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Black Sabbath

+ {Tony Iommi} + {Heaven & Hell}

The epitome of heavy metal (doom-laden, nihilistic blues and biker-friendly), BLACK SABBATH reset the template and pushed the envelope for hundreds of hard-edged rock bands who emerged in their wake. Messrs Osbourne, Iommi, Butler and Ward served as “masters of rock” in a new 70s generation of post-CREAM, post-HENDRIX brooding-blues metallists. An ever-evolving line-up from the departure of Ozzy towards the late 70s (replaced by Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan, et al), the original ‘Sabbath will remain in folklore as one of Britain’s greatest acts. Not a band for the easily-led and weak-minded, as the blame for teenage suicide attempts was always laid at their darkened door. Nevertheless, their influence on the worldwide metal scene is inestimable; as well as playing grunge before it was even invented, the likes of METALLICA et al, owe BLACK SABBATH a massive debt.
Formed August 1969 in Aston, Birmingham, guitarist Tony Iommi (a brief temp of JETHRO TULL), singer Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler and drummer Bill Ward, abandoned the idea of a jazz-styled heavy outfit (The Polka Tulk Blues Band) and their original moniker, Earth, to match that of Mario Bava’s occult/horror flick, Black Sabbath; the movie was playing across the road from one of their gigs.
Influenced initially by American heavies BLUE CHEER, VANILLA FUDGE and IRON BUTTERFLY, ‘Sabbath released their first 45, `Evil Woman (Don’t Play Your Games With Me)’, a recent CROW number which failed to achieve anything for Fontana Records. Duly shunted to the more prog-friendly Vertigo subsidiary, the inimitable ‘Sabbath sound (Iommi’s guitar riffs were created from the loss of the tip of one of his fingers due to an earlier workplace accident) was stunningly defined on the opening title cut from their self-titled debut album, BLACK SABBATH (1970) {*9}. Recorded in a matter of days and produced by Roger Bain, the LP stormed into the UK Top 10 (slightly different and Top 30 in the States), it highlighted Iommi’s deceptively basic, doom-laden guitar riffs with Ozzy’s (much-mimicked since) banshee shriek. Lyrically morbid, with futuristic/medieval themes, tracks such as the aforementioned `Black Sabbath’ opening salvo (complete with heavy rain and chimes intro) and the follow-on, harmonica-driven `The Wizard’ (inspired by Gandalf from The Lord Of The Rings) set the tone on a high note. Satanic, occultist or just a band with a gimmick, the almost melodic `Behind The Wall Of Sleep’ (referring to a H.P. Lovecraft line), the debut 45 and the Lucifer-name-checking `N.I.B’ were just as mind-blowing; penned by Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation, the 10-minute `Warning’ was very much of the CREAM/self-indulgent variety – but still goo-o-od!
BLACK SABBATH then branded their name on the nation’s musical consciousness with a Top 5 hit single!!! `Paranoid’, a skull-crushing but strangely melodic 45 which remains one of the most (in)famous metal songs of all time. Not surprisingly, the album of the same name PARANOID (1970) {*10} bludgeoned its way straight to No.1, a metal classic rammed full of blinding tracks, not least the stop-start dynamics of `War Pigs’, the spiralling melancholy of `Iron Man’ and the doom-driven `Fairies Wear Boots’ (“and you gotta believe me!”). Tempered by the almost SANTANA-esque `Planet Caravan’ or screeching instrumental `Rat Salad’, ‘Sabbath grind and trip-out on the apocalyptic `Electric Funeral’; the monolithic metal ensured by slow-burning crescendo cut, `Hand Of Doom’. The greatest metal LP of all time – bar none!
Their third set, MASTER OF REALITY (1971) {*9}, was another dark jewel in the ‘Sabbath canon, interlude instrumentals such as Iommi’s `Embryo’ and `Orchid’ (plus the folky `Solitude’ song) sledgehammered into oblivion by Mogadon monsters, `Children Of The Grave’ and opener `Sweet Leaf’ – no coffin, or indeed coughin’ dodgin’ here. But it was deep-in-the-dirt again for the greasy ’n’ guttural `Lord Of This World’, `After Forever’ and `Into The Void’.
