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.
Jacobsen has returned to teach another semester of the class, which seems to be attracting more students as word of it spreads. We were able to follow up on our first interview with Professor Jacobsen to get a feel for what has changed between the years.
It was beyond successful. Our local paper did a story on us that went viral — ultimately being translated into 7 or 8 languages, and garnering a spot on Brazilian TV and an Canadian Public Radio. Our 15 minutes of fame. DMU was the first to pick up the story, and we are very grateful for your support of our class.
How have you changed the class? Is the class format the same?
It’ll be a discussion class with lots of music-about 50-50. I have added a lecture devoted to death metal, and I plan to add others about other forms. I’m going to require more writing and much more stringent guidelines for that writing. I’ve also invited local recording and performing artists speak about the lifestyle, the recording process, touring.
What is a typical class period like?
We will begin each day with a student presentation of a song . There will be a required PowerPoint slide with it to show the group, album, lyrics, and so on, in proper style-sheet format. It’s a quantity/quality thing. That will be the first 10 minutes or so. There we will have a lesson in which a sub-genre, group, musician or other germane idea is presented in a standard format: Premises, basically the context behind the thesis; thesis, the point of the lecture; and evidence, documented proof of the point and sample songs to let the students hear it for themselves. I am hoping that we will have a Metal God Profile or two, and if we run across something important as we listen and discuss, we will go with it. We will also, I’m hoping, have guest speakers, and I do plan to bring my guitar in to define certain musical structures and so on.
What disciplines does HMLG touch on? It’s a literature class about music; does that influence what you teach?
We will treat music as if it were literature, looking at its structures, motifs, themes. We will identify the features of heavy metal and how those features are altered to signify different sub-genres. There will be a strong trans-historical structure to the class. I like to think of the history of heavy metal as dominoes standing up. Black Sabbath kicked off the genre and their early albums really set the dominoes in motion. But rather than falling, the dominoes rose like headstones.
“Death Metal is an extreme form of metal that tends to privilege growled vocals, blast-beat drumming and virtuosic guitar work. Death metal often uses lengthy compositions featuring minor keys and multiple tempo changes. Thematically, death metal often focuses on violence and gore, but themes of all kinds are interrogated by death metal bands, usually reflecting a pessimistic, even hopeless, outlook. Multiple subgenres exist under the banner of death metal.”
Do you teach such things in the class? Do you realize how totally awesome it is to be quoted in your local newspaper as a death metal expert?
We do work with definitions. And it’s damned cool to be quoted as an expert.
You have become a proficient guitarist over the last few months. What has this taught you about metal?
It is sophisticated music. It’s pushing the edges most of the time. In so many ways, it’s like classical music. It uses tempo changes, it’s riff-driven, it features instrumental virtuosity. Learning how to play again has given me a hands-on, ears-on ability to both understand and interrogate elements that would have been only something I’d have talked about before. I’m thinking about taking my guitar to class for some illustrative lessons. Last term, I had students who didn’t know what a riff is. And amp in the room will quickly solve that. Anyway, It’s given me the musical part of the class in a way no other practice could. Knowing a solo or riff enhances my ability to articulate the ways that such elements differentiate or sustain a genre.
This recent guitar-playing is following up on a youthful musical career. Can you tell us about that? What groups were you in, and what styles did they play?
Career is a bit of an overstatement, but I did play in a couple of local groups. One comprised classmates of mine, and we played mostly pop. I was lead guitarist. The other band was a metal band. I played rhythm guitar. We did mostly well-known metal of the early 1980s-Dio, Def Leppard, Scorpions, AC/DC. It was kid stuff in many ways.
What forms of music do you listen to, when you have no agenda at hand? Does this correspond to what was current when you were of high school – college age?
My tastes have gotten heavier as I’ve gotten older. I didn’t listen to anything really heavy in high school. I started metal as a young adult. I returned to it about ten years ago. I like classic metal best. I’m starting to like death metal bands that end up progressive bands, like Opeth. But I like heavy music. Black Sabbath is my favorite group.
I also listen to a lot of prog, Yes and Kansas being my favorites. I like the Flying Colors supergroup. I like some southern rock, but I don’t have a systematic understanding of it in the same way as I do about metal.
