Bands In Their Prime: Black Sabbath (1970-1975)

Taking an in depth look at one of the most iconic bands, Black Sabbath, and their timeless Ozzy era.

The first in a series of many to come in which I will take a well regarded band/artist and flesh out all of the albums and songs to come out within a prime period of their career.

Seeing that it’s currently almost Halloween, I figured it’d only be appropriate to start this series off with none other than classic Ozzy era Sabbath. This will range from Black Sabbath (self titled debut) to Sabotage.

Black Sabbath (1970)

Right off the bat, Sabbath introduces their signature sound at full force.  This is a sound that was completely removed from the hippie flower power music coming out in the late 60’s and went on to single handedly influence the genre of metal.  There is a real charm to this vibe, sounding like a couple of stoner basement nerds who read a little too much Lovecraft and decided to start a band.  Although I’m sure one could easily say it went on to influence all sub-genres of metal, the sound itself is primarily reminiscent of stoner metal and sludge metal.  The guitar riffs found on this album are straight up slow doom metal riffs which took influence from blues rock and Led Zeppelin, who was hot and new at the time of of this release.  It’s a sound that’s way ahead of its time and must’ve taken all kinds of guts to put something like this out in 1970.  

The title track, “Black Sabbath” is basically the first doom metal song of all time and is still one of the most frightening songs ever recorded.  It’s the song that the eerily haunting album cover sounds like. I can only imagine how much this must’ve freaked everyone out when it was first released in 1970.  Listen to this one with the lights turned out and candles lit all around you for the full experience.  Funny enough, the rest of the album doesn’t sound quite as scary but rather just awesome blues rock turned up to 11, akin to Zeppelin but darker.  “The Wizard” is a tribute to Gandalf from Lord Of The Rings.  It’s way less intimidating than what came before but no less mystical.  The atmosphere found here is great.  The harmonica touch gives it a uniquely folky sound.  “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” is based on a Lovecraft story “Beyond The Wall Of Sleep”.  I’ve always really enjoyed this one, particularly for its cool and menacing guitar riff.  “N.I.B.” is a fan favorite that has a timeless quality to it.  A love song about Satan falling in love and becoming good.  That guitar riff and bass playing are out of this world.  It perfectly exemplifies the sound they would carry all through their prime.

“Evil Woman, Don’t You Play Your Games With Me” is probably the weakest moment on the album but it’s still a blast.  You can tell every member of the band is having fun and that energy is highly contagious.  The passion put into it makes even the weaker moments of the album still enjoyable. “Sleeping Village” is a highly enjoyable blues jam that, again, captures the band playing off each other and having a great time.  “Warning” is a highly enjoyable closer that maybe drags on a little too long.  Still these guys are having so much fun that I do as well when listening.  They would only get better with the pacing on their upcoming albums. 

Black Sabbath is an absolute landmark in heavy metal and they would further perfect the formula they already laid down so well here.  It’s an endlessly enjoyable 70’s rock album that may not sound all that menacing nowadays (outside of the self titled track) and may meander a little too long on blues guitar solos at times on the B side, it’s still a masterful album that’s highly enjoyable from start to finish.  These guys are clearly having a great time.

Paranoid (1970)

Merely six months after their self titled debut, Sabbath released what is generally considered to be their greatest achievement and perhaps THE definitive classic heavy metal album.  Everything about the first album is improved upon here and the band perfected their sound.  Comparable to how Tarantino perfected what he started in Reservoir Dogs with Pulp Fiction.  There is no more bluesy meandering here and every moment counts.  These guys have found their sound.  Even if it isn’t really that scary of a sound nowadays, it still works great either as a B horror movie aesthetic or just plain having a good time rocking out.  

