n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
Blood brothers, warming their scales in the blacklight: Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath have a lot more in common than I originally thought. Both quartets started off as British blues bands—don’t they all?—and both helped pave the road toward heavy metal and alternative rock by flipping the script and forcing the rhythm to serve the guitar. Both are prone to awkward testimonies to love, weed, and mysticism. Both employ a frontman significantly girlier than most of their devotees would dare admit, and both built their careers around an axeman who was rightfully the group’s star (Jimmy Page) or should’ve been (Tony Iommi). Both were prone to small-scale animal abuse while on tour, and on, and on….
Strange, then, that their audiences seem so divergent; Zeppelin, beloved by anyone with a lava lamp and at least one Guitar Center purchase on their credit card; Sabbath, beloved mostly by men with goatees and chicks who love men with goatees. I’m neither, really, but I’ve owned most of Zep’s catalog since high school. My teenage hard-rock phase survived the very worst Limp Bizkit and Korn spat at the world (as well as years of hiding parental advisory stickers from my mother), but I never explored the exceedingly old and silly Black Sabbath, a band that, despite her mostly accepting attitude, my mother had outlawed due to their history of drug use and, natch, an ongoing, binding contract with the devil, inked in baby rabbit’s blood.
But with the increased popularity of Sunn 0))), Isis, and Boris, Sabbath is about due for a resurgence in popularity among finicky, hip music fans of the type recently enjoyed by Bruce Springsteen and Queen. There will be claims that those bands have improved Sabbath’s formula by swamping up the guitars and removing the solos, and they’ll be nothing but dew-eyed, reductive bullshit; Sabbath’s gnarly contours and pock-marked jowls forfeit stabs at atmosphere and extended groove in favor of multi-tiered hammerhead rock.
More still, Sabbath displayed surprising and unmistakable pop ambition throughout their career, and if their studio work is to be believed, they weren’t nearly as concerned with coming off as the unsavory badasses their fans retroactively make them out to be. Related: Sabbath’s reputation as Satan’s soundtrack seems wildly inaccurate, though imagining the dark prince lying on his couch listening to “Changes” and having a cry makes for good times.
For all the pummeling, righteous carnage that Sabbath spewed, it’s tracks like “Changes” that are the most startling. A reedy, knuckling piano ballad disrupting the otherwise incredible Vol. 4, “Changes” is impossible to like or dislike because it’s impossible to contextualize. Would I like “Changes” more if Elvis Costello was yelping it? Maybe. I sort of wish it didn’t fall between “Tomorrow’s Dream” and “Supernaut,” but Sabbath seems more genuine and likable for having written it, and it’s telling that they were willing to stake their reputation for a lily-ass power ballad even though their career depended on burly machismo more than Burt Reynolds and Hulk Hogan’s careers combined.
For a band that so often gets pigeonholed, their breadth of styles and genre experiments is legitimately disarming. And not only do they dabble in voodoo hippy shit (“Planet Caravan”), new-agey pulp (“Laguna Sunrise”), glam-pop retardation (“Am I Going Insane”), and reheated blues (“The Wizard”), they dabble competently and creatively, even if the results sometimes sort of suck. Iommi’s incredibly irritating need to express himself artistically three times an album with pap interludes stands out as the band’s most surprising misjudgment. Truly loving Sabbath means coming to terms with the fact that your favorite hard rock album might contain a song called “Fluff” or “Laguna Sunrise,” and, chillingly, that those track titles are wholly appropriate.
It’s no surprise that Paranoid is suburbia’s jam. It largely stays away from the messy experiments (save the death fog of “Planet Caravan”), and it also bears the most Trapper-Keeper worthy lyrics (“Robot minds of robot slaves / Lead them to atomic graves”). Even if Paranoid approaches critical consensus, it’s probably the band’s least interesting great album, outstripped by the eponymous debut’s mangled 89th generation blues, Master of Reality’s extreme girth, Vol. 4’s superior scalpel work, and the fetishistic pop-sludge of both Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage.
The debut, in particular, doesn’t live up to its swampy, psychedelic cover. But it’s more than just “when they were young”-style anthropology, establishing the band early on the tarpit throes of “Black Sabbath” and the extended guitar heroics of “Wasp / Behind the Wall of Sleep / Bassically / N.I.B.” If the band ever perfected their throwing-bricks-from-the-overpass bumrush, it was on the Master of Reality and Vol. 4, pound-for-pound two of the meanest records I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing—a mixtape of just their most underappreciated tracks (“Cornucopia,” “Under the Sun / Every Day Comes and Goes,” and “Lord of this World”) would render much of the next 30 years of hard rock obsolete.
The band’s crowning achievements, though, are Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage. The latter, in particular, seems a concerted effort to concoct a glammy sound and image that a stereotypical metal fan might decry—Ozzy and the Mouth-Breathing Tarantulas from Jupiter, if you will. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, meanwhile, strides toward the type of dynamic thrust the band would’ve been incapable of just a few years prior. And just look at that cover: a demonic, sexual torture sacrifice painted in a pastel pink best described as…flaccid. It is, a half-decade after the band’s debut, Ozzy’s coming-out party; “Megalomania,” “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” and “Killing Yourself to Live” depend, for the first time, as much on Ozzy’s yellowed, bruised psyche as on Iommi’s tossed thunderbolts.
No amount of revisionism will ever turn Ozzy into a poet, but when he’s not in his goofy character-actor mode or hijacking John Lennon’s love-train pap, he managed to craft a sufficiently nutso frontman for his crack band’s tremors. Geezer Butler’s tectonic rumble and Bill Ward’s refreshingly subtle drumming deserve plenty of credit, but holy fuck, no less than half of Iommi’s riffs deserve their own runway truck ramps. Any proper “grooving” the rhythm section does was automatically aided by Iommi, who seemed content to barrel downhill all the time but was equally comfortable hopping off his trance-engines and putting together a killer solo. If someone could’ve convinced him to stop sabotaging (pun not intended) his band’s momentum with tracks his gram-gram would’ve considered soft, Sabbath’s back catalog might be looking at a whole lot more five-star entries.
Indeed, Sabbath’s inability to string together one truly perfect album (please see Cure, The) goes a long way toward explaining why their niche is somewhat smaller and more specialized than some of their peers, despite the all-world musicianship and enough pop vocal hooks to keep them on hard-rock radio throughout the ’70s. (They are also in dire need of a remastering campaign—too many songs sit prone in your speakers when they should sound bulbous and throbbing.) The band’s pop chops aren’t always fully developed, but they add leagues of depth to a band that I previously considered stale. Sabbath are decidedly confused and multitudinous: alternately stoned and self-aware, sexual and sterile, funny and direly humorless, they should’ve been a contender for my wanton teenage soul.