What is heavy metal? Is it distinct from rock music? Is death metal distinct from other forms of heavy metal?
We actually sought to define heavy metal as a a group last time. We ended up with this: “Heavy metal is a form of rock music with a heavy, distorted, menacing sound and concerned with dark, disturbing, and pessimistic themes.”
Death Metal is distinct from other forms. It’s often more thematically disturbing than other forms, but in many instances beside the obviously shock-based bands and motifs, it’s disturbing because it’s asking the questions other forms of art — or even metal — do not ask. I’m also really taken with instrumental virtuosity. Death metal tends to privilege excellent playing. It’s a boundary extension thing. And the structures of good death metal are frequently quite elaborate, even symphonic. I think it’s also interesting that some death metal masterminds, say Schuldiner or Åkerfeldt-become proggy later. It’s another type of boundary testing. As I say so often, metal is in so many ways similar to classical music. It’s not surprising that death metal sometimes veers into other genres. Compare that with black metal, which so often seems to have simplicity and even homogeneity as elements of its ethos.
It totally does. I think of Romanticism as applied Platonic philosophy. Metal at its best offers a way of thinking about music and thinking that breaks the boundaries and lays before us the larger patterns of musical and thematic expression. It’s the boundaries that are interesting to me. And the Romantics did that. They looked at classical sources and wrote (or expressed via many art forms) about their own experiences within that frame.
Has heavy metal changed the way you look at literature?
I think so. I think all art sharpens perceptions and adds ways of experiencing other forms. I’ve taken up the guitar again after a very long time. And while my playing is a work-in-progress, playing again sharpens my listening and adds a critical lens I didn’t have last time. I’m not sure this is a very good answer to your question. I think the way metal expresses itself is literary in its basic constructions, so engaging that enhances how I think. Analyzing lyrics is literary analysis, so from that standpoint I am definitely applying my training to the process and gaining from doing so. And metal also has other ethos-building elements that any humanities scholar would find interesting.
I have bonded with several students from the earlier class, and I’ve actually met some of my future students at shows. Some of my former students play in local bands. I think it’s incumbent upon me to know my local scene. But the local scene here has become much more to me than metalheads I know. They’ve become my community.
Do you think the administration at WTAMU have become more open to heavy metal thanks to the first semester of this class and the response to it?
Yes. It’s a permanent addition to our course offerings in an era when core classes are evaporating.
Do you think or have experience that this class has made students more motivated to check out more literature?
Yes. I was able to get them to think about books and to read closely for class discussion. Again, it’s a humanities class and the title is a little misleading. We are embracing other forms. But in identifying the literary influences in metal, I have been able to get students to try literature they may not otherwise have tried.
You’re now one of the foremost instructors using metal in classes in the world. What advice do you have for other educators along these lines?
Well, thank you. That’s very kind. The advice I’d give is to proceed only if you have the freedom to do it right. My department and university totally backed me. I’ll also say that you should tap into student knowledge. This is a class where the students may know as much or more about “their” metal as I do about mine. It’s a bit of a partnership. A Facebook page is a good idea too. It takes the learning into their lives where metal is a constant and collects their experiences for the class.
Will there be a open course / distance learning version of the class? Have you considered packaging it as videos like the classes on Coursera or MIT’s open courseware?
We can do it. And the idea of podcasts has been bandied about.
I used to loathe end-of-year lists. They struck me as a pointless chance to advertise what should have been obvious before. Over the years they have risen in my estimation as a way not only to mark the year, but to bring up the gold that gets lost in the chaos of everyday life. And yes, they’re also shopping lists for the metalhead in your life.
This year our list is surprising even to hardened cynics. At a time when metal is bragging up and down the Williamsburg alleys about how “innovative” and “ground-breaking” it is, that novelty turns out to be the remnants of the 1980s: emo, pop punk, shoegaze and indie. The real innovation is as always underground, because to get out of the hive mind one must first remove oneself from participation in normalcy.
Thus what you will find here is not what you will see in either (a) the big-label-financed slick magazines and web sites or (b) the majority of small zines and websites out there. That is because the genre as a whole has shifted from creation towards an idea to emulation of the past, or reaction to the past by trying to adulterate it with outside influences. Neither approach succeeds.
