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Black Sabbath: The Years of Madness & Pioneering Music| Swagat Baruah

Swagat Baruah

The bass guitar begins with a grave beat, a beat of warning, a tone indicating the impending doom, building up the song and then exploding with a boom, joined in with the electric guitar and the  wild percussions. The explosive riff, in the moment, relieves my drive, akin to the relief experienced after a good masturbation session. Black Sabbath- Children of the Grave.

On 4 February, 2017, Black Sabbath played their final concert in Birmingham, as a tribute to the place where they first started. Geezer Butler on the bass, Tony Iommi on the lead guitar, Ozzy Osbourne on the vocals, Bill Ward on the drums. Black Sabbath was heavy metal in spirit, and in music.

With pop music, rock and roll, psychedelic and folk music dominating the 50s and 60s, Black Sabbath exploded into the scene with their heavy music, bass line, gloomy lyrics and long solos, making them the ‘founders’ of heavy metal music, departing from the otherwise perceived Hard Rock music. They were joined by their contemporaries like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple who are still and quite confusingly so, considered to be Rock and Roll pioneers instead of heavy metal. It was only later that bands like Aerosmith, AC/DC and Kiss identified themselves with Sabbath’s music and started using it as an influence in their own.

A Black Sabbath song would ideally be  menacing, heavy, dark with great reliance on the riffs, and their lyrics and art work, the manifestation of their fascination with religion, death, apocalypse, nihilism, war. Geezer Butler is credited as the primary lyricist of the band, which explains the songs’ repeated use of Christianity and questions regarding faith and retribution, Butler being a pious Irish Catholic.

Where can one trace the origin of heavy metal?

Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality(1971).

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.

This led to heavy metal being distinguished for its deep sound and lyrical fixation with dark themes comprising of destruction, doom, violence and misery, themes which permeate Black Sabbath’s music. Themes which were later affirmed, held together and carried on by bands like Judas Priest, Motorhead, Guns ‘N Roses, Van Halen, Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath bridged two generations of music, departing from the blues and rock and roll, carrying it forward and arriving at their own version of hard rock music. This is evidenced by Iommi’s intense concentration on riffs, something which characterizes the blues, coupled with the long solos and amplified deep sounds. But it wasn’t just the crushing weight of their riffs that marked them out of the crowd, Black Sabbath tried to articulate through their music, evoking emotions and horror of the issues that ailed the society back then. Again, this is not characteristic of heavy metal bands today, which tend to concentrate more on the music, the vocals and the solos, making Sabbath the legends they are today. With Ozzy Osbourne’s shrieking voice, the band put across their message a lot better than it would have been otherwise because the themes of horror, destruction, doom, violence are well projected only when they are shouted out loud, exactly what heavy metal is identified with- rebellion, non-conformity, deviation, venting out of emotions. To affirm this, one may hear Black Sabbath’s song ‘Changes’ which is a love song, and sung by Ozzy Osbourne, a track unbearable and fit only for deletion from one’s playlist.

 The history of the band was tainted in the 1970s with Ozzy’s heavy drug and alcohol abuse, in his most infamous incident, getting rabies after biting a live bat during a performance. The band saw multiple changes in the vocals, even Ronnie James Dio, the former Rainbow frontman, doing a brief stint at Black Sabbath. The band’s publicity plunged in the 1980s due to these reasons and also the further sub-classification of heavy metal into thrash metal and groove metal, developments for which Black Sabbath was primarily responsible but was failing to catch up with. With the Big Four taking over the metal scene in the United States, Britain was losing its hereditary hold over heavy metal. Bands like Metallica, Megadeth, Pantera, Anthrax and Slayer were going for even groovier sounds and wilder beats. Headbanging spread like wildfire, V-shaped guitars took over teenagers’ rooms and so did the widely spread drug rackets. One might, in his opinion, remark that metal was seeing its much loved ‘annihilation’ state, with the raging music and lyrics and senseless vocals, one might even go on to the extent of calling this the ‘unsobering of heavy metal’, defining the previously blurred lines between hard rock and heavy metal. Heavy metal became the rejectionist’s music, the anarchist’s, the anti-institutionalist’s. Was this what Black Sabbath had a visioned? If no, did they exercise control over this spiraling change? No.

Despite these changes in the heavy metal scene, Black Sabbath retained its originality and resisted itself from dilution. Their recent album 13 released in June, 2013 was Black Sabbath all over again, although not in their prime or at their best. The first track “God is Dead?” reaffirmed their stance and the musical trajectory which they’ve always followed throughout their career. Although they fail miserably in interpreting the Nietzschean declaration of the irrelevance of God when they very innocently question the existence of God. But again, philosophy is open to misinterpretations and misunderstandings.

Looking back on their career, I can only regret and be disheartened by the realisation that I won’t ever be able to witness them live in concert, and headbang to the opening bass riff of Children of the Grave. Their absence from heavy metal will leave a void irreplaceable.

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