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People often shelf this album in favor of the ones that followed due to the inconsistency it possesses. But to all my fellow younger metal heads out there, I will now make an analogy. The original form of democracy of Ancient Athenian Greece was hardly a perfect thing, rights were obviously not distributed fairly, and certain controversial thinkers such as Socrates were put to death by a tyrannical majority for speaking their minds. This album is the first attempt at something different, and later ones would become much more focused on both establishing the identity of metal consistently, and help differentiate it from the other genres of it's time.
At the time this album was recorded, heavy metal was considered what made the beams of buildings, and all in life was peachy in the music scene. People were smoking, tripping, and doing everything that they could to evade the true nature of the world they lived in at the time. Essentially Black Sabbath grew out of the shadow of the hippie scene, which is ironic because in actuality, the 60s movement was a very dark thing. People basically rendered themselves to the state of madness in a paralyzed fear over the fact that they existed in a material world, one with natural laws and consequences for the actions of all within it. Where Black Sabbath differed from the rock bands of the time, is that they didn’t bother trying to hide from the ugliness that had come about, but instead exposed it.
Although the more socio-political side of Black Sabbath did not come fully into effect until they’re second release, this one carries some undertones that deserve addressing. The first one is the rather evil, yet simple riff that dominates the first song. It is revealing of how Black Sabbath used the darker side of music to send out a message to the listener, and the unfortunate thing is that people did not interpret the message correctly. Far from being a song glorifying the occult, this song is actually giving a warning to all to avoid the things that it depicts. And what is the devil according to theological accounts? He is a manifestation of corruption, and the 60s were an extremely corrupt time, both philosophically and culturally. Although the lads from Birmingham probably only intended to write a scary homage to a famous Italian horror film, what they ended up accomplishing was dealing a death blow to a poisonous counter-culture, one that was identified by poisoning oneself with mind-altering drugs in order to evade their own metaphysical identity. There is nothing more evil than self-hatred, and this is one aspect of Black Sabbath’s music that is different, it doesn’t evade reality but exposes it, in a metaphorical sense on this particular album.
To be fair, Black Sabbath did their share of drug glorification, particularly in the case of “Sweet Leaf”. But one thing that they never really did, on this release or any other, was propagate the kind of escapism that the 60s counter-culture was famous for. Not escapism in the sense of track 2 on this album, “The Wizard”, which is essentially a metaphorical tale about an individual with the power to change things around him, but the self-destructive form of escapism where one fully shuts out the world and sees no place for ideals within it.
People often focus on the dark side of Sabbath, but truth be told, they were a highly balanced band that looked to the light often as well. They’re influence is universal in the world of metal, as those whom create the dark and more doom oriented side of metal look to slower tracks like the title track, musicians like myself in the power metal genre often look to the light of songs such as “The Wizard”. What it represents to me is the power of one person to push away darkness from one’s life, and afterwards he finds that his own example has brought light to others. That is the meaning behind the Power Metal genre, in my view, and hints at it’s lyrical inception can be seen in this track.
It must also be noted that this album functions musically as a manifesto for every Progressive Metal outfit in terms of structure, which is mostly evident in the last track “Warning”, as it twists and turns through a variety of musical sections. If you ever wonder where bands like Fates Warning and Queensryche got their unique approaches to song structure, this song is probably the earliest example of it. Furthermore, songs like “NIB” and “Sleeping Village” highlight the technical chops of both Geezer Butler, who was well ahead of his time in terms of the role of the bass, and Tony Iommi’s tendency to use multiple guitar tracks for his solos, something which would be heavily utilized by two guitar outfits such as Helloween, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and a host of others.
There are a couple of tracks on here that showcase a rather simple approach to rock music, that might be credited for helping to pave the way for the more mainstream side of metal, particularly the blues influenced sleaze approach of the early through mid 80s glam scene. “Evil woman” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep” function pretty much this way, although the drum alone fade out to the latter is not something commonly encountered in mainstream metal.
“Wicked World”, is lyrically my only complaint on this album, because it is too much a product of it’s time and doesn’t have any value today. While musically it is something well ahead of it’s time, particularly the crazy as hell solo that Iommi rips out, something not commonly seen except maybe on one of Jimi Hendrix’s live performances, but the words are afflicted with the same stupid protests over the successes of humanity that the hippie movement waged. I’m sorry, as I know I’m going to piss off a lot of people by saying this, but the line “They can put a man on the moon quite easy” is classic textbook ignorance. I challenge Ozzy or Geezer to go over and try to mentally comprehend the years of work it took to solve the equations necessary to formulate how to escape the earth’s atmosphere, not to mention sending a human being out there and then bring him back. Furthermore, it is important to note that NASA is often at the forefront of new cures for the diseases that are killing everyone, and also most of the places where disease is rampant are places where you don’t have modern technology.
Unfortunately there is a side to heavy metal that I do despise, and it is how the focus on the negative side of life causes one to speak with emotion divorced from reason. And this approach to lyric writing is alive and well in nearly every genre within the metal universe. In my personal opinion, it’s a holdover from the 60s generation that should be filtered out because it was part of something that metal was supposed to be rebelling against. I can’t fully fault Sabbath for having some influences from their time in their music, as these cultural flights from rational thought were nearly inescapable, but it is necessary to point out flaws as they tend to be present when a new innovation in music occurs, as in all the other fine arts.
One further thing to note is that Ozzy Osbourne, though regarded as a decent vocalist, did not realize his full vocal potential on this album. “Sleeping Village” and “Wicked World” in particular see his voice sounding extremely garbled, I had to read the lyrics sheet in order to understand some of the words on the latter track. He does a better job on the tracks where his voice is not nearly as exposed, particularly the title track and “The Wizard”.
In conclusion, this is justly dubbed the first album of heavy metal, it is the foundation of a form of music that prides itself on defying boundaries. Those of us whom continue to create music to this day look to this album as the first foundation of the first building, which rests at the center of the great city of metal. Other more towering structures have been built since, but they owe they’re existence to the formula first explored by these guys. If you are not in possession of this album, I recommend getting it now because you will not be able to fully appreciate whatever brand of metal you love without understanding where it comes from. It is a bit dated, it contains some of the negative elements of the time it came from, but it is also the shiniest of diamonds once the rough is cleared away.