Why Ozzy Osbourne is wrong about heavy metal

by Jon Wild
July 3, 2013 –

ozzy_osbourne-heavy_metalThis has been a year of reflection and success for Black Sabbath. The band reunited 3/4s of its famous lineup and recorded what probably will be its swansong: 13. Widely acclaimed, the album quickly surged to the top of the charts, an impressive achievement for any heavy metal band but doubly so in the current climate. Our review found it to be worthy of the success it’s been receiving.

Lyrically, much of the album is concerned with the process of change. This theme has been occupying the thoughts of the band members as they look back on decades-long careers now winding down. In a recent interview, Ozzy Osbourne was asked what his views were on heavy metal and how Black Sabbath had shaped the genre:

I have never ever ever been able to attach myself to the word ‘heavy metal’ — it has no musical connotations…If it was heavy rock, I could get that…People come up to me and say, ‘Your Sabbath work was a big influence on me.’ I could go, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see that.’ But other bands … what part of that is inspired by us? Some of it is just angry people screaming down a microphone.

In this author’s opinion; this is an erroneous view, but an interesting statement in that it raises the questions: what makes heavy metal different from heavy rock, and how did Black Sabbath inspire generations of diverse metal genres?

What made Black Sabbath different from the other rock bands at the time was primarily what it was trying to express. The band avoided the flowers and rainbows hippie culture and spoke of darker subjects, but ones that were ultimately more true. Taking a nod from horror movie soundtracks and occultist influences, the band injected their music with a darker style of writing, which scared listeners and threatened the illusion that our society was stable.

From the very beginning of the debut album it became clear that this music was different. It’s not designed to be a product; rather it attempts to express something and allows the song to shape itself through connecting phrases rather than forcing it to adapt to pre-determined and easy-to-digest formulas. Even more, in spirit it’s a call to action, not a lullabye, commercial message or protest song (aren’t they all the same thing?).

Today’s bands which appear dissimilar aesthetically are nevertheless motivated by this same desire. The “screaming down a microphone”, abrasive riffs, and aggressive drumming are stronger methods of explicating something that often goes unsaid in our daily lives amid safety locks and childproof caps.

Death metal and black metal incorporated all the different elements that Black Sabbath first shocked hippies with, though taken to a greater extreme. Making the decision to create art rather than entertainment, the genres invoked contrasting structures and phrases in their composition, creating a modern take on a classical method of writing, wherein lines of melody overlap with each other yet when heard from a distance join together to form a complete whole.

The genres also took the hint of occultism that Black Sabbath contained and brought it to the fore: Satanism and general opposition to Christianity was the norm, though not for the sake of mere shock value, but as a way of communicating that our feel-good churches are not a permanent solution. Extolling the virtues of pre-Christian beliefs, the bands involved brought attention to alternatives to both Christianity and vapid materialism.

Beyond the specific technical influence Black Sabbath had on heavy metal (doom metal), there is an underlying thread that connects all bands that wish to play loud music for reasons beyond getting drunk and violent: somewhere, relatively recently, our society lost its way and has been living on borrowed time in denial. Heavy metal (not hard rock or heavy rock), is our way of finding meaning in the void; and as a result, Black Sabbath is unmistakably part of that.

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8 comments

  • fallot

    I’m pretty sure Ozzy lost all his credibility a long time ago. The Osbournes sort of doubled down on that. This guy is sick in the head! Of course he isn’t going to understand anything beyond “heavy rock”, he is a rockstar. He lives out that persona; a manticore birthed from popular culture. That said I can appreciate how the link between random metalcore/death metal and Black Sabbath isn’t immediately apparent to someone who has more alcohol and drugs in his veins than blood.

  • sa

    In his defense, Ozzy is 100% out of touch with underground metal – I think what he’s trying to refer to is the Ozzfest 2nd stage bands, which really are “just a bunch of angry people screaming into a microphone”.

    1. Anthony

      Yeah, if all I knew about newer “metal” was Five Finger Death Punch, I’d probably switch to making Beach Boys/Beatles-style pop music.

  • kvlt attakker

    I doubt that Ozzy can convey anything coherent on his own. How much of his life is script?

  • Anthony

    In his defense, it’s really the exception rather than the rule for a musician from a previous generation of metal to enjoy a newer generation of the stuff. I mean, look at King Fowley’s (and even Vijay Prozak early on…) trashing of black metal! That said, it is always a little bit cool to see people like Dan Lilker writing grindcore and black metal stuff, even if it’s not always very good.

    Come to think of it, I listen to a lot of bands that hate each other, like Blasphemy badmouthing Gorguts for being too pretentious, Impiety slamming the Norwegian scene, or Entombed getting trashed by members of Mayhem.

    I suspect that the impulse that pushes such bands to hate each other is an essential part of what makes all of these bands worth listening too. Blasphemy’s music probably wouldn’t be nearly as barbaric if they were the kind of guys that look at Luc Lemay bringing a violin on tour and jamming out to Krzysztof Penderecki and think, “Yeah, that’s pretty cool man.” Similarly, King Fowley’s love for the oldschool and intolerance of metal modernity is probably a driving force in what makes Fearless Undead Machines such a pleasure to listen to.

    None of that probably has much to do with Ozzy, though. Black Sabbath is Tony Iommi (music) and Geezer Butler (lyrics and atmosphere) and always will be. I respect Ozzy’s vocals on the first six Sabbath albums and 13 (particularly the high pitched stuff he does on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and the screams on Sabotage), and I dig his first two solo albums (again, most of that comes from the instrumentals provided by Messrs. Rhoads, Airey, Kerslake, and Daisley), but he’s not really a super-important part of metal music for me.

    1. bitterman

      I agree with everything you said, but it’s pathetic that Impiety slams the Norwegian scene. I guess when your music is nothing more than a somehow lamer Angelcorpse (dumbed down Morbid Angel and random Cogumelo band riffs thrown in the middle of a Vader rehearsal after bath salts), all you can do is stir up “controversy”. They’ve been releasing the same tired crap for years and they claim to be combating the influx of bullshit in the metal scene today by doing this. The only album they tried on was their Immortal Blizzard Beasts gone 00-death (Vader Litany) album Kaos Kommand 696, where songs showed promise until the point where everything stops and a random unrelated part comes in to ruin everything (listen to the second track). Now they’re like Marduk or Weapon: well aware of how awful/gimmicky they are, but using their label power to sell “Hells Headbanging Ultra Kvlt Limited Splatter Yellow” vinyls and shirts with “provocative” comic book-esque designs to brainwashed 15 year old facebook headbangers who are going through their NWN and Norsecore phase.

    2. Stormwinds

      A funny thing happened to me tonight, a bat came flying into my apartment in the center of the city. When I realized it was a bat I jumped out of the chair. This guy once bit the head off one…
      What you said about Iommi and Geezer is 100% true, but Ozzy provided the shock value which some would argue was as important, although probably not. There was a dark aura around him before drugs and alcohol turned his brain into mush.