Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath

To the origin point of doom. The riff. Contrary to marketing hypersimplification, no, Black Sabbath did not conjure heavy metal out of thin air, but they sure as hell got there first. You can root around late ’60s rock, Hendrix, Blue Cheer, Blue Öyster Cult, Led Zeppelin, Cream, even The Beatles if you want to stretch or hang your hat on a couple tracks from their last years, and find flashes of what you might call pre-heft. With their foundation in blues rock like so much of what was emerging in the UK and US at the time, Black Sabbath codified hard blues riffing with the depth of low end essential to create a sense of aural weight. If ‘heavy’ as a musical ideal was previously gestating, Black Sabbath‘s Black Sabbath is where all the threads came together to such a degree that it tipped some imaginary balance in the brains of listeners and was born as something new. Black Sabbath‘s Black Sabbath is a nexus. Heavy music would probably exist without it, but not as it does today. We will never be able to chart its full influence, because it is endemic to the microculture.

And rest assured, it’s hard in concept to look at an album that’s among the most landmark of landmarks in the history of recorded or rock music, an icon that’s earned any and all flowery hyperbole you can throw at it and then generations’ worth more plaudits, and try to look at it objectively, but one of the key facets of Black Sabbath is that the album refuses to let you romanticize it on any other level but its own. It is not the best Black Sabbath album either of the original lineup — vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward — or the post-Ozzy years, but it has something not even Paranoid, which was released later in 1970 (Sept., as opposed to the self-titled in Feb.), could have: it was utterly clueless of what the band was about to become.

At this point, your experience of the album is probably going to much depend on which version you take on. Do you want the Crow cover “Evil Woman, Don’t You Play Your Games With Me” with its casual misogyny and a boogie speaking to the band’s early days bumping around Birmingham as blues rockers? What about “Sleeping Village?” With decades of reissues, remasters, bonus material, on and on and on, especially if you’re not holding the 1970 Vertigo Records edition in your hands — which I’ll assume you’re not — and amid the disorganized wreck that is digitalia and the world of streaming, but whether or not the rainstorm you hear at the start of “Black Sabbath” sounds four levels of volume lower than the harmonica at the start of “The Wizard,” the songs themselves are undeniable and righteously imperfect. Ward‘s over-the-top fills in “The Wizard.” Ozzy sounding nervous singing “N.I.B.,” which is fair considering the Butler bass solo from which the song emerges, and early in the album, with the first two cuts and the swinging pickup at the start of “Behind the Wall of Sleep” that leads into the open verse, Iommi leads the material riffing to such a degree that even 53 years after the band’s first release, he’s never been given the credit as a guitar player that he’s deserved for his soloing.

But the record is sloppy. Disjointed. “Behind the Wall of Sleep” fades out lazily, like the band had no idea how to finish it, and its intros confuse the proceedings. The lyrics and patterns come across as simple, the melodies are dark, andblack sabbath black sabbath Black Sabbath sound like a bunch of disaffected working class kids from industrial-crunch England who want nothing more than to blow their brains out with drugs and volume. Get stoned and jam out some Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation in “Warning” to end the record. Screw it. Who cares?

Thus we arrive at the appeal.

Don’t mistake me. I’m not saying Black Sabbath couldn’t handle their instruments. Ozzy may have been discovering the vocal approach he’d refine on later outings, but he still nails “Black Sabbath” and the aforementioned N.I.B.” enough to make himself the godfather of heavy metal, Iommi‘s always been technically underrated, Butler is the weight and it’s utter bullshit that his bass runs aren’t taught in grade schools, and when Bill Ward was ejected from the band ahead of their 2010s ‘final’ run, the character of his style revealed itself as having earned such audience loyalty that there was practically a social movement to get him back into the lineup. Black Sabbath wouldn’t have worked if they didn’t actually have the musicianship to pull off what they were doing, but volume and tonal density in the guitar and bass on Black Sabbath made it sound hard, foreboding and despondent. You can call it a preface to the comedown era of the post-hippie ’70s, the birth of heavy, whatever you want. Primarily, it’s the work of raw kids who had no clue what they were about to get into but wanted to get into it anyway.