“War Pigs” kicks the album off with a bang with an anti war protest.  I’m sure about everybody and their mother has heard of this one by now so there isn’t much new I can say.  However, it is interesting to note that this wasn’t intended to directly be a Vietnam song but rather it’s about the nature of war in general.  Vietnam war wasn’t very publicized in Birmingham UK as of 1970.  This is pertaining to all war and, honestly, that makes the song even more powerful and relevant to today.  It’s basically a perfect metal anthem that hasn’t lost any of its power nearly 50 years later.  “Paranoid”, which is still my favorite Sabbath track period, is a fine example of simplicity at its best.  Nothing about the song is complicated.  Tony Iommi literally came up with the guitar riff in 20 minutes.  Ozzy Osbourne just winged the lyrics, and Geezer Butler/Bill Ward just followed along.  Yet it sounds so perfect.  It’s also worth noting this is literally the song that made me aspire to be a bassist.  Geezer Butler’s bass work is always phenomenal but I just love how his basswork gives this song extra character.  “Planet Caravan” is just plain awesome.  It may not be what you’re used to from Sabbath, a chill out jazz influenced song that one can space out to, but they really make it naturally work.  It sounds like some kind of cosmic journey after death.  A fantastic unusually low key song from the kings of metal.  “Iron Man” is another one everybody and their grandmother knows by now.  If you have ever played guitar, more than likely it was one of the first songs you ever learned.  And for good reason, the guitar work is simply timeless here.  It’s also worth reminding that this has nothing to do with the comic book superhero, but is rather a fictional character made up by the band.  A twisted story of a man who foresees the apocalypse and tries to warn everybody until he turns into iron while going through a magnetic storm.  He tries to warn people of the apocalypse but nobody listens to him.  This makes him snap and seek revenge which, ironically, makes him the reason the apocalypse happened in the first place.  The story isn’t roses and flowers but man what an awesome and unforgettable song with an excellent B sci-fi premise to back it up.  

“Electric Funeral” is a fantastic rocker with a wicked use of the wah wah pedal.    I’ve always enjoyed the menacing sound of this one and it is perhaps the most haunting moment on the album, being about the destruction of the world.  “Hand Of Doom” is my other favorite moment on the album along with the self titled track.  A heavy and endlessly powerful anti-drug song, pertaining to heroin specifically.  Kind of Black Sabbath’s equivalent of the Velvet Underground song “Heroin” in a way.  I also feel like it’s an early blue print for alternative rock in the way it starts off so simple with the bass line driving it to a punch in the gut whenever the heavy guitar riffs kick in.  Simply a masterful song.  “Rat Salad” is to this album what “Moby Dick” was to Led Zeppelin II.  Both of these songs are the second to last track on the album.  Coincidence?  Anyways, although it’s the weakest moment on the album, I still love it.  I really have a soft spot for a good drum solo and the guitar riff prior to the drum solo is top notch.  “Fairies Wear Boots” is a monster of a closer with possibly some of the greatest riffs Sabbath ever came up with.  As Ozzy famously said about the meaning of the lyrics, “I don’t know what the song is about, but everybody tells me I wrote the lyrics.”

The guitar riffs here are to die for, Tony Iommi is at an all time high here with the riffs, every member is at top form here.  All eight of these songs are awesome, powerful and downright menacing.  All of the songs on here are so good that it may as well be a greatest hits album. Paranoid is a timeless album that will be relevant for as long as music is around.  

Master Of Reality (1971)

Nearly a year after Paranoid and being famous worldwide at this point, Sabbath returns with an even heavier and menacing sound. Tony Iommi had to tune his guitar even lower for his prosthetic fingers (he lost the tips of his middle and ring finger during a mining accident when he was 17), which resulted in an even heavier and sludgy sound. I love this album so much for its sheer passion. This is perhaps the band at their most fully realized with their ambition to just rock out hard with a dark horror B movie aesthetic. While it isn’t really that scary by today’s standards, it’s an incredibly cool and unique sound that’s unbelievably heavy for 1971.

“Sweet Leaf” is absolutely awesome and is an instantly iconic metal riff. I just love that Ozzy is singing a love letter to cannibas as if it were one of the deepest love songs imaginable. That’s just hilarious and awesome. It’s also worth noting that the cough intro is the only time we ever heard Tony Iommi’s voice in any Black Sabbath track. “After Forever” has always been a strong favorite of mine. It’s an antithesis to their Satanic image and is actually a pro faith song. Although I don’t think they were necessarily praising religion entirely as much as they were just burning out of the Santanic image they were controversial for at the time. They basically wanted to convey a message of independent thinking, that anything is possible and God really could exist. “Embryo” is a nice little epic build up to “Children Of The Grave”, which is one of the most iconic moments in Sabbath’s catalogue. A menacing sound back up with a surprisingly motivating meaning. One that is begging us to make the world a better place and prevent destruction on this planet. Ozzy refers to it as their punk song.

