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Black Sabbath

Vertigo (1970)
Rating: 9.5/10

How does one truly describe the impact on heavy metal the band Black Sabbath has had? With the summer of love barely out of the way, and The Beatles on their last legs, an unexpected storm was brewing on the horizon – clouds darker than any which had been seen before in Britain, and then, on February 13th, 1970 to the soundtrack of an ominous churchyard bell, an immense shadow cast itself across the musical world.

It was known as Black Sabbath. Not content with their original name of Earth, four Brummies’ – Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and Ozzy Osbourne – decided on the name Black Sabbath – but little did they realise that their debut self-titled album would change music forever and spawn a subgenre known as heavy metal.

Some things in life are just meant to happen; they are the product of fate, and without such a turn one could hardly imagine how the world would be without it. While many pub arguments may revolve around the question as to who was better out of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, there is no question that Black Sabbath belong in the same ingenious field. Of course, when Ozzy and company rose from their depressive slumbers in Birmingham’s back streets, little did they realise the effect Black Sabbath would have on us all.

Those seven tracks, clocking in at barely over 35 minutes, were enshrouded in an atmospherically bewitching cover – the sort of sleeve that evoked a shiver rather than a summery smile – and then that bell toll. While we became enveloped in the esoteric qualities of the rainy drama, none of us, in whatever walk of life, expected that bludgeoning riff of Iommi. At that point the heavens opened and those caught in the downpour had two choices. Run, hide and cower forevermore or be brave and wallow in the misery of it all.

As a title track, ‘Black Sabbath’ is without equal; a devastatingly morose ghost story of sorts that drags us back to that witchy cover photo. Butler’s bass shakes the cobwebs from our ears as Ward’s drums act as eternal thunderclaps. And through the freezing fog and thorny bracken we are met by the wizard of doom himself, Ozzy Osbourne, who with one swoop of his mournful voice has us under his spell; “What is this that stands before me? Figure in black that points at me. Turn ’round quick and start to run. Find out I’m the chosen one”.

As a track ‘Black Sabbath’ stands alone, the pinnacle of heavy metal; the track by which all others must be compared to and yet forever wilt in its pitch shadow. Remember, that in 1970 there was no such thing as doom metal, and yet no other band, album or track instils such feelings of dread, from the cascading, swirling guitars of Iommi to Ward’s booming drums.

‘Black Sabbath’ is a track that deserves a review of its own, but space is limited here, so we move on to the upbeat groove of ‘The Wizard’, complete with Ozzy’s wheezy harmonica intro. It’s another example of how heavy rock should be; blessed with a catchy riff, almost jazzy-drum arrangement and Geezer Butler’s apocalyptic bass. To say such a track is a classic is an understatement; evoking images of woodland jigs and oaken treasures, it’s more likely nothing of the sort, and yet fills the head with so many occult and mystical nuances.

The same can also be said for the uplifting jig of ‘Behind The Wall Of Sleep’ which is brimming with Iommi’s guitar traits – the sort that would become immortal, and often imitated. It’s merely another epic Black Sabbath track, bolstered by Ward’s catchy drum shifts, but if you want evidence of Sabbath’s journeys into the musical underworld then ‘N.I.B.’ is the pivotal moment of the album. It saunters in on an incredible Butler wah-wah bass (hard to believe this track was recorded in one take) and comes complete with what would become Ozzy Osbourne’s signature “Oh yeah!” cry.

There’s no doubting the esoteric qualities of Black Sabbath, and no doubt this reputation would aid them rather than hinder, but this was no band of dandiess cavorting with sexuality and London’s Carnaby Street vogue. In fact, Sabbath were quite the opposite; the kind of greasy-haired mob who wrote most of their tunes amid the smog-choked pubs of the Midlands. ‘N.I.B.’, with its doom-laden riff and devilish lyrics, pretty much summed up that Dennis Wheatley-styled chaos, while ‘Evil Woman’ (first recorded by American band Crow the previous year) was given the Iommi treatment; an almost basic three-minute cruncher that is nothing more than a tale of an untrustworthy woman, and yet, coupled with the imagery of the album, is another bewitching doom classic.

Further spooky adventures are sought in the eerie chimes of ‘Sleeping Village’ with its mesmeric intro, a springing dream-like sequence that sees Ozzy’s voice become a bellow until we are marched out of the woods on that infectious Iommi groove which is made all the more blackened by that startling doom ’n’ roll extravaganza halfway through. At one moment this is progressive rock at its most fiddly, until we’re drenched in the silted depths of ‘Warning’, an epic ten-minute cover of the lesser known Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation track.

And then that’s it… the sun peeks through the clouds, but we know in our hearts that it’s not enough light to save us. Black Sabbath has now been born and our record collections would never be the same again.

Neil Arnold

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