These Black Country boys have been on top of their game across six decades. The masters of British metal rock, they mutated from the blues to genre-defining sonic mayhem with key discs like their self-titled debut, Paranoid, Master Of Reality and the comeback classic 13. Most of their output is gold or platinum, including the 70s compilation, We Sold Our Soul For Rock’n’Roll.
Band members Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist/lyricist Geezer Butler are long-standing stalwarts with drummer Bill Ward not far behind. Passing through the ranks during Ozzy’s infamous wilderness years, we find Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes, Ray Gillen and Tony Martin, but it’s the Ozzfest version that truly thrills and proves MTV’s claim that they are the “Greatest Metal Band” of all time. A brace of Grammy Awards and over 70 million album sales later, they have threatened to call it a day with their final shows of 2017.
Black Sabbath spawned from the psychedelic outfits Mythology and Rare Breed in 1968 in the city of Birmingham. They flirted with names Polka Tulk and Earth and settled on their four-piece line-up. Iommi actually split for a brief stint with Jethro Tull, but the normal order was restored and their style cemented with the song ‘Black Sabbath’, inspired by Mario Bava’s 1963 horror flick of that name, and writer Dennis Wheatley’s oeuvre. Signed to Fontana, then Vertigo, their initial singles like ‘Evil Woman’, ‘Black Sabbath’, the Cream-styled ‘N.I.B.’ and ‘The Wizard’ were early crowd pleasers, but it took the classic ‘Paranoid’ to hit the upper echelons of the charts and remains their biggest hit.
Black Sabbath (1970) was recorded in 16 hours on 16 October 1969, at Regent Sounds, and stands out as a blueprint for British metal, with its spooky cover art of a black-clad, ghostly woman standing before Mapledurham Watermill in Oxfordshire. The thematic bludgeon of spiritualism, occult and necromancy appalled most critics, but hit home with the group’s growing army of working-class kids who lapped up the stoner guitar riffs and slowed down maelstrom of ‘Warning’ and the quirky ‘Sleeping Village’, as well as those signature pieces noted above.
Paranoid gave the critics the finger as a No.1 hit in the UK (their only chart-topper until 13 in 2013). This is where it gets nasty: ‘Iron Man’, ‘War Pigs’ and the title track delved into the dark side with apocalyptic fervor. Iommi’s reputation as the riff king starts here too, and third album, Master Of Reality, broke the band in the States where the druggy ‘Sweet Leaf’ and ‘Into The Void’ struck a chord.
Now ensconced in Los Angeles, they laboured over the problematic Vol.4 but added acoustic and orchestrated sections to ‘Snowblind’, finally winning critics round who’d dismissed them two years earlier. Indeed, West Coast musicians also saw the charm of ‘Supernaut’, with Frank Zappa being a huge fan.
Back in London, Sabbath created Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, integrating plenty of synths, Mellotron, flute, piano and Minimoog (played by Rick Wakemen), and arrangements from Wil Malone, who continues to add inspiring orchestration to bands in the modern era.
Sabotage and Technical Ecstasy defined the excessive mid-70s, a time when metal went progressive and ran foul of the emerging punk rock groups.
Never Say Die! is the last studio album to feature the original group. Osbourne quit during sessions but returned when Fleetwood Mac vocalist Dave Walker decided the set up was a little too heavy.
The move towards experimentation eventually led to Ozzy’s departure. Dio replaced him, while producer Martin Birch delivered a crisp sound that sat well in the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal sound. The hit ‘Neon Knights’ and the atmospheric ‘Die Young’ almost made you forget Ozzy was gone. Almost.
Mob Rules and Born Again (with Gillan now on mic) were beset with internal strife, meaning that Seventh Star, though slated as a Sabbath release, only featured Iommi from the classic line-up. It was a heavy load, and The Eternal Idol exerted more pressure that the guitarist handled well. It’s underrated.
Headless Cross and Tyr, featuring the lyrics and vocals of Tony Martin and drummer Cozy Powell, had elements of folk about them, but Dehumanizer returned to the old blueprint. With Dio back and Vinny Appice in the drum seat, this set of doom metal anthems hit home with the fanbase in a way the previous four discs had not.
Cross Purposes and Forbidden passed muster – though not with Iommi – but after a long hiatus and the dropping of 13, the mass media looked their way again. Ozzy and Geezer returned in triumph, bringing their singular talents to ‘End Of The Beginning’, ‘God Is Dead?’ and ‘Loner’. Rapturously received, 13 was followed by an EP called The End (2016), largely available only in the merchandise stalls on Sabbath’s alleged final tour, also known as The End.