The previous two years had witnessed Osbourne and Co taking America by the throat. Recorded in L.A., BLACK SABBATH VOL 4 (1972) {*8} struck another cord with the masses, even boasting a full-blown classic piano-rock ballad, `Changes’, penned and performed by Iommi. Choosing instead to stick with the riff-tastic `Tomorrow’s Dream’ as the single track (`Changes’ would get its day decades later!), the album lacked a commercial hit, although another contender might’ve been DJ Alan “Fluff” Freeman fave `Laguna Sunrise’, the second instrumental piece here (think ENNIO MORRICONE), the other being the experimental soundscape, `FX’. Almost psychedelic and leaning into almost prog-like territories, `Wheels Of Confusion’, plus the menacing `Supernaut’, `Snowblind’ and `St. Vitus Dance’ have since become classics for a new generation of alt/nu-metal grunge-meisters.
Returning to more pseudo-satanic territory, SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (1973) {*8} was another milestone, the chunky title track plus `Killing Yourself To Live’, perilously close to the Devil’s doorstep as one could possibly perceive. Relying on satanic synths for `Who Are You?’, the album’s demonic credibility was nevertheless diminished somewhat by dreamy instrumental `Fluff’, no doubt aimed for airplay by the aforementioned Radio One DJ. Not as strong as their first four volumes (although only just), the distinctive ivory-tinkling of RICK WAKEMAN (then of YES) is foremost on `Sabbra Cadabra’, while `A National Acrobat’ is easier-paced. Ditto curtain closer `Spiral Architect’, at least for the first minute until Ozzy’s high-octane preach pitches the listener on to further fantastical fortunes.
In from a year-long er… sabbatical, the release of the largely disappointing sixth album, SABOTAGE (1975) {*7}, was indicative of the cracks appearing in the Iommi/Osbourne kinship. However, the album did contain brilliant opening salvo, `Hole In The Sky’, segued into another BS gemstone `Symptom Of The Universe’. At times repetitive and challenging (`The Thrill Of It All’ a prime example), the record still buzzes by way of 9-minute `Meglomania’, choral-piece `Supertzar’ (very “Journey To The Centre of Rick Wakeman”) and The YARDBIRDS-esque, blues-pop-friendly `Am I Going Insane (Radio)’.
The beginning of the end came with the ill-advised experimentation of TECHNICAL ECSTASY (1976) {*4}, an album which led to Ozzy’s brief departure; his supernatural consumption of the demon drink was also a factor. From brave Bill’s PHIL COLLINS-ish attempt at vocals on `It’s Alright’ to the boogie-binaural of `Rock’n’Roll Doctor’, the record is saved by its back-to-back closing cuts, the soft-rock ballad `She’s Gone’ and the greasy `Dirty Women’.
A newly rehabilitated Ozzy (who’d been briefly replaced by ex-SAVOY BROWN frontman Dave Walker toward the end of ’77) was back at the helm for album number eight, NEVER SAY DIE! (1978) {*3}, sales of which were boosted by a back-to-basics near Top 20 title track and Top 40 entry `Hard Road’. Investing in VANGELIS-esque synths to bring in a slight departure from the R&R norm (example `Johnny Blade’), this was dire to take for any Sab fan.
In 1979, OZZY OSBOURNE took off on a solo career, leaving behind Iommi, Butler and Ward to pick up the pieces in L.A. (where the band had relocated). With a new manager Don Arden in tow, the quartet finally recruited American, Ronnie James Dio (from RAINBOW and Elf), after auditioning many would-be Ozzy clones. This proved to be an effective transitional period of BLACK SABBATH; the release of two back-to-business albums in the early 80s, HEAVEN AND HELL (1980) {*7} and MOB RULES (1981) {*6}.
