What Is This that Stands Before Me? ‘Black Sabbath & Philosophy: Mastering Reality’

No heavy metal band is more deserving of a philosophical evaluation than Black Sabbath. On the first line of the very first song off the band’s seminal, self-titled, 1970 debut, the four-piece asked the meta question that every metal band has been attempting to answer ever since: “What is this that stands before me?” The sheer earth quaking significance of Sabbath’s first six albums is unquestionable, and the band’s influence on hard rock and metal remains profound. But the beauty (yes,beauty) of Sabbath has always been in its duality. It has been loud, aggressive and pummeling, but often lyrically nuanced and existentially inquisitive–delving into the nature of politics, war, love, and of course, the occult.

Admittedly, suggesting Sabbath deals in copious subtleties may seem far-fetched, especially if you consider its most lackluster material. But while journalists were routinely scathing about the band during its early years, Sabbath’s signature tritone fuzz gathered millions of fans who appreciated its ingenuity and perspicacity. Black Sabbath & Philosophy: Mastering Reality, the latest William Irwin-edited collection for publisher Wiley’s ‘Philosophy and Pop Culture’ series, examines just such themes. Mixing cerebral essays from various writers, it’s an erudite, philosophic unpacking of Sabbath’s significance, written from the perspective of fans.

Black Sabbath & Philosophy‘s 17 short essays explore questions about Sabbath’s sound, aesthetic and ideologies. Black Sabbath was the first true metal band — innovative, ingenious and, for a time at least, unstoppable. Accordingly, it’s examined through the gaze of some other innovative individuals: Plato, Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant and others. Famed philosophers and their theories might not leap to mind as the best analytic tool by which to gauge Sabbath’s import, but the band utilized plenty of philosophic avenues in its work, whether aware of it at the time or not.

Like any collection of essays, some are more engaging than others. Although, being a philosophic work, the strength of each individual essay is intrinsically bound to the ideas of the beholder. The book certainly asks plenty of pertinent questions, including what makes Sabbath sound evil, what cultural conditions led Sabbath to create heavy metal, is Sabbath still Sabbath without Ozzy out front, and how can Sabbath help you fight your own demons. The essays are grouped together in five thematic parts (though you can step in at any point) with each essay highlighting different views. Of course, debate underpins philosophy and its discussions of reality, and Black Sabbath & Philosophy contains a wide range of sometimes conflicting ideas. That diversity of opinion is one of the book’s key strengths.

The focus is on Sabbath’s early years. This is beneficial as the passionate tone of some essays would be undercut if you took into consideration Sabbath’s later years. (That’s not a fault with the writer’s arguments, simply a reflection of Sabbath’s inconsistent career.) The only quibble with the book is not so much a complaint, rather a craving. The compactness of the essays means topics that warrant deeper exposition are often only briefly touched upon. Still, being left wanting more is hardly a major criticism in this case; it simply indicates that a lot of fascinating ideas are expressed within.

Overall, Black Sabbath & Philosophy investigates plenty of engrossing tangents. Ken Pepper’s ‘Tony Iommi’s Hand of Doom: From Plastic Fingertips to Creative Freedom’ draws in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception and Sartre’s ideas on freedom in an outstandingly explorative piece. Jacob M. Held’s ‘As the War Machine Keeps Turning: Just War Theory, Pacifism, and the War on Terror’ succinctly and deftly investigates Sabbath’s protest spirit, wrapping that around the concepts of jus ad bellum and jus in bello. Greg Littmann’s ‘The Art of Black Sabbath: Aristotle Joins the Band’ is an exploration of Aristotle’s artistic concepts melded to a bizarre and enjoyable tale of whether he would have found a place in Sabbath’s ranks.

Black Sabbath & Philosophy is full of delightfully unorthodox and more heavyweight examinations, two of the best being Brian Froese’s take on Sabbath’s apocalyptic horror, and Joel McIver’s excellent history of that aforementioned tritone, the all-important devil’s note. Other chapters covering the definition of metal; gods, drugs and ghosts; and the politics of the supernatural are cleverly argued and structured. However, it’s important to stress that for all the learned deconstruction of Sabbath’s lyrics, sound and temperament, the book remains thoroughly accessible. It certainly helps to be familiar with Sabbath’s work, but it’s not essential to be a fan to enjoy the analysis offered. The enthusiasm from Irwin and the contributors is evident, and the respect they show for Sabbath mirrors the pleasure and significant intellectual reward to be found in metal as a whole.

Black Sabbath & Philosophy is a wholly absorbing read. Sabbath’s work can obviously be approached from any number of scholarly angles, and at times you may find yourself disagreeing with the ideas here, but then, it wouldn’t be philosophy or Sabbath without some fierce debate around the quality of the ideas expressed. Of course, Sabbath fans already appreciate the insight of the band’s material, but Black Sabbath & Philosophy unfurls another of the band’s layers, granting a refreshing perspective on its depths. A long-overdue work, and a rewarding one both for fans and those curious about the philosophical gravity behind all those murky riffs.

RATING 7 / 10