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Of all the things one can credit the mighty and ever-looming influence of Black Sabbath for, an inescapable fact should also be hammered into the texts of HM history. Upon their inception, the band didn’t have squat. Their singer, Ozzy Osbourne, was from a desperately poor Birmingham, England family. Their guitarist, Tony Iommi, had learned to play despite accidentally hacking the tops of two of his fingers off in a sheet metal mishap. Their drummer, Bill Ward, soon would evince one of the more harrowing cases of alcoholism in rock history, while bassist Geezer Butler was a reluctant, but enthusiastic occult student who would learn to play his instrument only a short time before the band’s first recording dates.
And so armed with $600 and a truckload of ambition, Black Sabbath recorded their first LP and subsequently changed the face of rock music. Nothing like having it all on your side, huh? But for their part, Sabbath pushed aside the blues roots that dominated the UK rock scene of the day, and forged a sound built on a somewhat new idea: the riff. Other bands (The Kinks, The Who, and to a lesser degree The Beatles) had played with the concept of a guitar riff being the central building block of a song, but Sabbath put the weight of the entire band behind it, all instruments present firing at full power at a small but imposing collection of chords. And believe it or not, that innovation is the essential component and differentiating factor of heavy metal music, especially the more “extreme” sub-genres.
But enough theory. The album itself is remarkable as presenting a relatively young band with a quite defined sound and very deft interplay between the players. The opening alone can freeze blood in veins, as the sound of rain and a soft, distant church bell chiming set up the mood, just in time for a loud thunderclap to sound and THAT RIFF appears. Only three chords, but the chromatic order of said chords was known during the Middle Ages as “diablous in musica”. Playing it or writing music containing it could mean you’d find yourself in chains with a hooded dude aiming a branding iron at your privates. But the tune our heroes were using it for was their theme song, “Black Sabbath”, an ornery tale of demonic possession that can’t help but leave an impression (of whatever type) on any perspective listener. “The Wizard” is moderately less sinister, but still blasts some wicked (and loud) riffs, and some damn inventive (almost jazz-like) drumming from Mr. Ward. “NIB” steps up after some instrumental noodling – mostly bass fingering, and fires off another immortal, signature Sabbath riff. A mystery for some time, the song’s title was interpreted by paranoid Bible-humpers to be an acronym for “Nativity in Black”, which has nothing to do with the lyrics (more demon possession stuff), and was in fact titled “NIB” after the appearance of Ward’s beard! Only in the wacky world of metal…. Much of the album’s remainder, especially “Warning”, relies on the band’s jazz-blues base, and not for the last time in the band’s music some very swing-type time signatures appear.
All in all, Sabbath may not have invented volume, riffs, and power chords, but they did combine these ingredients into their broth to a level mostly never heard before in rock. This is not their best album, but in heavy metal history it is a Cro-Magnon man taking its primitive tools in hand for the first time for forge the future to whatever end it would lead to. Brave, innovative and loud as a bomb, the Sabbath era had undeniably dawned. On our feet, or on our knees it would flourish amongst us, unstoppable.