Review Summary: What is this that stands before meeeeee?
Appropriately released on Friday the 13th of February 1970, very few bands introduced an album that must've been at odds with the climate as Black Sabbath. Popular music had seen an incredible evolution in the previous 7-8 years - while The Beatles originally were considered rebellious innovators (and a decisive factor in Ozzy's decision to pursue a career in music), they'd become lame pussies by the late sixties, when rock 'n' roll had developed a more mature, often political, discourse and people like Keith Moon, Roky Erickson, Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground and many others had made clear that rock 'n' roll music wasn't only delivered by next door's boys. But Black Sabbath! Such an ominous sound! Still blues, but heavier than anything before. Led Zeppelin had already introduced the blistering attack of "Communication Breakdown" and the proto-metal vibe of "Dazed and Confused," but this was grimier, more serious and stubbornly one-dimensional.
While it's obvious the band wasn't yet the well-oiled mammoth of two-three years later, the majority of the songs here work surprisingly well. Even though it's quite corny, the title track still stands as a milestone in heavy metal history. I remember hearing a Black Sabbath compilation when I was 12-13 or so and that song did strike me as something particularly malevolent. It still does, despite its uhm… moronic flavour. Very rarely has a black mass been described this effectively. The lumbering rhythm section, playing as if they're wearing metal clothing, Iommi squeezing devilish sounds out of his guitar and Ozzy's unique wailing on top of it, churning out theatrical lines like "What is this that stands before me? Figure in black which points at me?"
Actually, the vocals on this album are easily the most amateurish ones he's done (even though he always did some "awkward" things - just singing along to the guitar melody being the biggest offender), yet they have a rawness in them he'd rarely achieve on later albums, when his high-pitched nagging paved the way for shriek-meisters like Rob Halford, King Diamond and lots of Germans. Here he almost sounds like David Lee Roth's helpless little brother. Anyway, if you don't dig the ridiculously pumping attack after his golden "Oh no, no, please God help me!," you just don't like music or should limit yourself to Sting's albums. And then there's of course that acceleration and climax to the end, the part that taught kids to bang their heads.
Like all great metal, "Black Sabbath" is heavy, provocative and admittedly a bit stupid, but done properly, it's a ***-load of fun. Arguing that this level is kept up for an entire album would be silly - nothing here is quite as effective - but certainly the album's first half is quite excellent. The harmonica that kicks off "The Wizard" sounds quite out of place, but once the entire band adds their sonic mayhem, you're off for a weirdly structured anthem. Iommi and Butler basically deliver the monolithic goods, but Ward's jazz-inflected drumming and Ozzy's amateurish charm (the "Never talking, just keeps talking"-part is particularly "nice") lift it to greater heights. "N.I.B.", preceded by an interesting 40-second bass solo ("Bassically"), also fits in that list of dumb & heavy rockers, but this time the band actually manages to infuse the song with a sense of grace ("Your love for meeeee has just goooot tooo beeeee reeeaaaaaal") and some of Iommi's coolest soloing. I also have a soft spot for their surprisingly accessible version of "Evil Woman," a simple and dry riff-driven rocker, but just listen to Butler's crawling bass-line and Osbourne's vocals, which are more melodic than ever, taking them almost in Pentagram-territory. "Behind the Wall of Sleep" is also pretty nifty, boasting another sinister riff and Ozzy's vocals always remind me of those in "Iron Man."
More than anything, however, the sound reminds me of the great production jobs rock albums had at the time, so organic and clear, with a fat distorted bass sound and drums you can actually feel. Fortunately, the sonic delight can't make up for remainder of the rather mediocre second half. The acoustic intro to "Sleeping Village" is a nice diversion from the traditional heaviness, but what comes after isn't exactly the most inspired thing they've ever done - basically an excuse for Iommi's double-tracked solo there. Similarly, "The Warning" is a vehicle for a daylong solo by Iommi, which shows he could play, but not necessarily keep up the momentum for several minutes. However, the parts with the vocals ("I was warned about you baby but my feelings were a little bit too strong") are enjoyable as hell (hey!). The album sounds quite out of date nowadays (just because they don't make 'em like this anymore), but its key elements (riffs, atmosphere, etc) hold up surprisingly well. They only needed to tighten up the songwriting, turn up the amps to 12 instead of 11, make sure Iommi didn't stretch out for too long and just become one of the essential (of not the) heavy metal bands. This band kills. Though it may not be the essential metal album that everyone should own, it is definitely one that started the journey.