When Black Sabbath shifted from trying to be a hard rock band to trying to make a horror movie sound appear in guitar music, they opened a new world. It was not a world that would resist opening for long anyway, since if you mix Iggy and the Stooges with the prog rock of the same era like Jethro Tull and King Crimson, you get something a lot like Black Sabbath.
But guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward did it first, and during the first decade of their career fought through the enduring questions of the genre in prototype form. While Black Sabbath gets classed by most as “proto-metal,” or not quite yet metal, it is also clearly not quite still rock ‘n’ roll. In this perpetual liminal state Black Sabbath, like metal itself would a generation removed, rediscovers itself again and again as a way of outracing the calcification and corruption of message that is common in modern life.
In Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi writes his memoirs for a book that is both everything and Black Sabbath fan could want, and not enough. He writes about everything important and brings out some moments of great clarity, but then at some point the book expands like a drunken conversation and spills too much ink on the less important later Black Sabbath works. Iommi also has an offhand and conversational way of explaining things from his point of view that does not flesh out the details and background enough to let people know what was really going on. However, the juicy stories of rock ‘n’ roll excess, and most of the potent decision points in the Black Sabbath career, are not missed.
Those first songs are often described as scary. I liked horror films and so did Geezer. We used to go to the cinema across the street from our rehearsal place to see them, so maybe it was something that subconsciously directed us to that sort of thing. I know there is a Boris Karloff movie called Black Sabbath, but we never saw it at that time. Geezer came up with the name Black Sabbath and it just sounded like a good one to use. (54)
The narrative starts out fairly crisply and over time slouches into many unresolved threads the way most retrospectives do. The early days were clarity, but after that chaos reigns. Sensibly, Iommi does not spend too long on the days before Black Sabbath, but does set enough of the scene to get the narrative rolling. After that, very little detail is given, and the conversational takes over. Iommi will say that they went to a house or studio somewhere and mention no other detail, but he does spend a lot of time on human relationships. He describes people and their patterns. He also talks a good deal about relationships in the bands and the states of mind of the various players as albums were released.
It may be that a Black Sabbath fanbase wants to hear more about the mechanics behind the later Black Sabbath albums, solos and side projects, but to this writer much of this material was redundant. Not that it was mentioned at all, but that it was internally duplicative and went through similar patterns without identifying them. Like a night at the bar, the description of events begins with a clear context, direction and development of events, but devolves into a description of personalities and factual data that seems to focus on complexities.
I hope it is not insulting to say this, but people are not as interested in the later Black Sabbath works as they are the earlier ones. We would have preferred the same crispness, detail and narrative integration of the first three chapters be applied to the middle three, with the later ones giving less detail and more of a linear narrative. The reason for this is that the formation of those early albums and the Black Sabbath sound is what defined this band for eternity and will make it forever important. The later stuff shows us four guys out of their depth reacting to the changes in their lives.
We used one of Ronnie’s ideas in its entirety, which was ‘Atom and Evil’, the first track on the album. And we used bits of each other idea. Some of Geezer’s riffs would come halfway through, or some of mine. We just swapped them around, building songs. It was a great way of working. INstead of having to come up with everything myself, everybody was completely involved in it from day one, and that helped me immensely. We wrote about six songs this way. (352)
Details such as the above provide meaning to the listener because we are curious about such things. What made some albums more listenable or more interesting than others? In the compositional process, and the formation of decisions, we can see how they are distinct. Sometimes too much focus on personality and politics not only obscures the narrative, but is a substitute for discussing how decisions were made. Buried throughout are nuggets of clarity such as the above. These make the book not only memorable but poignant, as you can see why so much attachment occurs between these musicians, and how their knowledge of each other was more than practical, but a deep appreciation.
Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath will stay on the shelves because of its subject’s importance to rock music and heavy metal. It will also provide much fodder for others to discuss, as it touches on everything once. While some of us might prefer a two-volume set, with Volume I for the Black Sabbath albums from 1970-1976 and all of the depth of narrative that makes the creative decisions made during that time relevant still, as a quick read and overlook of the Black Sabbath experience Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath succeeds and also gives us rare if erratic insights into the story behind the band.
If I ever have to declare a field of study — and I hope I never must — I will declare my intention to study transitional material. It is the most fascinating by far, and Black Sabbath Tyr demonstrates why.
Emerging in the final days of the 1980s and the first days of the new decade, Tyr shows Black Sabbath trying to keep one foot in what succeeded in the previous era while gesturing at inventing the next. The band is not bold enough to simply invent it, since they are too invested in being an industry in themselves. That puts them in the position of defending what they have by incorporating the current, not by redefining it and trying to become something new.
The 80s influences are most painful in the vocals, which bring back flashbacks to Miami Vice and War Games. The 1980s were above all a sentimental time: the late 60s had changed the nation, and now we were in the grips of a Cold War that threatened to eliminate us all in the absolute erasure of kill zone radius extermination. People sought emotion, a fleeting sense of beauty and hope in the night, before the coming darkness swallowed all. It was really a prolonged version of what Berlin must have been like in 1945, but no one could recognize it. They buried themselves in things: in work, in religion, in warfare or in ideology. And so the 1980s sound is that of the lover glimpsed on a passing train, a moment of hope in the doom, a taste of what could have been, drowned out in mechanical rumblings and coalescent submerging blackness.
While the elements of the proto-metal/prog fusion that Black Sabbath pioneered by adopting the longer phrase moveable melodies of modernist classical influenced Italian horror movie soundtracks are still present, the majority of the riffing on this album resembles 1970s hard rock emulating the electronic rhythms of 1980s pop. It’s not surprising that Ministry may have borrowed a few rhythm/riff-idea combinations from this album, given the raw creativity put into them and their mutual inspiration in the basis of 1980s “industrial” music through electronic body music (EBM). Black Sabbath balance the shorter, more mechanical hard rock riffs with their usual spanning chord progressions that give the sense of the camera pulling back to reveal a vista.
