Friday, May 9, 2014

Black Sabbath

Let’s get one thing out of the way now: Black Sabbath did not “invent heavy metal”. Why? First of all, music is a culturally-constructed fabric sewn into society. Genres emerge from a confluence of different places and attitudes, they are shaped by the greater political and historical events of the day, similar or identical developments spring up independent of one another, etc. Trying to pin a medal on whoever “invented heavy metal” is like trying to suss out who “invented Tragedy”. It just kind of happens, and is codified after the fact with some contributors being more influential than others. Harrumph.

Having said all that, it’s more or less impossible to have a conversation about early metal without placing Sabbath front and center. They took the proto sludge and amped up aggression of Detroit’s rock scene and burned away at the psychedelic impurities until all that was left was a lean, angry, pentatonic machine of ass-kickery. Black Sabbath’s first album, Black Sabbath, has a run time of 38:12 and one of the most unsettling covers I’ve ever seen; that image grants no quarter for comfort, and sets the stage for what lurks on the disc. The album’s tone is very stripped down, and aside from a few inserted sound effects, sounds a lot like a live set; I can’t detect any obvious overdubbing or the sort.

Black Sabbath is the eponymous first track on the eponymous first album, and summarizes what the band is about beautifully (horrifyingly?). It opens up slowly with the sounds of rain and distant church bells, before Tony Iommi pops off a flatted fifth interval, possibly the most evil sound in western civilization’s cultural lexicon.  Ozzy Osbourne has a strained, phlegm-filled throat, wailing like something that should have been put out of its misery long ago.

The rest of the album is constructed rather oddly. The Wizard features a harmonica that seems inappropriately cheery for the rest of this album’s content. Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Bassically/N.I.B. is another 800 ton moment for the band, but it’s constructed as a meandering suite of different unfinished songs. The Wall portion is excellent, introducing Lovecraft-inspired lyrics to the band’s arsenal. Bassically doesn’t really need to be partitioned from the suite’s coda, although it does serve as a neat little bit of wah pedal attitude from bassist Geezer Butler. But N.I.B. (Rumored to stand for Nativity in Black) is the takeaway from the track. Hard, mean, musically focused, and replete with Butler lyrics featuring Lucifer beckoning to the listener, this is a clinic on what Sabbath’s sound would be for the next decade.

Wicked World is worth a spin if you’re interested in exploring Iommi’s jazz and blues inclinations, but it’s a good example of the Clapton-esque tendencies that had not yet been denatured from the formula. A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning is another weird suite of pieces not fully developed. While there is nothing here even close to the iconic status occupied by N.I.B., it does serve as a vibrant library of riffs and bass lines that would go on to form the spine of many a metal band’s sonic assault. It clocks in at a shade over fourteen minutes, however, and chooses to meander more often than not. Other than learning that Iommi gets a lot of mileage out of employing heavy vibrato in his rhythm work, there isn’t much here for the casual listener.

Verdict: This album is uneven at best, but while there is high amount of chaff, the wheat more than makes up for it. Sabbath would take what worked here and blow up the world with their next release, but that is a review for another time. 3 out of 5 stars.


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