With the release of their self-titled debut album in 1970, Black Sabbath invented the first true heavy metal album. Hailing from Birmingham, England, Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass), and Bill Ward (drums) took this then-young genre of music to a whole new level. The original lineup released eight albums between 1970-1978, but the band sacked Ozzy after Never Say Die! came out in their final year together (1978). There were brief reunion shows/tours in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s, but the Ozz has finally returned to record a full album with the band. The reunion album is titled 13, and was produced by Rick Rubin. It is scheduled to be released in June, with a summer tour likely to follow.
So what makes Sabbath the original metal band? With all due respect to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, and even Dave Davies’ guitar riff on The Kinks‘ “You Really Got Me,” the Black Sabbath album set the template. The cover alone scared the hell out of me, let alone the music. From the opening tritone sequence of Iommi’s guitar, to Ozzy’s frightening intonation of the words “What is this that stands before me,” and the pure doom that infused the whole of “Black Sabbath,” this song was unrelenting. And that was only the first track. Other standout cuts included “The Wizard,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” and the monstrous “Warning.”
As if Black Sabbath were not enough, they managed to release a second long-player just seven months later. Paranoid was more than a worthy follow-up, and many fans (myself included) consider it to be their best. Besides the title tune, Paranoid also boasted “War Pigs,” “Iron Man,” and “Hand of Doom,” among other classics.
Sabbath were as far from the hippie delights of CSN and the gentle singer-songwriters of the period as could be imagined. Black Sabbath and Paranoid heralded a new era in music, and the critics were not happy. Even Lester Bangs missed the boat. His review of Black Sabbath in Rolling Stone described it as “discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitized speedfreaks all over each other’s musical perimeters yet never quite finding synch….” In the 1979 Rolling Stone Record Guide, Ken Tucker summed up the Ozzy years with this pithy statement: “These would-be Kings of English Heavy Metal are eternally foiled by their own stupidity and intractability.”
1970 was the band’s watershed year, and they consolidated their early ‘70s supremacy with Master of Reality (1971), Volume 4 (1972), Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), and Sabotage (1975). They were the English Kings of Heavy Metal, critics be damned. These albums contained a plethora of brilliant songs, including such essentials as “Sweet Leaf,” “Children of the Grave,” “Wheels of Confusion,” “Supernaut,” “Killing Yourself to Live,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” “Hole in the Sky,” and “Symptom of the Universe.”
As the title of “Snowblind” from Volume 4 hints at though, the troubles that would eventually destroy them had already surfaced by 1972. Butler explained the situation to Guitar World magazine in 2001: “The cocaine had set in. We went out to L.A. and got into a totally different lifestyle. Half the budget went on the coke and the other half went to seeing how long we could stay in the studio.”
The final two ‘70s albums from Black Sabbath were Technical Ecstasy (1977) and Never Say Die! (1978). The cover art of Technical Ecstasy was done by Hipgnosis, and is one of the greatest examples of their distinctive style ever. Sadly, it is the best thing about the album. Never Say Die! does not even boast great artwork.
There was a primal brilliance to the songs of Black Sabbath and Paranoid, which were almost punk in their primitivism. By the time of Never Say Die!, this had been replaced by a bland competence. They sold their souls for rock and roll? No, they just got boring.
I will never forget the Never Say Die! tour. It was my first opportunity to see Black Sabbath, and I was kind of excited. But it was the opening band, Van Halen that my high school buddies and I were really there for. Van Halen were the worst possible opening act Sabbath could have chosen at that time, because they absolutely blew the headliners off the stage.
That was a very long time ago though, and the big question today is, what will 13 sound like? A clue emerged at the November 2011 announcement of the reunion, which was hosted by Henry Rollins at the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood. All four original members were there, and Butler said that the new material “has the old Sabbath style and sound.” Since that announcement, Ward has dropped out. Although the details have been kept under wraps, there has been a new contract drawn up regarding the brand name “Black Sabbath.” Ward calls the document he was presented with “unsignable,“ and is not participating in the reunion. 13 will feature Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine’s on the drums.
With all due respect to the rest of the band, it has always been the guitar of Iommi which has defined the group. He has been the only member to appear on every one of the 18 studio albums released under the name Black Sabbath. Most of the later records were basically Iommi solo albums though, with a revolving door of back-up musicians.
This is pure speculation, but some clues to what 13 might sound like may be in The Devil You Know, released under the moniker Heaven and Hell in 2009. Because of the Black Sabbath agreement, Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler, and (drummer) Vinny Appice were forced to call themselves Heaven and Hell, even though it was in essence a reunion of the Dio-fronted version of Sabbath.
The Devil You Know contains the most recent examples of Iommi’s guitar playing, which could indicate the direction of the new material. It should be noted that Iommi’s style with Dio was quite a bit different from what it was with Osbourne. Whether this reflects his style of playing with different vocalists, or simply the way his approach has evolved is difficult to say. I guess we will find out in June.
In any case, 13 is a recording that Sabbath fans have been anticipating for many years. The album will be released on the Vertigo label worldwide, and Vertigo/Republic in the U.S. Interestingly enough, the 1970 Black Sabbath LP was issued on Vertigo as well. Another bit of trivia tying the two records together was the release date of that first album. It was on Friday, February 13, 1970. The one song title that has been leaked is “God is Dead.“ I am looking forward to hearing what Ozzy fan and born-again Christian George W. Bush has to say about that one.
We will continue to report on any developments regarding the reunion, including tour information. In regards to live appearances, there have already been some dates announced for Australia and Japan, beginning in April. And as soon as 13 becomes available, I will be reviewing it right here on Blogcritics.
(Band photos courtesy of Google Images)