50 Years of Heavy Metal

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The sound of a torrential downpour. The slow tolling of a church bell. The unsettling, three-note tritone riff sequence that embodied the mythical diabolus in musica: G, G, C#.

“What is this that stands before me? Figure in black which points at me. Turn ’round quick and start to run. Find out I’m the chosen one. Oh no…”

On Friday the 13th of 1970, Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album was released in the UK, the culmination of a very slow but steady sea change in rock music that leaned more and more towards volume, aggression, the guitar riff, and most importantly, power. After a period dating back to Johnny Burnette’s 1956 recording of “Train Kept A-Rollin’”, in which rock bands increasingly dabbled in more jarring, extreme sounds, Black Sabbath marked the first time the idea of “heavy” music was executed with precision and discipline. Unlike Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, Cream, and the MC5, who dabbled in darkness and aggression to varying degrees, the four members of Black Sabbath had a fully formed vision of how to use that new artistic form. Doom, gloom, horror, fantasy, and the occult were all combined to create an aesthetic that would influence millions, and unbeknownst to many – including Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne, and Bill Ward – would spawn a global movement and subculture that continues to evolve and show no signs of dwindling.

The origin of heavy metal as a musical genre is so murky and gradual that it has been argued over ad infinitum among fans, artists, and scholars – right down to the descriptive term “heavy metal” – but Black Sabbath was the first of a series of a crucial run of albums by different artists in 1970 that would steer rock music towards the dark and mysterious.

Considering the iconic status of Sabbath’s next two albums, October 1970’s Paranoid and 1971’s Master of Reality, Black Sabbath the album can be seen as an important yet undervalued elder sibling of two more well-rounded people-pleasers. It’s not as fully realized, it’s rough around the edges, and there are times when it feels just a smidge unsure of itself (the overtly blues rock “Evil Woman” remains a very odd fit in the early Sabbath discography). Yet those younger siblings would be nothing – nothing – were it not for the influence of that first record.

Originally a foursome called Earth, Sabbath started out as just another band hopping on the blues rock bandwagon of late-‘60s Britain, but over time the band started to mold its own sound. Recorded in 12 hours on October 16, 1969, Black Sabbath is a murky reflection of the bleak, industrial atmosphere of postwar Birmingham, which in the late-60s was a city full of hungry young musicians desperate to avoid the hopelessness and drudgery of blue-collar life.

The eponymous “Black Sabbath” attempted – and pulled off in striking fashion – a vintage horror movie aesthetic in its lyrics and musically was inspired by the unsettling tritone heard in the “Mars, the Bringer of War” movement on Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite. Iommi’s riffs became towering and instantly memorable, Geezer Butler’s basslines anchored those riffs by mimicking them aside from the odd embellishment, drummer Bill Ward added a jazzy swing to his John Bonham-inspired power, and Ozzy Osbourne sang in a workmanlike drawl, an everyman thrust into the role of narrator of Butler’s ominous and esoteric lyrics. For all the attention “Black Sabbath” justly receives, the track “N.I.B.” is just as crucial, setting the bar for future anthems that similarly centred around a towering Iommi riff: “War Pigs”, “Iron Man”, “Sweet Leaf”, “Children of the Grave”, “Supernaut”, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”.

The blues rock influence still lingers on Black Sabbath, especially on side two, but aside from the covers of The Aynsley Dunbar Reaction’s “Warning” and Crow’s “Evil Woman” – Black Sabbath deliberately avoided the usual love song trope in favour of occult horror (“Black Sabbath”), Tolkien-derived fantasy (“The Wizard”), and as they would display later in 1970, reflecting the madness of the real world back to the masses, an aesthetic choice that would crystallize on the next two albums.

Music writers, especially in heavy metal, love to mythologize, to play up the origin of heavy metal as if Tony Iommi snatched a sword from a woman in a pond and, verily, spawned a new form of music then and there. However, it’s crucially important to remember that although Black Sabbath was the first complete execution of the aesthetic that would come to be known as heavy metal, the genre, or the term for that matter, would not be recognized as such until deeper into the 1970s.

And the crazy thing is, if Deep Purple’s In Rock, which was recorded at almost the exact same time as Sabbath, had come out earlier instead of in June 1970, that album might have been considered the very first heavy metal album. Contrasting with Sabbath’s doom and gloom, Purple brought speed, flash, and virtuosity to rock music, from Ian Paice’s breakneck drumming, to Ritchie Blackmore’s searing leads, to Ian Gillan’s operatic screams. But that’s as may be. Sabbath it was, and Sabbath it shall forever be.

The evolution of the phrase “heavy metal” to describe music was extremely gradual, too. William Burroughs created the character “Uranian Willy, the heavy metal kid” in his classic 1961 experimental novel The Soft Machine. Steppenwolf used the phrase “heavy metal thunder” in the iconic “Born to Be Wild”. Mike Saunders was the first to use “heavy metal” as a specific descriptor of actual music in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971, in a review of Humble Pie’s As Safe As Yesterday Is. While editing Creem, Lester Bangs started to use the term more freely, and the more it was used to describe music that was louder ands more muscular than all other contemporary rock, the more it stuck. The snowball grew and grew and grew, gaining steady downhill momentum, until the early ‘90s when it crashed into a tree and broke apart into a bazillion other snowballs that repeated the same process into the present day. 50 years later, heavy metal is so wildly diverse and disparate, and while one faction of the genre holds true to the traditions of the 1970s, another continues to expand the parameters and often blurring the lines between metal, rock, pop, prog, experimental, et cetera.

Today I listened to the new album by pop artist Poppy, which juxtaposes her own perky electropop with a very strong metal aesthetic, from the overdriven guitars and double-kick drums to her wonderful appropriation of black metal corpse paint on the cover. It’s wild, but she would not be doing that if Tony Iommi hadn’t created that tritone riff 50 years ago. All heavy metal, every single band, every single song, every single riff, can be traced back to track one, side one, album number one by Black Sabbath.

“What is this that stands before me?”

The last truly great evolution of rock music, something that has brought solace and sanctuary to tens of millions of misfits worldwide.

Happy (unofficial) 50th birthday, heavy metal.

Adrien Begrand
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
13 February, 2020