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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath

BLACK SABBATH: BLACK SABBATH (1970)

1) Black Sabbath; 2) The Wizard; 3) Behind The Wall Of Sleep; 4) N.I.B.; 5) Evil Woman; 6) Sleeping Village; 7) Warning; 8) Wicked World.

Thirty-seven seconds. Or, otherwise, «as soon as the second thunderstrike begins to subside». That's what I have to tell myself every time that the tritone-infested riff to ʽBlack Sabbathʼ kicks in, in order to avoid a quick heart jump, and even that does not always help. Kudos to Rodger Bain, who had the idea to add a rain-and-thunder setting to open the song — just imagine how differently it would all be if it just began with Tony Iommi's master-riff. You have to be prepared for that riff, build up some necessary suspense. Black Sabbath took their early cues from B-level horror movies, after all, and those movie guys knew their suspense strategies all right.

Simple, brutal, healthy cheap thrills — this is what these four working-class lads from Birmin­gham were about. None of that «deep» pretentious bullshit. Geezer Butler, their bass player, did tend to add a little mysticism and self-importance to their lyrics (I think Iommi used to refer to him as «the smart one» in the band, which is funny, since most of their social and educational background was more or less the same), but Ozzy Osbourne, the singer, never took the lyrics too seriously (if he did, he'd explode), and the band's basic ambition was simple enough — to kick ass in front of you, to en­tertain you, and, just for fun, to scare some shit out of you in the process.

That said, Black Sabbath the album as a whole can hardly be appreciated as Black Sabbath the band's finest hour. The image of the band — dark, scary purveyors of the nascent heavy metal genre — was fully formed, and from that point of view this is technically their most influential record; but the truth is that on October 16, 1969, when they went into Regent Sound Studios to cut it, they simply did not have enough songs. They played their regular live set, but, unlike, say, The Doors, they slouched around for too long to populate it with enough hook-filled composi­tions. (Speaking of The Doors, the main riff to ʽWicked Worldʼ sounds way too suspiciously si­milar to The Doors' own ʽWild Childʼ, which had come out on The Soft Parade three months prior to the Black Sabbath session — coincidence? or a trick of the subconscious?).

What this translates to is a clear gap in quality between Side A of the album, which proudly stands its ground against any future Sabbath release, and Side B, which, frankly speaking, seems unabashedly dedicated to filler — curious and occasionally fun filler, but definitely not prime Sabbath stuff, and Tony would probably be the first to acknowledge that, particularly seeing how they never played anything from that side live once their backlog started filling up. As a four or five song EP, Black Sabbath would be the shit to end all other shit; as it is, it's padded about as crudely as you'd expect four rather crude Birmingham lads to pad it.

Nevertheless, that first side is quite enough to crown Tony Iommi as the undisputed supreme ruler of the heavy metal riff from the very beginning. The title track and ʽN.I.B.ʼ went on to be­come classics of the genre, and the slightly less known ʽWizardʼ and ʽBehind The Wall Of Sleepʼ are also prime cuts that deserve similar recognition. Technically, these riffs are among the sim­plest Tony ever came up with — and they reflect his genius far better than any of the complex, but so often unsatisfying melodies he'd write for Sabbath in the post-Ozzy era. Just how simple, exactly, are those three chords that constitute the main theme to ʽBlack Sabbathʼ? Jimmy Page would have cringed at having to play something like that. It's a grotesque, phantasmagoric, «cor­ny» (if you wish) sound, for sure, but goddammit, it works on the most elementary emotional level. You want Satan? Use the tritone. It's as simple as that. Funniest of all, Tony did not have the faintest idea of what he was using — he just felt that this combination would give the scary effect that was required, and he used it. I guess Satan was coming round the bend, after all.

You probably couldn't find anybody at the time with ideas more «basic» than Iommi's, and, in a sense, all that press disdain that followed Black Sabbath through their first years was quite justi­fied from a sheerly intellectual point of view. Look at the riff to ʽN.I.B.ʼ and you will see that its first four notes almost coincide with the beginning of ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ; but where the latter continues with a completely different, almost jazzy, six-note pattern, Tony makes his six notes into an extended shadow of the first four — something that Bruce and Clapton would have probably condemned as too primitive a trick. But who cares, as long as it works? And if you play it low enough, and add a steady 4/4 beat, and have Geezer play his bass in unison through a wah-wah pedal, it makes your song unquestionably Satanic, and what exactly was ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ unquestionably? You couldn't give a straight answer, could you? Well, Black Sabbath are a band that has no qualms about coming up with straight answers.

Their singer is so straight, in fact, that when you listen to the early albums, it's as if they were locking him up in an «iron maiden» in the studio every time, then thrusting the mike under his lips. Ozzy could hit the notes, but he had no range as such, could usually only sing in unison with the supporting riff, and always had the same emotional expression to his voice that basically translated to: «don't you fuck with me, or I have no idea what I'll do if you do». It's sort of an odd mix of «mischievous», «stoned», and «panicky», and on paper, it doesn't at all sound like it would be a good combination with Tony's riffs. Honestly, I still have no idea why it is. Maybe it's just the fact that Tony and Ozzy are both one-trick ponies each of which does their one and only trick to utmost perfection, and when they do it at once, it's like a Lennon-McCartney effect for when you only have the opportunity to spare one track of your mind.