When a reviewer chooses an album, he should pick one that will last in your collection. Your time is limited, as is your money. Thus we look only for works that you can purchase and enjoy over the years, and can return to with a sense of wonder and discovery as new angles and nuances emerge. This standard seems high, so they call us elitists. What we really are is people who love metal and want it to be strengthened by its best, not weakened by accepting its worst.
The following albums are those that merit such a standard:
Argus – Beyond The Martyrs
Rejecting the notion of newness in itself, Argus returns to fundamental influences from the 1980s and makes a band that sounds like a fusion between Mercyful Fate, Iron Maiden and Candlemass. Guitar riffery is designed to be inventive and interesting in its own right but is trimmed down to what fits the function of each song. As a result, these songs “sound like” the classics in more ways than one. They are thoughtful and deliberate, purposeful and driven. Classic heavy metal riffs merge with meandering leads that somehow pull it all together, under the mournful voice of a vocalist who clearly enjoys classic Candlemass both in vocal delivery and sense of melody. See full review / interview.
Autopsy – The Headless Ritual
Autopsy are famous for their contributions to death metal which notably peaked in Mental Funeral where their chaotic tendencies got wrapped up in their sense of atmosphere and produced a dark ambling journey into the subconscious. Of their later works, The Headless Ritual gets close to such a balance although it aims for something more everyday. This is an album that wants to deliver classic death metal thrills, and it does so with moderately paced songs that balance melody and savage chromatic riffing. Chris Reifert’s drumming pirouttes and grapples through vicious tempo changes as riffs unlock a Lament Configuration that is equal parts nostalgia and invention.
Birth A.D. – I Blame You
What happened to real thrash, like DRI and Cryptic Slaughter? In much the same vein as hardcore punk before it, thrash was so intense that it burned out after only four years of real presence. Birth A.D. wisely choose not to “bring it back” but rather to pick up as if thrash were a party and the next day, the hung over participants awaken among the ruins. They’ve sharpened its message, which merged the anarchy of punk with the search for societal purpose of metal, and given its riffs the S.O.D. speed metal infusion without unduly modernizing them. As a result, these two-minute songs hit hard and retreat into the jungle, leaving behind their sardonic lyrics mocking society for being so stupid. When the record stops playing, there is a sense of both having received too much information to process, and a sadness that there isn’t more. See full review.
Black Sabbath – 13
Realizing what Black Sabbath meant to fans not just as a named entity but as a phenomenon, Black Sabbath integrate the sounds of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne’s solo years into their later, more refined music, with citations to Master of Reality as well. The result is a powerful album that is more pop than their original works but, in a time when nu-metal rages on the radio, reclaims heavy metal as having a voice of its own. It also pushes controversy, affirming a presence of God in this world for good or ill at a time when most people want to get polemic one way or the other. A supporting cast of sprawling but hard-hitting songs make this a great immersive lesson and transition from regular rock to metal for new listeners. See full review.
Blitzkrieg – Back From Hell
This band shares members with Satan, who also re-entered the fray with an album of strong tunes. Like Satan, Blitzkrieg know how to simultaneously avoid “changing” for change’s sake (inevitably a lateral move to other contemporarily popular genres) and nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, making instead an album that fits into their catalogue but doesn’t deny the older, wiser status of its members. These are mostly straightforward songs with melodic choruses and driving, riff-centric verses, plus nimble-fingered and harmonically-aggressive soloing. See full review.
Burzum – Sôl Austan, Mâni Vestan
People said they wanted old Burzum back. The spirit of old Burzum comes back in this ambient album. It’s a bit more hasty and less refined by fanatical attention to detail than his previous works, but it creates the same world, only zoomed forward in time. It is both a practical and imaginative album. In style, it resembles a cross between Tangerine Dream, William Orbit and the Scandinavian folk music of Grieg, Hedningarna or Wardruna. Strongly ritualized, it unfolds like a descent through mythical worlds and finds its own balance. One of the best offerings in this field. See full review / interview.
