A few weeks back, I assigned the song “Black Sabbath” to some students for their presentation. I got an email: “Hey Miss, we know our band is Black Sabbath, but what song are we supposed to talk about?” “Black Sabbath,” I replied. I waited for the inevitable response, “No, what song?” but it didn’t come. The presentation was accordingly kick-ass.
The presenters scared the hell out of the rest of the class, with the song’s detailed back story and the track played at full volume. Most of them didn’t respond well, and I’m assuming went home and had nightmares.
This, this opening track, is the beginning of metal, no? Maybe the genre’s signature song.
Then last week I was in my publicity course and my prof was telling us how Stieg Larsson’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo outsold the bible in Scandinavian countries. “Well, here’s why,” I said. I asked her to search “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey Satan” on youtube, and she floundered. “I’m scared,” she said. “I grew up Catholic. I can’t even type that word.” We convinced her, and got to this clip.
Metal relies on this ambiguous relationship with the devil, with evil, our terrified notions of figures in black cloaks stealing books off our shelves in the middle of the night. I’ve stopped wondering where my Archie comics have all disappeared to since I jettisoned my Christian beliefs, knowing this is my punishment for welcoming the dark side when I started listening to Black Sabbath.
But ambiguity is the key word here. It’s no secret that Sabbath pushes those fear buttons in their listeners at the same time that they’re terrified themselves. Sorting out your inner darkness requires entertaining that which doesn’t sit well with the goddamned narrative of rainbows and unicorns we’re all fed as kids. “What is this that stands before me?” Fuck if I know. And the ambiguous relationship with darkness that we all dance with, somewhere, is only exacerbated by the tonal ambiguity of the song’s tritone riff.
Is this my favourite Sabbath album? No. I don’t think so. It’s classic though. You think about what was going on before it was released: Hendrix’s heavy blues is all through Iommi’s playing … the chaos of MC5, their association with the Detroit counterculture and things like the Democratic Convention in 1968 broiling with the British teenage discontent and hopelessness. This album was bound to happen. It says everything about the time, musically and lyrically; its metaphors speaking for a period where nothing was certain and everyone was messed up.
At the same time, Black Sabbath is anchored by its clear blues and jazz roots. The opening of “The Wizard” isn’t really metal. It’s blues rock just a step harder than the Stones or Cream. I find this album interesting as a marker of that transition between hard rock and metal. They really could have gone either way. “Wasp” has such a strong rock groove, limited play with rhythm, a solid base in what came before them, but you can also see where Sabbath’s contemporaries would have picked up on where they left and started playing with jarring your expectations in unmatched sections that somehow work together. “Wicked World”, obviously rooted in traditional jazz, against “Behind the Wall of Sleep’s” lyrics’ double meaning – let’s get to know each other before we fall in love – oh, you’re not who I thought you were – is great.
Even though it’s not my favourite Sabbath album, it was a good one for this week. I’ve got a few more waiting for later.
“OH NO, NO PLEASE GOD HELP ME.” Yeah. No fucking kidding.