The result is highly melodic and merges with the vocals which sound like they’re right off a Mike & The Mechanics or Red7 record. The result neuters Sabbath to an uncomfortable degree because the focus is on vocals and synths and the guitar takes a rhythm role that supports those from the background. That has not stopped guitarist Tony Iommi from coming up with some rather odd and noisy variations on the riff that he uses to add uncertainty and a sense of being lost in a windswept plain to the otherwise more straightforward compositions.
Where Black Sabbath reach toward the future is in the layout of these songs and album. They are deliberately expanded structures with more variation between them, like scenes in a movie or different rooms in a house in a pursuit dream. This both reflects the influence of MTV and the increasingly technological nature of music which allowed radical changes in instrumentation, thus musicians could stick in entirely radical dynamic changes and have them work as more than a distraction. The album follows the same thought process, beginning with an acoustic introduction with semi-chanted vocals, as if invoking the Druids and giving the entire production a visual leadoff. The album itself moves like a conversation, starting with its most obvious big points and indulging in all the conventions of its decade, but then gradually bringing those back to roots and then expanding them with the final tracks, notably “Heaven in Black,” where hints of a more metal-oriented Sabbath emerge (especially in its recapitulation of the riff-idea for “Symptom of the Universe,” which as my colleague Martin Jacobsen writes, precapitulates the muted-strum technique used by all speed metal bands). Much of this anticipates the more epic conceptual and structural layout of both songs and albums that black metal and death metal would popularize; it is unclear whether Black Sabbath heard early prototypes of this notion, such as Bathory Blood Fire Death, but the similarities are great as they are to later Judas Priest like Sin After Sin and Iron Maiden’s epic 1980s material such as Seventh Son of a Seventh Son. Interesting also is the choice of Odinist thematic matter wrapped in Celtic imagery, as if questing for a new identity for metal that united its past with future.
Tyr shows Black Sabbath twenty years into their career. They are less innovators than standard-bearers and so their tendency is to absorb outside influences and translate them into heavy metal to give their genre relevance in the wider world. There are also other influences from within the metal world, such as a notable increase in Iron Maiden-styled galloping riffs and broader themes. As one reviewer once said, some albums are more interesting than good for listening to, and thus are more compelling to write about; Tyr may be too 1980s for me to listen to again, and I remember chucking it across the resale counter at a used CD shop over a decade ago for that reason. However, it shows us a nodal point for heavy metal in its evolution and anticipation of the next era.
The resurgence of Black Sabbath following the success of their new album 13 presents an ironic success when compared with the more substantial legacy of their earlier work. Without the first five albums, metal as we now know it would not exist. And on one album in particular, Black Sabbath laid the groundwork for three subgenres — stoner metal, thrash metal and doom metal — such that future generations could pick up the hint and fully develop these new alloys of the raw metal that Black Sabbath forged forty years ago.
Black Sabbath is widely acknowledged by critics and fans as the beginning of heavy metal. From the eerie tri-tone chills of “Black Sabbath” to the menacing crawl of “Electric Funeral,” from the sludge of “Cornucopia” to the pop sensibility of “Killing Yourself to Live,” the black stamp of Black Sabbath radiates forward into the future, culminating in a reprise of their career (including post-Ozzy line-ups) in 13. Ranking the first five Black Sabbath works on a scale of one to five, a convincing argument could be made for either chronological sequence going from best to least. It’s a toss-up for fans and critics alike. Paranoid garners most of the nods as the most influential album from all corners, and many fans cite Vol. 4 as their favorite. Numerous others consider Sabbath Bloody Sabbath the salvation of Black Sabbath, bringing a newer sound to the band
But whichever direction you go, Master of Reality stands in the center. It is the first, and maybe the last, Black Sabbath album from the Ozzy-era (and perhaps from the entire canon) to purge extraneous elements and render a pure metal, so pure that other alloys — especially stoner metal, thrash metal, and doom metal –- would not exist without it. While seeds of different genres surely exist on the other four albums mentioned, I will be arguing that Master of Reality not only undergirds these three subgenres of heavy metal but may well be the finest classic Black Sabbath album.
From start to finish, Master of Reality casts a dark, heavy, menacing, and philosophical spell on the listener. Perhaps “uncompromising” describes it best. As an artifact judged solely on its own composition and delivery, Master of Reality may be the first metal album conceived of as a metal album. While the first two Black Sabbath albums undeniably forge many elements of heavy metal, each deviates at certain points. Black Sabbath has numerous forays into jazz and blues. It’s heavy when it’s heavy, but an almost exploratory vibe pervades about one-third of the album. Paranoid, while certainly heavier overall and much more consistent than Black Sabbath, retains blues and jazz elements that do not appear on Master of Reality. The first two albums stand as classics of the genre, and valid arguments for their status as primordial metal albums absolutely exist. However, the unity and purposefulness of Master of Reality indicate that these albums were like drafts of an essay, brimming with good ideas and clever phrases but ultimately collections of elements rather than unified wholes. Master of Reality starts heavy, grows heavier, and finishes heaviest. As the analysis below will demonstrate, the thematic consistency of this album far exceeds that of its predecessors. The lyrical expression of the themes reflects a deeper and more reasoned understanding of the issues involved. Musically, the songs are tighter and more direct. While the free-form jams of the first two albums are quite interesting and in my opinion as good as anything of the era, they reflect yet again a collection of elements. Master of Reality offers much more stylistic consistency, indicating a more holistic approach to the project.
