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Setting The Standard - 90%

Carnelian, September 8th, 2004

Black Sabbath's debut LP is generally regarded as the first heavy metal album ever recorded, and while there will never be any definitive way to confirm whether or not that opinion is true or false, I remain in total agreement with the common concensus. To this day, the song "Black Sabbath" is in every respect the quintessential metal song, and in my opinion is still one of the only rock songs which successfully conveys an atmosphere of horror. By all accounts, it was Sabbath's express intention to make a kind of "scary" music, music which would give people the same sort of experience they looked for in horror films.

Sabbath's success resulted from having a clear conception of what they wanted to do, and from being able to creatively execute their vision through musical means. They almost single-handedly invented an entire genre in the process. I say almost, because obviously "heavy" music existed before Sabbath: acts like Cream, Hendrix, Zeppelin, The Who, were making a lot of noise and blazing paths into various frontiers; but Sabbath's first album, more than any other classic album from the same era, was more intently focused on a single idea, was more specialized and particular. Sabbath made it very apparent, right from the start, what they were all about. The album art itself is frightening, with that mysterious pale woman lurking in the foreground, half-smiling like some freshly exhumed Mona Lisa. You knew what you were getting before you got the vinyl out of the slip-cover; and if the band's name or the album art didn't convince you, the thunderstorm and the ominous bells, which open up "Black Sabbath", would. The three doom-laden notes from that song are justly famous and need no defense at this point: let it suffice to say that they effectively changed the popular music world from that point onwards.

Black Sabbath: The prototype heavy metal track, hands down. Plodding, doom-laden, darkly melodic riff, atmospheric sound effects, and, more importantly, a voice that sounds genuinely afraid. The "Oh no, no, please God help me.." is still amazingly powerful and expressive. Ozzy's voice is deeper here than it is just about anywhere else, and at times he tries for a low note that he can't quite reach; but to me these honest flubs fit the mood of the song, and help to convey a sense of anguish and terror. A faster muted riff finishes out the song, creating a sense of tension and flight, and features some Iommi soloing which demonstrates his skill with vibrato. If I were asked to choose one song which defined the term "heavy metal", I would pick this song.

The Wizard: It seems that every band had their harmonica-songs back then. Personally, I could survive in a world without harmonicas, but it's employed in a decent way in this song. The song is catchy, thanks mostly to Bill Ward's excellent drum-work, which connects a blunt but effective chordal riff. Nothing to rave about as far as the singing: Ozzy's voice breaks up a bit. Thankfully, he found a home in a higher register later on. Over-all I don't get too excited about this song.

Behind the Wall of Sleep: Great song. The title, from horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, is perfect for the atmosphere of the album. Another inventive single-note riff with a bass line that rambles all around underneath the singing parts in a way that is distinctly Geezer. More great work from Bill Ward; passable, but nonetheless inspired, singing from Ozzy, who still hasn't found his comfort zone.

N.I.B.: More people need to learn that the first-person is a literary device. Just as the song, "Black Sabbath" is just a narrative, a fictional story and not a personal testimony from one or all of the band-members, so "N.I.B." is just a story: a love song, of sorts, from the Devil's perspective. How anyone could determine that the band were devil-worshippers from the lyrics of their songs is a mystery to me, since Satan is most typically presented in a negative light, especially in forthcoming albums. In this song, however, Lucifer is seen as being dark and seductive: he has this person "under his power"; but it's just a story, a type of old-style gothic narrative, not some sneaky advocacy of evil. Musically speaking, the riff is mundane and is reminiscent of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love"; I also don't care for Ozzy's singing right along with the riff. The slow breaks are the high parts of this track, with Ozzy giving a slightly wobbly operatic croon over descending chords. This is an early hint of the kind of things he would do brilliantly on subsequent albums.

Evil Woman/Wicked World: Depending on which version of the LP you have, either one of these two songs opens up side two. To my mind, Wicked World is by far the superior song, and "Evil Woman" is essentially a throw-away cover which never generated a great deal of interest for me. Apparently, the American version of the LP put "Wicked World" in place of "Evil Woman": "Wicked World" being originally the B-side to the "Evil Woman" single. An excellent choice, but I have no idea at the moment whether or not Sabbath authorized the change. At any rate, "Wicked World" is a Sabbath classic, with some nice single-note riffing opening up the track, faster and a bit trickier than the material up to this point. A simple but excellent cue-in fill by Bill Ward sets the pace for the mid-tempo main riff, another single-note affair which is simple yet packs a punch. Geezer flies underneath the vocal line, yet again, and if you hear this tune on a crappy system you'll miss its finer points. Ozzy is still singing in the lower-range which is present throughout the album, but climbs up dramatically (and rather skillfully) in the third line of each verse. This is the only track on the album which makes a political/social statement, and though over-simplified and non-specific, the message is a powerful response to the prevailing flower-power fluff coming out of a lot bands of that era. Though I might get hanged for saying it, I feel the lengthy Iommi solo is rather pointless and distracting. Iommi's genius was as a composer of monumentally original and powerful metal riffs, but his soloing (particularly here, with no musical backdrop) is, at this point, still rather on the rough side.

"Sleeping Village": The obligatory soft-touch. Personally, I love this pastoral miniature. The gloomy atmosphere is perfect for the album. It's also one of the very rare times you'll hear a jew's harp (or something that sounds exactly like one) in a metal song. Whether it works or is just plain goofy, is your call. Ozzy's voice is deep and shaky, but emotionally charged and effective. There is sometimes a sincerity in his voice which is all but absent in a lot of metal vocalists, past and present, and I think it's at least partly due to that sincerity that Sabbath made such a strong connection to its fans. Unlike a great deal of subsequent Sab sleepers and fillers, like "Fluff" and "Laguna Sunrise", I never skip over this song.

"Warning": Over-long blues cover, but somehow sits well with this album. Some of the more obvious flubs from Ozzy, who seems, more than ever, to be struggling in a tone he is not suited for. More solo-soloing from Iommi, sometimes inspired and interesting, sometimes not; a lengthy and apparently improvisational jazz-like jam, which is the high-part of the track for me. Over-all, the song seems a bit haphazardly pieced together. It's nonetheless listenable for its doomy atmosphere, and for Iommi's decent tone through the primary parts.

I can't imagine gathering a collection of metal albums without acquiring this historic landmark of a record. Few bands, when all is said and done, will be able to boast of putting out an LP as revolutionary and standard-setting as "Black Sabbath".