Yes, the band created the template for heavy metal and thrash, but even now, it’s instructive to acknowledge just how unique Black Sabbath were when they 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. That 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 band’s music was, for the most part, dead serious. From the live-in-the-studio cauldron of a blackened blues debut album to the riff-heard-round-the-world title track from its follow-up Paranoid (both 1970), they were a group with a considerable chip on their shoulders. Few punches were pulled until singer Ozzy Osbourne, muddled and miserable, was asked to leave in 1979. From their 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”. 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. It seems like as good a time as any to dive into the vault and celebrate some essential Black Sabbath.
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15. “Wicked World” – Black Sabbath (1970)
Black 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, 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.
14. “It’s Alright” – 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.
13. “Children of the Grave” – 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.
12. “Cornucopia” – 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.
11. “A Hard Road” – 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 band member 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 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.”
10. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
The title track from the band’s fifth album does not sound like too much of a departure at first. The muddy riffing and martial beat are the same and fabulous as ever. And then the chorus hits with a sprinkle of acoustic guitars and multi-tracked electric punctuations. The band members had already shown they were masters of tempo shifting and inimitable segues, but this is an obvious and arresting step in the group’s ongoing evolution. Although he had already established himself as the preeminent metal singer (or screamer), the dramatic clarity and nuance (yes, nuance!) of Osbourne’s vocals signified another weapon in Sabbath’s arsenal. This is the ideal opening statement for an album that found the quartet incorporating synthesizers (Rick Wakeman from Yes), strings (!), and a generally more ambitious compositional approach that never crosses into pretension.
9. “Hole in the Sky” – Sabotage (1975)
It was on Sabotage that Tony Iommi looked backward and (once again) invented the future. After the successful experimentations of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, it was obvious that the band were ready to once again turn things up to 11. It would seem improbable for Iommi—or anyone—to expand or improve upon the once-in-a-career sonic assault of Vol. 4, but Sabotage features some of the cleanest, hugest, and most immortal riffs in Iommi’s unparalleled repertoire.
Take “Hole in the Sky”. Now this is how you begin an album! Ward and Butler are in typically fine form, while Osbourne’s vocal range continues to mature: his words are easy to understand—and a joy to hear. But this is Iommi’s show, and he is less interested than ever in taking prisoners. While his obvious perfectionist streak (the one that would eventually drive Ozzy to distraction, facilitating his ouster from the group) is intensifying above and behind the wall of sonic embellishments is the central guitar track. It cuts through the song like a dark laser, sparks, and notes falling like stars crashing into the sea.
8. “Supernaut” – Vol. 4 (1972)
Fueled by booze and Bolivian marching powder (not for nothing was the album almost called “Snowblind” after the track of the same name), there is an aggressively defiant air that permeates every second of Vol. 4. On an album chock-full of indelible riffs, “Supernaut” warrants special mention. Not one to hand out praise lightly, Frank Zappa himself allegedly declared this one of his favorite songs, and it remains one of the ultimate adrenaline rushes in rock.
The entire band is locked and loaded. Ward and Butler play as though the world might end any moment (and who knows, it may have seemed that way in the studio). Ozzy turns in one of his most ferocious vocal turns (the near-mocking boasts he spits out might make this the first — or at least whitest — gangster rap song of all time). Iommi’s solo is the soundtrack for the coolest action movie never made. It ends with one of the most delicious verses of the decade, a middle finger to fashion and conformity. “Got no religion, don’t need no friends / Got all I want and I don’t need to pretend / Don’t try to reach me, ’cause I’d tear up your mind / I’ve seen the future, and I’ve left it behind.”
7. “Spiral Architect” – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
To be certain, Black Sabbath are never going to be for everyone. Still, there are certain tracks, like the already-discussed “It’s Alright”, as well as “Planet Caravan”, “Orchid”, “Embryo”, “Laguna Sunrise”, and “Air Dance”, to put on for the uninitiated listener and then give them five guesses to name that band. “Spiral Architect”, the pinnacle — and finale — of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, showcases multi-tracked vocals from Ozzy, acoustic guitars galore, and… strings? Simply put, as brilliant (and in some ways innovative) as Sabbath’s blues-drenched debut was, the growth and expansion demonstrated between 1970 and 1978 are as impressive and ambitious as that of just about any other group.