The opening track, “Sweet Leaf” stands as a blueprint for stoner metal. The lyrics celebrate marijuana as a window to another dimension only the enlightened perceive: “Straight people don’t know what you’re about / They put you down and shut you out / You gave to me a new belief / And soon the world will love you sweet leaf.” The plodding riff that dominates the song permeates the descendant genre. Then the break from around 2:35-3:25 shifts into a proto-thrash mode (especially evident in Bill Ward’s drumming) that will show up again and again on this record. The song concludes with the stoner plodding that begins it.
“After Forever” and “Children of the Grave” carry the proto-thrash elements to the next level. While many critics have begun to agree that “Symptom of the Universe” off Sabotage inaugurates proto-thrash, one hearing of Master of Reality should be adequate evidence that the thrash style was being perfected, not invented, by the time “Symptom” was pressed into vinyl. Taking on religion (and ironically deciding in its favor, saying “They should realize before they criticize / That God is the only way to love”), the shouted lyrics of “After Forever” offer a direct exploration of the question of the soul versus the institutionalized mechanisms that supposedly provide for its sustenance. Both of these themes persist into thrash metal. The up-tempo opening and subsequent power chord extravaganza stand as a stark contrast with the opening track. “Children of the Grave” is pure thrash. Again featuring a shouted vocal, the song amplifies lyrics that challenge war and societal manipulation with verses like “Show the world that love is still alive you must be brave / Or your children of today are children of the grave.” The lyrics of this song presage two of the most prominent themes in thrash metal. Like “Paranoid” before it, “Children of the Grave” chugs forward, adding sustained chord progressions above it. The break from 2:10-2:20 proves itself worthy thrash to this day. Bill Ward’s work heralds the prominence of drums in thrash. Taken together, these two songs form the blueprint for thrash metal.
“Lord of this World,” “Solitude,” and “Into the Void” constitute a “doom suite.” As Osbourne’s plaintive wail pierces our eardrums, evil, demonic possession, psychological instability, and societal collapse penetrate our consciousness like a needle pushing a drug under the skin. The lyrics reflect a pessimism only hinted at in the preceding songs. The song titles themselves indicate a doom ethos. Try to imagine a darker or doomier final song than “Into the Void.” With the exception of a break in “Into the Void,” the tempos, riffs, and rhythms slow to a sometimes mechanistic, sometimes mournful, sometimes throbbing, always menacing procession of deliberate despair. The churning “Lord of this World” offers a view of demonic influence based not on Satan’s assiduity but human apathy: “You made me master of the world where you exist / The soul I took from you was not even missed.” The naysayers vilified in “After Forever” have won, and the dim hope that “God is the only way to love” offered in “After Forever” is snuffed out like a candle after a mass. “Solitude,” a slower, softer song expresses the ennui of a person suffering from self-directed pessimism. Ostensibly about a woman, the lyrics also sustain an interpretation of addiction or perhaps depression: “Crying and thinking is all that I do / Memories I have remind me of you.” The theme of hopelessness would become a staple of doom metal. “Into the Void” comprises interesting movements and perhaps one of the best introductory and main body riffs in all of Black Sabbath. The theme of contradictory practices, probably based on the co-occurrence of the Apollo missions and the Vietnam War, ultimately rests on the fact that hope is an illusion and the only peace that exists comes from journeying into the void — not on a rocket ship but in a grave on a planet “left to Satan and his slaves.” Again, the hope expressed in “After Forever” falls to the psychological manipulation of the children of the grave. The thematic consistency across the album is summarized and re-presented as a void that ultimately becomes the only option: a dark, heavy, menacing, and philosophical elaboration of the pessimism that will come to characterize heavy metal.
Master of Reality presents an overall coherence and depth reflective of a band that has realized its vision. Working out the details during the production of their first two records, Black Sabbath tempered that vision with experience. The musical, lyrical, and thematic sophistication of this album leads to an even heavier sound than had existed before. While it may be that down-tuning contributed to a darker sound, the beauty of this album emerges not from lower notes but from higher understanding. Some may suggest that Vol. 4 goes the next step further, but I would argue that it is the first step down-less consistent, less profound (although of Vol. 4 possesses a rather remarkable lyrical finesse). Sabbath Bloody Sabbath seems in the main a different enterprise than the first four albums (though it does elaborate some of the elements started on Vol. 4.) Some may suggest that Black Sabbath was an almost miraculous first outing, therefore making it best. I would agree that it laid the foundation for the genre but lacks the unity and purpose of Master of Reality, which is the album that confirmed the genre. Some may suggest the commercial success and exposure of Paranoid makes it the best expression of Black Sabbath’s ethos. Paranoid ranks as one of the greatest albums in the Sabbath canon, and many arguments could be made about the songs on Paranoid being their best work. But this analysis seeks to determine the best album. And Paranoid lacks the lyrical, thematic, and musical consistency of Master of Reality. In fact, from my perspective this level of excellence does not reappear until Heaven and Hell. But that album resulted from a new line-up and a new vision. In the end, I have to choose Master of Reality over Heaven and Hell.
A true testament to the importance of this album appears in the track list for 1997’s live collection Reunion. If we accept the postulate that Black Sabbath intended this collection to be a compendium representing the legacy of the Ozzy era as it stood at that time, the importance of Master of Reality becomes clear. Only four songs from the final five albums of the era are included. Only three are chosen from the eponymous first album. That leaves five songs each from Paranoid and Master of Reality (I’ll concede that “Orchid” is less important than any of the songs from Paranoid, yet there it is). With many fine tunes available from the final five albums, Black Sabbath included two-thirds of Master of Reality (four of six full-length songs). Surely they would not have featured so much of this album (and so little of the final five) if they did not want it to represent their legacy.
