Steppenwolf may lay claim to the first use of the phrase in a song, but a strong case can be made that Black Sabbath was the undisputed progenitor of â€śheavy metal thunder.â€ť Every defining characteristic of the Birmingham, England, bandâ€™s self-titled debut would become a hallmark of the oft-maligned genre. And while critics often gave Black Sabbath short shrift during the bandâ€™s initial run, hindsight has proven that the groupâ€™s body of work between 1970 and 1978 is as impressive a collection of albums as one is likely to find in rock history. And it all started with 1970â€™s Black Sabbath.
Though the band formerly known as Earth wouldnâ€™t display music in the way of imagination in the titling departmentâ€”both the album and its opening track share a titleâ€”the music is startlingly original. Opening with a sound effects collage straight out of a â€śHammer Horrorâ€ť filmâ€”torrential rain, resounding thunder, ominous tolling of bellsâ€”â€śBlack Sabbathâ€ť lets the sound effects continue for more than 30 seconds before unleashing a molten riff. That three-note riff is built upon the so-called â€śDevilâ€™s intervalâ€ť (also known as the flatted fifth, or more dramatically, diabolus in musica), a musical device dating back to the days of Wagner and Beethoven. Like those composers, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi uses the interval to connote doom and evil.
Taking the heavily power-chorded melody at a glacial pace, the band leaves large spaces between the notes, giving each the chance to ring out for maximal effect. Drummer Bill Ward and bassist Geezer Butler play in tight lockstep; even though the intensity is high from the opening note, the three musicians manage to wring an increasing level of tension out of the repeated motif. Ward inserts random-sounding yet tightly controlled percussion splashes into the spaces between those doomy notes. A minute or so in, the band quiets down, creating space for vocalist Ozzy Osbourne to enter.
From the opening couplet (â€śWhat is this that stands before me?/Figure in black which points at meâ€ť) itâ€™s clear that the dark tones that introduce the album will be carried through in its lyrical matter. With the band reducing its attack to the most minimalist series of notes, and taps on the drum kit, the focus is placed squarely on Ozzyâ€™s vocal; the spaces between the vocal phrases serve to heighten the tension: What comes next?
Black Sabbath (from their Facebook page)
After an answer of sorts, the musicians resume their louder, heavier approach, with a portentous iron bell chiming along in time. The entire cycle is repeated. But more than four minutes into â€śBlack Sabbath,â€ť the arrangement shifts dramatically. Tempos are increased; while still delivered in an insistent fashion, the parts played by Iommi, Ward and Butler are combined in a manner that is careening towardâ€¦something. Osbourne sings along, but he seems almost consumed by a musical undertow. After a pleading shout of â€śNo, please, no!â€ť he bows out, leaving the instrumentalists to run out the song with malevolent abandon. The martial lockstep of the songâ€™s final few seconds delivers a kind of boiled-down essence of Gustav Holst, hard-rock style.
â€śThe Wizardâ€ť kicks off displaying quite different musical character. Osbourne plays a simple, repetitive figure on harmonica. When the rest of the band joins in, the song seems to be heading in a riff-laden, blues-rocking direction of the sort found on albums by Savoy Brown or Ten Years After. Thereâ€™s enough for a perfectly good song in those first 30 seconds. But after a quick solo from Iommi (with Ward and Butler laying down a monotone rumble under the guitarist) and a quick repeat of the blues figure, everything changes. Iommi cranks up the distortion in a manner that suggests he has a setting marked â€śstun.â€ť The already-established musical dialogue style between him (with Butler in lockstep) and an endlessly inventive Ward is built upon even more effectively here. Osbourne sings effectively, but as good as he is here, the song holds up more than well enough with only its instrumental components. Rarely has as much been done with three notes as Black Sabbath does with â€śThe Wizard.â€ť Itâ€™s fair to wonder if the Ramones drew some kind of inspiration from the tune. Intentionally or not, Black Sabbathâ€™s playing on â€śThe Wizardâ€ť shows them as kindred spirits with Detroit-based rockers the Stooges.