The first of these returned the group to the UK Top 10 (Top 30 in America), while singles `Neon Knights’ and `Die Young’ were big hitters; but to many true and purest BLACK SABBATH affiliates (apart from `Children Of The Sea’ and the title track), they’d succumbed to the cod-rock metal of their hard-rock henchmen. Supported by fifth member Geoff Nichols and metal producer Martin Birch (US veteran Vinnie Appice superseded Ward), the second helping was to former fans, rather staid and steady metal; `Turn Up The Night’ was for followers of NWOBHM. Marrying songs from the ‘Sabbath of old with Dio’s vocal gymnastics was always going to be the catalyst for many Ozzy fans (the original singer was now making it with his Blizzard Of Oz team), and double-set LIVE EVIL (1982) {*5} just didn’t cut the proverbial mustard. While Ronnie was superb on his own Sabbath/group contributions, moving into Ozzy’s stage shoes for `War Pigs’, `Iron Man’ and `Children Of The Grave’ was a grave decision.
Things went from bad to ridiculous in 1983 when solo-bound DIO (with Appice in tow) was substituted by another hard-rock frontman celebrity, IAN GILLAN, taken straight from the proverbial heart of DEEP PURPLE; Bill Ward, who’d had his own share of alcohol problems, stepped in for a stint before pressures of touring got to him. The resulting, ironically-titled album BORN AGAIN (1983) {*3}, was an exercise in heavy-metal cliche, although it still managed to hit the UK Top 5 (Top 40 in the US). One track (the instrumental `Stonehenge’) at least inspired the makers of rock-spoof movie, This Is Spinal Tap, while others could’ve fitted in to that flick with ease (`Disturbing The Priest’, `Keep It Warm’ and `Digital Bitch’ to name just three). ELECTRIC LIGHT ORCHESTRA drummer Bev Bevan completed the promotional tour. GILLAN left again for a re-formed DEEP PURPLE. And that should’ve been the cut-off point. No. The original BLACK SABBATH reunited on the 13th of July ‘85 for a rather disappointing one-off performance at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia.
Iommi was duly back in full control once more, even giving his name co-billing on the rather average SEVENTH STAR (1986) {*5} comeback set; Nichols was elevated to full-time member. Taking over from short-stay member Dave Donato, former DEEP PURPLE and TRAPEZE singer Glenn Hughes was another to make the grade; American rhythm section Dave Spitz and Eric Singer replaced Butler and Bevan respectively. As frustrating as anything to spawn from the ominous 80s, there was at least some WHITESNAKE-esque rock ballads by way of `No Stranger To Love’, `In For The Kill’ and `Angry Heart’.
Astonishingly, ‘Sabbath were given another chance by Miles Copeland’s I.R.S. Records, the guitarist having found unknown vocalist Tony Martin (for the unreliable Ray Gillen) on THE ETERNAL IDOL (1987) {*5}. Not too dissimilar to DIO, in his muscular, full-bodied vocal style, one could see good points in `The Shining’, `Hard Life To Love’ and the BUDGIE-like closing title track. Subsequently securing the services of journeyman drummer, Cozy Powell, to boost the sales of their comeback album HEADLESS CROSS (1989) {*6}, fans were now in the realms of something satisfying and positive; check out the title track, `Devil & Daughter’ and `When Death Calls’.
The 90s were as bewildering as the 80s in personnel upheavals. Loosely based on the mythological Nordic war gods Odin and others, TYR (1990) {*5} was BLACK SABBATH’s attempt at a concept set; Neil Murray was their bassist during this period. Rewinding a decade or so back to the early 80s, Iommi, Butler, Appice and Dio re-grouped for what turned out to be a one-off effort, DEHUMANIZER (1992) {*5}; ardent fans had now come to accept the revolving-door aspect of the band – and as long as Iommi was the master of Sabbath’s reality, who really cared. This was apparent when Tony Martin returned to the fold (DIO had other commitments) and new sticksman Rob Rondinelli was on board for the band’s 17th studio album, CROSS PURPOSES (1994) {*5}. The 1995 album FORBIDDEN {*3} – including a vocal piece from US rapper ICE-T on opener `The Illusion Of Power’ – stretched the envelope beyond belief, even recruiting BODY COUNT mixer Ernie C to plug them in.