At the very least, Master of Reality caps the most important three-album sequence in the history of heavy metal. Although the first two albums present fierce, fatalistic, and fear-laden songs, songs with symphonic sensibilities and fusion-based energy, Master of Reality far exceeds both of them as a holistic project. The musical consistency and thematic pessimism of this album refines the ethos and aesthetic of the first two albums into a tighter work of art, at once more controlled and more innovative, perhaps because of the greater degree of precision and planning. Further, the variety of styles and increasing darkness of the themes and lyrics as the album progresses create the design signatures for the stoner, thrash, and doom metal of today, making it more influential than a cursory understanding would indicate. As a result Master of Reality reigns as the finest Black Sabbath album.
Black Sabbath’s new album, 13, is a marvel. The first single “God Is Dead?” didn’t adequately prepare me for the experience of the whole work. This album contrasts the old sound and the new sound. The band frequently harkens back to their former work. I’ll note these instances when I treat the individual songs later in the review. In fact, some fans think 13 is too much like the earlier material. But they’re wrong. Surely we want them to recapture their earlier sound to some degree, but this album does much more than that. While surely somewhat nostalgic, this album does NOT fling itself into the market as a refurbished rehashing of used riffs. It’s a GREAT album. The original vibe remains as strong as ever. Fans agree and have propelled this album to #1 on the charts.
Let’s just talk about the players for a minute. Black Sabbath-for better or worse-always rests on the genius of guitarist extraordinaire, Tony Iommi. He has lost NOTHING on this album. He includes riffs and architectonic elements from ALL of his work with Black Sabbath, his recent work with Heaven and Hell, his solo albums, and perhaps even some of the blues roots that preceded Black Sabbath. His solos are as good as, or better than, his earlier work. When they do echo earlier compositions, they echo the very best soloing of his career.
Geezer Butler also plays as well here as he ever has, and a fan would do well to find anything on an earlier Sabbath album any better than his work here. Tony and Geezer seem to be playing for posterity. The lyrics of the entire album hint at the band’s contemplation of their own mortality, and surely Dio’s passing and Tony’s own illness make that inevitable. Ozzy Osbourne sounds pretty strong. His voice gets stronger as the album progresses, and some of the vocal melodies capture an Ozzy Osbourne solo sound — which was already developing on Never Say Die! (1978) back in the day. The synergy that made Black Sabbath a revolutionary band still exists in these three guys.
Brad Wilk’s drumming rounds out the record. The fan base made its displeasure at Bill’s absence very clear. Brad had a very big job trying to fill Bill Ward’s shoes. To his credit, he filled them well. We don’t hear the Butler/Ward swing anywhere on this record. Nor should we. Trying to imitate Bill would have been insulting. Brad did the job well, and he gets a big thumb’s up from this reviewer. All of these musicians in top form.
Musically, this album is VERY heavy in places. As mentioned, several of Tony’s solos equal anything he’s done so far, and his riffing remains the best there is. Lyrically, the darkness of this album stands with anything the band has ever done. The Grim Reaper peers over the horizon in nearly every song, and the tension between God and Satan (or at least the tension between the concepts of good and evil) emerges explicitly many times, as it did in their early work, when even the band were frightened by their own songs!
This review will address only the album proper, no bonus tracks. I may get an argument or two from some fans, but in general, I’ll say that the bonus tracks fail to achieve the same quality as the songs on the album. Perhaps more to the point, they do not “fit” the mood of the album proper.
“The End of the Beginning” strikes me as the perfect title for the first track of this album. The return of the Ozzy-era line-up marks a new beginning for these elder statesmen of heavy metal. The main body of the song pays homage to the first Black Sabbath song “Black Sabbath” off the album Black Sabbath (1970). This song reflects Tony Iommi’s growth and range as a guitarist. The track opens with a heavy, doomy march of separated chords similar to “Shadow of the Wind” (The Dio Years – 2006) or “Atom and Evil” off The Devil You Know — a rather recent development used here to great effect. There are tempo changes, and the classic break that we hear on the first four albums. Some listeners may remark that they use the same sort of break in four of eight songs on the album, thus leaving them repetitive and even self-derivative. I don’t agree, but I concede they lean on this approach. It’s a part of their style and fits.
He plays two solos, as we see in Dehumanizer’s (1992) “Computer God”, using the same basic architectonics. The solos themselves soar into prominence. The first, at 4:42 or so, lasts 50 seconds, and features not only a fantastic Iommi-style lead but also a tempo change into a bluesy sound at the end. The second solo closes the song, and for around 90 seconds grows in intensity, rising to an effort VERY similar to “Lonely Is the Word” from Heaven and Hell (1980). Again, we are not talking about a mimeograph album. Tony taps into EVERYTHING he’s done. And he plays with abandon, with emotion.
Lyrically, we see a fresh address of the theme Society vs. the Individual, especially in terms of the former controlling the latter. This theme has been interrogated throughout the entire history of the band, dealing with societal issues like family collapse in “Wicked World” off Black Sabbath, economics in “Cornucopia” (Vol. 4 – 1972), psychologyin “Johnny Blade,” (Never Say Die!) television in “Zero the Hero” (Born Again – 1983) and the eponymous “Mob Rules” (1983) and “Computer God” ( both self-explanatory). This song updates for the pervasiveness of the simulacrum, urging the “Reanimation of your cybersonic soul” and concluding “You don’t want to be a robot ghost / Occupied inside a human host / Analyzed and cloned relentlessly / Synthesized until they set you free.” This eight-minute opus is pure Black Sabbath.
