Review Summary: What is this that stands before me?"We just went in the studio and did it in a day, we played our live set and that was it. We actually thought a whole day was quite a long time, then off we went the next day to play for £20 in Switzerland."
– Tony Iommi
I have to tread carefully around how I present the unparalleled importance of Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album, without it being misconstrued as hyperbolic fandom, but let me get straight to the point: Black Sabbath
is, objectively, one of the most important albums to grace music’s long history. And yet, as you can see from Iommi’s words above, it was humbly and naively recorded by four working class, post-war Brummies who had little foresight into what they were about to unleash onto the world. Considered by many to be heavy metal’s birthing ground – the inception of heavy metal and all its characteristics for the next fifty years – Black Sabbath
’s sound was, like most things in life, discovered by accident. Black Sabbath’s demonic instrumentals were harnessed by Geezer Butler’s incidental inexperience with the bass (initially starting out as a guitarist before Black Sabbath), leading to Butler following the guitar riffs and thus forming a rounder, fatter sound for the band, as well as Iommi’s unorthodox down-tuned guitar setup. The latter at the time was used as an initiative if nothing else, a means to playing the instrument rather than following the pursuit of pleasing tonal aesthetics. This came about after an accident Tony had at work, cutting off the fingertips on his right hand while he was working on a sheet metal press. I mean these kinds of limitations would normally be considered hindrances, but in actuality, they turn out to be Black Sabbath’s idiosyncratic, seminal building blocks for the next half-century.
Before we dive deeper into this, I’m going to put it out there now; Black Sabbath
is not their best album. It has to be understood that this is a masterpiece of unequivocal proportions and pioneer ship, but it clearly shows evidence of Black Sabbath’s adolescence. This is the pre-era (as short-lived as that era was, as Paranoid
would release only half a year after this) of timeless hits like “War Pigs”, “Children of the Grave”, “Changes” and “Paranoid”. No, what Black Sabbath
offers is an unadulterated formation of the band’s sound. It’s a sinister incarnation that lacks a lot of the more obviously refined hooks associated with the band’s proceeding works. I can’t even fathom what it must have been like casting your ears on this kind of sound for the first time back in 1970 – the oppressive clusters that spiral around these gritty soundscapes. Opening track “Black Sabbath” is a haunting representation of that: correlating the start of a subgenre that would later be known as “doom”, with its filthy, lethargic brace of sledgehammered guitar notes, underpinned by Ozzy’s melancholic howls. It sets the tone perfectly before finishing off with a hastened conclusion, packed with a guitar solo that could cut teeth.
The most interesting part about this though, after all these years, is their sound has rarely altered from Black Sabbath
’s template; the band have merely carved out a tighter way of writing songs like the ones presented here. As such, unsurprisingly, all of their potential is on full display here: Iommi’s guitar solos on Black Sabbath
are as attentive and on the money as they’ve ever been, but none more so than on “N.I.B”, “Warning” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep” – setting the kind of precedence a song like “Children of the Grave” would later reap the rewards of, more elegantly, just a year later. Of course, Tony’s distinct playing is only one piece of the puzzle and wouldn’t be half as effective if it weren’t supported by Ward and Butler’s frantic, driving groove which sits under the guitar’s wailing solos and gritty riffs. The same can be said for Ozzy’s indelibly poignant vocals, which have a keen ear for following the guitar’s melodies and thereby delivering an oppressive vibe for the whole album to latch onto with his catchy, pained performances. All of these things have been pertinent elements to any one of Black Sabbath’s works after this, but they can be clearly heard in all their raw glory from day dot, right here.
Of course, the only real flaw I can see with the album is that it’s a little rough and ready in places, sagging just ever so slightly in the songwriting department at times. Yeah, maybe some transitions feel a little clunky, and maybe “Warning” is a bit bloated and inconsistent with its ideas, but even then, you could still overlook its lack of cohesion and self-indulgences as a means to pushing the boat out sonically. Because, frankly, it’s easy to appreciate the level of musicianship and innovation on offer here. Black Sabbath’s early output is astonishing – releasing a string of timelessly influential classics in quick succession – and while Black Sabbath
isn’t quite as refined or focused as Sabbath’s acclaimed follow-ups, it’s still a barnstorming record that showcases their omnipotent creativity and innovatively evil sound. It’s hard to believe this album is a half century old next week, but I can tell you now, it’s vigour and relevance hasn’t waned a single day since its release in 1970, and you owe it to yourself to experience it if you haven’t already. And if you have, bust it out again for old times’ sake.