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.
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