Listen to â€śThe Wizardâ€ť
The third track on the original North American vinyl pressing of Black Sabbath (and most subsequent CD reissues) is a medley. â€śWaspâ€ť is progressive-leaning hard rock, a blues-based instrumental melody with some ambitious touches and a busy bass line. â€śBehind the Wall of Sleepâ€ť finds the band again using a four-to-the-beat call-and-response approach; this time the dialogue is mostly between vocalist Osbourne and Iommi on guitar. The tune begins its fade-out with Ward playing a doggedly simple drum figure.
The brief â€śBassicallyâ€ť isnâ€™t quite what its punning title suggests; it is indeed a Geezer Butler bass guitar solo, but itâ€™s not so basic in its execution. Butler plays through a wah-wah pedal, delivering melodic lines the sort of which are more customarily found an octave or two higher on an electric guitar. â€śBassicallyâ€ť begins to fade out, but â€śN.I.B.â€ť seems to pick up right where the last tune leaves off, with a bass figure in the same key and using a similar tone. Butlerâ€™s bass riff is the foundation of the song; when Iommi enters, initially playing the same melodic line as Butler, the traditional roles between guitar and bass are blurred.
Osbourne delivers the lyrics of â€śN.I.B.â€ť in character as Lucifer, arch-villain of Judeo-Christian mythology. In doing so, he would provide fodder for years of (largely misplaced) conservative religious outcry against the band.
â€śN.I.B.â€ť features some of the most durable melodic sequences on all of Black Sabbath, and displays more than its share of musical shade and light. As the medley winds toward its conclusion, Iommiâ€™s double-tracked lead guitar takes the spotlight; at the very end, the group seems almost to collapse in a heap, only to rally for one last collective musical stab to close the first side of the LP.
Original European pressings of Black Sabbath included a cover of â€śEvil Woman.â€ť The tune had been a Top 20 hit in 1969 for Minneapolis, Minnesota-based blues rockers Crow. The American release left that track off, instead opening side two with an original song, â€śWicked World.â€ť Bill Wardâ€™s jazzy hi-hat work introduces the tune. Iommi joins in with a memorable riff, while Butler plays licks that often reach high on the neck of his bass guitar. As the song unfolds, Iommi and Butler play identical, lightning-fast runs (an octave apart) while Ward does the work of an entire rhythm section himself. The sound of his drum fills show just how â€śdryâ€ť a mix producer Rodger Bain employs throughout much of Black Sabbath; reverb and echo effects are virtually nonexistent on â€śWicked World.â€ť
Listen to â€śEvil Womanâ€ť
After that inventive and somewhat uncharacteristically sophisticated introduction, â€śWicked Worldâ€ť shifts into more familiar territory, withâ€”yet againâ€”an arrangement that features Osbourne in back-and-forth dialogue with the bandâ€™s instrumentalists. A midsection features Iommi playing in a previously unheard jangling style. After a showy guitar solo, the song returns to its standard patterns. Taken out of the context of the Black Sabbath album, â€śWicked Worldâ€ť is a perfectly serviceable hard-rock tune; alongside the albumâ€™s other songs, it suffers a bit in its familiar approach, saved by its inventive opening minute (and a welcome reprise at the songâ€™s end). â€śWicked Worldâ€ť ends with a squalling guitar note.
The final 14 minutes or so of Black Sabbath are occupied by the albumâ€™s second medley. â€śA Bit of Fingerâ€ť features Iommi fingerpicking in an acoustic playing style, albeit on a very metallic-sounding guitar. In an odd choice of musical textures, producer Bain adds the distinctive â€śboingâ€ť of a Jewâ€™s harp. The minute-long song doesnâ€™t really develop beyond the musical ideas set forth in its opening. â€śSleeping Villageâ€ť features some histrionic riffage thatâ€™s instrumentally reminiscent of some of Vanilla Fudgeâ€™s more dramatic moments. Moving through a number of different musical sections, itâ€™s as close as Black Sabbath comes to progressive rock. The fast-paced sections are book-ended by more familiar down-tempo movements.
