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Saturday, May 21, 2005
Artist Overview: Black Sabbath
Few bands were as critically reviled in their day as Black Sabbath. And still fewer have seen their reputation rehabilitated as much in the years since their peak. Black Sabbath had once earned the nearly universal scorn of the rock critic establishment for their oppressively heavy, simplistic riffs, the bad rhymes of their lyrics, their melodrama, their lumbering, plodding tempos, their sludgy sound and their Christian/Satanic/Druggy/Magical iconography. In other words, they were despised for essentially the very things their fans loved them for.
What is undeniable now is that the band is almost universally acknowledged as being the archetypical heavy metal band, and subsequently one of the most influential bands in history. It is almost impossible to count the bands formed in their wake that mine the same essential approach; in this sense they rank up there with bands like the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and the Velvet Underground in influence. Furthermore, the sheer mammoth din of their albums has gained resonance over the years, making them seem somehow better than they once did, now that heavy metal has become a familiar concept to all.
Sonically, the band was an organic thing. Its roots lay in the heaviest of late-60's acid rock; in Black Sabbath, one can hear traces of Cream, Blue Cheer, and Vanilla Fudge. These bands were the missing links between psychedelia and heavy metal; they took psychedelic blues-rock and amped it up to deafening proportions; giving themselves gigantic sounds. Black Sabbath took this approach a step further, slowing down the tempos, stripping away the psychedelia, increasing the volume even more, playing up their mystical and frightening lyrics, and shining a spotlight on Ozzy Osbourne's bluesy wail. The result was a sound bigger than anyone could imagine; it represented the very extreme edge of rock. This was potent stuff, and even if the critics ridiculed it, the band sold a huge amount of records and built an enduring legacy that only grows richer with time.
The members had known each other as teenagers in their hometown of Aston, not far from Birmingham, England. Tony Iommi and Bill Ward had played together in a band called Mythology, while John "Ozzy" Osbourne and Terence "Geezer" Butler had worked together in a band called Rare Breed. The four of them came together in a new outfit called the Polka Tulk Blues Band, which formed in August of 1968. Also known simply as "Polka Tulk" the band landed a few professional gigs in the Birmingham area, playing a jazzy-blues somewhat reminiscent of the Graham Bond Organization, once fronted by Jack Bruce. After a few months, the band changed its name to Earth, and began getting better gigs.
Earth was known for its high volume live shows, which generated positive response from the audience, so the band amped it up even further. Due to an accident, Iommi had lost a fingertip; as a result he purposely kept the strings on his guitar slack, tuning them down an octave; this low-register tuning coupled with massive amplification created that classic heavy Sabbath sound. Meanwhile, Butler had developed an interest in the occult, and had become fascinated with the black magic novels of Dennis Weatley. Inspired, he wrote the song "Black Sabbath", full of dark black magic imagry. The song was a crowd pleaser, and Osbourne and Butler decided to do more in a similar vein, reasoning that a musical version of a horror show might become a big thing. After some confusion at a gig due to another band using the name "Earth", they renamed themselves Black Sabbath.
Tony Iommi nearly left them before they could get signed. Jethro Tull was looking for a guitarist, and in 1969 they invited Iommi to sit in. Iommi appears with the band in the Rolling Stones' aborted Rock 'n' Roll Circus extravaganza. However, Iommi and Jethro Tull didn't take a shine to one another, and within weeks, he was back in Black Sabbath.
Their stage shows continued to generate a lot of word-of-mouth, and in late 1969 they were signed to Phillips records, who released their first single on the Fontana subsidiary, "Evil Woman (Don't Play Your Games With Me)", originally done by an American band called Crow. The single appeared in January 1970 and failed to chart, but Phillips went ahead and released their debut album on another subsidiary, Vertigo, a month later. This time, the record caught hold, and eventually wound its way up into the top-10. This attracted the attention of Warner Brothers in the U.S. who released the album in May, 1970. Building slowly, and without radio airplay, the record would ultimately reach #23 in America, and sell over a million copies.
