BLACK SABBATH: PARANOID (1970)
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.
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