Often misunderstood, Black Sabbath suffered from certain distaste for metal at radio stations and in certain quarters of the press. But the hard rock publications always stood by them and were fiercely protective of the band’s legacy, even when addiction and sickness got in the way of creation. Their influence is quite clear and they’ve been namechecked by everyone from Nirvana and Judas Priest to Megadeth and The Smashing Pumpkins, so they must have been doing plenty right. They also paved the way for a lot of the sludge and grunge mavericks as Slash, Tom Morello, Phil Anselmo and Lars Ulrich revered Iommi’s riffing.
Members of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Black Sabbath are now regarded as national treasures in the UK, largely thanks to Ozzy’s high presence on the Osbournes’ hilarious reality TV show, The Osbournes.
Retiring – if not shy – Oz, Tony and Geezer seem adamant that their show at the Genting Arena in Birmingham means it really is time to hang up the capes. If that’s so, the metal world mourns. A world without Black Sabbath is enough to make anyone paranoid.
Black Sabbath's debut album is the birth of heavy metal as we now know it. Compatriots like Blue Cheer, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple were already setting new standards for volume and heaviness in the realms of psychedelia, blues-rock, and prog rock. Yet of these metal pioneers, Sabbath are the only one whose sound today remains instantly recognizable as heavy metal, even after decades of evolution in the genre. Circumstance certainly played some role in the birth of this musical revolution -- the sonic ugliness reflecting the bleak industrial nightmare of Birmingham; guitarist Tony Iommi's loss of two fingertips, which required him to play slower and to slacken the strings by tuning his guitar down, thus creating Sabbath's signature style. These qualities set the band apart, but they weren't wholly why this debut album transcends its clear roots in blues-rock and psychedelia to become something more. Sabbath's genius was finding the hidden malevolence in the blues, and then bludgeoning the listener over the head with it. Take the legendary album-opening title cut. The standard pentatonic blues scale always added the tritone, or flatted fifth, as the so-called "blues note"; Sabbath simply extracted it and came up with one of the simplest yet most definitive heavy metal riffs of all time. Thematically, most of heavy metal's great lyrical obsessions are not only here, they're all crammed onto side one. "Black Sabbath," "The Wizard," "Behind the Wall of Sleep," and "N.I.B." evoke visions of evil, paganism, and the occult as filtered through horror films and the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and Dennis Wheatley. Even if the album ended here, it would still be essential listening. Unfortunately, much of side two is given over to loose blues-rock jamming learned through Cream, which plays squarely into the band's limitations. For all his stylistic innovations and strengths as a composer, Iommi isn't a hugely accomplished soloist. By the end of the murky, meandering, ten-minute cover of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation's "Warning," you can already hear him recycling some of the same simple blues licks he used on side one (plus, the word "warn" never even appears in the song, because Ozzy Osbourne misheard the original lyrics). (The British release included another cover, a version of Crow's "Evil Woman" that doesn't quite pack the muscle of the band's originals; the American version substituted "Wicked World," which is much preferred by fans.) But even if the seams are still showing on this quickly recorded document, Black Sabbath is nonetheless a revolutionary debut whose distinctive ideas merely await a bit more focus and development. Henceforth Black Sabbath would forge ahead with a vision that was wholly theirs. Words: Steve Huey
Paranoid was not only Black Sabbath's most popular record (it was a number one smash in the U.K., and "Paranoid" and "Iron Man" both scraped the U.S. charts despite virtually nonexistent radio play), it also stands as one of the greatest and most influential heavy metal albums of all time. Paranoid refined Black Sabbath's signature sound -- crushingly loud, minor-key dirges loosely based on heavy blues-rock -- and applied it to a newly consistent set of songs with utterly memorable riffs, most of which now rank as all-time metal classics. Where the extended, multi-sectioned songs on the debut sometimes felt like aimless jams, their counterparts on Paranoid have been given focus and direction, lending an epic drama to now-standards like "War Pigs" and "Iron Man" (which sports one of the most immediately identifiable riffs in metal history). The subject matter is unrelentingly, obsessively dark, covering both supernatural/sci-fi horrors and the real-life traumas of death, war, nuclear annihilation, mental illness, drug hallucinations, and narcotic abuse. Yet Sabbath makes it totally convincing, thanks to the crawling, muddled bleakness and bad-trip depression evoked so frighteningly well by their music. Even the qualities that made critics deplore the album (and the group) for years increase the overall effect -- the technical simplicity of Ozzy Osbourne's vocals and Tony Iommi's lead guitar vocabulary; the spots when the lyrics sink into melodrama or awkwardness; the lack of subtlety and the infrequent dynamic contrast. Everything adds up to more than the sum of its parts, as though the anxieties behind the music simply demanded that the band achieve catharsis by steamrolling everything in its path, including its own limitations. Monolithic and primally powerful, Paranoid defined the sound and style of heavy metal more than any other record in rock history. Words: Steve Huey
