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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Black Sabbath: Paranoid


1) War Pigs; 2) Paranoid; 3) Planet Caravan; 4) Iron Man; 5) Electric Funeral; 6) Hand Of Doom; 7) Rat Salad; 8) Fairies Wear Boots.

Funny as it is, Black Sabbath's unquestionably most popular album, and the one that the average listener probably associates the most with the band, was sort of a «fillerish» affair. Although it already took the band a whoppin' six days to record it, it was neither as image-establishing as Black Sabbath, nor as technically groundbreaking as Master Of Reality. Its best known song was, in fact, quickly thrown together at the last minute to occupy some empty space — and its actual musical innovations, such as the band toying around with acid jazz on ʽPlanet Caravanʼ, aren't usually listed as its really strong points. And yet, it's fuckin' Paranoid, the brilliant metal masterpiece to end all other masterpieces, and we're not worthy. Say what you will, but there was definitely something in the air around 1970 — some sort of spirit that was hunting for you, not vice versa. Sometimes all you had to do was just sit there and wait.

Anyway, Paranoid is as good as Black Sabbath and even better, because it rectifies that record's major mistake — this time, the band rarely, if ever, allows itself to just fool around, and Iommi comes up with enough individual compositions to stretch over both sides of vinyl. Of course, a few of the songs could have been cut down by a couple of minutes without much harm; I am tal­king specifically about the mid-section to ʽHand Of Doomʼ and maybe about a couple more «boo­gie interludes», such as the one that disrupts the eerie radioactive flow of ʽElectric Funeralʼ without making a lot of sense...

...yes, and then there is ʽRat Saladʼ — the obligatory tribute to Cream's ʽToadʼ and Led Zeppelin's ʽMoby Dickʼ with their introductory/coda riffs framing a drum solo. Now Bill Ward is a fairly good drummer for basic Sabbath purposes, but hardly a technically endowed madman of the Baker / Bonham caliber, and most people tend to view the track as pitiful filler. However, Iommi's riffage is good, and the solo itself lasts for less than a minute, so (a) how could it seriously be a bother? and (b) the short length suggests that the whole thing is more of a good-natured parody on the ʽToadʼ routine than a serious musical statement of the "I'm Bill Ward, drummer extraordinaire, I can take on any sucker!" variety.

Apart from those minor and easily quenchable quibbles, I cannot think of a single reason to dis­like Paranoid, an album where exciting musical ideas — sometimes so brutally simple that they border on «guilty pleasure» — start falling around you like ripe apples off a well-shook tree, or, to use a better analogy, like high-explosive bombs off a well-disciplined squadron. Because the band does show coordination, discipline, and a collective understanding — not just between Tony and Geezer, whose guitar/bass duo is responsible for the amazingly orchestrated heaviness, but also between the players and the singer, who has now learned to add extra shades to his voice: the protagonists of ʽWar Pigsʼ and ʽParanoidʼ are really two different persons now.

ʽWar Pigsʼ is actually an important Sabbath song in that it dispenses with the «Satanic» image­ry and shows the lads for what they really were — simple, generally well-meaning people. The classic Sabbath myth going around is that they were a mean, lean band that hated hippies and all that flower power crap, but they sang about the virtues of peace and love and the evils of war and hate as convincingly as anybody — so what if they downtuned their guitars a little bit? Ironically, the original title of ʽWar Pigsʼ was ʽWalpurgisʼ, and the song was to be more about actual «witches at black masses», but the record company insisted that ʽWalpurgisʼ was too Satanic, and the band easily changed the title to ʽWar Pigsʼ.

Anyway, if you want to properly understand the difference between an awesome «B-grade», «cartoonish» artist and an «A-grade», «serious» one, try listening to ʽWar Pigsʼ back to back with Hendrix's ʽMachine Gunʼ, both of them lengthy anti-war epics recorded at about the same time, both of them trying to use musical means to convey the dreadfulness of the modern battlefield. Jimi's composition, with its rat-a-tat gunfire and anguished guitar wail, penetrates such depths where Iommi's riffs and guitar tone have little hope of reaching. But that does not mean that ʽWar Pigsʼ is not a thrilling ride all by itself — it is simply more about anger and disgust than actual physical and emotional pain, and, of course, about the «hand of doom» that is best symbolized by Tony's monster riff that links the song's «accappella» verses to the bridge. Apart from that, ʽWar Pigsʼ is probably the best place to convince yourself that Ozzy was a capable singer — the way he is able to sustain those high notes at the end of each line without breaking is impressive (and even more impressively, he used to be able to replicate that onstage).