â€śWarningâ€ť is the third section of the final medley. The groupâ€™s blues affinity is explored here, channeled through whatâ€™s developing as the trademark Black Sabbath predilection for back-and-forth interplay between vocal and instruments. On â€śWarningâ€ť Iommi chooses a guitar tone for his solos thatâ€™s reminiscent of Peter Greenâ€™s work with Fleetwood Mac, and Geezer Butler makes good use of fuzztone effect for his anchoring bass riffs. For his part, Osbourne lands on the flat end of many of his notesâ€”something he would be accused of doing often in the years to comeâ€”but somehow the net effect isnâ€™t as off-putting to the listener as one might expect; in the end itâ€™s just another oddly endearing component of the groupâ€™s collective character, along with drop-tuned guitars and lyrics that explore humanityâ€™s darker side.
With the lyrical section of â€śWarningâ€ť seemingly completed, the closing track on Black Sabbath still has seven minutes to go. Much of that space is filled with tasty blues jamming. For the most part, Ward holds things together while Butler churns out a steady and melodic bass line. Iommi sinks his teeth into extended soloing, subtly shifting his style and tone multiple times. After getting some self-indulgence out of the way, the group comes back together, with Osbourne returning to reprise the final few lines of lyric. With that, marred ever-so-slightly by Ozzyâ€™s failed attempt to sing a melody that reaches outside the bottom end of his range, Black Sabbath comes to a close.
Black Sabbath (photo from their Facebook page)
Though the original lineup would go on to release seven more albums in its initial run, the songs on Black Sabbath would endure throughout the groupâ€™s live performances. Recorded nearly a half-century after the band began (albeit without founding drummer Bill Ward), the 2017 live album The End features three songs from the bandâ€™s debut album.
As captured on the groupâ€™s first album, there was something special about the original lineup of Black Sabbath. After Osbourneâ€™s departure following the release of 1978â€™s Never Say Die!, no less than seven other vocalistsâ€”most notably, Ronnie James Dioâ€”would take their turns fronting the band. In fact, Butler would be replaced by a succession of four bassists, and seven drummers took their place upon the drum throne when Bill Ward wasnâ€™t involved.
Black Sabbathâ€™s founding foursome did reunite several times for an extended run (1997-2006) and a shorter reunion (2011-2012), both times adding keyboardists(!) to the lineup, though those activities would not yield new studio recordings beyond two tracks appended to the 1998 live album Reunion. But it will be the work of the groupâ€™s original lineup that endures; the template for that run of albums was firmly and indelibly established with Black Sabbath.
The impact that Black Sabbath would exert upon hard rock of the 1970s and beyond is incalculable. Though their music differs in some important ways, bands like Uriah Heep and Deep Purple found their heavy-rock pathway blazed for them by Black Sabbath. Later bands like Guns Nâ€™ Roses, Metallica, Melvins and the entire slowcore movement all owe a debt to Black Sabbathâ€™s style. And the bandâ€™s influence would extend far beyond hard rock into some unlikely places: Pat DiNizio, the late leader of New Jersey-based rock heroes the Smithereens, was always up-front about his appreciation for Sabbath; on the bandâ€™s 1986 LP Especially for You, the Smithereens paid a tribute of sorts via an original DiNizio composition lifting its title from Black Sabbath, â€śBehind the Wall of Sleep.â€ť
Like all of Black Sabbathâ€™s Ozzy-era albums to follow, the bandâ€™s debut sold very well in the U.S. Black Sabbath began a five-album streak of platinum or better sales. The 1979 edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide awarded its lowest rating, one star, to all but one of the bandâ€™s 1970s-era albums, including Black Sabbath. But despite the guideâ€™s editors describing Sabbathâ€™s work as â€śeternally foiled byâ€¦stupidity and intractability,â€ť time would change the opinion of much of the rock-critic community. By the 1990sâ€”more than two decades after Black Sabbath was releasedâ€”the brilliance and historical importance of Black Sabbathâ€™s album began to earn its critical due.
Black Sabbath regularly appears on best-of lists covering albums of the rock era. Later editions (slightly re-titled as The Rolling Stone Album Guide) took a different view, awarding the bandâ€™s debut two stars (in 1992) and the highest rating of five stars (in 2004). And in 2017, Rolling Stone went so far as to place Black Sabbath at the #5 spot in its â€ś100 Greatest Metal Albums of All Timeâ€ť ranking.