The first Black Sabbath album isn’t one that I’d recommend to newcomers of the genre, as much as some people might say they would. While it captures the essential ingredients to what would become a genre that spawned a whole culture, the writing is so loose that few first-timers are gonna love it on the first spin. But that’s what makes it so special and why so many of us praise it. Tony Iommi’s rapid noodling on the closing chunk of songs combined with the horrific auras of riffing make this a very spoopy spin. One song in particular that I think gets overshadowed by its colleagues is “Behind The Wall Of Sleep.” This one displays the riff-verse style that was introduced in the title track with a far more upbeat swing. The steady drum-beat that tapers into one of Iommi’s iconic solos and eventually the bassline of “N.I.B.” opener “Bassically” tells you everything you need to know. Ozzy’s extra lines thrown into the guitar shifts are just icing on the cake. Fifty years have gone by since the beginning, and it’s still just as spectacular.
The internet has a habit of simplifying things to an absurd degree, and Sabbath’s self-titled is a great example of such a thing. Younger people have been groomed to believe that “In the beginning, there was no metal, and then Sabbath happened, and then there was metal,” when in reality, there was never really a perfectly linear evolution of the genre we all love. Metal remained fiercely intertwined with so many other forms of rock up until the early 80s or so when it finally became so disconnected that it became impossible to tie back to Steppenwolf or whatever. Because of that, Sabbath’s debut here can be seen as underwhelming to genre noobies since it’s so deeply rooted in gloomy blues-rock and doesn’t really sound like what we know metal to be in 2020.
But I’m here to assure any of those younger folks reading that they shouldn’t worry because regardless of whether or not “The Wizard” is fast or has a shredding guitar solo or whatever, this album was an absolute game-changer. It still is, frankly. It may be different from what metal became, but if you see that as a flaw, then I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to beat you with a shillelagh while humming the bassline to “N.I.B.” until you see the error of your ways. If you’re self-aware enough to understand the context of the time (specifically how this was the darkest and most sinister shit basically anybody had ever heard in 1970), you’ll understand that the main riff to the title song is basically the most influential string of three notes in the history of music. “Black Sabbath” and “N.I.B.” alone are responsible for like 80% of the metal you’ve ever heard if you trace its lineage back far enough. The seeds of metal may have been planted via the darkness of blues and the theatrics of psychedelic and prog rock, but the true germination began with Black Sabbath, and the tree it eventually grew into is one of the most sturdy in the forest. I could go on for hours about how great this is, between Iommi’s absolute mastery of riff writing, Geezer’s plain old inexperience with bass (he was originally a guitarist) leading him to just follow the guitar lines verbatim creating this booming, thundering sound unlike anybody else at the time, Rodger Bain being such a laid back producer that he accidentally wound up being a visionary by not caring that the bass was distorted because they were recording way too fucking loud, Ward’s iconic drumming that happened basically by accident (he played so many fills because he admitted he had trouble keeping time and would break off into fills to give him time to readjust before the next bar), and Ozzy’s voice at its most expressive, but there are a lot of other people who have a lot of things to say here. So instead I’ll just cheat and produce that previous run-on sentence to shoehorn in everything while I pretend to be classy and cut it short here.
Half a century ago, this album might not have been the technical birth of heavy metal, but it certainly left an unquestionable mark in defining the sound and creating an atmosphere of darkness that runs through the D.N.A. of all forms of metal music to this day. It had only five original songs and two covers, but that was enough to permanently influence the world of music. Metal music fans, to this day, make pilgrimages to the location of the album cover (Mapledurham Watermill on the River Thames in Oxfordshire, England), showing how intensely important this album is for many metal fans. It isn’t just musically important, but it has also become spiritually important, as it is a fundamental work of art that is rooted deep in the identities of many metal fans. It is a sacred metal album. These roots run especially deep for the subgenre of doom metal, since the opening/title-track is often referred to as the first doom metal song ever, and many doom metal bands aren’t subtle in their aping of Sabbath’s music. There are many distinctive qualities to be found on this album: the somber wailing and sadness of Ozzy’s voice and lyrics, the crushing sound and riffs of riff maestro Iommi, the inventive drumming heavily rooted in jazz by drummer Bill Ward, and the basslines of Geezer Butler that hold it all together. All of these trademarks are still duplicated and paid homage to by many bands today. What doesn’t get as much attention is that Black Sabbath started out as a blues band, and that background still leaks into the crevices of the album, such as when Ozzy plays harmonica on The Wizard. This album is quintessential Sabbath, and quintessential metal, largely because this was a band not restricted by rules, as heavy metal didn’t yet exist in a clearly defined form here we find a group that tried something new. It spawned not only a style of music, but an obsession, a philosophy about life, and feelings that many of us felt at our deepest core that have never left. Heavy metal is now a worldwide culture that is celebrated and lived by metal fans each and every day, and all of that largely started here. I know my own occupation, living as a psychologist that studies metal culture, wouldn’t exist without Sabbath, so tonight I raise a glass to this album, and I hope it continues to influence music for many centuries to come.
My fellow commentators above have illustrated beautifully the importance of Black Sabbath as the cradle of life for all of metal. As stated, this holds true from a musical, cultural, and aesthetic point of view. One other vital aspect of heavy metal that the boys from Birmingham firmly planted in impressionable minds was that pesky old father of lies, Satan. The album was even released on an unholy Friday the 13th long before Mr. Voorhees would make that trendy.
While the sonics of the title track struck fear in the hearts of many a good Christian parent, the lyrics of “N.I.B.” truly set the tone for where they would take their image. The bouncy, infectious and upbeat opening riff alongside the first verse, make the song seem to be a rocking love track:
Some people say my love cannot be true
Please believe me, my love, and I’ll show you
I will give you those things you thought unreal
The sun, the moon, the stars all bear my seal
Such a beautiful sentiment, right? Yet, as the devil is want to do, the deceptive lyrics reveal their true purpose three verses later:
Now I have you with me, under my power
Our love grows stronger now with every hour
Look into my eyes, you’ll see who I am
My name is Lucifer, please take my hand
Matching the shift in those lyrics, many feared this band’s music was a trap to turn our sweet innocent youngins into Satanists or draw them to a concert to be sacrificed! Egads!!
Ultimately, time would tell that Ozzy’s lyrics were intended more as a warning to avoid the traps of the devil. Osbourne and co. were, however, also smart enough to know how to lean into a successful plot and embrace the image. Concerts began to feature upside-down crosses, and Ozzy upped the ante on his stage antics to further terrify the olds while appealing to the rebellious nature of teens across the globe. Certainly, the dark one appeared in plenty of music prior but never seemed to create quite the same stir before being paired with a band that had such an evil-sounding name.
In metal today, the devil appears with more names, forms, inspirations, and styles than religious figures likely ever intended for the beast to have. For some, it continues to serve simply for flash – as Black Sabbath used it – and for others, the horned one is a source of substantive belief. Regardless of the role, Black Sabbath brought inspiration from the dark arts to many a musician our genre calls legend today.
So, in honor, this album (and the father of our most iconic gesture, who would join Black Sabbath later) HORNS AND HAILS!