Black Sabbath captures the band as they were making the transition from jazzy-blues to heavy metal. There are still some wisps of psychedelia in the music, a certain jazzy swing in Bill Ward's drumming, and a number of very long guitar improvisations from Iommi. Osbourne is a ringer for Jack Bruce, except that here he sings of witches and satan and sleeping villages and wizards and lucifer and warnings and magic and other mayhem. "Black Sabbath" is indeed the frightshow it's supposed to be, with Ozzy the tortured soul facing damnation. "The Wizard" opens with an eerie, bluesy harp before launching into its power riffs. "N.I.B." is the darker cousin to "Black Sabbath", where the former camps it up a bit, the latter is deadly serious. "Warning", originally by Aynsley Dunbar's Retaliation, is a lengthy suite featuring the longest Iommi solo on a studio record; he noodles and drifts and almost stops playing altogether, yet the song keeps within the atmosphere of the album. While subsequent albums would see their sound mature into the genre defining brontosaur it would become, there are those who prefer the loose, hazy feel of this fine debut.
Wasting no time, the band quickly returned to the studio for a follow-up, Paranoid. In England, the album went to #1 and the title track reached the top-5 as a single. In America, the album peaked at #12; two singles charted (Black Sabbath's only U.S. chart singles of their career), "Paranoid" at #61, and "Iron Man" at #52. While those numbers may seem unimpressive, they were achieved with virtually no radio airplay whatsoever; this lack of airplay helped bolster an underground atmosphere around the band that only strengthened their appeal; the more the critics hated them, the more their fans loved them.
Paranoid is generally considered the band's masterpiece, although all four of their first albums have fans in each corner. Paranoid certainly defines what the band had become. "War Pigs" comes closet in sound to the debut with Ozzy's blues voice singing about war machines and bodies burning. Iommi's low register, high-volume riffing reaches the ultimate limits of heavyness; a coda at the end shows hints of progression in the band's core sound. "Hand Of Doom" is a drug addict's nightmare as it spirals into oblivion, Ward playing the jazziest drums of his Sabbath career while Iommi and Butler get a workout. "Iron Man" makes the band's sense of humor explicit -they were in on the joke all along- with its mega-doom chords and tale of a comic book hero turned arch villain, gleefully sung by Osbourne. The riffs are heavier here than on any Sabbath album, the tempos leaden, Ozzy borders on hysteria, Butler's bass is mixed up front in the mix, where it inerplays with Iommi's guitar. this is the foundation from which much subsequent heavy metal would come; one might consider this the quintessential heavy metal album.
The success of Paranoid left the band with a familiar dilemma; what to do for an encore? They took perhaps the wisest course of action by leaving well enough alone, and essentially repeating the formula for the 1971 album, Master of Reality. If Master of Reality suffers in comparison to its predecessor, it's only because the surprise factor is lost. It opens with a hacking cough, electronically sampled and repeated, before Iommi launches into one of his best ultra-heavy riffs, kicking off "Sweet Leaf". Osbourne sings with relish the praises of said leaf, as the riffs keep pummeling. "Children of the Grave" features another of Iommi's best riffs; elsewhere, he dabbles in short acoustic instrumental interludes, including the sinister sounding "Embryo" and the diabolical sounding "Orchid". The album reached #8 in the States, their highest charting album ever in America. In the 1980's one new metal band would pay the ultimate tribute by naming themselves Masters of Reality.
