Black Sabbath's Old Riffs Sound Much More Evil Than Their Contemporaries'

by Josh Indar

9 May 2010

 

Diabolus en musicology

cover art

Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music

Andrew L. Cope

(Ashgate)
US: Apr 2010

First off, this is not a fun book about the glory and mayhem of early English metalers. There are no scenes or interviews, no sex, no coke, no brown m&ms. It wasn’t written for a popular audience, but for academic readers—bespectacled musicologists who appreciate a good, old fashioned, rock n’ roll dichotomy. While this is no Beatles v. Stones, the writer does pit two powerhouse bands—Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin—against each other. This time around, the battle isn’t over who rocks the hardest, but over which act is a manifestation of the evolution of Yardbirds-style blues and which is a radically transgressional approach to same. It all kind of reads like that.

I’m not saying this book is someone’s thesis, or that there’d be anything wrong with publishing a thesis, it’s just that lay readers might expect something a bit more rockin’ from a book purporting to be about “the rise of heavy metal”, when this is really more of a minute analysis of modal preferences and a discussion on the geographical significance of Birmingham to British rock ‘n’ roll.

Despite being more professor than hesher, the book does do good job of drawing a fat, purple line through the respective genres of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. As any true metalhead will tell you, Led Zeppelin is not metal. They never were metal. They were a hard rock band, or a hard rock-blues band, or maybe even an experimental hard blues rock band, but they have nothing at all to do with metal. While Led Zeppelin took the blues to a louder and more bombastic place than any band before them, it was always still blues, just turned up to 12 and wearing a pair of tight white trousers.

I thought everyone knew that already, but apparently there’s a debate raging amongst musicologists, or so the author seems to be saying, and this book settles the argument in an empirical way. While we’re here, let’s get another thing straight. Black Sabbath invented metal. There was no metal, and then there was Black Sabbath, and now there is metal. If you need more proof than that, it can be found in this book.

Black Sabbath’s songs were structurally, thematically and sonically distinct from Led Zeppelin-style hard rock because they were based on power chords and classical scales, and they sang about wizards and the devil instead of squeezing lemons. True, both bands sang about drugs and other post-hippie diversions, and come to think of it, the white jeans may have been just as frightening framing Geezer Butler’s package as Robert Plant’s, but still, anyone who thinks of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in the same musical camp is not listening closely.

Cope, however, is listening—too closely for many readers, I suspect—though his observations are spot on. The riffs constructed by Black Sabbath sound much more evil than any of their contemporaries’ because they were built on tritones and flat 2nds, notes long known to classical music buffs as “the Devil’s intervals”. They sound eerie and dissonant when played in succession, and Black Sabbath’s down-tuned guitars, initially developed to ease the pain of guitarist Tony Iommi’s damaged finger-nubs, add to the menacing timbre.

The story goes on from there. Black Sabbath spawned Judas Priest and Heavy Metal, while Led Zeppelin spawned Bad Company and Hard Rock. It’s all true and well-enough argued, but my question is, do we really need another dissertation about this kind of thing? I mean, Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin both got together in 1968 (over 40 years ago) and while I dig both bands, I question whether a discussion about who started which genre is relevant to anybody, right now. If it is, the author needs to remind me why, but Cope never does.

Black Sabbath and the Rise of Heavy Metal Music

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