“God Is Dead?,” the first single, at almost nine minutes, seems like two songs. The first 4:00 or so offer a kinder, gentler sound. Then the chorus hits at 2:16 and at 2:26 that super-doomy descending lick hints at the Sabbath sound. Then they go back for the next verse. At 4:05 that Sabbath discord starts and at 4:09-4:10 Tony “shakes” the chord as only he does. Then a classic Iommi riff (4:17-4:18), a reprise of the aforementioned descending lick, and an expansion the power chords at 4:10 into back-and-forth riff, classic Black Sabbath-relentless, hypnotic. At 5:38 we get to the chorus with that descending lick again. Then at 5:48 they reprise the power chords from :30 into the song that form a bridge to the break at 6:19 that seems like something off the first album or Vol. 4 (or “Falling off the Edge of the World” off Mob Rules). Then at 6:27 Geezer Butler kicks it into high gear and never lets up. All the musicians do the same thing, classic Black Sabbath. Then Geezer starts what will be one of the best performances on bass guitar in the Black Sabbath oeuvre. Even when the song slows, his playing does not. The 15-second solo (7:38–7:53) has a bluesy, 60′s sound to it. Some listeners may have preferred a longer solo, but the musicianship and intensity so far have been so powerful that a solo isn’t needed for the song to have a high point. In fact, Geezer’s playing behind the solo almost equates with soloing itself as he’s playing much faster than Tony. The final minute is the descending lick behind repeated “God is dead” chorus. The chorus leaves us with a rather definitive statement “I don’t believe that God is dead.” The supremely dark lyrics offer the good vs. evil motif that this band has defined. These lines typify the questions asked in this song: “Nowhere to run / Nowhere to hide / Wondering if we will meet again on the other side / Do you believe a word / What the good book said? / Or is it just a holy fairy tale and god is dead?” Nothing says Black Sabbath like two songs in excess of eight minutes offering pessimism and plodding riffs. What a one-two punch!
“Loner” rocks: a flat-out, straight-ahead headbanger. Some say it reminds them of “N.I.B.” It actually recalls the basic riff pattern of the main riffs from “Black Oblivion” and “Flame On” from the 2000 solo album Iommi. Lyrically, the song speaks of isolation, and the head-banging groove of the song contrasts with the seriousness of the message, tied up in the final verse: “Communication’s an impossibility / His own best friend but he’s his own worst enemy / The secrets of his past locked deep inside his head / I wonder if he will be happy when he’s dead.” Perhaps one of the hallmarks of Black Sabbath and of the metal music they pioneered is an understanding of the angst — even depression – that their listeners experience. The strong of grounding in existentialism in their work makes even an up-tempo frolic cuts into the heart of the listener. The irony of the seriousness of the theme and the elation of the riff-similar in a way to “TV Crimes” off Dehumanizer bespeaks a long-standing Sabbath tradition as well.
“Zeitgeist” immediately reminds us of “Planet Caravan” off Paranoid. In a larger sense, perhaps the beauty of “Zeitgeist” is to recall Black Sabbath’s numerous slower and/or psychedelic tunes, such as the aforementioned, “Planet Caravan,” “Solitude” off Master of Reality, and admittedly, to a much lesser degree “Changes” off Vol. 4, “Spiral Architect” off Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), “She’s Gone” off Technical Ecstasy (1976), and others off Dio-era albums. No innovation exists here vis-à-vis older Sabbath tunes of a similar nature. No doubt people will like this one-especially, perhaps, people who weren’t hardcore Sabbath fans. Unremarkable in comparison to the other songs on the album, it provides a break in the heaviness — much as the other songs noted here did for those albums — this song reminds us that Black Sabbath did this too. Insofar as this album may well become a historical document, “Zeitgeist” proves a worthy inclusion.
The opening of “Age of Reason” sounds a bit like the opening of “Follow the Tears” off The Devil You Know. Another elaborately structured offering marked by numerous genre and tempo changes, reminiscent of “Dirty Women” off Technical Ecstasy, give this song an almost proggy feeling. The opening riff while really quite doom-laden, is also rather bluesy. While the structure and overall sound of the song unmistakably heralds Black Sabbath, the melody suggests Ozzy’s solo work (not to mention an echo of “Junior’s Eyes” off Never Say Die! which presaged the Ozzy Osbourne sound in many ways). The marvelous solo in this song recalls “Zero the Hero” a bit. Tony takes his time, and the solo carries us away as only an Iommi solo can. At the risk of being repetitive, Tony Iommi has lost nothing. The guitar work here stands up to anything he’s done. Similar to the general theme of “The End of the Beginning” and many other Black Sabbath songs, the lyrics describe a hopelessness accepted by people who have lost their will to be themselves: “Sustainable extinction / A fractured human race / A jaded revolution / Disappears without a trace.”
The opening progression of “Live Forever” bears a similarity to the opening of “Lord of this World” off Master of Reality (with, again, a touch of that march of separated chords noted in “The End of the Beginning”) and then steps up the tempo to a riff strikingly similar to the up-tempo movement of “Cornucopia” off Vol. 4. This one really harkens back to the older groove. Even Brad’s use of cymbals seems rather Bill Ward-esque. While clearly adapting these older tunes, the nuanced use of the newer aesthetic and burnished sound of excellent production renders it a new song. Ozzy sings as only he can-with all the soaring menace of that same era. The lyrics of the song sustain the motif of aging and the looming presence of impending death. This song lacks the depth of the others on this album. For instance, the closing lines, “I may be dreaming or whatever / Watching my life go by / And I don’t wanna live forever / But I don’t wanna die!” certainly do not rise to the more profound, sometimes poetic, expression of the same uneasiness. I’ll neither label this song as filler nor dispute the inaccuracy of said label.