“Spiral Architect” is a high water mark at a crucial juncture of Sabbath’s evolution: after they pulled this off, they could—and did—begin to further experiment in the studio (resulting in longer, more complex compositions like “Megalomania” and “The Writ”). As Black Sabbath incorporated strings and brass into the mix, they eventually made work that even die-hard fans have a hard time getting their heads around (see: Never Say Die!).
6. “Black Sabbath” – Black Sabbath (1970)
This is it: the song that launched the debut, and a billion puny imitators, clinging like insects to the monolith they could never become. It’s hard to argue with the uncomplicated symmetry of this opening statement. Band: Black Sabbath. Album: Black Sabbath. Song: Black Sabbath. And yet, the all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn shame, but it’s also enough to make one wish they had stuck with their original name (Earth, as the group were initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising ensemble).
Certainly, wizards, warnings, and wickedness abound on their debut. Still, it sounds today exactly like what was recorded: a ferocious and opportunistic young band putting everything on the table, fully aware they might never get a second shot. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about Sabbath was their proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in their music. Blah, blah, blah; the less said trying to explain, or even consecrate this song — and the group that made it — the better. It speaks for itself loudly and proudly. More than four decades have done nothing to diminish the devastating impact of that final solo, a speed drill aimed directly at your brain; if you survive the experience, nothing is ever the same.
5. “Fairies Wear Boots” – Paranoid (1970)
In addition to “merely” defining (or refining if you want to argue that certain bands who played hard and heavy got there first) metal, Sabbath’s second album Paranoid is an inextricable part of rock history. The DNA of this music pulls the best of what came before and pumps life into so much that came after. While it is impossible, if entertaining, to pick the ultimate Iommi riff (or even the ten best), there are a handful of tracks that are so unadulterated they resist explanation.
As much a celebration as a song, “Fairies Wear Boots” seldom stays in the same place for too long, dodging and weaving into a weird and wonderful web of its own making. Where some tracks from the first album and (arguably) throughout the band’s career might be a tad too harsh or abrasive for certain ears, it is difficult to imagine any half open-minded listener not getting swept up in the exhilaration of this tour de force.
We have all the crucial elements of a classic track: a young band, hungry and confident, yet still unsure of its future and swinging for the fences. It’s a rock and roll home run in all regards. Bill Ward’s dexterous drumming and Butler’s ever-supple bass stylings, all in blistering pursuit of Iommi’s ubiquitous lead runs. Add to this the Butler’s assertion that the lyrics are allegedly taking the piss out of skinheads (bringing the boot-wearing bullies down a notch or three by calling them “fairies”). The last song on Sabbath’s second and most revered album: this is the moment there was still a tiny air of innocence and adventure. After this the group had little choice but to take on—and conquer—the world; there was nothing left to do.
4. “Symptom of the Universe” – Sabotage (1975)
Give this one a whirl and see if it doesn’t make almost everything you hear today, and a great deal of the good stuff from back in the day sounds safe, generic, and half-ass: behold, the birth of thrash metal. The band would make still make unbelievable music after Sabotage (including, of course the album that supposedly sucks but most definitely does not), but it never sounded quite this deliberate or undaunted again. Any long-haired singer or guitarist from the ’80s who claim this song did not influence them is in denial. Anyone today who would like to think they are not walking in its shadow doesn’t realize the bands they do worship have already tried to appropriate this unsurpassable exaltation. This is one of Ozzy’s all-time great vocal performances.
3. “Into the Void” – Master of Reality (1971)
The Alpha and Omega of the metal riff. Buzz Osborne of the Melvins has made a career out of this sound, proving that you can still find inspiration in a black hole. It never got darker or bleaker than “Into the Void”, and yet it somehow still gets the blood pumping. It is the beginning of so-called doom metal, but there is nothing terribly gloomy or negative about this song. In fact, like much of Sabbath’s material, it’s neither resigned nor nihilistic—despite what the uninformed haters might claim—but instead is a no-bullshit call to arms.