Many had left Black Sabbath for dead at the dawn of the '80s, and with good reason -- the band's last few albums were not even close to their early classics, and original singer Ozzy Osbourne had just split from the band. But the Sabs had found a worthy replacement in former Elf and Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio, and bounced back to issue their finest album since the early '70s, 1980's Heaven and Hell. The band sounds reborn and re-energized throughout. Several tracks easily rank among Sabbath's all-time best, such as the vicious album opener, "Neon Knights," the moody, mid-paced epic "Children of the Sea," and the title track, which features one of Tony Iommi 's best guitar riffs. With Heaven and Hell, Black Sabbath were obviously back in business. Unfortunately, the Dio-led version of the band would only record one more studio album before splitting up (although Dio would return briefly in the early '90s). One of Sabbath's finest records. Words: Greg Prato
The shortest album of Black Sabbath's glory years, Master of Reality is also their most sonically influential work. Here Tony Iommi began to experiment with tuning his guitar down three half-steps to C#, producing a sound that was darker, deeper, and sludgier than anything they'd yet committed to record. (This trick was still being copied 25 years later by every metal band looking to push the limits of heaviness, from trendy nu-metallers to Swedish deathsters.) Much more than that, Master of Reality essentially created multiple metal subgenres all by itself, laying the sonic foundations for doom, stoner and sludge metal, all in the space of just over half an hour. Classic opener "Sweet Leaf" certainly ranks as a defining stoner metal song, making its drug references far more overt (and adoring) than the preceding album's "Fairies Wear Boots." The album's other signature song, "Children of the Grave," is driven by a galloping rhythm that would later pop up on a slew of Iron Maiden tunes, among many others. Aside from "Sweet Leaf," much of Master of Reality finds the band displaying a stronger moral sense, in part an attempt to counteract the growing perception that they were Satanists. "Children of the Grave" posits a stark choice between love and nuclear annihilation, while "After Forever" philosophizes about death and the afterlife in an openly religious (but, of course, superficially morbid) fashion that offered a blueprint for the career of Christian doom band Trouble. And although the alternately sinister and jaunty "Lord of This World" is sung from Satan's point of view, he clearly doesn't think much of his own followers (and neither, by extension, does the band). It's all handled much like a horror movie with a clear moral message, for example The Exorcist. Past those four tracks, listeners get sharply contrasting tempos in the rumbling sci-fi tale "Into the Void," which shortens the distances between the multiple sections of the band's previous epics. And there's the core of the album -- all that's left is a couple of brief instrumental interludes, plus the quiet, brooding loneliness of "Solitude," a mostly textural piece that frames Osbourne's phased vocals with acoustic guitars and flutes. But, if a core of five songs seems slight for a classic album, it's also important to note that those five songs represent a nearly bottomless bag of tricks, many of which are still being imitated and explored decades later. If Paranoid has more widely known songs, the suffocating and oppressive Master of Reality was the Sabbath record that die-hard metalheads took most closely to heart. Words: Steve Huey
With 1973's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, heavy metal godfathers Black Sabbath made a concerted effort to prove their remaining critics wrong by raising their creative stakes and dispensing unprecedented attention to the album's production standards, arrangements, and even the cover artwork. As a result, bold new efforts like the timeless title track, "A National Acrobat," and "Killing Yourself to Live" positively glistened with a newfound level of finesse and maturity, while remaining largely faithful, aesthetically speaking, to the band's signature compositional style. In fact, their sheer songwriting excellence may even have helped to ease the transition for suspicious older fans left yearning for the rough-hewn, brute strength that had made recent triumphs like Master of Reality and Vol. 4 (really, all their previous albums) such undeniable forces of nature. But thanks to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath's nearly flawless execution, even a more adventurous experiment like the string-laden "Spiral Architect," with its tasteful background orchestration, managed to sound surprisingly natural, and in the dreamy instrumental "Fluff," Tony Iommi scored his first truly memorable solo piece. If anything, only the group's at times heavy-handed adoption of synthesizers met with inconsistent consequences, with erstwhile Yes keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman bringing only good things to the memorable "Sabbra Cadabra" (who know he was such a great boogie-woogie pianist?), while the robotically dull "Who Are You" definitely suffered from synthesizer novelty overkill. All things considered, though, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was arguably Black Sabbath's fifth masterpiece in four years, and remains an essential item in any heavy metal collection. Words: Eduardo Rivadavia