“Damaged Soul” is monumental. Clearly a tribute to their roots in the blues, this song amalgamates everything Black Sabbath not only does, but can do. Black Sabbath has made forays into the blues before, notable on the Seventh Star (1986) and the song “Dying for Love” off Cross Purposes proves a stunning blues song. But Sabbath hasn’t done this anywhere else. My first thought upon hearing it was that it sounds like Robin Trower, but heavier. There are moments in this song that sound like Electric Wizard. It almost demands a genre definition of “Doom-Blues.” Again, the soloing echoes “Lonely Is the Word.” The first solo at 3:49, lasts for about 45 seconds and never deviates from a standard blues structure. He means to play the blues here. Then at 5:26 we get another 30 seconds or so until a break takes us to another tempo. The harmonica wails into this change, and then Tony returns at 6:36 and serves up a solo of his own. While the rest of the players play the blues (and Ozzy even sustains a fine harmonica riff), the exit solo is pure Iommi. Lyrically, this may be the darkest song on this album and in the running for the darkest song they’ve ever made. Lyrically, the song calls up the career-long (or age-old?) subject of possession and reprises this album’s motif of impending death and the tension between good and evil: “I don’t mind dying ’cause I’m already dead / Pray not for the living; I’ll live in your head / Dying is easy; it’s living that’s hard / I’m losing the battle between Satan and God.”
“Dear Father” proves an indictment of Catholic Church’s priest sexual abuse tragedy, every bit as scathing and pessimistic an attack on this issue as “Wicked World,” “War Pigs” off Paranoid, or “Into the Void” off Master of Reality.” This song boasts a rather complex overall structure, featuring multiple tempo and style changes. But nothing in this song equals the rest of the album, musically. The reason for this appears to be that the band wants us to listen to the words. An album this good, with Tony and Geezer playing as well as they have ever played, with Tony playing his heart out in more than one place, would not forgo a solo without a reason. That reason must be to focus our attention on the message. The music changes every time the message changes, intensifying the merciless dissection of those merciless crimes. The closing lyrics sum up the song with perfect clarity: “Dear father forsaken, you knew what you were doing / In silence your violence has left my life in ruin.” The song closes with a repeating “In ruin, yeah” phrase, symbolizing the vile and on-going suffering caused by these atrocities. After this song ends, the rain sound effect from the beginning of the first album fades in for a few seconds, reminding us that this album not only provides a resurrection of the original line-up and sound but also offers a vital viewpoint on religion and music, contemporary issues and timeless questions.
In 13, Black Sabbath reflects both the original Black Sabbath sound, imagery, and philosophy and the influences of all their musical experience from their solo work, other incarnations of Black Sabbath, and their inherent genius. They recast the system of rock music 43 years ago, and in this “reanimation of the sequence,” they have again recast the system.
Seminal heavy metal band Black Sabbath has released the first single from their upcoming album, 13. Entitled “God Is Dead?”, it features 3/4 of the iconic Sabbath lineup.
While still possessing the distinctive Sabbath sound, it is clear that this is a song produced in the commercial hard rock vein, rather than a unique artistic statement as was their original work.
Even done relatively well, it’s not the Sabbath of lore and must be viewed in a different light than the original era. Forty-three years after the band’s debut, it is not unexpected that they might alter their sound somewhat.
Releasing their debut self-titled album in 1970, Black Sabbath were the first “proto-metal” band in that they used the movable form of the power chord to make riffs that slid down the fretboard and thus encouraged songwriting with longer phrases, more atmosphere and a more flexible rhythmic attack than the rock music of the day. Distinguishing themselves with a number of chart-toppers as well as an audience who craved more, Black Sabbath kicked off the metal genre which quickly differentiated itself from rock and became a subcultural movement in its own right.
13 is due to be released on June 11 and the band will be reaching North America later in the year. Initial tour dates have been announced as follows:
8/4 — Holmdel, N.J. — PNC Bank Arts Center
8/14 — Toronto, Ontario — Air Canada Centre
8/24 — Seattle, Wash. — Gorge Amphitheatre
9/3 — Los Angeles, Calif. — Los Angeles Sports Arena
I’ve been listening to “God Is Dead?”-the first single off Black Sabbath’s new album 13, since yesterday. It’s really good and really Sabbath. I’m obsessing. And maybe I’m a rabid fan who’s lain in wait and whose enthusiasm has gotten the better of him. But this is enlivening me in the way only music can. So, I’m going to return the favor and Analyze It to Life.
I’ve been waiting for this all this time. I’m not disappointed at all. But in a way we have two songs here. The first 4:00 or so are great. Wilk’s drumming is Ward-esque in places and seems almost respectful of Bill’s sound somehow, especially at :30 behind those power chords that hit us in the face–a taste of what’s to come. But it’s not quite the Sabbath I was waiting for–yet. The vocal starts, sounding a bit like an Ozzy song, perhaps because he doesn’t have the pipes he did 40 years ago. I’m glad he made the adjustment and went with his current ability. Ronnie did that on The Devil You Know too. It’s the right choice. The lyrics are super dark and REALLY like the old Sabbath. Tony and Geezer are holding back. I’m still waiting for it. I still needed some Sabbath in my Sabbath. Then the chorus hits at 2:16 and at 2:26 that super-doomy descending lick hints at the Sabbath sound. It made my heart go faster. The entire chorus is the doomy, Sabbathy sound I want. But they are still holding back. It’s clean. It’s not quite Sabbath yet.
Then they go back for the next verse. It’s more intense now because the chorus has put us on notice. Something is coming after this second verse.