This and others in Sabbath‘s early catalog are essential to the point of being a given, almost a cliché, but if you count yourself among the converted either to doom or heavy rock and roll, for anything that has based itself in some way around that Iommic methodology of centralizing the riff that bands have been doing since, oh, about five minutes after this record, then it is a thing to bask in. It has an energy entirely its own and is the perfect example of a band feeling their way into their sound and finding themselves in the process. Black Sabbath‘s stylistic progression would take them to places and see them explore ideas that this self-titled could never anticipate, but wherever they went, they were never completely removed from what they laid out in this collection of songs, and when it was time for their purported final LP, 2013’s 13 (review here), it was to this era they most looked in bringing their career full circle back to an Osbourne-fronted heavy blues. True to tradition, critics didn’t like it. I guess we’ll see what everyone says in another 50 years.

As always, I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.

This might be a series? I might do a few Sabbath records, at least through the Ozzy years and get those covered. I feel like that should be a thing. In the back of my head I’m putting together a ‘canon of heavy’ as a book idea — probably time I did a book about music — and obviously Sabbath’s self-titled is the place to start. I don’t know that anything will come to fruition, as the vast majority of ideas I have don’t since I either get overwhelmed and give up (see my secret dream of selling homemade artisanal nut butters at Northern New Jersey’s lesser farm markets) or get distracted and move onto something else (pretty much everything to do with this site). But if I get the words out maybe some day MadJohnShaft (you know him) will make me an AI to go get all the words I want and cut and paste them into a Word doc.

Speaking of Word, holy crap, fuck Microsoft. Am I the only one out here using Windows 11? I hope so for your sake. What a wreck. Look, I can’t imagine having billions of dollars resting on the prospect of you fixing something you got right 30 years ago — which is essentially what’s been happening with Windows since the ’95/XP era; the tech ethic of ‘continuous improvement’ is both a scam to extract money and a flawed ethic generally — but they definitely broke that shit in the process. I’ve had this computer for two weeks, and every single day there’s been some instance of some intrusive-ass bundled software, or fucking OneDrive deciding to pull a ton of watermarked promos off my desktop and stick them on the internet calling them ‘safe’ — you gotta be kidding me — and secure, or Word not being able to apply an activation code, on and on, it’s just bad software. That’s all it is. My old machine was on Windows 10. I’d switch back, but I don’t trust it not to blow up the entire machine. Alas. I’m sure I’ll get used to it, and if not, apparently I love nothing more than complaining, so, fine.

Next Monday is my wife’s birthday. If you’re reading, happy birthday, baby. I love you more than I love complaining. I’m sorry I’m generally awful.

That’s kind of how it’s been: generally awful. I’m in this place, in my head, where I feel crippled in just about all situations. I accidentally deleted my entire desktop yesterday — and trust me, it’s ALL there — and I just couldn’t handle it. I started hyperventilating. I paced back and forth. I fell apart, and I lost like an hour of writing time as a result. That might not sound like much to you, but an hour a day, especially early in my weeks of late, is the difference between getting a thing finished and not.

I have a neurologist appointment for I don’t know when. I have a call in to a talk-therapy office that hasn’t called me back. I have spent the last 25-plus years shoving chemicals into my body and I have precious little to show for it other than 25 years’ worth of chemicals floating around my body. I’m not saying I’m anti-meds now — my refills await at Wegmans down the road — but the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting different results, so at a certain point I have to wonder what ‘help’ that route has actually been. I get more to shut up the bad voice in my brain out of eating a weed gummy than I’ve gotten from antidepressants probably since I was a teenager.

But weed gummies aren’t covered by insurance, and that being bullshit doesn’t make it less true. So we persist.

I hope you have a great and safe weekend. Have fun, watch your head, all that. Next week is packed front to back and beyond, so keep an eye out Monday as there’s good stuff to come. Thanks as always for reading.


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2 Responses to “Friday Full-Length: Black Sabbath, Black Sabbath

  1. Matt says:

    JJ, have you tried using Google Docs instead of Word, Excel, etc? I know that won’t help with the onedrive stuff, but could make it easier for writing out your stuff instead of using Office products.

    Hang in there dude!


  2. Dave says:

    Love the first album, it’s my favorite from them. Also, is there any album I’d like to see a decent remix of more that 13? What a horrible production, but there’s good stuff lurking under there.

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