Vol. 4 is the point in Black Sabbath's career where the band's legendary drug consumption really starts to make itself felt. And it isn't just in the lyrics, most of which are about the blurry line between reality and illusion. Vol. 4 has all the messiness of a heavy metal Exile on Main St., and if it lacks that album's overall diversity, it does find Sabbath at their most musically varied, pushing to experiment amidst the drug-addled murk. As a result, there are some puzzling choices made here (not least of which is the inclusion of "FX"), and the album often contradicts itself. Ozzy Osbourne's wail is becoming more powerful here, taking greater independence from Tony Iommi's guitar riffs, yet his vocals are processed into a nearly textural element on much of side two. Parts of Vol. 4 are as ultra-heavy as Master of Reality, yet the band also takes its most blatant shots at accessibility to date -- and then undercuts that very intent. The effectively concise "Tomorrow's Dream" has a chorus that could almost be called radio-ready, were it not for the fact that it only appears once in the entire song. "St. Vitus Dance" is surprisingly upbeat, yet the distant-sounding vocals don't really register. The notorious piano-and-Mellotron ballad "Changes" ultimately fails not because of its change-of-pace mood, but more for a raft of the most horrendously clichéd rhymes this side of "moon-June." Even the crushing "Supernaut" -- perhaps the heaviest single track in the Sabbath catalog -- sticks a funky, almost danceable acoustic breakdown smack in the middle. Besides "Supernaut," the core of Vol. 4 lies in the midtempo cocaine ode "Snowblind," which was originally slated to be the album's title track until the record company got cold feet, and the multi-sectioned prog-leaning opener, "Wheels of Confusion." The latter is one of Iommi's most complex and impressive compositions, varying not only riffs but textures throughout its eight minutes. Many doom and stoner metal aficionados prize the second side of the album, where Osbourne's vocals gradually fade further and further away into the murk, and Iommi's guitar assumes center stage. The underrated "Cornucopia" strikes a better balance of those elements, but by the time "Under the Sun" closes the album, the lyrics are mostly lost under a mountain of memorable, contrasting riffery. Add all of this up, and Vol. 4 is a less cohesive effort than its two immediate predecessors, but is all the more fascinating for it. Die-hard fans sick of the standards come here next, and some end up counting this as their favorite Sabbath record for its eccentricities and for its embodiment of the band's excesses. Words: Steve Huey
Sabotage is the final release of Black Sabbath's legendary First Six, and it's also the least celebrated of the bunch, though most die-hard fans would consider it criminally underrated. The band continues further down the proto-prog metal road of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and this time around, the synthesizers feel more organically integrated into the arrangements. What's more, the song structures generally feel less conventional and more challenging. There's one significant exception in the blatant pop tune "Am I Going Insane (Radio)," which rivals "Changes" as the most fan-loathed song of the glory years, thanks to its synth-driven arrangement (there isn't even a guitar riff!) and oft-repeated one-line chorus. But other than that song and the terrific album opener, "Hole in the Sky," the band largely eschews the standard verse-chorus format, sticking to one or two melody lines per riffed section and changing up the feel before things get too repetitive. The prevalence of this writing approach means that Sabotage rivals Vol. 4 as the least accessible record of Sabbath's glory years. However, given time, the compositional logic reveals itself, and most of the record will burn itself into the listener's brain just fine. The faster than usual "Symptom of the Universe" is a stone-cold classic, its sinister main riff sounding like the first seed from which the New Wave of British Heavy Metal would sprout (not to mention an obvious blueprint for Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?"). Like several songs on the record, "Symptom" features unexpected acoustic breaks and softer dynamics, yet never loses its drive or focus, and always feels like Sabbath. Less immediate but still rewarding are "Thrill of It All," with its triumphant final section, and the murky, sullen "Megalomania," which never feels as long as its nearly nine and a half minutes. But more than the compositions, the real revelation on Sabotage is Ozzy Osbourne, who turns in his finest vocal performance as a member of Black Sabbath. Really for the first time, this is the Ozzy we all know, displaying enough range, power, and confidence to foreshadow his hugely successful solo career. He saves the best for last with album closer "The Writ," one of the few Sabbath songs where his vocal lines are more memorable than Tony Iommi's guitar parts; running through several moods over the course of the song's eight minutes, it's one of the best performances of his career, bar none. Unfortunately, after Sabotage, the wheels of confusion came off entirely. Yes, there were technically two more albums, but for the non-obsessive, the story of Osbourne-era Sabbath effectively ends here. Words: Steve Huey