Centurian – Contra Rationem
For years many of us have wanted this Dutch band to catch a break. They have written several albums of relentlessly pounding, rhythmically intense riffing that somehow doesn’t add up. First, writing the whole album at high speed means that soon it backgrounds itself; second, there was always a lack of melody or song structure to hold it together. Centurian have improved on the latter two and toned down the former to a great degree, such that this is no longer trying to be Krisiun but more like a more Angelcorpse/Fallen Christ approach to Consuming Impulse. The result showcases this band’s dexterity with riffcraft and creates an intense atmosphere of violence. See full review.
Cóndor – Nadia
This entry album by a new band shows a lot of promise in tackling the power metal format and trying to give it the balls of death metal and funeral doom metal. This contemplative, mostly mid-paced album shows a sense of atmosphere as manipulated by riff, in the death metal sense, given a somewhat upward curve and heroic spin in the best tradition of power metal. Although it’s a new act, and still organizing itself, Cóndor shows that life remains in true metal that can be explored by revisiting its motivations. See full review / interview.
Derogatory – Above All Else
In the tradition of Vader, Mortuary and other fast phrasal death metal bands, Derogatory invoke the classic death metal form with an album of nicely interlocking riffs that reveal a basic but distinctive structure beneath each song. This album is not self-consciously “retro” so much as it is using the voice of the older style, and while it doesn’t expand stylistically, it has found a voice of its own. See full review/interview.
Empyrium – Into the Pantheon
Combining funeral doom metal with European folk music creates for Empyrium a fertile style that is showcased here in a retrospective of the best of their career presented in a rare live setting. Expect plenty of use of silence and resonance to build up these songs, which start slowly and then become engaging before evaporating into more esoteric conclusions. While most funeral doom aims to be dark, Empyrium creates an emotional contrast like a Gothic band, with beauty arising from chaos only to be strangled by inevitability and fall again. See full review / interview.
Graveland – Thunderbolts of the Gods
Following up on 2012’s Lord Wind release, Polish/Italian artist Rob Darken unleashes a new work under his black metal brand Graveland. Like the band’s second career-defining Memory and Destiny, this release features Bathory Hammerheart-style guitars which mix speed metal and black metal to produce rhythmic riffing as a backdrop for keyboards and vocals, now featuring also human female vocals and violin. The result is a collision between heavy metal, neofolk and epic movie soundtracks that evokes the glory of the ancient past.
Master – The Witchhunt
Paul Speckmann is a metal institution who has stayed with death metal from its genesis in the early 1980s through the presence. His latest, The Witchhunt, showcases the stable lineup he has used for recent releases but tones down the overall intensity to focus on songwriting. Fast riffs blend together with touches of melody and the classic Speckmann vocal patterns which resemble the struggles of daily life turned up to eleven. Where previous Master works of recent vintage tended to blend together, on this one each song is distinct. See full review / interview.
Profanatica – Thy Kingdom Cum
Taking a hint from Necrovore and intensifying it through technical prowess, Profanatica step back from the longer melodic riffs of Profanatitas de Domonatia and instead write short, cyclic phrases within compact rhythms in the style of the ancient Texas death metal cult. The result is like a primitive album with complexity embedded in it as melodies expand within fixed riff forms, uniting savagery and beauty in the service of blasphemy. As with all Profanatica works, this is experimental to the extreme, but Thy Kingdom Cum ranks among their most listenable releases. See full review /interview.
Rudra – RTA
The Singaporean maniacs return with an album that uses more traditional melodic death metal riffing but retains its rhythmic structure based on speed metal and possibly the Hindu rituals described in its lyrics. As with most Rudra releases, RTA does not aim for the pop song idea of hitting a sweet spot and luring in your ears. It is the construction of an experience, in this case a dark descent that forges a resolve to continue through warfare and a martial stilling of the reckless personality through militant silence of the soul.
Satan – Life Sentence
The rougher edge of NWOBHM that was a kissing cousin to speed metal emerges again in this highly musical album from Satan. Like their groundbreaking early 1980s works which presaged the debut of Metallica and birth of speed metal, Life Sentence features inventive riffs in classic song format in which melodic development in the vocals harmonizes riffs to bring songs to a conclusion. Shy of speed metal mostly because it relies on relatively fixed song format which emphasizes verse-chorus riff pairs, this album nonetheless reveals both the greatness of NWOBHM and its continuing relevance in a time of tuneless songs and random song structure. See full review / interview.