The band's next release, in September 1972, was Black Sabbath Vol. 4. This rounds out the quartet of albums that make up the essential classic period of Black Sabbath. Vol. 4 is a world-weary sounding album. The tempos have slowed to a crawl, barely lurching forward at all. The album sounds weary, enervated, hazy, druggy, murky, fagged, and lost. Once again, they were critically rebuked for these transgressions, and once again, it is those same qualities that makes this album the engaging listen that it is. The band's reputation as hard-drinking, hard-drugging rock stars was catching up with them, and is reflected in the music. On "Wheels of Confusion" Ozzy sounds on the verge of surrender, lost and beaten, as he decries all that is beautiful in life as mere illusion, while Iommi plays like a truck spinning wheels in a blizzard; a smokey bad-buzz psychedelia also permeates this track. Elsewhere, on "Snowblind" Ozzy gives one of his most harrowing drug accounts yet. Indeed drugs are the overwhelming influence here; overshadowing the traditional Christian-Satan-Magic concerns. Which is what lends this album its atmosphere; the drug impaired tempos actually add to this album's allure. The misstep is "Changes", a loopy, syrupy ballad accompanied by mellotron that would ominously point towards future directions. It peaked at #12, representing some slippage from prior albums, but remains an essential part of their canon.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, from 1973, represents the turning point. While there are no reports that the band curtailed its drug consumption for its recording, it does sound as if they took stock of themselves and saw Vol. 4 as essentially a dead end. The band sounds more focused, which isn't necessarily a good thing. Even more significantly, on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, conscious attempts are made to turn the band in a progressive-rock direction. Rick Wakeman (ex-Yes) is brought in to play synthesizer; a whole orchestra contibutes to "Spiral Architect". Special attention was given to the cover art, which revived the satanic imagry that had receded over the last couple of albums. Arrangements were made complex, and arted up. Iommi's token instrumental, "Fluff" borders on easy listening with its tasteful string accompaniment. The album works despite itself; the best song is "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" which avoids the prog-rock trappings, and "A National Acrobat" and "Killing Yourself To Live" are top drawer. The Wakeman synthesizer workout "Who Are You" manages an agreeable menace. But too much of the rest of the album is lost among the studio trickery, and Black Sabbath simply didn't have the chops to pretend they were Yes. The album did all right, peaking at #11, but it didn't remain on the charts as long as previous albums had.
The band wound up sitting out most of 1974 due to a dispute with their manager. When they re-emerged in 1975, the musical climate had subtly changed. Heavy metal and progressive rock were both showing symptoms of running out of steam; sales were drooping, key bands were breaking up or changing lineups, the punk revolution was only a year away. Sabotage, their sixth album, showed signs of retreat from the progressive experiments on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Its best numbers are a pair of ragged, galloping riff-fests, bordering on an almost garage-band like primitiveness. "Hole In The Sky" is built around an uncharacteristically brisk, propulsive Iommi riff, and one of Osbourne's most tortured vocals ever; "Symptom of the Universe" is another winner. One attempt to match the synth experiments on the previous album was made, the sleek-sounding "Am I Going Insane (Radio)" whose title suggested the band was hoping for some airplay, which they still wouldn't receive. For the first time in their career, they were faced with failure; the album made it to a soft #28 before slipping off the charts quickly.
Warner Brothers, perhaps sensing the end was near, decided to release the profit-taking We Sold Our Soul For Rock 'n' Roll, a two disc anthology of the band's most essential moments. It is in fact an excellent introduction to the band, and was the avenue by which many second generation fans discovered them. The CD is abriged; leaving off some key songs to squeeze everything onto one disc, but even it is worth a listen. It peaked at #48, however, suggesting that interest in the band was beginning to wane fast.
Technical Ecstasy, released in 1976, shows all the signs of a band in advanced decline. Where once Iommi's riffs and Osbourne's vocals commanded attention, here they sound weak, lost, muddled, confused. There are no particular standout tracks at all; the best of the lot is "(All Moving Parts) Stand Still" which benefits from an oddly funky Butler bassline, and "Dirty Women" which was dusted off for their reunion tour. Elsewhere, the band seems uncertain how to proceed. Iommi continued to push for a more progressive approach, while Ozzy resisted, preferring to stick with tried and true metal; this confusion in direction is evident in the production; horns and other studio devices appear, and even Bill Ward gets to sing a song, as if that would help. Their fans had all but evaporated; the album peaked at a poor #51.
Ozzy pinned much of the blame for the album's failure on Iommi, and relations grew chilly between them. Osbourne even quit the group briefly in November 1977, and was replaced with Dave Walker (ex-Savoy Brown). However, he had a change of heart, and returned in January 1978. The band lasted together long enough to record one more album, Never Say Die!, which was released in September 1978. Never Say Die! shares the same schizophrenic tendencies as Technical Ecstasy; while the title track is worthy of the band's name, the progressive flourishes sound as out of place and vestigal as ever; the saxophone-led "Breakout" falls flat, the sythesizer on "Johnny Blade" sounds cheesy and misplaced, elsewhere are pianos and strings and other distractions Sabbath fans never signed up for. While the single "Never Say Die!" charted in the U.K., the album represented further slippage in the U.S., only making it to #69.
