This came out 48 years ago today and in honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve resurrected a review I wrote way back in the early days of the 21st century.
“The cataract of darkness form fully, the long black night begins, yet still, by the lake a young girl waits, unseeing she believes herself unseen, she smiles, faintly at the distant tolling bell, and the still falling rain.” – Part of a poem on the original album sleeve.
On February 13, 1970 Warner released Black Sabbath’s debut album and rock ‘n roll was forever changed. Black Sabbath played a new form of rock that was heavy, evil, and loud, and along with bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Blue Cheer, helped give birth to heavy metal. Black Sabbath has the distinction of being one of the few bands that can claim to be a huge influence of two different genres: metal and doom.
The first album is as a menacing a piece of music as one could hope to find in the saccharine world of early ’70’s rock. It was meant to be; the idea was to write scary music, the rock n’ roll equivalent of a good horror film. Even the name of the group was taken from a (crappy!) 1930’s Boris Karloff film. The new songs the band were creating dealt with the occult, war, and the nature of evil, subjects which have gone on to be fertile ground for heavy metal. By today’s standards, it may all seem a bit tame, but in 1970 people weren’t used to hearing Satan and Lucifer mentioned in rock.
For the first time songs that were frightening and intense both musically and lyrically were making their way onto the world’s stage. It’s the subject matter that sets Black Sabbath apart from Deep Purple’s “In Rock” or Led Zeppelin’s first two albums, both of which were more contemporary and less fantastic in theme. The lyrics aren’t totally over the top evil, but just dark and sinister enough to thrill the kids and scare their parents.
Tony Iommi, despite a severe accident to his right hand prior to the recording of this album, creates the prototype for heavy metal guitar. Down tuned and thick, the sound is a paradigm shift for rock n’ roll guitar; still based on the blues but now roaring out of over-driven amplifiers, loud, heavy, and distorted. Ozzy Osbourne’s distinctive voice makes up in charisma for what it lacks in range, while behind those two Bill Ward and Geezer Butler pound away on drums and bass. Rodger Bain’s production on the original is competent for the era, and surprisingly good considering the incredibly short time spent in the studio.
“Black Sabbath” the song is audio dynamite: after a brief intro of rain and thunder, Iommi’s massive guitar pounds that slow, evil tritone riff into the listener’s skull. Ozzy has a unique voice. He manages to sound both like the “great black shape” and scared of this apparition 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 bass solo before the crushingly heavy “N.I.B.”, which despite the sinister lyrics didn’t stand for Nativity In Black (as some proposed) but rather was a nickname for Bill Ward’s beard, which looked like the nib of a pen… or so the band insisted. Accusations of Satanism brought the kind of attention and press coverage no mere drinking binge, groupie sex acts or dangerous practical jokes could ever hope to equal. The bluesy “Evil Woman” is on the British release but on the American release the Ansley Dunbar song “Wicked World” is included instead; both are good examples of how Black Sabbath grew from their origins as a blues cover band. “Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep” seems like a bit of a toss off, but it’s wrapped in a classic Iommi riff and Bill Ward’s swinging drums belie the jazz influences behind his style. “A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village” is a bit of a sleeper, perhaps, but oh… that riff. Tony can make five notes downright inspiring. The song merges almost seamlessly into “The Warning”, a ten-minute opus that allows the band to open up, especially Tony Iommi. But without Bill Ward and Geezer Butler providing a solid foundation, Tony’s meanderings wouldn’t have nearly the same impact. Geezer Butler is, without a doubt, the most underrated bass player in the long history of metal. I can’t imagine hearing these songs without him.
Controversial in their day, Black Sabbath were reviled by parents and conservative religious groups, again breaking ground for metal groups which followed in their wake. 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!
But excess alone doesn’t explain the kind of hero worship Black Sabbath has inspired. From the very beginning they had tapped into a source that resonated strongly with a certain segment of the population… and spawned, as Iron Maiden dubbed them, the Earthdogs, Hellrats, Rivet Heads and Metal Maniacs of the world. Both loved and loathed, it’s a sound that once unleashed has yet to be reigned in.
(I wrote this back in… gulp… 2003 when I was trying to get a foothold with the mighty Deadtide.com crew. I remember where I was when I wrote the original draft, which I revised a bit here. I had a computer, a pallet to sleep on, and a bunch of CD’s. That was about it… sigh.)