Summoning – Old Mornings Dawn
After black metal fully constituted itself in the early 1990s in Scandinavia, people looked for the next development along these lines. Some went to dark ambient, but others like Summoning and Graveland instead explored longer melodies and more drawn-out, atmospheric songs. Summoning take a medieval and Tolkien-inspired approach in contrast to the more martial outlook of other bands, and produce as a result immersive waves of melody that evoke a more organic society. With Old Mornings Dawn, these Austrian metal maniacs build on the emotion of Oath Bound but exploit it in more compact and separable songs, making one of the more intense metal statements of the year. See full review.
Von – Dark Gods, Seven Billion Slaves
Following up on Von’s early career material like Satanic Blood is not easy; in fact, it’s impossible. A band would either have to re-create that minimalist style and risk irrelevance, or embark on a campaign to dress it up as something it is not. Von has opted for something else entirely which is to create a minimalistic core within a rock opera style of black metal, producing one of the more puzzling but satisfying releases in the underground metal world this year. See full review.
Wardruna – Runaljod – Yggdrasil
Combining folk music, world music, droning found noises and the type of ritualistic dark ambient that emerged from the end days of black metal, Wardruna is a black metal side project that offers a different vision of music. While earlier works seemed detached from the end listener, Runaljod – Yggdrasil embeds the listener within a wave of ceremonial sound that aims not to be forebrain listening as Western rock is, but a mentally ambient experience that overwhelms by addressing all of the senses and channeling that experience toward a realization.
War Master – Blood Dawn
Underground death metal continuation act War Master released a four-track EP, Blood Dawn, amidst personnel changes and other upheavals this year. Like the previous Pyramid of the Necropolis, Blood Dawn focuses on futuristic and yet ancient concepts, almost like Voivod taking on Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. From this vast concept come songs that both grind their way to nihilism and implement the death metal method of matching riffs into an internal dialogue from which a conclusion emerges, creating a pocket of mystery which is filled with wonder and violence.
Album of the year:
Imprecation – Satanae Tenebris Infinita
There is no completely fair way to pick an album of the year from a list with this many strong contenders, but Imprecation win this one on both substance and situation. For substance, this is a solid album that combines a black metal sense of ritualistic song development with the death metal tendency to make abstract riffs into an organic whole. For situation, Satanae Tenebris Infinita sees a band that started in 1991 and is famous for releasing its discography of demos in 1995 finally reach a stage where it can release a full-length album independent of any past influences. In addition, Satanae Tenebris Infinita hits hard and does not relent. Each element serves a purpose toward creating a transition in moods, like a perpetual parallax as continents shift. If death metal was waiting for a direction forward, Imprecation have opened that gate to a new occult science and art of subversive metal. See full review / interview.
The following were considered, and then not so much considered:
Morbosidad – Muerte De Cristo En Golgota. This is like Krisiun or Impiety rendered in the style of Mystifier, or like any of the war metal bands that imitated Blasphemy but with a dose of downtuned Sarcofago. It’s not bad, but aside from high intensity rhythm, it doesn’t have much to offer. Thus think of it as Satanic death techno performed on muddy guitars.
Fates Warning – Darkness in a Different Light. Bands: don’t try to roll with the trends. You were good at something else for a reason. This album has strong smary indie rock influences on its vocals and the result is embarrassing to be caught listening to. Riffs are reasonable, but don’t particularly develop, and emphasize space and consistency more than something with a personality.
Grave Upheaval – Untitled. Not bad; mostly rumbling noises, very true to form. Unfortunately, also doesn’t go anywhere. It’s an atmosphere piece of one dimension.
Warlord – The Holy Empire. Some sort of rock-metal hybrid from back in the day, this form of power metal uses mostly lead riffing anchored by static open chording. The dominant instrument is the voice, more like Rush or Asia than most metal. It’s pleasant but lullabye and too close to rock music.
Hell – Curse and Chapter. Do you know how far I would have run to get away from this back in the 1980s? It’s NWOBHM/early power metal without much melodic movement in the riff, so there’s a lot of chugging and shifting but not much actual motion. Nor will you have much actual motion as you listen to this… in fact, you might find yourself immobile and snoring.