Osbourne walked out for good (or was fired, depending on whom you ask) following the album's release, and oddsmakers would have been forgiven for betting against Osbourne or Black Sabbath from ever being heard from again. Regarding Sabbath, it seemed inconceivable that anyone could sing the songs that Osbourne had brought so much personal drama to. In Osbourne's case, he was simply too much of a maverick, out of control, to seem a likely candidate to begin a fresh new career and make it succeed. With heavy metal seemingly in its death throes, replaced by punk and new wave, it seemed likely that all concerned were washed up.
Hoping for a last minute cash-in, the band's label released a live album in England, Live At Last, recorded with Osbourne sometime around 1976; the album reached the top-5 in England, proving an audience still existed for the band. The album however was released without the band's permission, and after some legal wrangling, it was withdrawn. Though it dates from after the band's peak, it is a good document; the band sticks to most of their well-known songs, and deliver them with a faster, more urgent pace. Still, it was a lineup that no longer existed, and the future didn't look good.
However, Sabbath never said die, and dutifully hired a new lead singer, Ronnie James Dio (ex-Rainbow). Keyboardist Geoff Nichols was also added to flesh out the band's sound, and give it some of that progressive tint Iommi wanted. The band played some well-recieved gigs as a warm up, and recorded their first album with the new lineup, Heaven and Hell, released in April 1980. Having Dio on board definitely re-energized the band; Iommi and Butler shine, and tracks like "Neon Knights" and the epic "Children of the Sea" were potent enough to capture the imaginations of younger listeners who has missed the band's peak. This propelled the album into the top-10 in England and yielded two hit singles. In the U.S., where the band's fortunes had declined more precipitously, the album also was a solid comeback; it reached #28, and topped a million copies sold, their best showing in years.
Ward would temporarily leave the band after Heaven and Hell due to ill health, and would be replaced by drummer Vinnie Appice.
Meanwhile, Osbourne was busy getting his life back in order. Having met and married new manager Sharon Osbourne, he set about on his solo career, assembling a solid band including drummer Lee Kerslake (ex-Uriah Heep), bassist Bob Daisley (ex-Rainbow), and hotshot young guitarist Randy Rhodes (ex-Quiet Riot). Rhodes was the masterstroke. One of the most promising new guitarists to emerge in the late 70's, Rhodes could play lighting fast, and in a style completely his own. This lineup recorded Osbourne's solo debut, Blizzard of Ozz in 1980, and went on the road to push it. The album represents Sabbath as Ozzie saw it; no-frills heavy metal, with the black magic, drugs and insanity back in the lyrics, and a streamlined 1980's sonic assault. Miraculously, the concept worked; Blizzard of Ozz stands not only as a triumph, but largely due to Rhodes, a stepping off point for the 1980's metal revival, one that saw the form brought back from the edge of extinction. The album peaked at #21, outselling the revitalized Black Sabbath's effort.
Directly on its heels, the band returned for a follow-up, Diary of a Madman, which not only solidified their sound, it helped establish Ozzy's post-Sabbath image as half-wildman half-lunatic. The album does sound rushed, which it was; it had to be finished before a scheduled tour. But its best moments, including the triumphant "Flying High Again" easily matched anything on the debut, which it outsold, reaching #16 on the charts. A wildly successful tour commenced, and for the first time in years, Ozzy Osbourne was a rock hero again, bigger than ever.
Black Sabbath, with Appice on the drums, came up with Mob Rules in late 1981, again with Dio at the helm. Produced by Martin Birch, who had just finished working with the up-and-coming Iron Maiden, the album is given a punchier, more contemporary sound than any Sabbath album yet; Dio's magical fantasy lyrics fit right into the sceme of things, too. Still the album sounded more like a retread of its predecessor, and failed to build on the band's reviving fortunes. It did make the top-20 in the U.K., but reached only #29 in the States, about the same as the previous album.