The two big singles, the ones that elevated the LP itself to its champion position, hardly deserve additional comment — what hasn't yet been said about ʽParanoidʼ and ʽIron Manʼ? I'll only say that I don't think I have ever heard a guitar tone quite like the one that Iommi uses for the chuggin' riff of ʽParanoidʼ. A little fuzz there, a little distortion, but there seems to be some addi­tional unknown part to that recipé which they never reproduced in concert, which is why the in­imitable stu­dio version will be always superior to any live performances (and, in any case, it is a three-minute single by definition, so no live performance would ever allow them to stretch out or improve on the song in any way). And if there is a riff out there that is able to better convey the impression of an iron giant strolling through the doomed city streets than the riff of ʽIron Manʼ, well, I'm open for suggestions.

But there are pleasures, subtle and non-subtle alike, to be tasted here well beyond the scope of the three best known songs. ʽFairies Wear Bootsʼ is one of the awesomest «anti-trippin' warnings» of all time, where Tony's melody — wobbling and threatening at the same time — could indeed be taken as an ironic lashing of the acid-happy side of «flower power». The wah-wah rumble of ʽElectric Funeralʼ tries to convey the atmosphere of a nuclear holocaust — honestly, it feels more like the flames of hell, but then the two are closely related anyway. The biggest surprise is their experiment with nocturnal jazz on ʽPlanet Caravanʼ, a hushed, moody interlude where Ozzy's vocals are filtered through a rotating Leslie speaker and Tony plays some simple, but tasteful jazzy improv lines over Bill Ward's congas. Down with flower power, eh? The song is as down­right «psychedelic» as Jefferson Airplane at their trippiest — and is the only place on the album where Black Sabbath actually go beyond «cartoonish» and almost end up in «haunting» territory, although maybe a few more overdubs would be necessary to complete the picture.

In short, Paranoid is where we first meet up with the band's «working class genius» in almost completely unbridled mode. Other than ʽRat Saladʼ (unless we treat the number as parody), they are doing their own thang here, totally and completely, aware, but utterly unafraid, of their limi­tations, and daring to tackle pop structures, jazz improvisation, and multi-part art-rock musical construction without any intellectual pretense or harsh musical training. For which they were understandably grilled in the musical press — and any lesser band in their place would have de­served that. But what lesser band could have come up with the riffs to ʽIron Manʼ or ʽFairies Wear Bootsʼ? Lesser bands are usually content to play it «simple and stupid», forgetting about the third necessary ingredient — «simple, stupid, and scorching», which is exactly what Para­noid is for most of its duration. Thumbs up, of course, although I probably have to put in the predictable request — dear «classic rock radio» programmers, how about playing some other songs except for ʽParanoidʼ and ʽIron Manʼ from time to time? I'd even settle for ʽRat Saladʼ, out of sheer propaedeutic purposes.

Check "Paranoid" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Paranoid" (MP3) on Amazon


  1. I was pleased to hear "Fairies Wear Boots" on the radio once, but I'm guessing the DJ just hit the wrong button and didn't cut out for fear of embarrassment.

    While lacking the sinister stoner-doom guitar tone of "Master" this is still their best because of the songwriting -- they never reached this level of consistency again. KISSS it is -- not many bands could hold your attention with such simplicity (this is where Sabbath and AC/DC hold common ground). But as with you, the most pleasant surprise was the dreamy jazz-psych ballad that came out of nowhere -- and it captures the atmospheric aspect of space rock (as opposed to the heavy "drone" of Hawkwind) better than a lot of bands who dedicated themselves to the style. Just goes to show you that these Birmingham stoner "lunk-heads" had a lot more creativity than meets the eye. Not the best heavy metal album of 1970 (that honor still goes to "Deep Purple In Rock") but a worthy second and a favorite of mine.

    I'll be interested to see how your views on the later Ozzy and Dio albums have changed over the years.

  2. Actually, from what I gathered, the reason Paranoid was recorded in such short time was that the material was already worked out. At least three of the tracks - "War Pigs", "Rat Salad" and "Fairies Wear Boots" were in their embryonic stages when Sabbath was recording their first album and completed around April of 1970. Only the title track was written in the studio.

    1. I believe you're right -- according to Bill and Tony "War Pigs" emerged from a live jam as early as 1968.

  3. Also, I'm eagerly looking forward to your new reviews for Budgie -- one of the best discoveries I made after stumbling upon your old site. Any idea when you'll be starting on those?

