By Rick Polo (Editor-in-Chief)
Doomy down-tuned riffs. Dark, foreboding lyrics. Tales of war, angst and the dark side of the human experience. …I know what you’re thinking; the popular shtick of your typical hard rock or heavy metal band, right? You may be correct, however, hundreds if not thousands have tried to perfect this sound over the past four decades. This is the sound of Black Sabbath.
Flashback to the late 1960’s. The musical climate was, for the most part, as bright as a tie-dyed shirt. The rock and roll of the time was idealistic, with themes of peace, free love and mind-opening experimentation. The hippie movement was in full swing. Conversely, that musical climate was ready for a shift.
Sonically, by the late 60s, rock bands were becoming progressively louder, more aggressive and “heavy.” The use of the fuzz pedal and distortion was changing the idea of what the electric guitar sounded like. From this, hard rock and heavy metal were born.
Although proto-metal acts like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Blue Cheer and even Led Zeppelin were pushing the boundaries of hard rock in the late 60s, it wasn’t until Friday, February 13, 1970 that heavy metal was perfected full circle, and the hippie music before it had fallen to its knees.
The date marked the release of Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album. And from the fist riff of opening track, “Black Sabbath” (a tri-tone, a sequence of notes banned in the Middle Ages for supposedly evoking Satan himself), the sound that was to become heavy metal was defined. Guitarist Tony Iommi, who suffered an accident while working in a factory that left the tips of his fingers severed, tuned his guitar a few steps lower to accommodate his prosthetic finger tips. Because of this, the band’s signature sound had a low, doom-like feel to it. Further accompanying this was swinging rhythmic attack of bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward, which pulsated around Iommi’s usual mid-tempo bluesy riffs. Finally, the final layer on the Black Sabbath cake was singer Ozzy Osbourne’s paranoid (no pun intended) and frightening vocals, that sent shivers down the spines of audiences everywhere.
Originally written off as rubbish by the music media at the time, the world was taken aback by Black Sabbath. No artist had explored such dark musical themes such as Satanism, war and the oppression of religion quite as outspokenly as they did. They were unapologetic yet innovative, laying the groundwork for nearly four decades of musicians trying to cop their sound.
Despite this, the band saw great success throughout the early and mid-70s, releasing a string of albums such as Paranoid (1970), Master of Reality (1971), Vol. 4 (1972) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), that served as a prerequisite for any artist attempting the genre.
But by the late 70’s, years of consistent touring and hard drug abuse was starting to take its toll. The musical climate had again shifted, and where the pioneers of hard rock and metal once reigned at the top of the decade, the even more raw and aggressive sounds punk and new wave had stolen the throne. The band was artistically drained and off their creative course, particularly Ozzy Osbourne. By 1979, he was fired and new chapters were to begin for both parties.
In 1980, both Osbourne and the remaining members of Black Sabbath had relaunched their careers. Osbourne reinvented his sound and began a very successful solo career, while Sabbath recruited former Rainbow and Elf singer Ronnie James Dio, and released two successful albums, Heaven and Hell and Mob Rules. But by 1983, Dio had left Sabbath. As Osbourne’s solo career continued to flourish throughout the 80’s and 90’s, Sabbath saw a string of replacement singers and ill-conceived reunions and nothing got too far off the ground.
In the late 90’s, at the height of his successful annual Ozzfest tour, Osbourne reunited with the original Black Sabbath and fans rejoiced. A live album and a few new recordings were released, and a full scale album was in the works. But with Osbourne continually balancing tours with Sabbath and solo releases, the years quickly racked up. Old tensions came back to haunt them and by 2005, they were again finished with no future plans to work together. Relauched as Heaven and Hell, the members of Black Sabbath reunited with Dio for a successful run but tragically, he died of stomach cancer in 2010.
On November 11, 2011 (11-11-11, dubbed National Metal Day), the four original members of Black Sabbath announced their return, with plans for new music and extensive touring. But in the frame of a few months after the announcement, trouble struck the band again. Unhappy with his contract, Bill Ward dropped out of the reunion and even worse, Iommi was diagnosed with cancer.
After witnessing his friend and former band mate Dio fall victim to the illness, Iommi remained fully determined, taking treatments for the disease while writing and recording new material. The band entered the studio with famed producer Rick Rubin (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, Johnny Cash, Metallica) and recruited former Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave drummer, Brad Wilk.
The result is Black Sabbath reborn.
A new album, 13, from the almost-original lineup is scheduled for release June 6. Tracks like “End of the Beginning” and lead single “God is Dead?” prove Black Sabbath are not reinventing the wheel, they are the wheel! Rubin’s production brings an updated platform for Sabbath to do what they have always done been then everyone; write amazing heavy fucking music! Iommi is as sharp as ever, with no shortage of jaw-dropping riffs after 40+ years. Butler’s bass playing is stellar, and his lyrics perfectly lend to Osbourne’s still-eerie vocal approach. Newcomer Wilk is no stranger to holding a grove, and his style lends well to Sabbath. Although it would be nice to have a true reunion, Wilk is undoubtedly worthy to sit behind the kit of the greatest metal band of all time.
The story of Black Sabbath is far greater than the average tale of rock and roll redemption. They are innovators. Influencing practically everything that followed, from Kiss to the Misfits, Candlemass to White Zombie, Soundgarden to Mastodon, and countless others. They may been down but never to be counted out. For they seem to return at the peak of every generation and shake things up again. Originality cannot be denied, therefore Black Sabbath remians!