1970, Warner Brothers
Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath"
Let's exhume one from the crypt and prop up the musty carcass for autopsy. This stinking old corpse first saw the light of day on Friday, February 13th 1970 when Warner Bros. released a cataract of darkness fully formed upon the unsuspecting world of rock music. Black Sabbath's debut album is one of the foundations the genre of heavy metal is built upon. There are a handful of others, legends in their own rights who also helped solidify the hard rock sound, but the four blokes from Birmingham really laid a massive stone with this one.
It's still a menacing album of music. I didn't hear it until 1980 but even then I was floored by the cool evil vibe it gave off; the album cover is creepy and I used to stare at that cloaked figure trying to decipher some meaning from those dark eyes. The idea was to write scary music, the rock n' roll equivalent of a horror film, but also loud... painfully loud. But that's what metal's all about. Loud, distorted evil stuff. And Black Sabbath delivered. In 1969 they started writing new songs that dealt with war, the supernatural/occult, and the nature of evil. Changing their name from Earth to Black Sabbath, after one of their new songs (inspired in turn by an old Karloff flick), they went into the studio and blasted out their debut after being discovered while playing the pub and grub circuit in England.
"Black Sabbath" the song is audio dynamite. After the rain and thunder intro Iommi's massive guitar pounds that slow, evil tritone riff into the listener's skull, with a tone which helped create the prototype for heavy metal guitar. Down tuned and thick, the sound is a paradigm shift for rock n' roll guitar. Powered by stacks of over-driven amps, it turned the guitar into a sonic bulldozer. Behind it Bill Ward on drums and Geezer Butler on bass erect a wall of sound of their own, and then Ozzy's unique voice cuts through it all, sounding both evil and scared at the same time. "The Wizard" has an Ozzy harmonica bit in front of another great riff punctuated by Ward's drums. Geezer Butler slips in a fluid, bluesy bass solo before the crushingly heavy and vaguely satanic "N.I.B.", which didn't stand for Nativity In Black after all but was the nickname for Bill Ward's beard, which looked like the nib of a pen. The band did have a sense of humor. And the publicity that accusations of Satanism generated worked in the band's favor, scaring the parents but thrilling the kids who bought the albums. Back to the album, "Warning" is a cool proto metal song, as is the bluesy "Wicked World", which was in fact an Ansley Dunbar song. "Evil Woman", another cover song, was on the original British release (and is included in the newly released box set). If there's any filler on this one it's "Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep" and "A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village", which are kind of spooky and weird and are more like early doom than metal.
Black Sabbath in fact is one of the few bands that can claim to be a huge influence of two different sub genres, metal and doom. This first album, rough around the edges as it may be, remains at the heart of a genre that has branched out far from its roots and humble beginnings. It's dark and scary and loud, and damn if that's not what a metal fan wants on a Friday night!