1981's Mob Rules was the second Black Sabbath album to feature vertically challenged singer Ronnie James Dio, whose powerful pipes and Dungeons and Dragons lyrics initially seemed like the perfect replacement for the recently departed and wildly popular Ozzy Osbourne. In fact, all the ingredients which had made their first outing, Heaven and Hell, so successful are re-utilized on this album, including legendary metal producer Martin Birch (Deep Purple, Whitesnake, etc.) and supporting keyboard player Geoff Nichols. And while it lacks some of its predecessor's inspired songwriting, Mob Rules was given a much punchier, in-your-face mix by Birch, who seemed re-energized after his work on New Wave of British Heavy Metal upstarts Iron Maiden's Killers album. Essentially, Mob Rules is a magnificent record, with the only serious problem being the sequencing of the material, which mirrors Heaven and Hell's almost to a tee. In that light, one can't help but compare otherwise compelling tracks like "Turn Up the Night" and "Voodoo" to their more impressive Heaven and Hell counterparts, "Neon Knights" and "Children of the Sea." That streak is soon snapped, first by the unbelievably heavy seven-minute epic "The Sign of the Southern Cross," which delivers one of the album's best moments, then its segue into an unconventional synthesizer-driven instrumental ("E5150") and the appearance of the roaring title track. Side two is less consistent, hiding the awesome "Falling off the Edge of the World" (perhaps the most overlooked secret gem to come from the Dio lineup) amongst rather average tracks like "Slipping Away" and "Over and Over." Over the next year, the wheels fell off for Black Sabbath, and Dio's exit marked Mob Rules as the last widely respected studio release of the band's storied career. Words: Eduardo Rivadavia
There's a lot of pressure involved with being the rulers of the underworld, and nobody knows it better than Black Sabbath in 2013. Inarguable legends and at least partially responsible for creating heavy metal as we know it with their classic '70s material, Sabbath have spawned generations of followers and become one of the final words of the genre. There have been countless reunions and mutations of the band following vocalist Ozzy Osbourne's first dismissal in 1978, and even 13 doesn't quite deliver on fans' decades-long desires to see all four original members back together. Original drummer Bill Ward sits the record out due to disputes over the recording contract, with Audioslave/Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk providing beats in his stead. Despite this considerable absence, 13 comes closest to recapturing the desperate feel, plodding grooves, and unparalleled metal magic of those first classic Sabbath records than anything the members of the band have done since, in any permutation or combination. Kicking off with two sludgy tracks, each over eight-minutes long, the Rick Rubin-produced 13 takes a few moments to get its legs. Once warmed up, however, each element falls somewhere between studied re-creation of the past and logical progression, be it Tony Iommi's spooky guitar tone, Ozzy's nasal howl, or the panic attack dynamics and sense of nuclear dread that made the moods of Sabotage and Vol. 4 so thick. Sharp tempo changes and caustic drop-tuned blues metal riffs make up tracks like "God Is Dead?" and the doomy "Age of Reason." Many of the album's eight tracks stretch past the seven-minute mark, full of heavy compositional shifting. The mellower acoustic track "Zeitgeist" rewrites the spacy "Planet Caravan" from second album Paranoid, revisiting the same cosmic motif of that song, complete with Iommi's most Django Reinhardt-influenced soloing. The lyrics, all penned by bassist Geezer Butler, are focused on internal religious and mental conflicts, with final track "Dear Father" tackling living with memories of abuse. The album is heavier, more precise, and more interesting than the past several decades of output from the bandmembers would suggest. Without fully replicating the energy of their untouchable first six records, Sabbath have risen to the unique challenge of not becoming self-caricatures, turning in something new while still reactivating the strengths of their younger days. The backwards-looking tendencies of 13 are something the band is fully aware of, as signified by the reappearance of rain and church bells sound effects on the last track, the same sounds that opened their first album in 1970. The influence of early Sabbath has become so omnipresent that it's come back to influence its very creators four decades later, but the results are unexpectedly brilliant, apocalyptic, and essential for any die-hard metal fan. Words: Fred Thomas