Sunday, 29 January 2017

Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath

Provenance: It'd be hard to justify calling yourself a Christian without any familiarity with the Bible. Similarly, it just doesn't wash if you say "I'm a metal head" and don't know any Black fucking Sabbath. I got this one in my mid-teens.

Review: It's hard to really say anything big or clever (not that I've achieved this ambition elsewhere on this blog) about an album that has been so thoroughly praised, appraised and revisited as Black Sabbath's self-titled debut. Come at me with Vanilla Fudge, Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Blue Cheer or Iron Butterfly, I don't care - this is the first truly heavy metal album.

See, Black Sabbath didn't slow down a Motown song or use volume as a proxy for heaviness. They named themselves after a Boris Karloff movie (an excellent start), kick their debut off with a rainstorm and the first three goddamn notes are an inverted tritone. The tritone, in Western music, is said to have a whiff of sulphur about it and was historically known as diabolus in musica. Not a bad statement of intent. It gets better - there's basically no groove whatsoever, the whole behemoth being dragged along by Tony Iommi's glacial, monstrous riffing. Add in Ozzy Osbourne's wailing about figures in black standing before him and bingo - you just invented heavy metal. Get out of here with that horse hockey about the Kinks. No way, Link Wray.

(NB: I might just consider 'Ghost Riders In The Sky' to be the first metal song; you can gallop it like a classic Iron Maiden track and the lyrics are fairly elite and cult).

Listening to Black Sabbath I can't understand the criticism of Ozzy Osbourne as a vocalist. He doesn't possess the greatest range, but he's simply perfect on this album. He sounds every bit as haunted and portentous as the music demands. And what music! Huge slabs of guitar from Tony Iommi that anchor the songs, allowing bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward to skitter and chase each other. Before I heard 'The Wizard', I couldn't countenance the harmonica being part of the metal repertoire, but when Iommi doubles the harp riff it sounds perfectly at home. The lyrics are dorky as all hell but you get a bit of wriggle room when you're forging an entirely new genre.

The other massive Black Sabbath highlight for me is 'N.I.B.'; I remember me and the guys in my first band marvelling at the bass solo that serves as an introduction. It bounces around almost aimlessly, meandering to a halt purely as a prelude to one of the fattest riffs ever committed to tape. It's one we attempted to play, albeit unsuccessfully, as our novice talents couldn't quite replicate the sheer bludgeoning power of the original. And how cool is the kiss off 'my name is Lucifer / Please take my hand'? Extremely cool is the answer.

Of course, Black Sabbath didn't emerge fully fledged from the rock godhead. There's blues rock and that weird stoner-psych that bubbled up from the 60s underground in there, but Black Sabbath wraps it in a bleak, nightmare, pagan darkness that is entirely its own creation. So 'Sleeping Village', or at least the first six minutes of it, sounds like Cream but doesn't sound like Cream; or it sounds like Cream on tranquilisers (and goodness knows, sometimes Cream could be a bit lumpen for my tastes); or a tranquilised Cream who have just made a sacrifice to our bright and shining lord Satan. 'Warning' has an arpeggiated intro that wouldn't have been out of place on a Led Zeppelin deep cut, but what follows sounds like an ugly mutation of their heavy blues, a charcoal-grey pastiche, groin thrusts replaced by the slow-mo nodding of the dope head.

Sexless, mournful, scary, devilish, shorn of all optimism or hope - sounds like tons of fun, right kids? Perversely, it is. Good to listen to when planning your own funeral.

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