Battlecross – War of Will. This is traditional metal affected by metalcore aesthetics. The vocals follow the surge pattern of later hardcore, and the melodic riffs use rhythmic “chasing” to accelerate patterns older than Chuck Berry. The result is so distracting the band can’t compose a song, but instead write a riff pair and then leap into a blast beat to transition.
Enforcer – Death by Fire. Here we have another band from Scandinavia creating highly musically-literate, catchy and otherwise perfect music. The problems are twofold: (1) it is a clone of 1970s styles that are liked for their innocent pop cheeze (2) while it is emotive, and aesthetically appealing, it is also empty.
Queensryche – Queensryche. Since the band went legal on each other, there’s now two Queensryches… this one sounds like Coldplay. The same posi-pop vibe and expansive chorus feel drives this work, and it has a similar outlook on the world, which is a sort of pathological compulsion to make things beautiful instead of finding beauty where it is rare. Unsettling.
Leprous – Coal. If this Queen-slash-bad-indie band gets anywhere in metal, it’s time to bury the genre under warm ruminant feces. Power metal mixed with dramatic English pop. The result is bracingly twee with metal riffs batting about in the background.
Iggy and the Stooges – Ready to Die. Almost all reviews of this album will waffle, because it is good, but it’s not distinctive. It all kind of flows together, as if the band paid more attention to the aesthetics of sounding like themselves than whatever’s driving them. But how do you “be punk” when you have a paid up retirement plan and health insurance?
Abyssal – Novit Enim Dominus Qui Sunt Eius. This was the hip thing for a few weeks, but shows you that you cannot revive a genre by imitating it through outward form. These songs use all the right pieces, but in a random order, and thus create no mood except nostalgia. And I piss on nostalgia’s grave.
Tyrant’s Blood – Into the Kingdom of Graves. Great title, has a Blasphemy ex-member, can’t go wrong… right? There’s a lot to like about this, but it doesn’t hold together. It embraces the “hotel buffet” style of offering many different riff types in a single song that ends up distorting any coherence. Storming Perdition Temple-style fast metal explodes into melodic mid-paced riffs and then ends up chugging deathgrind, lost and adrift on the seas of making a point.
Cultes des Ghoules – Henbane. It’s ludicrous that so many in the underground were fooled by this comical album. It’s a lot of bad heavy metal riffs interrupted by “avantgarde” noise, samples, etc. — the usual cliches — so that you don’t notice it’s bog-standard. This is hipster incarnate.
Acerus – The Unreachable Salvation. Galloping uptempo yet mid-paced heavy metal with a lot of Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate. Not bad, but not particularly expansive to anything more than that aesthetic role.
Aosoth – IV: Arrow in Heart. This album, like Immolation, got credit because people expected it should. Its strong point is listenable songs with some technicality; its weakness is that they express nothing strong. It is Participation with an A+ for method and a B- for content.
Sodom – Epitome of Torture. This rather sentimental, somewhat modern-metal influenced take on a speed metal album is very catchy and represents Sodom’s most professional work, but also loses the unique perspective this band offered on the world around it. This is more like the heavy metal albums of their youths, heavy on emotion which makes their repetitive, chorus-heavy approach almost too saccharine.
Grave Miasma – Odori Sepulcorum. I have wallpaper. It’s named “It’s 1991 again and you can rediscover things you believed in once again.” It sounds like a mishmash of 1990s era death metal and yet, because it’s wallpaper, it never comes to a point. It just creates an atmosphere.
Týr – Valkyrja. Power metal of the newer stype seems to me it has a mystery ingredient, and that is devotional music. This sounds like church music, with sweeping choruses and whole-note cadences, and it has an admitted power, but it also loses much of what makes metal powerful: it’s not protest music, nor is it music that tries to cover ugliness with beauty, but music that finds beauty in what is considered ugly.
Onslaught – VI. Eager to effect a return to the music business, Onslaught speed up their punk/metal hybrid but adopt the vocal styles and constant driving mechanical rhythm of modern metal. The result is unrelenting but also disconnected and monolithic. The catchy choruses don’t help and seem almost to mock the rest of the music, which sounds like a pilotless threshing machine gone amok in a pumpkin patch…
Death Angel – The Dream Calls for Blood. In the 1980s, speed metal bands had a certain annoying rhythm where they tried to be as obnoxiously bouncy as possible while ranting as intensely as possible. With modern metal much of the internal rhythmic interplay has been eliminated, resulting in something that sounds like chanting Stalinist propaganda with guitars strobing in the background.