An interesting game of one-upsmanship seemed to be developing between the two camps. Osbourne was vocally resentful that Sabbath had carried on without him, and particularly that they were performing the songs he used to sing. Sabbath's stand was that they had had just as much hand in writing the songs as Osbourne, in many cases more so. The stakes were who would be keeper of the Sabbath legacy; the band or the singer. In 1982, Osbourne's shows took on almost wild, circus-like atmospheres; it was during the 1982 tour that he famously bit the head off a bat thrown at him from the audience, claiming he thought it was fake.
Black Sabbath decided their next release would be a concert recording, containing classics from both the Osbourne and Dio eras, all sung by Dio. However, clashes erupted between Iommi and Dio regarding the mixing of the album (one surmises each thought the other was mixed too high at the expense of their own contribution, a common enough argument in rock), and Dio ultimately quit, talking Appice with him.
Things took a bad turn for Ozzy too, when Randy Rhodes, to whom Ozzy was greatly indebted for his resurgence, was killed with two others in a freak accident when a plane in which he was riding, perhaps as part of a practical joke, buzzed the house Osbourne was staying in too low, and clipped the tour bus, causing a crash.
Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne both released double live albums in 1982, as if to claim their legacy; Osbourne's pointedly did not contain any Osbourne solo material; only Black Sabbath classics. Filling in for Rhodes on the Osbourne album, Speak Of The Devil, was Brad Gillis of Night Ranger, and the band sticks to the sound and spirit of the originals. In the battle of live albums, Obsourne came out ahead, peaking at #14, while Sabbath's Live-Evil stalled at #37. Between the two albums, Osbourne's benefits from his familiar vocals, and the nearly note for note reproduction of the recordings; Sabbath's has less of a concentration of good songs, and while Dio does a good job, he simply doesn't have the emotional intensity of Osbourne.
Black Sabbath talked Bill Ward into coming back, and seemingly had a good idea when they hired Ian Gillan (ex-Deep Purple) in 1983 to handle the vocals. Unfortunately the match didn't work; Gillan's voice proved ill-suited for Sabbath's early material, and his general bluesiness and humor didn't gel with Sabbath's dark doom-laden posturing, which had divorced itself from blues completely during the Dio era. The album, Born Again, has its moments; "Trashed" is a classic piece of lumpy speed metal, and "Zero The Hero" has an anthem-like quality; however, the fans who had climbed aboard for Dio were already jumping ship, and the album managed a soft #39.
Osbourne spent 1983 touring and recording a new album, Bark at the Moon. Jake E. Lee was given the lead guitarist slot, and the album bears a strong resemblance to the first two Osbourne albums. Lee was no Randy Rhodes, where the album suffers is in the lack of originality brought to the pyrotechnics; Rhodes could command attention, while Lee merely sufficed. Still given all the turbulence of the past year, it sounded resonably good. The album reached #19. Generating more buzz than the album was reports of Osbourne's record negotiations with new label Epic, to which he brought two live white doves; one was freed, the other met the same fate as the bat.
In truth, despite Osbourne's career resurgency, he didn't have his substance abuse under control, which would mar his output for a good decade after this. Meanwhile, Ian Gillan turned in his notice to Black Sabbath; he was leaving to join the newly re-formed Deep Purple. Dave Donato was chosen as a replacement, but never got to sing on any Sabbath albums. With both sides seemingly losing hold of their comebacks, Sabbath and Osbourne did the unthinkable; they reunited for the Live Aid benefit concert in 1985. It was a surreal scene indeed on a day of bands like Culture Club and Tears for Fears to see the original metal gods of doom take the stage. They rushed through versions of "Paranoid" and "Iron Man" and departed, leaving fans to wonder if the reunion would be a one shot.
Indeed it was, and Butler shortly after left the band. Iommi decided to launch a solo career, recording Seventh Star with Glenn Hughes on vocals. Intended from the start to be a Tony Iommi album, the label refused, and ordered it to be branded Black Sabbath. While this may have tricked some purchasers into buying the disc, the ruse backfired, since the album was a decidedly un-Sabbath-like collection of soulful ballads and intricate guitarwork. It was the worst chart showing ever for a Sabbath-credited album, only getting as high as #78.