“Orchid” is an eerie and beautiful build up to “Lord Of This World”, which is a haunting and menacingly heavy song about Satan and his sneaky ways, being told from Satan’s point of view. Truly a legendary track. “Solitude” is like the older brother of “Planet Caravan” in that it’s a mellow and spacey track, although this one is way more depressing. I’ve always felt like it sounds like the end of a relationship. Love Geezer’s bass work here, which gives the song a unique momentum. Ozzy sounds very different here. “Into The Void” is basically the ultimate stoner/doom metal anthem. Basically a song about wanting to escape the world around them and start fresh on a new planet. Who doesn’t fantasize about that from time to time? What an awesome song down to the meaning and most importantly, THE RIFFS. This one is legendary and eternal.

I’m really a huge fan of this album and honestly find it to be every bit as good in quality as Paranoid. In some ways, I even prefer this album because I find the lyrics to be more meaningful and the guitar riffs are even heavier and slower paced. Although Paranoid has an even better batch of songs overall.

Vol. 4 (1972)

Although Black Sabbath never again fully hit the timeless brilliance of their first three albums, they still continued their streak of making strong albums and unforgettable songs. At this point in their career, Sabbath had become one of the biggest bands in the world and one can tell that the band is enjoying the success. The albums begin to feel slightly less focused on making a strong album experience but rather like a chock full of great songs.

“Wheel Of Confusion/The Straightener” is one awesome opener that starts the album off with a headbanger. The sound is a little different. Like Sabbath got a little tired of only wanting to seem menacing and wanted to have a little more fun with their sound. Funny the song sounds so upbeat because the lyrics are pretty heavy, being about the loss of innocence and youth. The jam out in the last two minutes is quite stunning. “Tomorrow’s Dream” is classic riff that isn’t without an emotionally sensitive angle, which one likely wouldn’t expect from Sabbath. “Changes” is SO un Black Sabbath that it kind of cracks me up. It honestly isn’t even that bad of song, but rather just hard to wrap your head around the fact this is the same band that brought us “Iron Man” and “Into the Void” over the past two years. But if you just take the song for what it is, it’s really not that bad. Kind of nice actually. Nothing groundbreaking though. Just a typical piano ballad that seemed very common throughout the 70’s. “FX” is such an absurd piece of filler that I really don’t know why they included it. Maybe just to fluff out going from a soft piano ballad to one of their heaviest moments to date. “Supernaut” is perhaps the heaviest and most hard rocking moment Sabbath had released at this point. This is one masterpiece of guitar riffs from the legend himself Tony Iommi. I’m sure these guys were all over cocaine at this point because this sounds like what I imagine being on a cocaine high would be like. Such a wild and highly energetic song. One of their absolute greatest moments. This never fails to rock my brains out.

“Snowblind” is another song about the band’s experiences with cocaine. Another great song and an example of a great guitar riff. Even more surprising is the addition of strings near the end of the song. And it isn’t the lame kind of sappy strings but rather they are hauntingly dramatic and add tension to the song. “Cornucopia” is another favorite with its excellent bouncy guitar riffs. A highly underrated riff fest. “Laguna Sunrise” is another mellow Sabbath track that really is quite lovely. One would never except for them to have soft songs work so well but they really put it off well here. Lovely use of strings here as well. Makes for a nice breather. “St. Vitus Dance” isn’t really anything special in the Sabbath catalog but I can’t help but love it. Just a great heavy guitar riff that sounds like The Rolling Stones turned up to 11. “Under The Sun/Every Day Comes And Goes” is unbelievably ahead of its time. There is no way that opening riff came out of 1972! It’s insanely heavy. I really love this song and the meaning behind it. About not letting those around you influence your way of thinking, but rather being your own individual and thinking for yourself.

