“Heavy metal begins here!” said the canon of classic rock buffs.
“Bull! Metal started a full year earlier with Led Zeppelin’s debut!” I shouted back, beret halfway through its ascension.
“Led Zeppelin wasn’t metal! They were hard rock!” bellowed the crowd, stuffing loose straw back into place.
“Just because it came before thrash and isn’t called ‘Black Sabbath’ doesn’t mean it’s not metal, you lunkheads!’ I snapped back, the wind at my back and my blood rushing to my heart, posed in idealized glory.
Now that we’re done with that unbiased history lesson and have dismissed any discussion of this album’s cultural significance, let’s talk about it artistically!
It’s pretty good.
…huh. Maybe this is gonna be harder than I thought.
Okay, let’s go back to the whole “cultural significance” angle. Black Sabbath is indeed the beginnings of metal as a puritan-irking force, but not as a genre. This mistake would be more annoying if it wasn’t understandable. Thanks to Metallica’s work in the 80s, the idea of metal being “regular rock/blues/whatever”, but just really slow and heavy, is alien to the average metalhead. I find it amusing that Black Sabbath is the only band that breaks this pattern, often being recognized as “the first metal band.” As I humbly purposed at the beginning, that title belongs to the Zepsters, which are often ignored in this discussion because they’re “not heavy and fast enough” by today’s standards. By this logic, the proto-metal band that should get all the recognition as the first metal band is Deep Purple, who were basically thrash before thrash. But no, it’s Sabbath. Why?
Image, I suppose. Zep invented metal, Purple cleaned up its sound, Sabbath dirtied up its image. Suddenly, liking metal meant you liked guys who sang about Satan and used all sorts of spooooooky evil chords. Rebellion is an easy fad to propel, and it was probably around this time that metalheads became their own sub-species. That’s just my theory, though.
So I guess I gotta talk about the actual album now. As with most proto-metal, it’s very simple. The emotions are primal (though dusted with a smattering of Lovecraft and Tolkien), the playing raw, the atmosphere gothic, the lyrics hilariously bad, and the roots REALLY rootsy. Zep took the blues and muscled it up, Sabbath took that work and spookfied it. If you can get on board with that, you’ll like this album. If that sounds a bit too cheesy to you, you won’t.
Thankfully, I revel in cheese, and as a bonus there’s some good musical chops here. For a debut, the band sounds remarkably confident in the studio. There’s even a bass solo! Who puts a BASS solo on their first album? It’s titled “Bassiclly.” I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Tony Iommi has the most impressive showing, with a lot of sharp, catchy, and atmospheric riffs. Bill Ward has a lot of fun behind the drum kit, even if his work isn’t particularly memorable. Terry Butler has the aforementioned bass solo and some fun licks here and there. Ozzy Osbourne’s vocals add an entertaining layer of gothic B-movie cheesiness.
Speaking of which, that’s the main selling point of this album: it’s atmosphere. There’s moments where the thick guitarwork gets legitimately unnerving, but generally the atmosphere evoked is one of Evil Dead, not Nosferatu. And screw y’all, I love me some Evil Dead. The earnest gothic overtones and unintentional silliness make for one heck of an entertaining listen. The catchy riffs are just icing.
So why not talk about the actual SONGS more? Mostly because they’re all slightly different explorations of the same atmosphere, mostly distinguished by their riffs. They’re not problematically samey (the tones are managed well), but there’s only so many variations on “goofy gothic blues” I can break down. It doesn’t help that they all have the same basic strengths: engaging atmosphere, memorable riffs, fun playing, all the stuff I basically just talked about.
Thankfully, it’s consistent. There’s only one GREAT song on here, but no bad ones as far as I can see. The final marathon of “A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning” comes close, but Iommi is an engaging enough guitarist that his noodling stays with me for the entire runtime. The highlight is undoubtedly the title track. The atmospheric intro, the memorable main riff, Ozzy’s creepy vocals (especially his unforgettable “OH NO”s and “GOD, PLEASE HELP ME”), the unnerving buildup, the wonderfully moody final jam…this thing absolutely rules. I wish the rest of the album lived up to that, but maybe that’s selfish.
Wow, I was actually able to write something about Black Sabbath! That was easier than I thought. So, were I a Sabbath devotee, this would probably be my favorite album of theirs that I’ve heard so far, as it’s the best showcase of the uniqueness of their sound. As it stands, I like it a lot, but wish there were more mountains amidst the hills.
Thematic Content: 5/5 The atmosphere, in this case. My rating system is weird.
Lyricism: 1/5 Well, at least they aren’t talking about Iron Man yet.
Resonance: 4/5 I suppose I DO have to take a point off for the unintentional humor, but this is awfully engrossing for a 4/5.
Experience: A Halloween party themed after Devil May Cry instead of Resident Evil.
8/10. Best Song: Black Sabbath