Bölzer – Aura. Like Oranssi Pazuzu, Bölzer experiment in disorganized slowed black/death/heavy metal with mixed-in weirdo alternative rock. Weirdo alternative rock has existed since early rock bands made a name for themselves by being odd. The problem is that it doesn’t connect to form an impression, only a sense of instrumentalism.
Coffins – The Fleshland. Doom-death with some quality riffing, Coffins nonetheless manage to inevitably get lost in each of their songs and fill the void with noodly pentatonic leads, distracted tributaries of non-essential riffs, and “atmospheric” repetition.
Metal Church – Generation Nothing. This shrill metal band has always struck me as more in the heavy metal camp than speed metal camp, and here it’s borne out. The riffs don’t have form like speed metal riffs do but are mostly static based on rhythmic repetition. Focus is on the voice, which wails. Not bad but annoying and kind of empty. Also, older guys trying to bond with the new generation is awkward when done this way.
Malthusian – MMXIII. Like many sonic experiments, this band relies on style to shape content because style is the substance of the experiment. The idea here is to combine the Incantation-clone death metal that is trendy with melodic progressive touches, including some sneakster modern metal influences. The result loses what could have been and fails to transition to what it wants to be.
Stratovarius – Nemesis. When did this band get so bad? The first track sounds like a rip of Heart’s “On My Own,” and the rest of the album proceeds in this fashion: combine classic metal riff archetype with classic 1980s vocal melody, add some flourishes and hope it’s good enough. I liked it better when this band was more speed metally and less pop.
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.
Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces
edited by Albert Mudrian
365 pages, Da Capo Press, $14
The 25 Masterpieces
Black Sabbath – Heaven and Hell
Diamond Head – Lightning to the Nations
Celtic Frost – Morbid Tales
Slayer – Reign in Blood
Napalm Death – Scum
Repulsion – Horrified
Morbid Angel – Altars of Madness
Obituary – Cause of Death
Entombed – Left Hand Path
Paradise Lost – Gothic
Carcass – Necroticism — Descanting the Insalubrious
Cannibal Corpse – Tomb of the Mutilated
Darkthrone – Transilvanian Hunger
Kyuss – Welcome to Sky Valley
Meshuggah – Destroy Erase Improve
Monster Magnet – Dopes to Infinity
At the Gates – Slaughter of the Soul
Opeth – Orchid
Down – NOLA
Emperor – In the Nightside Eclipse
Sleep – Jerusalem
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity
Botch – We Are the Romans
Converge – Jane Doe
Eyehategod – Take as Needed for Pain
Rock journalism challenges even the bravest writer. Musicians are not known for being articulate, nor is it easy to pin them down, and lore snowballs in that vacuum. For this reason it’s great to see the series of in-depth explorations that have come about recently regarding many classic events of metal. As musicians age, given that musicians have a shorter life-span than average, this is also a race against time in many cases.
Albert Mudrian’s Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces presents a welcome addition to the genre of historical metal journalism. Combing through archives, the writers of each piece compiled band statements about the album and put them together in linear form, like a conversation. The result is a whole lot of information delivered in a very digestible form, with the extraneous confusion of live interviews edited right out of the picture. It’s a good starting point for anyone looking into these historical nodal points in the evolution of metal.
Mudrian seems aware how easily a book like this could become repetitive. Not just in the answers, where musicians might make roughly similar statements about touring, band formation, the troubles of collaboration and so forth, but in the similarity of bands. If for example he added another three Swedish death metal bands, it might start to get a little bit stuffy in the virtual room he’s created. Instead, he gives us space between acts and a wide variety of acts, but avoids the really awful nu-metal and tek-deth. However, the price of that spaciousness is that he includes bands like Monster Magnet and Kyuss which really aren’t metal at all.
