Yes, the band created the template for heavy metal and thrash, but even now it’s instructive to acknowledge just how unique Black Sabbath was when it first emerged; how different from anything else anyone was doing. It’s not just that the British group created and defined a whole new type of sound (which in turn splintered off into several sub-genres), it’s that they still make most of what came later so soulless and half-assed by comparison. This is not said to diminish the imitators; it’s meant to emphasize how unbelievably excellent and fresh Sabbath’s work still sounds today. The band’s first eight albums are not an embarrassment of riches; they are a debacle of riches, a travesty of riches.
And yet—and this is the larger and often overlooked point—the music this band made was, for the most part, dead serious: from the live-in-the-studio cauldron of blackened blues debut album, to the riff-heard-round-the-world title track from its follow-up Paranoid (both 1970), this was an act with a considerable chip on its shoulder, and few punches were pulled until singer Ozzy Osbourne, muddled and miserable, was asked to leave in ’79. From its eagerness to take on tough-talking politicians who can never quite find the courage to fight in the wars they start (“War Pigs”), to the dangers of hard drugs (“Hand of Doom”), to the pleasures of soft drugs (“Sweet Leaf”), to the ambivalence of drug-induced oblivion (“Snowblind”), to proto-thrash metal (“Hole in the Sky”), to all-encompassing attacks on the system (“Over to You”)—it is ignorant, even a bit hysterical, to dismiss this group as a simplistic one-trick pony.
You’ve heard “Iron Man” and you’ve heard “Paranoid”, of course. Understanding those are the two most popular, possibly the most important (if not best) Sabbath songs, what does the newcomer need to know? What should those familiar with the catalog remember to rejoice? From 1970 through 1978 there was little fat and less filler on those eight albums, and it’s difficult to determine the truly representative (much less “the best”) tracks. Yet, as we witness the previously inconceivable and watch the original four members getting together after more than three decades for a reunion, it seems like as good a time as any to dive into the vault and celebrate some essential Black Sabbath.
Black Sabbath (1970)
Sabbath’s first album, a live-in-the-studio affair (back when this notion was not throwback so much as necessity), bristles with the group’s blues roots. But in between the soon-to-be-trademark sledgehammer riffs and pitch-black rhythmic foundations (courtesy of the ever-underrated bassist Geezer Butler), Tony Iommi was already steering the ship into deeper, indefinable waters. On a first album full of guitar virtuosity (on the band’s first three efforts it is still arresting to listen and hear history being made; at the time Sabbath was simply creating the future of a whole genre of music that the most ambitious musicians are attempting, without success, to tap into four decades later), Iommi gives a short but indelible clinic of dynamics and pace on “Wicked World”. First, Bill Ward—the man who could make a five piece drum kit sound like an orchestra—kicks off the proceedings with machine-gun fills while Butler ably keeps pace with his understated flair. Then Iommi introduces one of his immaculate riffs before shifting tempos, stopping on a dime and settling into the groove. Enter Osbourne, who at this point was less a singer than a street preacher, telling the hard truths in unadorned, acerbic accusations: “They can put a man on the moon quite easy / While people here on earth are dying of old diseases”. Then, for the bridge, Iommi descends into territory that could almost be described as jazz-like. The other instruments fade out and it’s only Iommi: a solo that packs a lot of anger, truth, and eloquence into a matter of seconds. Then the band comes back in and delivers an outro that is as much commentary as it is a reprise of the intro: the more things change the more they stay the same.
Technical Ecstasy (1976)
Fact: Bill Ward is the great unappreciated drummer of the 1970s. On every Sabbath session he is nothing less than professional and it’s difficult to imagine how different (and not for the better) any of the songs would sound with a different guy behind the skins. But… as a singer? I may be the only person on the planet who feels it would have been a ballsy and possibly brilliant gambit for Sabbath to continue as a trio—after Ozzy left/got the boot—and have Ward sing instead of recruiting outside services. Evidence? His robust and winning vocals on the last song on Sabbath’s last (Ozzy) album, “Swinging the Chain” is compelling, but his brilliant performance on “It’s Alright” (from Technical Ecstasy) manages the near-impossible: a genuine ballad that rocks and further embarrasses the already lame “Changes” (from Vol. 4) which proved Ozzy could not do ballads, at least in the good old days. This song is necessary, if for no other reason, as Exhibit A for any bozo who insists Black Sabbath was a one-trick pony that was not capable of variety and understatement.
Master of Reality (1971)
From Master of Reality, which doubled down on the sludge and slowed down the sledgehammer riffs to feel like a dinosaur sinking in a tar pit. For the origins of “doom metal” look no further; this album is the aesthetic equivalent of Nigel Tufnel’s earnest appraisal of Spinal Tap’s Smell the Glove: none more black. The effect of this one is intentionally disjointing: it’s heavy and cumbersome, but it also churns along, thanks to Butler and Ward stoking the fire in the furnace. Lyrically, the song picks up where the better songs on Paranoid left off, with warnings about the inevitability of endless conflict and possible extinction at the hands of the “war pigs”. But instead of wallowing in Orwellian territory, the youth are encouraged to seize control of their own destiny and rebel against a dystopian future that is not necessarily written in stone. The reverb-heavy ending and whispered chant “Children of the Grave” may or may not have been appropriated a decade later as Jason’s signature theme in the Friday the 13th horror film franchise, proving that Sabbath’s influence extended beyond even music.
Vol. 4 (1972)
On this track from Vol. 4, it only takes the band four minutes to distill the entire message that much-heralded fin de siècle flick The Matrix tried to impart. Bonus, it’s actually enjoyable, and it does not feature Keanu Reeves. But seriously, check out those 20 seconds that begin at the 1:44 mark: the sludgy static of guitars, bass, cymbals, and gong smashes simulate the surreal and unsettling frenzy of postmodern life as well as any movie or book. Indeed, this song anticipates the information overload chaos connecting computers and our minds by about three decades.
Never Say Die! (1978)
From the criminally overlooked swan song (with Ozzy as vocalist) Never Say Die!, this is one of several numbers that illustrates the ways the band was branching out and incorporating new sounds and styles. It is still difficult to understand how anyone can be unmoved by this crowded pub sing-along, which showcases every member of the band lending his voice. It is a declaration of optimism and the tough-love Sabbath doled out more convincingly than anyone of this era. It also features an Iommi solo (2:50-3:25) that could possibly save your life, if you let it. Listen to the chorus and crack the code of Sabbath’s last, great gasp: “Forget all your sorrow, don’t live in the past / And look to the future, ‘cause life goes too fast—you know.”