Continuing our occasional series where we place bands’ albums in order, from best to worst. Here we rate Ozzy Osbourne-era Sabbath LPs.
Heavy metal has such an old aesthetic it often feels like Black Sabbath discovered it in time for the 1970s rather than invented it.
Of course there had been glimpses of this noble genre bubbling up through the floorboards in the 1960s (The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’, The Kinks’ ‘You Really Got Me’ and various songs by Blue Cheer, Vanilla Fudge, Grand Funk Railroad, Iron Butterfly etc). But when Black Sabbath recorded their self-titled epic debut – a recording of inclement weather, a tolling bell, doom laden over-driven guitar chords following the Devil’s interval, a histrionic vocal performance and lyrics about the dark arts – it at once codified the genre.
Spiritually, it felt like it actually had more in common with Modest Mussorgsky’s ‘Night On Bare Mountain’ or Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars, The Bringer Of War’ than it did with garage rock. This connection with the classical was at one step removed, coming via the conduit of schlocky Hammer Horror films. (Black Sabbath were, of course, named after a Boris Karloff film.)
Heavy metal’s success – after four decades only hip-hop can claim to be a bigger genre and even this is a contentious issue – lies mainly in its complete isolation from other genres. Black Sabbath had a hand in developing this splendid isolation as well – by initially being really unpopular.
Their music was sneered at by the London-based music press for being provincial, working class and brutal, and its reception in America wasn’t much better. Rock hacks preferred the relative sophistication and virtuosity of Led Zeppelin and Cream, but metal’s perceived primitive status was also its strength, and its key moments ever since have tended to be captured by musicians struggling at the absolute limit of their self-tutored ability (Metallica – ‘Master Of Puppets’; Slayer – ‘Reign In Blood’; Mastodon – ‘Leviathan’; Iron Maiden – ‘The Number Of The Beast’, Napalm Death – ‘Scum’) rather than by trained virtuosos such as Steve Vai or Yngwie Malmsteen tossing off dazzling displays of intricate proficiency.
If for some unholy reason you’ve never listened to Sabbath before I’d suggest starting with the earlier Ozzy Osbourne fronted albums and, personally speaking, this is how I’d approach them.
1 – ‘Master Of Reality’
If you’re used to the horrifically over-compressed sound of modern metal albums like Metallica’s ‘Death Magnetic’ then on first listen, early Sabbath albums can sound slightly pusillanimous. This is merely the encouragement you need to turn the dial all the way to 11.
At full volume their third album, released in 1971, is a thing of monstrous wonder, like a throne made from bloody human thigh bones. Opening with the weed blazer’s anthem ‘Sweet Leaf’ this is a compendium of stone to the bone, none-more-black riffs. The complaint that most modern metal guitarists have is how are they supposed to compete when Tony Iommi wrote most of the killer riffs, often before they were even born. Some of the Sabs’ distinctive sound came about by accident, or rather because of an accident. Iommi lost the tips of two fingers in an industrial accident and played with home-made prosthetic digits fashioned from Fairy Liquid bottles. This didn’t affect his proficiency but it did mean he took to drop tuning his guitar making it easier to play and when Geezer Butler followed suit on bass and even Bill Ward tuned his kit down, their sound became even more sludgy, even more doom laden, even more demonic. There isn’t a bad song on Master but the NWOBHM-predicting ‘Children Of The Grave’ and uber doom of ‘Into The Void’ are particular high points.
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2 – ‘Paranoid’
There is no such thing as people who do not like ‘Paranoid’, ‘War Pigs’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Electric Funeral’, ‘Fairies Wear Boots’, ‘Hand Of Doom’, ‘Rat Salad’ and ‘Planet Caravan’. Just people who have not yet drunk enough beer.
3 – ‘Vol. 4’
Recorded under the title of ‘Snow Blind’, this is Sabbath’s success and cocaine album. The world was starting to catch up with what British head-bangers already knew, Sabbath were one of the best rock bands the world had seen. They were finally afforded more than a few days in a good studio and immediately came back with something a lot more progressive, melodic and experimental without sacrificing the core heaviness.
They may have recorded their first ballad in the form of ‘Changes’ (which Ozzy re-recorded with daughter Kelley in 2003, scoring a number one hit) but Vol 4 also contains what is their all-time best rocker, ‘Supernaut’.
This paean to taking enough narcotics to send you into space has guitar work that would blister paint at ten paces and a gargantuan zombie funk breakdown, and exemplifies everything that is great about early 70s metal. People often make the assumption that because Iommi was missing some of his fingers, he was forced into playing a brutal guitar style but like his hero Django Reinhardt he used this to his advantage; only one listen to the Balearic folk of ‘Laguna Sunrise’ or the progressive brilliance of ‘Wheels Of Confusion/The Straightener’ dispels this notion.
4 – ‘Sabotage’
Did you ever have a full personality break down when you were a famous drug addict and then try to rebuild your shattered psyche by taking even more drugs and then recording a cosmic heavy metal record? In case you haven’t and don’t really fancy it that much, luckily Sabbath have already done it for you. And you can enjoy the mental metal dysfunction anthems ‘Hole In The Sky’ and ‘Symptom Of The Universe’ from the comfort of your couch and not a padded cell.
5 – ‘Black Sabbath’
Ozzy wrote the lyrics to the title track after Butler, ashen faced, told the band that he’d had a close call with the big red guy with horns who lives downstairs. The callow bassist had decorated his entire bedroom with upside down crosses and indulged in a spot of occult worship / bong smoking and then took fright when a figure, who he took to be the rebel angel with all his cunning ways, appeared at the end of his bed.
It should be said, however, that Ozzy’s lyrics caution the listener not to dabble. The band themselves were annoyed when the original gatefold album, which came out in 1970 on Vertigo, included an apocalyptic and occult poem in the outline of an upside down crucifix that had been included without their approval. In fact they took to wearing crucifixes to offer them protection from evil forces, and early shots show them wearing tap heads because they couldn’t afford to get jewellery made. Metal as a genre didn’t really get too big on the whole Satanism business until Venom broke ranks in the early 80s and said, ‘Way aye man, ye divnae wanna praise god ye wanna hail that gadge Satan.’
6 – ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’
The band’s fifth really is a watershed in many respects. It marks the first time the band really courted critical acclaim by moving in a much more progressive direction than they had before. Cloak-wearing keyboard player Rick Wakeman turns up on ‘Sabbra Cadabra’ and Geezer Butler gets his synth and mellotron on for ‘Who Are You’. But ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and the apocalyptic melt down of ‘Sabotage’ really close the chapter on the band’s imperial period.
As for the other two albums, well, ‘Technical Ecstasy’ and ‘Never Say Die!’ really do represent a Lada vs Skoda battle, but the latter earns slight reprieve for having kick ass cover art. It’s better to think of these two records as a palate cleanser before the mighty relaunch of the band with Ronnie James Dio on vocals as debuted on the great 1980 album ‘Heaven And Hell’.
How would you rank Sabbath’s early output?