  4. Black Sabbath at its zenith and of course because of the three classics. If you were a Dutch teenager in the second half of the 70's, like me, these were the three you heard on radio. So let me handle the rest first.
    I never cared for Planet Caravan; repetitive and boring. I never cared for Rat Salad either; nice instrumental parts, non-offensive drum solo, nothing special. The disappointer is Electric Funeral, with a so-so riff and both Osbourne singing and Butler playing along. Hand of Doom and Fairies wear Boots sound somewhat sterile and artificial, as if the band is not comfortable with them. The overdubs don't help. There are superior live versions from the same concert I linked underneath to.
    But even the Unholy Trinity shows the flaws of the band. Paranoid is fast, energetic and tense; then note that it's still slower than mid-tempo Deep Purple. Still Maybe I'm a Leo sounds relaxed. It's not a flaw of Paranoid though - the song is perfect, from the excellent intro setting the mood to the fine solo totally matching Osbournes vocals. Rhoads and several others were better skilled guitarists, but they never managed to reflect on Ozzy's mind like Iommi did. There is no cheap imagery; Ozzy expresses totally convincing the personal demons haunting his mind. Of course that was (and is) recognized by truckloads of teens and several adults as well. No wonder it became a worldwide hit.
    War Pigs is the model for every sing progrock epic that would follow, bar Child in Time and its offspring. No War Pigs no Master of Puppets for instance. That intro may be simple, with Iommi playing some power chords, it's also highly effective, not in the least because Butler and Ward take turns to fill the gaps between those power chords. That growling bass never fails to get a grip on me. The first and third vocal section are constructed like Black Sabbath the song: this time Iommi and Butler play just two notes, while Osbourne is accompanied only by Ward. The second vocal section is build upon a killer riff like only Iommi produced. Osbourne's his J'Accuse is big sick fun: "They only started thehe war". The solo is simple but brilliant again. The band totally makes clear that there is no romanticism in war; as such it's only comparable with Shostakovich's Eight's Symphony, Third Movement. In the mid-section of that one you can hear Death dancing on the graves as well. The flaw comes at the end and is the same as with NIB - Iommi repeats his solo note for note. Fortunately I can forgive him because the song is so good as a whole.
    Finally there is Iron Man with it's dumb main riff. Sure, it was the first melody my son could sing as a toddler and as his father I' totallly objective saying that he improved on the lyrics. There are several other riffs in the song though and they are not dumb at all. Take for instance the ascending riff immediately following after "He just stares at the world", Or take the desecending riff that builds the bridge towards the solo, with that fierce accelaration. The intro and the coda, based on the same idea, but played in competely opposite manner, provide a nice feel of symmetry. The slight disappointment comes at the end, when Iommi reuses the descending riff from the coda of Black Sabbath the song. Once again it's not a flaw of the song itself, because it works here even better.
    Never ever would the band reach this level again; they only would come close a couple of times.

    "the in­imitable stu­dio version will be always superior to any live performances "
    This one is as good, replacing any sophistication left with raw energy and dispair:

    Ozzy is also a far cry from the clown he would become later. This version is not on Past Lives.

    1. "War Pigs is the model for every sing progrock epic that would follow"

      Yeah, you know. Thick as a Brick and its obvious Black Sabbath influence.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. He means the "progressive" structures utilized by groups prior to the thrash era, starting from Judas Priest all the way through Iron Maiden. Even today, a great many traditional genres of metal such as Doom and (old style) Power still use these blueprints.

    4. A few thoughts:

      WAR PIGS--There's not a genetic test available that could eliminate the intro as the bulkier, slower, and meaner sibling of Nights in White Satin.
      --Tony's bursts after each couplet, particularly the screaming 1-2 punch with Bill on the last line. Yes.
      --Ozzy sounds particularly redneck on the vocals. Still cool.
      --I'm not in love with the "Luke's Wall" riff at the end. It seems a little blah and doesn't fit the song for me. His solo is cool, but I HATE the sped-up ending. It's not even an ending, it's a screw-up.
      PARANOID--The treated solo (right channel?) is so distorted as to be hideous and disgusting--in other words, perfect.
      PLANET CARAVAN--I'm impressed they went for a stylistic shift, but the distorted vocals are indecipherable. Tasteful playing, indeed.
      IRON MAN--See MNdb's comments above.
      ELECTRIC FUNERAL--I like the weird wah-wah riff, it's really captures the zombie vibe.
      --The fast break is cool. Ozzy's goofy chant is so simplistic it makes me laugh.
      --Love the "Heaven's golden chorus/Hell's angels" apocalyptic ending, with that sinister "Ever trapped in burning CELLLL..."
      FAIRIES WEAR BOOTS--I love almost everything about this song, from Tony's octave lick on the opening solo, to the sexy way Ozzy shouts "Yeah" at the end of the first verse, to the "Jack the Stripper" boogie shuffle.
      --I used to think the transition from the straight four opening to the shuffle theme was so sharp it had to be a splice job, but they play it straight through. Just like the end of the solo on Iron Man, Bill switches the beat seamlessly. Take that, Neil Peart!
      --Points are taken off for that dumb repeating riff at the end, it's a terrible way to end the album. Tony hadn't figured out how to end a metal song with a bang yet.

  5. I love War Pigs, especially the guitar "solo" at the end. Sometimes a few well chosen notes can be much better than a lengthy flashy solo.