Toward the turn of ‘98, Iommi, Osbourne, Butler and Ward had finally settled their differences, coming together in a much heralded REUNION (1998) {*6} comeback live double-album – twenty years too late for some! Dependable and eerie as they’d been back in their halcyon days, the December ’97 homecoming gigs in Birmingham was just what the doctor ordered. Just a pity the prescription had run dry for another studio set, as the original ‘Sabbath continued on the march for various Ozzfests. Stop press: could be something fresh in 2012.
Meanwhile, Tony finally released his first “official” solo album in 2000. IOMMI {*6} was an all-star metal parade that had the cream of the alt-hard-rock world queuing up to work with the legendary riff-meister. Alongside OZZY OSBOURNE himself, guest vocalists included HENRY ROLLINS, Skin (of SKUNK ANANSIE), DAVE GROHL, Phil Anselmo (PANTERA), Billy Corgan (SMASHING PUMPKINS), Ian Astbury (The CULT), Peter Steele (TYPE O NEGATIVE), Serj Tankian (SYSTEM OF A DOWN) and even BILLY IDOL, while the likes of Matt Cameron (PEARL JAM), Ben Shepherd (SOUNDGARDEN), John Tempesta (WHITE ZOMBIE), Kenny Aronoff and even BRIAN MAY (!!?!?) lent their musical talents. If not exactly a classic in the BLACK SABBATH mould, the record was certainly diverse enough to offer most fans some value for money.
Almost two decades on from their initial collaboration on `Sabbath’s “Seventh Star”, IOMMI and former DEEP PURPLE man GLENN HUGHES released a full-scale joint solo offering, FUSED (2005) {*6}, a power-trio affair anchored by the aforementioned session drummer Aronoff; look too for the Hughes-Iommi’s earlier joint effort, THE DEP SESSIONS (1996) {*5}.
Just when one thought any ‘Sabbath amalgamation was to rise from the ashes once more, out came HEAVEN & HELL in 2007, an unholy incarnation of Iommi, Butler, Dio and Appice. Initially intended for reunion-type sell-out concerts, displayed in true nihilistic aplomb on double-disc concert set LIVE FROM RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL {*6}, the group resurrecting a raft of Sabbath/early-80s/early-90s tunes (bar newbies `The Devil Cried’ and `Shadow Of The Wind’) – macho-metal was indeed back for another shot in the dark.
THE DEVIL YOU KNOW (2009) {*6} was another blessing from above (or indeed below), a drudge ’n’ grunge juggernaut of a transatlantic Top 20 set, starring `Bible Black’, `Atom And Evil’ and `Fear’. Pity then for the group’s final tour July 2009, recorded as the posthumous NEON NIGHTS: 30 YEARS OF HEAVEN & HELL {*6}, just as fans contemplated the sad news that Ronnie was suffering from stomach cancer; he died May 2010.
When news filtered through the media that Ozzy was planning to re-join BLACK SABBATH, impending excitement was indeed rife. It’d been some time since the group’s last studio album with the man (Never Say Die!, in 1978), so an original line-up reunion was eagerly anticipated. Sadly, on February 2012, Bill Ward declined the offer to join up with Iommi, Butler and Osbourne, while AUDIOSLAVE’s Brad Wilk volunteered to take up the vacant position. The time was also right, as Iommi had come through treatments to rid him of lymphoma. Incidentally, he was the writer behind `Lonely Planet’, a record sung by the Armenian Eurovision Song Contest entry in 2013. That June, the album 13 {*7}, duly crashed into the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, the group’s first ever record to do so in their 44 years of existence. Produced by Rick Rubin, Sabbath stepped back in time for a sound that rivalled that of 1970’s “Paranoid”. Taking up 17 ominous minutes, opening salvos `End Of The Beginning’ and `God Is Dead?’ captured the essence of the group, while Iommi shifted into reverse gear for his characteristic licks. Ozzy as Lucifer was at his eerie best, and fans happy to hear the old style Sabbath would also hail `Loner’, the “Planet Caravan”-esque `Zeitgeist’ and the hypnotic `Damaged Soul’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD-MCS // rev-up MCS Apr-2012-Apr2014

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