WOW! Does it come! At 4:05 that Sabbath discord starts in behind the verse “When will this nightmare be over? Tell me!” But musically, the nightmare is beginning. Did they mean to do that? Anyway, in my 35 years of listening to Black Sabbath, Tony has seldom used discord just to use it. It’s a signal. And THEN, right AFTER “Tell me!” at 4:09-4:10, it all changes and becomes Black Sabbath and never turns back. Tony does what only he does. If you’ve seen them live or on video, you will see him slide up and “shake” the chord. I don’t know of anyone that does that. All this time, all these guitarists, and ONLY Tony Iommi does that. Then after the lyrics “When can I empty my head?”–a classic Iommi riff (4:17-4:18), then a reprise of the aforementioned descending lick, and an expansion the power chords at 4:10 into back-and-forth riffing that makes us want to erupt. It’s a crescendo, really (that doesn’t stop, this riff actually takes over the song here). The lyrics ask “Is God really dead?”; the music behind it screams “ANSWER THE QUESTION”!
NOW, that riff churns forward, pushing. We were invited to listen until 4:10. We are being compelled now. This is classic Black Sabbath. That relentless, hypnotic intensity that won’t let go. At 5:38 we get to the chorus with that descending lick again. Then at 5:48 they reprise the power chords from :30 into the song. It’s a set up.
These chords are a bridge to the break at 6:19. This break is amazing. It seems like something off the first album or Vol. 4 (or Falling off the Edge of the World off Mob Rules). The guitar starts it. all by itself. It’s CLASSIC SABBATH. The at 6:27 Geezer Butler kicks it into high gear. He never lets up. He proves once again that he is the king of metal bassists. Another verse soars above the chugging riffs. All the musicians are doing the same thing. CLASSIC, CLASSIC, CLASSIC SABBATH. Then the chorus again, but under it Geezer starts what will be one of the best performances on bass guitar–I’m going to say it–anywhere in the Black Sabbath oeuvre. It’s relentless and never really stops. Even when the songs slows, his playing does not. He’s the unsung hero of this band. I would put him up against anyone playing bass today, in any genre. The solo has a 60’s sound to it. It’s not very long-about 15 seconds (7:38–7:53). In fact, it’s bluesy. What an interesting choice. I think it’s perfect. I can see how it would have been cool to extend it a bit, but the musicianship and intensity so far have been so powerful that a solo isn’t needed for the song to have a high point. In fact, Geezer’s playing behind the solo is almost soloing itself. He’s playing much faster than Tony.
We have a minute left. The exeunt is the descending lick behind repeated “God is dead” chorus. Solid, unified wall of sound-classic Sabbath. The chorus leaves us with a rather definitive statement “I don’t believe that God is dead.” Then it stops.
There is surely a strong Ozzy aesthetic early in the song. I’m glad for it really. We’re used to Ozzy, and it’s a comfortable start. Wilk is no Bill Ward, but he really does very well here, and at times, as I mentioned, he pays homage to him. But the first four minutes are a build up, like a prerequisite course. The rest of the song is pure Black Sabbath. Tony and Geezer are as good as they ever were.
I don’t believe that Black Sabbath is dead. I believe they are more alive than ever.
Lost in the darkness
I fade from the light
Faith of my father, my brother, my Maker and Savior
Help me make it through the night
Blood on my conscience
And murder in mind
Out of the gloom I rise up from my tomb into impending doom
Now my body is my shrine
The blood runs free
The rain turns red
Give me the wine
You keep the bread
The voices echo in my head
Is God alive or is God dead?
Is God dead?
Rivers of evil
Run through dying land
Swimming in sorrow, they kill, steal, and borrow. There is no tomorrow
For the sinners will be damned
Ashes to ashes
You cannot exhume a soul
Who do you trust when corruption and lust, creed of all the unjust,
Leaves you empty and unwhole?
When will this nightmare be over? Tell me!
When can I empty my head?
Will somebody tell me the answer?
Is God really dead?
Is God really dead?
To safeguard my philosophy
Until my dying breath
I transfer from reality
Into a mental death
I empathize with enemy
Until the timing’s right
With God and Satan at my side
From darkness will come light
I watch the rain
And it turns red
Give me more wine
I don’t need bread
These riddles that live in my head
I don’t believe that God is dead
God is dead
Nowhere to run
Nowhere to hide
Wondering if we will meet again
On the other side
Do you believe a word
what the Good Book said?
Or is it just a holy fairytale
And God is dead?
God is Dead x4
But still the voices in my head
Are telling me that god is dead
The blood pours down
The rain turns red
I don’t believe that God is dead
God is Dead x4
Lyrically, it reminds me of “After Forever” but a bit more world-weary. Musically, it contains several allusions to past Sabbath and solo work by its members.
Thematically, it seems to me a response to black metal. Was Nietzsche’s target God, or our tendency to say nice things to each other and conceal the essential truth of the challenges before us? There are often many problems, but one root cause. If you don’t strike at that root cause, you get lost. If the problem is man, and not God, and society (collection of humans) instead of some external scapegoat, then we have a greater struggle than can be fixed by burning churches.
Black metal was purely Nietzschean in that it rejected the idea of a moral society and replaced it with the notion that the natural order of Darwinism produced better results. All of the Nietzschean tropes come out: praise of winter, of hardness, of privation, of wolves and of combat and struggle.
Black metal faltered in the mid-1990s when the bands realized that they might have missed their real target, which is something more like people socializing with each other and thus concealing unpleasant truths. While there are other intermediate and proximate causes of the problems we find it this world, the root cause often gets overlooked. That isn’t to say those other causes are good, or shouldn’t be fought in some form or another, just that they’re not the cause.
