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Reams of study and debate over whether Black Sabbath should be considered the first true 'heavy metal' album have already been ground out through the years in myriad forums. Horns have been locked, sides drawn and oppositions condemned. But while it might be impossible that we EVER pinpoint and agree upon a sole, single progenitor for the medium, the truth is that the style was born out of a number of influences, culturally and musically, which led to a band from Birmingham, England to intensity their heavy blues sound into something we now recognize as a defining, formative work of our beloved escape. Yeah, Black Sabbath might not have penned the very first 'metal' record, and who cares? But I don't think there's any argument that this was the first of such enormous significance...
Upon a cursory listen, of course, one might discern that the band's blues rock roots still shine through heavily here, and as a result the s/t debut is not one of stylistic certainty, but a balance of components akin to the evolving sounds of Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin in the same era. There are tracks here as heavy as fuck-all, and others through which the quartet delves into the psychedelic folk and rock that were a huge influence upon them personally growing up. So by no means is this album thorough in its metallic content, but then, said content is far and away what I'd deem the most memorable writing here, and of course I'm referring to their namesake "Black Sabbath" itself, which I'd consider the best and most important track on the album. Samples of rain and church bells build support for the centric, funeral brooding Iommi lick which entire sub genres of heavy rock were born from, and our introduction to Osbourne's vocals is flawless, hypnotic and most importantly: assertively blue-collar and honest.
"Black Sabbath" creeps along like every cliche out of nightmare! You can close your lids to this and imagine any serpent, spider or rodent creeping along its carrion course, or a murder of crows stirring upon the grounds of some fell cathedral. Bill Ward's percussion totally sells the simple guitar line which, while alternated between single notes, bends and chords glides through both the corporeal fat of Geezer Butler's bass lines and the foreboding doom of the lyrics. The end of the tune picks up into a fairly 'freakout' sequence of sweltering blues lead and psychedelic, wavy rhythm guitars, but it's not a bad climax, and really the only negative thing I can say about this song, one of the band's greatest, is that it sets up such a high water mark for the album that the ensuing material simply cannot reach or surmount it...
But it tries. "The Wizard" transforms from Ozzy's harmonica intro to a more swaggering form of choppy, heavy rock that wouldn't be alien to fans of Zeppelin, Cream or Hendrix, and the true star here is Geezer's punctual, fluid bass as it clings to the underside of the chords like a green slime about to drop itself on some dungeon victim. "Behind the Wall of Sleep" is trippy thanks to the contours of the grooving bass and Osbourne's slightly effected bite, while "N.I.B." sounds like the devil's own spiritual successor to something like The Kinks' "Girl You Really Got Me", only more slovenly, measure and mesmerizing. I'm also quite a huge fanbay for the track "Wicked World" which appears on the American version of the LP in place of their cover of Crow's "Evil Woman (Don't Play Your Games With Me)". The opening minutes are pretty pure blues driven Sabbath groove, with Butler taking another wet-booted stroll in the mix, but what I found most fascinating were the closing moments where the song takes on an almost early 'post-rock' appeal with the calming clean tones in the bridge, and the spacey surge of whining, ambient feedback at its close.
I'm not quite as into some of the minor clips of excess fixed into other tracks here, like the brief Geezer vehicle "Bassically", or the rather pointless "Wasp" intro to "Behind the Wall of Sleep". I also don't really find the cover tunes necessary. The 10+ minute rendition of Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation's "Warning" is not a highlight for me, but certainly I found myself transfixed to its strutting style and the great performance on the bass. But then, including covers on a debut album was just not that out of place during this period. Deep Purple used covers, and hell, even Ozzy and crew were themselves on the receiving end when Japan's Flower Travelin' Band kick started its own recording career with Sabbath covers. At least these guys chose a few that were appropriate, flush with the original material. A few that they could make 'their own'.
Ultimately, even if it never really eclipses the titular opening cut, Black Sabbath is monumental in its quality and the span of its inspiration upon hundreds of thousands of hard rock, stoner rock, doom and psychedelic metal cosmonauts for the next four decades and on into infinity. I would not say this was my favorite of their records, since Paranoid, Sabotage and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath are just too loaded to deny, but its waves of harrowing nostalgia and morbid, serious lyrical prowess are legion, and "Black Sabbath" itself is easily one of the best songs ever in the doom or 'proto' doom category, an apparition of eerie atmosphere that has kept me nervous around graves and doing a double take on every own shadow I've crossed since the day I first heard it.