, whose only achievement was to die too soon, and who couldn’t wait to lose.
The cataract of darkness form fully, the long black night begins, yet still, by the lake a young girl waits, unseeing she believes herself unseen, she smiles, faintly at the distant tolling bell, and the still falling rain.’
Such is an accurate description of the very image that is conjured up by both cover and music of heavy metal’s first record. In 1970, a young group called Black Sabbath
released their debut, and it was not like anything Britain’s, or the entire world’s musical environment for that fact, had come across so far. The record was surprisingly dark, heavy, and eerie, completely contradicting the hippie/flower power culture that had dominated the 60’s. On February 13th, exactly 40 years ago today, Black Sabbath sparked the true birth of heavy metal, the by now widely spread and developed movement that has since been both loved and loathed by many.
Grandfathers of Heavy Metal: The Birth and Death of Black Sabbath
Of course, the creation this album, and more importantly, its sound, did not happen overnight. Much went on before it, and if not all the motions had been set in the right place, Black Sabbath and their sound of impending doom would have never come to life. It was as a 17-year-old boy that Frank Iommi, working in Birmingham’s sheet metal factory, lost the middle and ring finger tops of his right hand in an industrial accident. Frank was an avid guitar player, but briefly considered giving up music after the accident. After attempting to play right-handed, he eventually came up with another solution, putting far lighter banjo strings on his guitar and fabricating plastic cover to put over his damaged fingers. Completely unexpectedly, the combination of these strings and covers changed the sound of his guitar into something very dark, thus creating the monstrous, eerie riffs that have since been the signature of Sabbath’s sound.
What brought the complete band, consisting of Iommi, Terrence Butler, William Ward and John Osbourne together in the end was once again the influence of Birmingham’s environment. Life in Britain’s second largest city was rough in the mid/late 60’s, especially for the working class, whose daily errands entered around the sheet metal factory. For especially younger people, music was an escape from that troubled environment, and so even though Iommi and Osbourne may have never been able to get on, it was with them as it was with many other groups in the 70’s: they were kept together by their shared love for music.
Black Sabbath’s music caused controversy, and that was not just because of their dark sound. Butler had developed an interest in the occult since some time, and the title track was written after he had a disturbing apparition: a figure from the dark side standing beside his bed. The song, and eventually the band (who were initially called Polka Tulk
and then Earth
) were named Black Sabbath, after a 1963 horror film. It were the same kind of horror films that inspired the band for their subject matter. They decided if films about darkness and horror could entertain people, why could music in the same vein not? From the moment that decision was made, Black Sabbath’s work had predominantly covered themes such as the supernatural, the afterlife, the conflict between good and evil, but also ones more directly inspired by their rough living environment, such as war and social chaos.
But because their first album catches the band at their earliest phase of their classic sound, that also means it marks a period in which they were still somewhere in between their large blues-influences (they initially performed covers of famous blues-rock acts such as Cream
before writing their own music) and their newfound direction. Evil Woman
, for example, is ironically one of the album’s least dark-tinged songs, and is led by a standard though tuned-down blues riff, and a classic blues subject: a deceitful woman. It only sounds more eerie because of Iommi’s guitar sound, and as many may have misjudged: it does not at all reference to the woman in black depicted on the cover art. The Warning
is another excellent showing of this: those familiar with the 60’s/70’s popular music scene will instantly recognize the psychedelic manner the riffs, solos and improvisational sessions (the song runs at 10 minutes) are carried out with. This remains one of the most interesting things about the record, and shows how Sabbath has gone from a simple blues-rock (cover) band to the inventors of heavy metal (although the actual term was only coined by Judas Priest
quite some years later).
No, actual metal is mostly really apparent on the first half of the album. Most essential is the opening title track, which is, as it had been the band’s first ‘dark’ effort they wrote, arguably heavy metal’s very first song. It is also the album’s best by far, perfectly carried out by starting with the sound of pouring rain and roaring thunder, until kicking in with Iommi’s downright doom-inspiring riff, played slowly to increase its effect, which is then followed by what is still one of Ozzy Osbourne’s prime moments, as he speaks in an eerie voice: ‘what is this, that stands before me?’
We all know the man can’t sing, but it was just the voice Sabbath needed to stand out so much, and to realize their approach in the correct way. Further evidence of actual 'metal' tracks is found in The Wizard
(effectively introduced by Osbourne on harmonica) and the also quite heavy, satan-themed N.I.B.
Though of course led by guitar and vocals, Sabbath has for a long time gone with a insanely good rhythm section. Butler’s bass has been a crucial part of the music just as much as the guitar, his playing dominant, aggressive, and therefore always very audible. He even gets a few solo spots, most notably on N.I.B.
’s intro. Ward may be least impressive of the four members, but his lazy, psychedelic fills perfectly support the core sound, and while not incredibly inventive over the years, his work has never ceased to satisfy.
The best part was, that from their debut onwards, Sabbath would only grow. Soon they would almost completely omit the still lingering blues-rock influence in their work, and build a blueprint for all heavy metal to come. Black Sabbath
is such an interesting debut in the sense that it very accurately displaying the sound of the band in its young days, and where they have grown from. Some of its material hasn’t aged particularly well, and it is quality-wise far from classic, but its historical status is undeniable. It contains the very first baby steps of a major musical movement. That sure means something.
Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath was:
- Frank Anthony ‘Tony’ Iommi ~ Lead Guitar
- John Michael ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne ~ Vocals, Harmonica
- Terrence Michael Joseph ‘Geezer’ Butler ~ Bass Guitar
- William Thomas ‘Bill’ Ward ~ Drums
TO BE CONTINUED…