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The foundations of heavy metal - 90%

headlesscross, October 26th, 2011

The history of heavy metal starts in Birmingham on February 13, 1970 when Black Sabbath release their first eponymous album. The group is formed by the ex-butcher John “Ozzy” Osbourne on vocals, the maimed (he lost two phalanges in an accident at work) guitarist Tony Iommi, the ex-accountant interested in occult readings Terence “Geezer” Butler on bass, and the drummer Bill Ward. At the beginning, Black Sabbath was a blues/rock band called Polka Tulk (the name of Ozzy’s mother's talcum powder!), then they become Earth and it’s during this period that they write the song Black Sabbath, from which they will take their final name.

Black Sabbath is a revolutionary album with nothing similar before it, in both power and hardness of the sound and for dark and occult subjects, introduced for the first time (with the exception of the rock bands Black Widow and Coven) in the rock world. With the cover art the album expresses all its contents; in fact, we can see the untilled garden of an abandoned house in which, in a gloomy atmosphere, stands out a shape totally dressed in black. Death? A witch? A ghost? We don’t know; all is left to the imagination (or to the fear) of the listener.

The album opens in shocking way with the title track, Black Sabbath. The song starts with the gloomy sounds of a storm and of a death knell, making the listener shudder and immediately introduces him to Black Sabbath’s atmosphere. Then enter the guitar and the bass with the first metal riff in history, thus becoming legend and consecrates Iommi in the role of “guitar black messiah”. This riff, made by three simple chords, is powerful, dark, and disturbing, immediately communicating the essence of the music, of the newborn heavy metal, and of the band itself. After some repetition of the riff, suddenly enters another indelible mark of the band: the rough and ungraceful voice of the Ozzy Osbourne, who sings about a black shape moving forward toward him. Also, the lyrics of the song are something revolutionary, introducing in rock music subjects never dealt with, like horror, occultism, Satan, evil, and death. The song can be considered sort of a dialogue between Death and the character, a dialogue that can be noticed in the alternation of the main riff, referring to the slow but inexorable gait of the black shape, and the vocal parts where the riff is only background. The climax is reached with Ozzy's mad and desperate cry, “Please, God, help me!”.

The second track, The Wizard, opens in an unusual way with the sound of harmonica, a sign that Black Sabbath are not unrelated with the streak of experimentalism typical of the hard rock of their age (see Led Zeppelin). Ozzy’s harmonica, in fact, dialogues with Iommi’s guitar and contributes to the magic, but at the same time creates a disturbing atmosphere that pervades the whole song.

The third track, Behind The Wall Of Sleep, talks about sleep, dreams and nightmares, and tries to explore the hidden sides of the human soul that show themselves during sleep. To do this, the music is rhythmical and hypnotic with lyrics evoking strange and disturbing images that could be found only in nightmares.

The next song opens with a long bass solo, which rightly makes Geezer Butler one of the best bass players of his generation and shows as effectively that in the band there are not gregarious and leading characters, but every member has his own clear and marked personality. The title of the song, N.I.B., is still under discussion about its meaning. The official version given by the band says that it is referred to Bill Ward’s beard, which had the shape of a pen nib, but it is also believed to mean “Nativity In Black”. However, this song explores the genre of the love song, but of course in a totally new way according to Black Sabbath’s canons. Ozzy, in fact, sings not about a requited love, but when the woman accepts it, he reveals himself as no less than Lucifer (“My name is Lucifer and please take my hand.”). Then he explains to the loved woman that now she is totally under his power and that their love will be everlasting. N.I.B., which is rightly one of the best and most famous Black Sabbath’s songs that will be affixed in the track list of the band’s concerts, develops principally through a simple, yet terribly effective riff according to Iommi’s most typical style.

The fifth track, which was not included in the American edition, is a cover of Evil Woman, originally performed by the American blues/rock band Crow. Including at least one cover song in a studio album was very common in the 70’s (for example like Judas Priest in 1977 with Joan Baez’s cover, “Diamonds And Rust”) to easily obtain radio broadcasting, but this doesn’t happen to Black Sabbath, who will be boycotted by “official” media. However, the song, although without big differences with the original, is fully in the Black Sabbath style and can be considered the complementary opposite of N.I.B. If in the previous track Ozzy was Lucifer keeping the loved woman under his power, here it’s him who is at the mercy of this “evil woman”.

The sixth track, Sleeping Village, breaks off from the “classical” dark and Gothic atmosphere, evoking images of a quiet summer afternoon. To do this, there are enough for only four verses, which describe in a stylized, yet effective way this image, assisted by the hypnotic sound of acoustic guitar. Sleeping Village then continues as an instrumental and is directly linked to the next track, Warning, a cover by the blues/rock band Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. This is a typically slow and rhythmical blues song with guitar and bass solos in the central part.

Black Sabbath finishes with Wicked World, not included on the European version since the 1996 reissue, but only in the American one. This track can be considered anticipation for the future of the group and in particular of their lyrics: apocalyptic visions of a suffering and decadent world. While during the 60's, the most important subject of the songs were peace and love and how the world should be, omitting how it really is. This band from Birmingham reverses the perspective, talking about the real nature of the world without dreams or utopias and only with harsh reality.

Black Sabbath is not a perfect album and it is still raw in some of parts, but this becomes insignificant if we consider the enormous unfinished influence it has on the following generations and the fact that after more than 40 years since it was published it still sounds topical and calls even new people to the metal legions. In conclusion, with Black Sabbath, heavy metal was born and the world has never been the same.