In an era (then, now) of plugging in and dropping out, Sabbath’s message is like a blast of fresh air (albeit from a smoky furnace). It reminds anyone still listening to take whatever control they can and make a better future than the one society already has written. Meanings and messages aside, the riffs throughout this song are so sick, so scintillating, so redemptory that any young person’s musical experience is lacking without them. Older and wiser, the ones who figured it out early return to it often so they might remember what it’s like to be innocent, unsatisfied, and yearning for a different reality to master.
2. “War Pigs” – Paranoid (1970)
What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? Nothing. Listen: the lyrics may be somewhat unsophisticated, but then again, we don’t need flowery language or overly refined sentiment to discuss young soldiers being sent to die in pointless wars. Take Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” (from 1963)? Okay, fine; how about War Pigs? Any questions about where we stand here, circa 1970? “In the fields, the bodies burning / As the war machine keeps turning.” Many years and more than a few quagmires later, this is still arguably the most prescient and devastatingly succinct lyrical couplet in rock.
The forceful words are matched by the fury of the music: from the air-raid siren to Ozzy’s unrivaled snarl, to the rat-a-tat fills from Bill Ward that approximate the figurative cannon fodder of soldiers from so many wars, this is angry music, but there is a method to this madness. Idiots hear the word “Satan” and stupidly associate this song with the facile depiction of this band as devil worshippers. Of course, as the song concludes, we get the image of the war pigs on their knees as Satan licks his chops to welcome them to a world they no longer control. From Ozzy’s lips to God’s ears. Above all other concerns, this is a song that refuses to age softly or lose its edge: it is yet another historic occasion where we are treated to Tony Iommi helping invent heavy metal in real-time.
1. “Wheels of Confusion” – Vol. 4 (1972)
Not one of this group’s most cherished songs (though it should be), not from its most-beloved album (though it could be) — why would “Wheels of Confusion” top any list of all-time Sabbath tracks? Simply put, this is an electric guitar symphony in less than eight minutes. This is the wall of sound (or, for hardcore Sabbath fans, the wall of sleep of sound), plugged in and performed by one man: Tony Iommi. It got different (for the band, for us), but it never got any better than this. “Wheels of Confusion” is at once totally of the earth; the sparks flying from the gray factories in Birmingham, and otherworldly; a comet stalking the darkest part of the sky.
From Ward’s frenetic but totally in control drumming to Butler’s vertiginous bass assault to Osbourne’s most assured and top-of-the-mountain hollering, every member contributes their finest work. But once again, as always, Iommi is propelling this track into another dimension. Can you even keep count of how many guitars are multi-tracked? Who cares? Literally from the opening second to the slowly-retreating fade-out, Iommi owns his playing has seldom—if ever—sounded this accomplished, and committed.
The song flies through the first four minutes and change, taking stock of our existence with Ozzy’s wizened, clear-eyed assessment (“So I found that life is just a game / But you know there’s never been a winner / Try your hardest you’ll still be a loser / The world will still be turning when you’ve gone”). It doesn’t rhyme, and it doesn’t need to. It probably looks unimpressive on paper, and that’s okay. Hearing Ozzy bellow this somber statement of purpose, followed by his reiteration of the last lines “Yeah when you’ve gone!”, it becomes clear this is not a capitulation to life’s cruel fate; it’s a battle cry from the trenches.
Leave the conformity and quiet desperation to the clock-punchers and sell-outs; get in the game and do something (anything) before it’s too late. And if this warning is falling on deaf ears, condolences: it’s already too late. The song concludes with three minutes of shredding (“The Straightener”) that outdoes anything Iommi had done or would do. It’s one to savor for the ages: he states a theme (5:34), repeats it (5:48), doubles down (6:00), triples down (6:14), layering in a flurry of licks and riffs interlocking until they finally break free and blast into infinity. This is Sabbath’s ultimate dose of black magic.
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This article originally published on 17 November 2011.
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