Black Sabbath is asking “Is God Dead?” and responding in the negative, pointing out that perhaps that last fifteen years of metal have been barking up the wrong tree. The first half of the song is questioning and self-centered, a personal drama. The second half, after the question is posed, is a thunderous rejoinder. The song splits on themes: the wine, the voices that fill the head (he cannot “empty his head”), the lack of any holiness outside the body that is the shrine, and the sense of a “mental death.” On the other hand, there is belief, a pervasive sense of something not fitting together with the narrative of the voices in his head.
Much is left ambiguous by this. “With God and Satan at my side” suggests a type of esotericism that mainstream Christianity will not embrace, and although there are references to the “Good Book,” a particular denominator has not been mentioned. However, the conflict between logic and intuition rises strongly in this song. On one side, there are empirical forces at work; on the other, instinct and a gut feeling. The song ultimately concludes with the idea that God is not dead.
And all of this happens under a banner formed of (a) a dour Friedrich Nietzsche and (b) a nuclear blast. This reminds me of not only black metal’s Nietzscheanism, but its apocalyptic viewpoint. In bad times, people start to get serious again about what they’re doing. Part of getting serious was, at least for black metal and probably for old Black Sabbath, rejecting what is popular and social.
Black metal is uncompromisingly against what makes people comfortable. In Until the Light Takes Us, musicians from Burzum and Darkthrone describe how they tried to get “bad” production for their music, to make it sound old and rotted. How they embraced evil imagery and acted out the most extreme things possible. This wasn’t a rejection of Christianity; it was a rejection of the social impulse behind civilization that prizes what looks/feels good to a group, to what is true — something that generally can be known by only a few, in the Nietzschean sense of the “apex predators” who have through natural selection risen above the rest and can see through a noble light how aggression is central to life.
Black metal may be anti-Christian, but more, it’s about the potentially mind-warping effects of socializing with others. Black Sabbath seems to be suggesting a new direction, which is less toward atheism and Nietzsche, and more toward sacrality, to which black metal might then respond that sacredness itself is what gets destroyed by socializing with others and obscuring the truth. This mirrors where a lot of the black metal guys went after the movement — Beherit to Buddhism, Darkthrone to cosmic space music, Varg to esoteric nationalism, the Graveland guys to folk music, and many others moving on to esoteric sounds like Jaaportit or Vinterriket.
Although they’d probably kill me for saying this, black metal people are generally the most religious people in the room. They believe that life is sacred, that forests are sacred, and that if nature is “red in tooth and claw” and life is “nasty, brutish and short,” that these are manifestations of the divine as well. Far from being “god is dead” people, black metal musicians strike me as being “we are worshipping the wrong god” people.
Hegel would argue that history moves through new ideas, their opposites, and compromises (synthesis). I would argue that history moves by the ideas created through a type of play acted out by characters representing extremes. In this, black metal shows us the antisocial, and Black Sabbath comes out for the sacred; the two will find common ground, because metal is ultimately sacred music. It worships power, death, nature and violence while others prefer pretty flowers and prancing kittens, but only one of those two perspectives embraces all of reality, while the other requires a social filter to merely exist. Black Sabbath and black metal are united in their dislike of that social filter.
Black Sabbath‘s forthcoming album 13, to be released in June this year, will apparently be less heavy metal and more blues. Quoth mastermind Toni Iommi:
You can’t always repeat what you’ve done, you’ve just to go on… It’ll be today’s version of how it was 40 years ago.
The initiative, however, seems to come from producer Rick Rubin, who referred to the band’s début album and told the members to “keep it in mind” and play the music like a live gig, and according to Ozzy Osbourne, Rubin “didn’t want the songs to be verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, bridge — he wanted it to flow”.
It seems then that we might expect a modern version of the dark atmosphere that deflected the hippie optimism of 1960s, as heard on the classic showcased below. This will be awesome.
Coming at you straight out of an alternate version of 1964, Jess and the Ancient Ones sound like a fusion between fifties crooner music and sixties rock, but with a twist: this music is based on occultism, the renewal of souls, and an epic spiritual war splitting heavens and earth.
Vocalist Jess dominates the music with her arched and elegant vocals which possess a strength and sultry timbre not found in many singers past the 1970s. She belts out these songs with a conviction and yet a subtlety which is reminiscent of Abba and Nancy Sinatra.
Guitar work by the three wizard guitarists in this band is subtle and supports the vocal role in defining each song, either through subdued chord strumming that is just offtime enough to induce a dreamlike haze, or lead fills that churn momentum behind the vocals.
When this came on the MP3 shuffle, I was convinced it was 1960s material and had to double-check the name immediately thereafter. The quality of vocal melody and self-assured minimalism and proficiency of the guitars and drumming makes this band seem otherworldly to the musical offerings now, which aren’t as “musical” and definitely aren’t as confident and interesting.
The biography claims that “JATAO draw inspiration from heavy metal and rock groups of the classic era, such as Mercyful Fate, Roky Erickson, Iron Maiden and Abba.” The Roky Erickson and Abba stand out the most. It’s probably a mistake to pitch this to a metal audience, since the type of person who will immediately enjoy this 1950s underworld vibe would be a Misfits or Lou Reed fan, although just about anyone who likes good songwriting and strong performance will get into it if they give it a chance.
These three songs, one of which is a cover of “Long and Lonesome Road” from Dutch band Shocking Blue, just whet the appetite. Look to 2012’s debut album from this band for more of this material, but they seem to be growing into their sound and being unabashedly less metal/rock and more progressive with every release.
1. Astral Sabbat (6:27)
2. Long and Lonesome Road (3:10)
3. More Than Living (14:48)