With the fiftieth anniversary of metal music around the corner, forthcoming years will witness an increase of publications dealing with the history, legacy and defining characteristics of the genre. This could finally resolve the lack of consensus that still exists regarding the definition and origins of heavy metal.
For over twenty years, this site and its predecessors have advanced the idea that heavy metal bears much in common thematically with the Romantic movement in literature, arts and music. Multiple parallels exist between what metal idealizes, and what the Romantics did.
Romanticism can be seen as a rejection of the precepts of order, calm, harmony, balance, idealization, and rationality that typified Classicism in general and late 18th-century Neoclassicism in particular. It was also to some extent a reaction against the Enlightenment and against 18th-century rationalism and physical materialism in general. Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational, the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the visionary, and the transcendental.
Among the characteristic attitudes of Romanticism were the following: a deepened appreciation of the beauties of nature; a general exaltation of emotion over reason and of the senses over intellect; a turning in upon the self and a heightened examination of human personality and its moods and mental potentialities; a preoccupation with the genius, the hero, and the exceptional figure in general, and a focus on his passions and inner struggles; a new view of the artist as a supremely individual creator, whose creative spirit is more important than strict adherence to formal rules and traditional procedures; an emphasis upon imagination as a gateway to transcendent experience and spiritual truth; an obsessive interest in folk culture, national and ethnic cultural origins, and the medieval era; and a predilection for the exotic, the remote, the mysterious, the weird, the occult, the monstrous, the diseased, and even the satanic.
Let us put those attributes in simplified form:
At this point, the argument makes itself, because metal frequently exhibits all of these. Naturalism manifests itself along with introspection, or a reliance on the beast within over the reasoning that becomes external when codified. Anti-rationalism and anti-formalism become a similar crossover, with a distrust of justification, rules, laws, public morals and arbitrary versions of abstract theory. Elitism is apparent both in metal’s innate hierarchy, manifested in both its quest for the hardest and heaviest music possible, and the tiered layers of importance signaled through what band is on a metalhead’s t-shirt. Occultism has been with metal from its early days, both through the horror movie and religion-inspired metaphysical explorations of Black Sabbath and the creation of epic, Tolkien-style spiritual mythology from Slayer through black metal.
Finally, we come to nationalism, which proves a troubling subject because of the ghost of Adolf Hitler which seems to loom large over all modern endeavors. While the National Socialists were nationalists (nationalism + socialism = national socialism), they were not alone in this, nor was their interpretation universal. Most saw nationalism as a glorification of national culture and a reason to turn away foreigners and not genocide them, although the numerous black and death metal lyrics about mass killing and WWII confuse the issue. Clearly Slayer were not pro-Nazi as their pejorative lyrics to “Angel of Death” illustrate, and while much of black metal — Burzum, Darkthrone, Graveland, and Emperor among others — endorsed outright national socialism, most bands took a more traditional nationalist path through pride in their identity and by reflex action, the rejection of anything which would dilute it. As the multicultural states of the West roil themselves yet again with ethnic unrest, we have to wonder if the “middle path” of Immortal, Mayhem, Enslaved and Storm might not have been a better one.
Yet nationalism is only one part of the bigger picture, although an inseparable one. People who favor a surface reading of history tend to opine that nationalism only occurred with the Enlightenment, confusing the formation of nation-states with the existence of nations, which are in fact the opposite of nation-states. A nation-state defines itself politically; a nation, both ethnically and culturally. Where the Nazis believed they could define a nation via a state with an exclusive ethnic delineation — although they had no problem admitting those who were mixed, and consequently 150,000 soldiers of mixed-Jewish heritage fought for Hitler — the Romantic-era nationalists tended to be more like Elias Lönnrot in focusing on a positive method of unification by strengthening culture against the dual onslaught of the Enlightement and the Industrial Revolution. In black metal, the form of elitism known as misanthropy crosses over with this nationalism, which seems it could be summarized as preserving the best of an ethnic group and killing off the cultureless, valueless, soft-handed beta cuck city dwellers who litter the countryside when on vacation and do nothing of value in their cubicle jobs.
