Thursday, October 28, 2010

Rocktober Album #20: Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath (1970)

Plain and simple, Black Sabbath is heavy metal. As a little bit of background, the band was originally called Earth, but changed their name in late 1969 when they found out another British band had the same name. They took their new name from a Boris Karloff movie, and decided they would make the musical equivalent of horror movies. Fittingly, they hailed from Birmingham, a working class steel city, so metal had literally always been a part of their lives. In what is part of heavy metal lore, guitarist Tony Iommi (who is a lefty) lost the tips of two of the middle and ring finger of his right hand in an industrial accident when he was 17. He then melted down plastic liquid soap bottles and molded his own prosthetic tips for his fingers. His new fingers allowed him to create a slightly different, more metallic sound, on the guitar.

This is the album that started heavy metal. Released in the UK on February 13, 1970 -- on Friday the 13th -- and in May 1970 in the US, the album is the antithesis of flower power, with its dark imagery based on the occult, supernatural, and the devil, combined with eerie, minor keys, and a frontman who sounds like a possessed banshee. Even the cover is creepy. I mean, seriously, what is that woman doing there? I don't want to follow her, but I'm definitely interested in what she's up to.

Despite a relatively unfavorable critical reception, the album must have struck a chord with those disenchanted by the '60s. It rose to #8 on the UK album charts and #23 on the Billboard album charts, which is pretty decent for a debut album, especially given how dark this was compared to everything else in music. It has since been named to Rolling Stone's list of the Top 500 albums of all-time.

The North American version of the album (which is what I have) groups several of the songs together reasons that are unclear to me, but may be clear to the woman on the cover.

1. Black Sabbath
The rare self-titled song off the self-titled album. Triple your pleasure. Right from the start, you know this isn't your daddy's rock and roll. The title track is unbelievably dark. It starts with rain sounds and then kicks into the riff -- the infamous "devil's triad," a tritone that Western music avoided because it was thought to summon the devil. The song was inspired by a vision bassist Geezer Butler had after he awoke from a nightmare. He saw a black silhouetted figure standing at the foot of his bed ("What is this that stands before me / Finger in black which points at me"). Of course, there is also Satan-based imagery later in the song. The song is slow and plodding until about the 4:35 mark, at which point the pace picks up and the band ends the song in a frenzy (to go along with the lyrics about running away from Satan).

2. The Wizard
Following the supernatural and occult imagery theme, "The Wizard" is a badass blues-based song about a wizard walking through a town. Can you imagine? It has a great harmonica riff and a great guitar riff as well.

3. Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Bassically/N.I.B.
"Wasp," I think, is just a guitar intro to "Behind the Wall of Sleep," which is a solid hard rock song about taking your body to a corpse at the behest of a priest. "Bassically" is kind of an intro to "N.I.B" with a distorted wah-wah bass lick courtesy of Butler. Contrary to popular belief "N.I.B." does not stand for "Nativity In Black," but actually refers to drummer Bill Ward's goatee at the time, which the band thought was shaped like a pen nib. The song is, however, told from the point of view of Lucifer, who is apparently trying to seduce a woman and seems to genuinely be in love for the first time. It's pretty lighthearted and adorable if you think about it.

4. Wicked World
In a bit of a surprising turn, this one's kind of dark. It's about how the world pretty much sucks. Iommi has a short, but pretty solid, guitar solo about two-thirds of the way through the song.

5. A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning
"A Bit of Finger" is an awesome name for a heavy metal song, especially considering Tony Iommi did, in fact, lose a bit of one of his fingers. "Sleeping Village" is only four lines long, and Ozzy is using some sort of voice-altering device. It sounds creepy, but it's not. The last ten-plus minutes of the album is "Warning," a cover of a blues-rock song by Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any of these three songs on

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