If you are a rock fan, or really anyone who is not living under a rock, you have at least heard about Black Sabbath. The undisputed creators of the heavy metal genre, their influence stretches over rock in general. Essentially every heavy metal band is descended from the quartet, and as a result the band is revered constantly and their songs are covered graciously. But can they be considered progressive rock? When I eventually get to albums outside of the genre, I will change the title of my review accordingly, but I feel that the band’s 1970 debut fits the criteria for the illustrious genre.
A brief history on Black Sabbath; the band was formed in 1968. Any rock fan knows the lineup – the immortal Ozzy Osbourne on vocals, the godfather of heavy metal Tony Iommi on guitars, Geezer Butler on bass, and Bill Ward on drums. After Iommi got finished with a brief stint in progressive folk rock legends Jethro Tull, him and Ward sought to form a hard blues rock band, and recruited both Osbourne and Butler. By 1969, the group had begun to tour, playing small venues throughout Western Europe, and in 1970 were given two days to record a debut studio album. Having been a band adept at playing spontaneously, the band was able to record their material for the album in one day – what was produced on that one day would go on to shape rock music forever.
Black Sabbath is the band’s most progressive work in their catalogue. Although we do not typically categorize Sabbath as prog, their influence on future prog outfits cannot be understated, and there are moments concurrent with the concepts of progressive rock on this album.
SONG #1 – “Black Sabbath” A brief period of the sounds of rain and thunder give way to an extremely grimy guitar riff. Given this is the year 1970, such a sound had hardly made its presence known in rock. Bands like Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer had spearheaded the movement towards “heavier” rock, but Sabbath’s sound supersedes the two by miles. It is a simple riff – tritone and pentatonic, but infamous for being associated with Satanism in music. It gets the job done perfectly – the atmosphere immediately is ominous, and there is a feeling of apprehension as Osbourne delivers his first lines. Lyrically, the song is also linked to the occult; based off of a supernatural experience by Butler where he saw a ghostly figure which he believed was linked to a book of black magic which Ozzy gave him. After a long while of the repetitive riff and a couple sets of verse, the tempo picks up as the guitars intensify and Iommi goes into a solo which concludes the song. Besides this track being historically significant, it is an ingenious one; and the perfect track to begin a dark-themed album.
SONG #2 – “The Wizard” Osbourne begins this track with a short harmonica solo, before the rest of the band comes in behind him. This track serves as a testament to the band’s blues rock roots, or better yet, the original purpose of Black Sabbath. Lyrically it is more progressive, with Tolkien-themed lyrics inspired from Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. The structure is pretty much the same through and through, with the harmonica being the most prevalent instrument of them all. This was the first Black Sabbath song I ever heard, back when I was eight years old in elementary school, and while it did not get me into the band immediately (I became hooked when I listened to Master of Reality almost five years later), it does serve sentimental value to myself. I have also seen instances where rock fans list this one as their favorite from the band, so it certainly has appeal.
SONG #3 – “Behind the Wall of Sleep” While the band drew influences from J.R.R. Tolkien in the last song, this time they go with H.P. Lovecraft, as evident in the song title which is a play on the author’s short story “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” released in 1919. It opens with a jazzy intro dubbed “Wasp” on American releases of the album before calming down a bit to make room for Ozzy’s vocals. Iommi and Butler follow close behind, as the song follows a simple structure throughout the rest of its duration, where it segues into the next song.
SONG #4 – “N.I.B.” Characterized by its signature bass solo by Butler at the beginning, this track is one of the most popular of the early Sabbath catalogue. Detailing a story where Lucifer falls in love with a woman and becomes a normal person, its furious bass riff immediately makes it discernible, as Ozzy belts the lyrics over the wall of noise. After each set of verse, Iommi comes in with a repetitive solo which frankly sounds epic. For the most part, this structure makes up the entire song, with the final solo having a little bit more meat on it in order to round off the song in grand fashion. An impressive choice to round off the first side – so far this album lives up to its reputation. It is unique, it is refreshing, and most importantly, it is heavy.
SONG #5 (BRITISH) – “Evil Woman” At this point in the album, the tracks differ by region. European releases of the album got this track, which also was the band’s first ever single. It is also a cover of the one-hit wonder American rock group Crow’s song, which peaked at #19 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969. The Sabbath release by no means matched the success of the original; in fact the band was pressured by the record label to produce a commercially-friendly track, and the band’s producer recommended this one. This explains why the song is lack-luster, the band is simply uninterested, and it shows. It also does not help that the song is painfully repetitive – better that this one is left as a reminder of the band’s roots, because it does not reflect the talent of the band one bit.
SONG #5 (AMERICAN) – “Wicked World” Over here in America, we got much more lucky. While Vertigo Records went with “Evil Woman”, Warner Bros. went with the single’s B-side, which is a much more typical Sabbath track with a brutal Iommi riff, belting vocals, and anti-authoritative and anti-war lyrics. The song takes a look at the contemporary acts of injustice in the world, hinting at the Vietnam War and the Space Race among other things. After the first two sets of verse there is a quiet interlude with a guitar solo before the music returns and the track is closed out with another verse. As a whole, the album is just better with this track, for it fits in with the rest of the material nicely. It is not commercially accessible, but it surely stood the test of time better than “Evil Woman”; “Wicked World” was one of the songs played by the band on their reunion tour in 1997.
SONG #6 – “Sleeping Village” Another ominous song, this one opens with some eerie acoustic guitar and foreboding lyrics before breaking out into an extended Iommi guitar showcase. Some of the riffs here are powerful and grimy, just the way I like it. Here comes the most progressive, yet least-known part of the album, where the band breaks out into improvisation. Sabbath’s music was obviously not radio-friendly, especially during a time where the formulaic single was barely holding on for dear life as the musically ingenious 70’s began.
SONG #7 – “Warning” For any prog fan, this is the reward for listening to the album through and through. Black Sabbath would cover this track originally recorded by the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation in 1967 (yes, the Aynsley Dunbar who would collaborate with avant-prog legend Frank Zappa as well as rock legends Journey. Dunbar was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year as a member of the latter). While the original version of the track was a commercially-friendly single, Black Sabbath blows it up into a ten-minute semi-epic, fit with multiple solos for Iommi to go crazy with the guitar. Expanding upon the original, this is largely what allowed me to fit the album into the progressive rock category. To take a cover of an average song and blow it up into a long fit of musical ecstasy is something which any prog fan craves, not to mention Ozzy does a fine job with the vocals, which are rightfully few and far between. This is by far the most underrated track on the entire album, one forgotten by decades of acclaim and future success. It is not a great closer, but that is beside the fact that musically this is an intriguing piece.
Black Sabbath’s first album certainly lives up to the hype it has accumulated over time. While it is not as well-rounded and amazing as the band’s later offerings (namely their next few albums) this is the band at its rawest. It is rare that debut albums are successful – but Black Sabbath hit the ground running with this one. What would eventually become an illustrious and unforgettable career in music began here, and that is what is the most interesting aspect of this album; that this band with this album would eventually go on to become famous, as well as infamous by those who misunderstood their music. Of course, this is a must-listen for any heavy metal fan based on historical significance alone, but this album is rife with great music that will keep you immersed throughout its entire duration. The mainstream appeal does begin to waver as it hits the second side, but the latter half of the album contains surprises for more seasoned music fans who are looking for more challenging and obscure works.
OVERALL: 93% – A (AMERICAN) 90% – A- (BRITISH)