Anyway, on ʽBlack Sabbathʼ Ozzy is a lone madman tempted by the «figure in black»; on ʽThe Wizardʼ, he seems temporarily relieved because "demons worry when the wizard is near"; on ʽBe­hind The Wall Of Sleepʼ, he awakens from nightmares into sunny reality; but then on ʽN.I.B.ʼ it is suddenly "my name is Lucifer, please take my hand", so we have to assume multiple perso­nality disorder. Never mind, it's all in a day's work (literally) for Ozzy. Whatever Geezer would write for him, be it gloomy or cheerful, you could always count on Mr. Osbourne to give it his one and only all, and it would still sound charming when set to a prime Iommi riff. Geezer could just as well give him a list of ingredients from a soda bottle.

At their best, though, Sabbath already had more to offer than just heavy metal riffs and a poker face singer. Tony could play a mean lead guitar when he put his heart into it — the solos on ʽN.I.B.ʼ and the title track are still relatively simple, but scorching. And Ozzy has quite an expres­sive harmonica part on ʽThe Wizardʼ, even though, once Tony's main riff finally comes through, you'll probably forget all about the mouth harp. They are also smart enough to let the rhythm sec­tion show their strong sides: Geezer's little introductory solo to ʽN.I.B.ʼ is not very demanding, technically, but with the addition of the wah-wah effect, it is the first «evil-sounding» (rather than simply «dark») bass solo that I know of, almost literally grinning at you with its frets.

But then there are all those problems on the second side, when the band spends too much time jamming on the interminable ʽSleeping Village/Warningʼ rant. Critics say that one of Sabbath's chief achievements was «chasing the blues out of metal» — well, these jams are still fairly bluesy, aren't they? Clearly, somebody spent too much time listening to Cream, and echoes of late Sixties blues-rock were still ringing very loud in Tony's ears when they were recording this stuff. And, of course, Tony is no Clapton, not with these metal fingertips plucking the strings, to seriously com­pete on that market — not that the band ever wanted to in the first place. I actually like the main sung parts of ʽWarningʼ; it is the only track on the album where Ozzy manages to add a little chilly menace to his singing ("I was born without you, baby / But my feelings were a little bit too strong" is delivered with a perfect cool). But all those Claptonisms in the middle, no. Pulling in the wrong direction.

Still, what with all the early heavy metal perfection going on in the first half, the only way Black Sabbath could have avoided an enthusiastic thumbs up would be if they fired Ozzy before the sessions and replaced him with David Coverdale. And don't get me wrong — these, as well as all the other «thumbs up» that will follow are not in respect of the album's «influence». (In fact, in a way, I'd rather that influence never existed.) It is because, as «technically primitive» as these songs are by modern day standards of the metal genre, their primal power still blows away 99% of everything ever since recorded in that genre. And all those savvy, heavily trained modern metal com­posers, playing at 120mph and choking their albums with ultra-complex riffage that all ends up sounding the same, could only wish they were Tony Iommi circa 1970.

PS: A technical note — Black Sabbath comes in several varieties, with some editions containing ʽEvil Womanʼ (a rather lightweight garage-metal rocker, released as the band's first single), some containing ʽWicked Worldʼ (its B-side) instead, and some CD versions incorporating both. Also, track listings may differ depending on how many parts of multi-part compositions are given their own titles (for instance, Geezer's solo before ʽN.I.B.ʼ is sometimes called ʽBassicallyʼ and some­times not called anything). Some of the confusion is due to the differences in original US and UK releases, and some seems to have appeared in the CD era — but I guess it's only fitting for a re­cord that was originally issued on Friday the 13th.

Check "Black Sabbath" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Black Sabbath" (MP3) on Amazon

10 comments:

  1. Well, this was unexpected. Great review, but one small error: The lyric really is "I was warned about you, baby", at least on the original version by Aynsley Dunbar's Blue Whale. Hence the title, "Warning", but I admit I heard Ozzy's mush-mouthed interpretation as "I was born without you, baby" for decades as well. Get off the sauce, Ozzy!

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    1. I've always heard the following line as "But my _demons_ were a little bit too strong". I guess "feelings" makes sense as well.