The important point about Romanticism as noted above is that it rejected the Enlightenment. That dogma held that the human being itself was the highest good; Romanticism held that specific human beings, denoted by their ability to have specific thought process and mental abilities, was the highest form. Where the Enlightenment mandated a mob, the Romanticists demanded a hierarchy of realists (introspection leads to “know thyself” and thus a better understanding of reality itself). This puts Romanticism in perpetual clash with the dominant paradigm of our time, even if it is also popular with silly people who want to pretend to be deep for a few years from high school until their second job. We might distinguish between actual Romanticism and theater department Romanticism, or even “#yolo Romanticism,” which comprises the latter category.
Where do we see Romanticism in metal? First and foremost, in topic: metal bands tend to visualize life as a conflict between a thoughtless herd and a few realists who bring the heavy reality. It also shows up in the lyrics frequently, although not as clearly as in Romantic poetry. But let us begin our exploration of Romanticism with one of those classics, albeit a very popular one:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.–Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
– The World is Too Much With Us, William Wordsworth (1789)
From that we venture to a rather Romantic composition by Black Sabbath which seems out of place considering the stereotype of metal lyrics. Its poetic imagery is nearly pastoral, but still incorporates at least some of the rage of nature (“red sun” & cockerels cry”).
Red sun rising in the sky
Sleeping village, cockerels cry
Soft breeze blowing in the trees
Peace of mind, feel at ease
– Black Sabbath, “Sleeping Village,” Black Sabbath (1970)
Then, for a mixed Enlightenment/Romanticism approach, there is this rather defiant piece by Metallica which takes teenage resentment of incompetent adulthood and a one-size-fits-all egalitarian and utilitarian society and channels that anger into a statement of defiance based in the individual, but reasoning from objective problems with society at large:
Rape my mind and destroy my feelings
Don’t tell my what to do
I don’t care now, ’cause I’m on my side
And I can see through you
Feed my brain with your so called standards
Who says that I ain’t right
Break away from your common fashion
See through your blurry sight
Out of my own, out to be free
One with my mind, they just can’t see
No need to hear things that they say
Life is for my own to live my own way
– Metallica, “Escape,” Ride the Lightning (1984)
Slayer took this general approach and converted it into a mythology that was as much Christian — avoidance of Satan, and fascination with the mythos of The Fall — as it was occult, incorporating elements of both alongside some defiant egotism. In this piece, the individual declares himself the opposition of all that is approved of (symbolized by “God” and “lie”) and takes on a mystical, spectral and vengeful presence:
Screams and nightmares
Of a life I want
Can’t see living this lie no
A world I haunt
You’ve lost all control of my
Heart and soul
Satan holds my future
Watch it unfold
I am the Antichrist
It’s what I was meant to be
Your God left me behind
And set my soul to be free
– Slayer, “The Antichrist,” Show No Mercy (1983)
Perhaps the most evocative lyric to my mind, and recalling scenes from another southern writer, William Faulkner, the Texas thrash band Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (DRI) wrote this paean to resistance to modern society on the basis of its ugliness and numbness. Again, the utilitarian — a culmination of Enlightenment thought — shows itself to be the enemy of the individual, but the individual points to larger things of importance (nature, beauty) as the reason for his enmity:
They block out the landscape with giant signs
Covered with pretty girls and catchy lines
Put up fences and cement the ground
To dull my senses, keep the flowers down
– Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (D.R.I.), “Give My Taxes,” Dealing With It (1985)
Finally, we come to a more stylized statement of the Slayer/DRI approach, in which the individual has like Friedrich Nietzsche rejected the definition of “good” used by the dying civilization. Instead, he is the enemy of humankind for having “(mis)understood” “this romantic place.” The usage of “romantic” here clearly refers to Romantic, and not lowercase-r romantic as in the rather icky novels with Thomas Kinkade covers. Much like Zarathustra, this individual rejects love (“hateful”) and civilization itself (“savages”) with a form of evil that originates in nature versus human delusion. Its call to destroy the excess of society and replace it with woods evokes the elitism and misanthropy of black metal, in that it sees most humans as “talking monkeys with car keys” (Kam Lee, Massacre).
Hateful savages, strong black minds
Out of the forest, kill the human kind
Burn the settlements and grow the woods
Until this romantic place is understood!
