Review Summary: Volume, Power, Image, Attitude
A dark, loud masterpiece that reshaped and changed Rock music for ever.
The first album by Black Sabbath was heavy. Really HEAVY. In fact it was so heavy that, nearly four decades after it was unleashed on an unsuspecting world, it still stands as an introductory statement of intent that stands against any debut in Rock history. Pretty much cut in a single recording session in late 1969, Black Sabbath probably wasn’t the first album to deserve the retrospectively-bestowed epithet “Heavy Metal”, but it was certainly a benchmark release in the development of the genre. A raw, untotured, hard rock derivation of the Blues. A suffocating, primeval-swamp sound and production. Pneumatic-drill riffs and one-louder distorted guitar. Ominous bass line and Dante’s Inferno-esque drum parts. Neurotic, dread-filled vocals. A worldview built around disturbed visions and apocalyptic nightmares, all filtered through an occult-based lyrical prism – Sabbath brought all the ingredients that would subsequently become Metal clichés to the table and then simply smashed them all together to create one amorphous stew of gloomy, doomy downer Rock.
I believe the aforementioned passage summarizes in the best possible way what this band was all about
: Four guys dressed in black who combined their talent, their love for Blues music and their messed up psychology to create, or to define if you will, the musical beast that we call today Heavy Metal. And eventually their contribution to the genre was far more greater than that. With their next five releases, Sabs took their experimental Blues-Metal sound and made their music bigger, darker, more powerful and everlasting. Their influences were obviously The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, two of the heaviest bands in the late 60’s. Geezer Butler in an interview he gave in 1995 stated that:
To me, Sabbath was always just a really heavy Blues band. That’s all we were – just an out-and-out twelve bar Blues band. That’s what we started as. We just took these Blues roots and made them heavier, because we were into Hendrix and Cream, who were like the heaviest bands around at that time. We just wanted to be heavier than everybody else!.
I think, Geezer with that statement summarized perfectly Sabbath’s intentions, as well as their ambitions: A band that wanted to sound differently from everybody else, a band that wanted to be out of the ordinary, by using the same old school methods, the same old school Blues Rock formula. Indeed, if we analyse the musical content of their first album we will find out that Sabbath in the early stages of their promising career were just using their influences to write their material. Butler on another interview stated that:
On the first album, we didn’t really know what we were doing. When you write your first album, you’re influenced by all the stuff that’s going on around you, and I think each one of us bought our own particular style into the music that we did.
However, the truth is, that the British quartet brought some fresh new ideas to the scenery. These innovations were the ones that paved the way for the future generations and for their approach as to how they can write heavy Rock music. The first and probably the most interesting new element is the revolutionary method of using a bass guitar. Iommi has stated many times, that he envisioned Sabbath as a twin guitar band. Neverheless, he never found a guitar player who was suitable, or capable enough (that’s my assumption), and Ozzy unfortunately had absolutely no idea about the instrument. So Iommi decided to use Butler as a second guitarist. During the recording sessions, Butler’s thunderous bass took the initiative and eventually became the band’s second guitar. That is why Sabbath’s early records are such a pleasure to listen to. When using headphones, in most of the songs you can hear Iommi’s guitar and Butler’s bass separately. In Addition, Butler didin’t follow Iommi’s guitar lines, but played different lines with his bass within the same bluesy context, thus creating a unique sound. Another element is the band’s chemistry. Together Iommi, Butler and of course Ward established a powerful rhythm which is an essential ingredient, for any musician who wants to write Heavy Metal riffs.
What I learned from listening to Sabbath, is this irrefutable fact: in a proficient rock outfit, rhythm section should be comprised of musicians with a distinguished capability in reigning over their instruments and working prolifically as a team. What’s more to add, the quintessential for the bass guitar is to have a dominant, leading sound, because that’s where all the heaviness is coming from. And Sabbath was the first band that incorporated all these elements into their own music. There wasn’t any other band before them, that used the bass as an additional guitar and no one else believed before, that, when it comes to musical compositions, this instrument can be used not only as an accompanying instrument but as a leading one too. Prior to the Sabbath era, the only example of a leading bass I can think of, is the version of Spoonful
by Cream and Led Zeppelin's version of Bring It On Home
I have no intention to analyse each song separately. But I want to write a few things about the title song. If someone wants to understand how Rock music, evolved and moved on from old school Blues, to British Psychedelia and eventually to Heavy Metal he is obliged to listen to the title song. But if this fellow wants, to comprehend the song’s impact in music, he must first listen to the numerous acts that existed prior to Sabbath, in order to see how different this band really was. Then he might appreciate the song and the group even more. What i always loved about these guys was their dark, pessimistic, eerie atmosphere they use to build around their songs. They emerge in an era when everybody was singing about love, peace and flowers and they refuse to follow the trend. So they wrote and perfom songs talking about themes such as drugs, (the negative side of Rock and Roll for which no one else had the guts to mention in their song writing), war, the end of the world, paranoia, unstable relationships and for that, they were not received well by the critics of their era. When I listened to Black Sabbath
for the very first time, four years ago, it was a completely new experience for me for which I wasn’t prepared for. And I must admit, for those few who haven’t heard the song, this can be a life-changing experience. I really wonder, if this track sounds heavy in our time, what would have sounded like in 1970. Most probably like a soundtrack of an impending Apocalypse. The album begins with the eerie sound of a ringing bell, (an opening used by many future bands, like AC/DC, Maiden, Metallica, Candlemass), accompanied by the sound effects of a thunderstorm, an introduction suitable for what will follow. And then, Mr. Iommi introduces to us, with the most perfectly executable way, Heavy Metal. Isn’t it unbelievable, that the first guitar riff we hear on Sabbath’s first album is constructed around the diminished fifth? The infamous interval, which was banned in the Middle Ages, is now considerated a cornerstone in Blues and Rock music. This particular interval was used countless times by Sabbath, because they wanted to create creepy, daunting music to scary and discourage people. Talking about having ambitions.
The rest of the album is just heavy Blues jamming with some highlights like: NIB, The Wizard and Warning. The last track is a 10 minutes cover, in which Iommi showcases his exceptional soloing skills. Each song makes a good contribution to the overall dark, gloomy, negative atmosphere and that is something, which I believe, you won’t find in the other albums. It is true, that their debut is somehow inconclusive and as the years went by, the band with each release got improved, and their next works are undoubtedly superior. But they never matched the same feeling, the tone and the atmosphere of this record.
To conclude, I believe that Sabbath’s greatest contribution in music was their immense influence. People today hail Black Sabbath as the godfathers of Heavy Metal and when they discuss about them, they say how great they are, just because they started a new genre. We can debate for hours, about which was the first Metal band in history, but that’s not so important in my eyes, because everybody has a different opinion about what defines this genre. What really matters is what you leave behind in this world, how tremendous your legacy really is. Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Iron Buterfly, Mountain, Cream, Blue Cheer, Sir Lord Baltimore, all of these bands were playing heavy music and were talented enough to write great records. Some might imply that Zeppelin and Purple were even more talented than Sabbath and I will agree. But when it comes to influence, almost nobody can claim that their work influenced more people. The only artists who can be considered more influential are The Beatles and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. There is not a single metalhead out there, who is a musician, claiming that he hasn’t heard, or he doesn’t like, or he isn’t influenced by Sabbath’s music. Just listen to NIB. The bass intro became a staple for Stoner Rock music. The title track is said to have affected the whole Doom genre. Heavy Metal would have existed, with or without Sabbath’s music, but still would be very different without these four guys from Birmingham who showed us the way.
God bless their doomed, horror movie inspired souls.