There are some shockers in content, too. Some of these bands, despite their professions of various depraved behaviors, are insanely business-like in how they go about getting recorded and published. Sleep, Cannibal Corpse, Dillinger Escape Plan, Botch and Converge really had their act together. For a few moments, it was more like reading Forbes than Decibel, but it’s really gratifying to see this side of the business portrayed honestly. If you want your music heard, there’s a certain amount of business activity that must precede that event.
On the whole, these chapters are extremely well edited including the choice of material. They are in question-answer form, where the questions are usually prompts about historical events or general questions applied to specific moments or activities. When an incidental or minor character is cited, he or she speaks up for a few questions and then fades out. The bulk of the material favors the most articulate band members and major actors, but the writers shoehorn in as many diverse perspectives as they can. This makes reading Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces feel like being in a comfortable pub with these bands, on a rainy day, with a tape recorder next to the ashtray.
Each chapter corresponds to a classic album and comes with an intro paragraph. If anything, here’s where the book could benefit from some uniformity and toning down the “rock journalism” aspects. Perhaps not a just-the-facts-ma’am approach, but more of an assessment of where the band fits into history and why people like them, and leave it at that. Some of these were over the top for the actual function they serve. However, among the bombast is a lot of good information.
At that point the interview(s) compiled into a single form take over. Most of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces is the bands speaking, and that is the power of Mudrian’s editing and the work of his colleagues. They’ve trimmed out the transient stuff, the window dressing and repetition, and left us with clear statements from the bands that show them in their own voices and approaching the situation at their own angle. This also helps create an epic feel to the epic interviews because it’s a compilation of the best moments of the band commenting on this album, put into one form that flows naturally.
Was the intro, “Human,” something you had conceived of before you went into the studio? Ain: Yes, we had the idea before we went into the studio — we wanted to loop a scream and make it perpetual. We also wanted to use it as an intro for the live shows. A regular human scream would never last that long, so we wanted to loop it and make it sound like a scream from hell, like how you would scream if the pain was everlasting. Warrior: We had talked about it, but we were basically still laymen, so we had no idea how we could put it together. So we told Horst what we wanted to do, and he proposed how to do it. But as I said, we only had six days to do everything. If one thing failed, we would’ve gone over budget or had to go home. So, in hindsight, it’s a miracle that tracks like “Human” or “Danse Macabre” came out the way we wanted them to. We couldn’t rehearse some of those parts, you know? I have no idea how we did that in just a few days, especially given our lack of experience. But therein lies one of the strengths of Celtic Frost to this day: Martin and I usually visualize certain pieces of music down to the last detail without even touching an instrument.
This excerpt reveals the power of Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces. In the midst of the mundane description of studio struggles, Tom Warrior articulates part of the essence of his band. Many such moments of insight, casually and offhandedly mentioned in describing some rather ordinary thing, flesh out this book and make it more than a fan’s quest but a resource for musicians and anyone else curious about the origins and process of creating extreme metal.
Not everyone will agree on certain aspects of this book and naturally any choices made along these lines are divisive. However, the book has enough to offer just about anyone who loves metal so that the purchase will not be regretted, even if there are chapters you skipped. In fact, I recommend skipping those chapters and approaching this book as a buffet. No matter what sub-genres you adore, you’re going to have at least five you’re dying to read, another five you’re very excited to read, and another five you’re curious about, and the rest will be uncertain but you might find some interesting information there, as I did.
It is impossible to find just 25 to represent metal. Some of these choices are nods to the music industry and mainstream fanbase, like Dillinger Escape Plan, or to history, like Botch, who were the vanguard of the metalcore movement. Some are near-misses like the apologetic At the Gates treatment of their best-seller, but this interview also confirms a lot that reviewers said about this album, namely that it was retro to the past generation of metal and somewhat hasty. Some others, like Converge and Eyehategod, seem marginal in that these bands spent a lot of time disclaiming metal back in the day.
On the whole however Precious Metal: Decibel Presents the Stories Behind 25 Extreme Metal Masterpieces offers a good pan-and-scan perspective of what was going on in metal at the time, and by showing us the fly-over accumulation of variety, Mudrian and Decibel show us not only what these bands were doing, but the forces against which they were struggling to define themselves. The result is a treasure hunt of a book, bristling with secrets and previously undiscovered pathways, for those who enjoy extreme heavy metal.
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.
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.