– Absurd, “Green Heart,” Raubritter/Grimmige Volksmusik (2007)
Perhaps this subject will receive future study instead of the rather politically-inclined pieces about race and gender in metal, neither of which seem to matter to metalheads except at the level of the political. Men and women of all races and creeds happily mix at metal shows, completely disagreeing with each other but, because they see civilization as failed, realizing they are not defending a social order but maintaining their own separate ones. This Romantic view sees the modern state as a parasite and modern society as a corrupt bourgeois entity dedicated to its own pleasure and wealth at the expense of shared good things like woods and truth. With that outlook, almost every metalhead can agree at least.
Version 2.0 of The Heavy Metal FAQ exists within grasp of your browser. This update and addition to the sprawling work that first began in the early 1990s when a group of die-hard metal fans began writing to each other on USENET, first published in full form in 1996, now contains information on the metal years after the turbulent 1990s.
Running over 100 pages of print in length, The Heavy Metal FAQ covers the origins, history, philosophy and artistic purpose of heavy metal and its many sub-genres including death metal, black metal, NWOBHM, thrash, grindcore, speed metal and proto-metal. Its new and more detailed chronicle of the rise and proliferation of heavy metal reveals the development of this genre and its many offshoots.
Written by a former death metal radio presenter and editor of this site, the document aims to address the common questions that readers and listeners have about heavy metal, and then to go one layer deeper so they can see the motivation behind these artists and the social and historical significance of heavy metal. Not for the faint of heart, much like metal itself, The Heavy Metal FAQ could be a gateway to a lifelong habit of heavy metal reading.
Defining metal has never been easy in part because as time has gone on, all techniques have migrated to just about all genres. For this reason, describing it by loud guitars, screaming vocals and pounding drums reveals very little. Instead, we have to inspect what holds metal together and makes these elements so powerful: its spirit.
Unlike the various popular music genres, metal is not focused on the experience of the individual, but the negation of it. This is metal’s nihilism: it destroys the idea of any thing having absolute authority or inherent meaning. Instead, meaning is where it is found, but it must fit within the whole vision of the world, which boots out most of the self-focused material.
As Black Sabbath created the rudiments of the genre, they referred to the dark soundtracks to horror films. In these, there is a fascination with final states. They look toward death, destruction and a mythological-historical view to determine how any human activity fares. This flew in the face of the flower power music of the late 1960s, and brought a dose of dark realism to the debate. But it also brought a sense of epic adventure, swords ‘n’ sorcery type material, inherited from its pursuit of meaning that cannot be negated.
What emerges from that proto-metal and all (honest) metal since is a focus on triumph and dark love. There is a world of nothingness, swirling horror and eternal emptiness, and then there are those who make something of this. They find triumph in overcoming their limitations to connect to the viewpoint of the mythological-historical, like metal’s two largest influences, H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien. There is a search for that which overcomes our individual situations in life and unites us, a quest for survival itself.
As part of this, metal embraces a dark love. When a pilot flies a military jet high above his homeland, he feels this dark love. At any minute, a single twitch of the stick could bring about unthinkable disaster, death and destruction. And yet those forces must be corralled and used toward positive ends, much as how metal makes beauty out of the loud distorted sounds of guitars and tortured screams of its vocalists. The love is dark because it is not universal nor is it certain; instead, it rests in the ability to do something great in times of degradation.
Dark love is what a hunter feels as he cuts down some prey and not others. It is what a farmer feels as he prunes his trees, or what a king experiences as he leads his forces into battle. It is what great thinkers know, as they look at history and attempt to steer a path between the disasters of the past toward a future force of promise. It is a love that reaches beyond method to goals, and shows individuals how to rise above fear and reach toward something ineffable, with the promise of triumph.
Where metal fails is when it becomes focused on the individual. Songs of protest, or songs of individual karmic drama, do not reflect dark love but a desire for certainty and absolutes. Metal negates these. Instead, it shows us a world of uncertainty and ambiguity where nothing can last, except that which is eternal and larger than the individual. It is this “largeness” that we often fear as humans because it makes us insignificant.
Although most live in fear of these truths, metal harnesses them. It casts aside the devices we have invented to help obscure our fears, and looks into the abyss, hoping to sculpt with nothingness a great work that instead reveals an inner light. This light is not absolute, but derived from the interplay of nothingness and eternity. It is cosmic, mythological, epic and mystical. It is the adventure of life itself.
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.
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.
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.