From this point forward, serious critical analysis of both Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne becomes pointless. Both would lurch on, with Osbourne outselling Sabbath considerably, but their albums took on a samey routine sound that no longer broke new ground, but merely kept old ideas in circulation a little longer. Iommi hired a new singer for Black Sabbath, Tony Martin, for the 1987 album The Eternal Idol; it peaked at #168. Headless Cross followed in 1989, again with Martin, making it as far as #115 and picking up some positive notice, but it's a minor effort. TYR, from 1990, failed to chart at all. Osbourne rode the momentum of hype for a while, releasing pedestrian, lite-metal albums like The Ultimate Sin (1986), No Rest For The Wicked (1988), No More Tears (1991) and Ozzmosis (1995); each made the top-20, but none received the attention Osbourne's early solo discs did; they were merely more of the same, each sounding slicker and more homogenized than its predecessor, while Ozzy's voice became more processed, probably to hide the damage it had been done over the years.
in 1992, Sabbath reunited with Ronnie James Dio and Geezer Butler in an attempt to reverse everyone's creative declines; the resulting album Dehumanizer did reach #44, but it is hardly a return to the glory days. Dio departed again, Tony Martin came back, and Butler stayed on board for Cross Purposes in 1994, but losing Dio killed the sales again, and the album never made it farther than #122. The next Martin-fronted Sabbath album, Forbidden, was a disaster, failing to chart. By this time even the most diehard fans were openly wishing for a final breakup to protect what remained of the band's dignity.
Ozzy established the Ozzfest package tour of metal acts in 1997, and it was the second most successful tour of the year, setting Ozzy up for essentially what has become his role to this day; a cross between master of ceremonies, village idiot, and clown. His music has become secondary to his persona, even more so once he became the unlikely star of the The Osbourne Family TV series on MTV. Gone forever is the shaman of darkness that inspired many a teen nightmare in the 70's; in his place is an affable old coot, who shambles through life looking at once bemused and befuddled.
In 1997, Ozzy and the original Black Sabbath reunited for a tour together; for all intents and purposes, it was Ozzy, still riding high from Ozzfest, doing Sabbath the favor. The resulting album, Reunion, is a triumph of sorts. Putting aside the quasi-legal issue of Live at Last, it is the only official live recording of Ozzy with Black Sabbath. Ozzy milks it, relishing the vocals, while the band, original lineup together once again, live at last, resists the natural tendency to play the songs at a faster tempo. For the course of 16 songs, the plodding, degenerate, evil, dark band casts its long shadow once more, proving what had once made it so special in the first place. Two new recordings were tacked on at the end, one of which is the excellent "Psycho Man". The reunion was just a one-shot, but a welcome one it was. It reached #11 on the charts, Black Sabbath's best showing since Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and went platinum. After this, Tony Iommi finally got a solo debut into the stores in 2000, called Iommi and featuring a host of noteworthy guest vocalists including Ozzy, but peaked at a disappointing #129. Black Sabbath reunited once again to play at the 2001 edition of Ozzfest, and promised a studio album together with Rick Rubin producing, but it never happened. Ozzy has since busied himself with his TV show and talk-show appearences; Black Sabbath, in shambles, lies dormant, probably for its own good.
So: where should the novice begin? We Sold Our Soul For Rock 'n' Roll is still a good overview of the classic years, despite the removal of a few tracks. Paranoid remains an essential listen. Any of the first four albums will satisfy the casual heavy metal/doom metal fan; any of the first six enjoy good reputation among fans. The Dio albums are only if you like Dio; if you hate him, you'll hate the albums. Reunion is worth it for the faithful. Osbourne's best albums remain the first two, but be careful of anything labeled "re-mastered"; the remastering process included erasing Daisley and Kerslake and overdubbing faceless sessionmen, robbing the albums of much character.
Listen to Black Sabbath: Hand of Doom (1970)
Watch Black Sabbath: War Pigs