Vol. 4 is another classic Sabbath outing with some lesser known classics by the band. Aside from “Supernaut” and “Snowblind”, these songs aren’t generally very well known. It’s absolutely worth diving into showcasing some of the band’s finest moments.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)

I feel like this album is quite a change in pace for the band. After four rather minimalist metal albums, Sabbath began to get more theatrical and fit more alongside a progressive metal sound. Not to say it’s fully a progressive metal album but it feels more influenced by that kind of sound. I imagine Genesis and Jethro Tull were being listened to a ton by the band (which would make sense considering Tony Iommi was actually a member of Jethro Tull in their earliest days. Prior to the industrial accident I believe).

“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” is one of the bands all time classics. Which I believe is about the band’s career up to that point; showcasing their highs and lows. The guitar riff is one of their all time best, especially with how heavy it gets in the final two minutes or so. This is one of their best songs in my mind. “A National Acrobat” is one I honestly hadn’t really paid much attention to prior to making this list. I really enjoy the guitar riff here and the inspiring lyrics. “Fluff” is lovely mellow piece that makes me think of fairies and unicorns. What a pleasant ethereal piece. The “Planet Caravan” of this album but a completely different sound. Less minimalistic. Still really enjoy it though. “Sabbra Cadabra” is considered one of the classic Sabbath riffs, also famously covered by Metallica. A classic metal love song.

“Killing Yourself To Live” is a great song with some excellent use of the wah wah pedal from Iommi. Love the meaning of this song, which I take to be about investing your entire life to work and not taking a moment to live life as you personally see fit. A wonderful song. “Who Are You?” is kind of a weaker Sabbath tune. It’s completely over saturated and the loud synth sounds pretty corny. However, I can’t help but enjoy it in a way. It sounds like a slasher B movie horror soundtrack and I find it has its own charm to it. “Looking For Today” is about being completely out of touch with the world and trying to get in touch with everything around you. “Spiral Architect” is another Sabbath song I’d never really paid much attention to prior to writing this but it’s become a strong favorite of mine. Goodness does this one rock. Love these lyrics and grooves.

It’s by no means one of Sabbath’s all time greatest works in my mind but it’s still essential listening. Although I personally feel the band never fully hit the charm of their first three albums again, it’s still fascinating to hear the band in a less minimalist fashion and hearing their progression as they expand further on their sound.

Sabotage (1975)

Wish I had fashion sense as cool as these guys. Especially Bill Ward’s pants

I’ve always had a real fondness for this album, which I consider to be the band’s best since Master Of Reality. Although it sounds vastly different. The band sounds way more comfortable and coked up. It’s kind of the underdog of their big six.

“Hole In The Sky” kicks about as much butt as one could hope from for a Sabbath song. That riff is to die for. “Don’t Start (Too Late)” is a nice little atmospheric and creepy guitar interlude. I’ve always enjoyed this one and how mystical is sounds. “Symptom Of The Universe” is a top 5 Sabbath track period. That monster of a guitar riff is one of the greatest things to come out of this band. And I just love how much the pace changes as the sunny acoustic guitars kick in a little over the halfway mark. A true metal anthem that’ll never lose its power. “Megalomania” is a fantastic epic about a person with split personality disorder…and he’s just become aware that he has this disorder. A fantastic epic rocker that further exemplifies the progressive rock influence they would further acquire. Such an underrated piece.

“The Thrill Of It All” is another one that kicks an endless amount of butts. What a fantastic guitar riff and sound. How come nobody ever talks about this one!? Sure it’s a little overproduced at times but this one has some great power to it. “Supertzar” is such a bizarre track. I don’t know if it’s really all that great but I do enjoy the campiness behind it. Sounds completely over the top and operatic. Kind of sounds too overblown for a band that once was so good at keeping it minimal. Still an interesting little track with some great haunting Iommi riffage. “Am I Going Insane (Radio)” is pretty clumsy by Sabbath standards and does foreshadow how awful the next two albums would be. Sounds like a completely coked up party. But I do enjoy it in a “so bad it’s good” fashion. Those synthesizers are just completely overblown and doesn’t fit too well with the guitar riffs. “The Writ” concludes the album with some more guitar riffage that sounds further into the progressive rock sound they were absorbing influence from. I’ve always found this to be a personal favorite. Especially enjoy the harpsichord at the end, which they surprisingly make work more effectively than one would expect.

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