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  2. "You want Satan? Use the tritone."
    And exactly here is where my problem begins: I am a hardcore atheist and hence are not impressed by this association by any means. What I hear - and have heard since I was a teen long ago - is the same three notes arpeggio riff repeated over and over and over again; sometimes loud, sometimes low. Heck, does that get boring (unless I turn my brains off, or rather temporarily think of other things) as soon as the second verse starts. Also note that the descending riff in the second, fast part is dangerously close to Ray Charles' Hit the Road Jack.
    Then we have NIB where they play the same song (bar the first two verses) twice, including a note for note repetition of the guitar solo. It is a good solo, but it remains bad songwriting.
    Still I totally dig these two songs. The reason is very, very simple: the killer riffs. No matter how much more I like Blackmore and Page as guitarists, they didn't beat Iommi in this department. It's the golden Black Sabbath rule for me: if the song has A-quality riffs I love it. If it doesn't it leaves me cold.
    The riff of Wicked World might have been taken from Wild Child, the way Ozzy presents his J'Accuse ("He doesn't even know who is his father") is a total gas and absolutely unique. The solo here mainly consists of a string of riffs too and they all are killing. Because of this it's my favourite song on the album.
    The instrumental part of Warning is intolerable. But that's what we have computers and editing programs for. The third and fourth verse are exactly the same; cut one plus the entire jam. What remains is slightly more than three minutes of goth-blues that sends the stiff Ainsley Dunbar original to heaven (BS prefers hell as we all know). The lyrics may make no sense at all, but the way Ozzy sings "I was born without you baby, but my feelings were a little bit too strong" (not to mention the other lines, like "watch you slowly take away a love I've never known") is more doom-laden than any goth-rock band would pull off a decade or more later.
    I don't know exactly why, but The Wizard always has irritated me. It's not because of the stupid lyrics; I never care (remember Uriah Heep?). The harmonica is one reason. The "never talking" part another.
    This album imo is what you on your old side called quintessential for the band. They define their schtick here and afaIc every single deviation was a failure. So Black Sabbath, NIB, Wicked World and the edited version of Warning have made it to my personal Black Sabbath compilation - one I hold dear.

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    1. _"And exactly here is where my problem begins: I am a hardcore atheist and hence are not impressed by this association by any means."_

      Well, that was dumb.

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    2. The thing is, the whole satanism thing was marketing. As much as I dislike satanism in music, these guys were never satanic, as in, "Let's go kill some birds and praise the Evil One." George nails it when he says they were a musical representation of a B-Horror film (Think Hammer Films House Band). Dark, Gloomy, Schlocky, Grotesque, and slightly shocking, yes, but they might as well have been representing Gothic morals as much as Anton Levey. Zeppelin was more occultic than Sabbath ever was, at least in the 70s. They were weirdos, for sure, but funny weirdos, like stupid kids wearing fright masks throwing eggs at your house.

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  3. Black Sabbath is growing on you, George. I remember your original reviews back in the old days when you trashed the band and gave them a "one star". Then you grew a bit more fond of them and moved them up to a D, when you changed your rating system. And now you pretty much worship the band!

    Long time reader, here, who is very impressed with your work. Your writing's grown sharper with age. Keep it up.

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  4. Would Graham Clarke mean that I as an atheist should be impressed by the (pseudo-)satanism of the tritone? That's what I call dumb.
    Of course it was just marketing. So what? There were more bands that tried it: Black Widow is the one I happen to remember, but there were a few more. They all are boring - and Black Sabbath always threatens to become boring as well. Unless you are shocked by the "satanic" element of course, which I never have been.

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    1. Get over yourself. Nobody ever said that the tritone's symbolism was the reason to appreciate its musical effect, according to the review Iommi didn't even know about it, and the quote that you cherry-picked for your first comment is immediately preceded and followed by lines acknowledging the symbolism's complete irrelevance to the music itself. Pretending that the tritone has no musical value, so you can smugly assert your intellectual superiority over the (nonexistent) people whose appreciation for Black Sabbath's music is founded on that symbolism, doesn't make you look smart. It makes you look like a douche with bad reading comprehension.

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  5. I'm highly tempted to call this either the weakest or second weakest of their classic first six (it's either that or Vol. 4), if only because the live shows they did in 1970 manage to be on par, if not outdo, the versions here, specifically from the second disc of Past Lives. The version of "Black Sabbath" presents a neat alternate rendition with Iommi providing an eerie jazz prelude and the versions of "Behind The Wall Of Sleep" and "N.I.B." completely annihilate the studio versions. The same thing could also be said about "Iron Man", but that's another story. Still, "The Wizard" and this version of the title track kicks ass, "Sleeping Village" is a hoot and at least "The Warning" doesn't go on for too long. A pretty good first try.

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  6. Believe it or not, I never listened to this album until a few years ago. The beginning of BS is indeed chilling. But I laughed out loud when Ozzy started shouting "Oh God Please Nooooooo..." It's so straight it's hilarious. NIB is almost perfect in its symmetry. Main theme/verse/descending interlude/verse/bridge/verse/d.i./solo/verse/bridge/verse/main theme. Sure it's repetitive but it's great. I loooove the tambourine on those bridges. Almost like a pagan dance circle or something.

    Wall of Sleep also makes me laugh because the second verse is all about how many times Ozzy can say the word "corpse" in ten seconds. Of course, this was probably the first time "corpse" was used on a record that wasn't a Halloween Party album, so I guess he had to get 'em in while he could.

    The production is brilliantly bare. I love the echo they get on Bill's drums, especially those stark tom-tom beats on BS. Like a dead man walking to the gallows...

    And the whole "concept" of the "suite" on side two is a joke. They just threw together three or four half-baked (or maybe fully "baked") ideas and pretended it was their version of "You Never Give Me Your Money/Carry That Weight." But they would fix that problem on the next record.

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