How Black Sabbath changed rock and unleashed metal unto the world
With the pioneers of metal all set to be honored with the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, here's a look at the legacy of Sabbath and their indelible mark on modern music.
"Every cool riff has already been written by Black Sabbath. Anything everyone else does is just basically ripping it off. Either you're playing it slightly different or fast or slow, but... they did everything already."
That's what Rob Zombie said in an interview with Sam Dunn for the 2005 rockumentary 'Metal: A Headbanger's Journey'. Sure, Zombie employed some poetic flair to get his point across but the crux of his message essentially shows how widely influential Black Sabbath has been (and still is) in the landscape of metal music.
In fact, if one were to trace the history of metal music and try to pinpoint a single act which served as a tipping point where rock branched off into the strange and dark era of metal, Black Sabbath would be as close as it gets. Of course, no art is born in a void and transitioning styles and genres are more shades of grey than black and white, but you'll hardly find anyone in the music industry who would think twice before endorsing Sabbath as the godfathers of metal.
Even the Recording Academy, which generally stays clear of rock-centric acts, is acknowledging the far-reaching influence of the band. Last week, it was announced that to celebrate half a century of Sabbath's long and influential career, the heavy metal pioneers will be awarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
The announcement comes just a year after Sabbath embarked on their final tour, performed their final gig at their hometown of Birmingham, England, and ultimately disbanded. Through their 49-year career, they released nineteen original studio albums, a host of B-sides, rarities and remasters, sold over 70 million records worldwide, bagged two Grammy awards (and four nominations) and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
As the band adds another feather to its cap (or crown of thorns in Sabbath's case!), let's take a look at the crucial role the legendary band played in reshaping rock history and paving the path for one of the most technically complex, theatrically loud, cult-following garnering genre that is metal.
As mentioned earlier, it's hard to place a finger on one exact act, song or moment that sparked the inception of metal. The adoption of the electric guitar into blues by pioneers like Muddy Waters and Pat Hare in the 1950s could be seen as the amniotic stage that birthed rock music. Their distorted guitars and overdriven amplifiers laid the road to the heavier sound that would arrive in the next decade. In the 60s, Led Zeppelin adopted the blues influences to create a never-before-heard sound. Meanwhile, their partners in the British Invasion, The Beatles, infused elements of cheerful pop to create yet another enduring sound.
On the other side of the pond, the same blues influences trickled into the Californian surf rock wave which furthered the use of distorted guitars and more importantly, used fast picked riffs to create a sound that was heavier than ever before. A prime example of this is Dick Dale's 'Misirlou', which any fan of Quentin Tarantino or The Black Eyed Peas will instantly recognize. Other bands that dabbled with the sound include The Beach Boys and The Ventures. The culmination of a lot of these experimental methods is probably best exemplified by The Doors, who with their magnetic live performances featuring songs that would progress well pas the 10-minute mark, pushed the boundaries of what a band traditionally could do on stage.
While these influences might have laid the basic groundwork for metal, none of them in retrospect would really fit into the genre's style, even by the early yardstick of the 60s. Later in the decade, bands like The Who, Cream, Iron Butterfly and Blue Cheer further contributed to the sound with dropped tuning, fuzzier guitars and faster riffs. In 1968, Steppenwolf dropped the smash hit 'Born To Be Wild', which borrowed heavily from the biker culture of the time and for the first time featured the words "heavy metal" in the lyric.
Although many of these bands dabbled with darker themes and sounds, it was usually as a counterpoint to a generally more optimistic, ballad-styled songs of early rock. Enter Black Sabbath, a group formed by guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward, who were looking to start a heavy blues-rock band in Aston, Birmingham. They enlisted bassist Geezer Butler and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, and sowed the seeds of what would go on to become the most shocking left turn on the rock motorway.
With their 1970 self-titled debut, Sabbath changed the entire landscape of rock till that point. Building on a trend set by groups like Coven and Black Widow, Sabbath incorporated darker imagery of Satanism and witchcraft in their music. When 'Black Sabbath' arrived on the scene, it showed the rest of the world what metal was. Unlike the works by aforementioned artists, Black Sabbath's debut was a through and through metal album from start to finish - from the opening riff of the self-titled track to the close of the legendary 'Wicked World'. It featured Iommi's thick, sludgy, tri-tone chords (also known as "the Devil's Interval"), made even darker as he slackened the strings to a lower octave, bending the strings like no other. Below this, Geezer Butler doubled Iommi's guitar riffs, giving them a darker, heavier sound. With Ozzy's bat-sh*t crazy, eccentric stage presence and piercingly haunting vocals, Black Sabbath had created a sight and sound that was never seen before, a giant middle finger to the feel-good vibes of the songs of the just departing flower power era.
Even the band's name reflected the horror show that they would go on to unleash for another 50 years. The 1963 horror film Black Sabbath, starring Boris Karloff and directed by Mario Bava. Like any act that shakes up the pre-established order of things, Sabbath was met with harsh criticism from purists. But that did not dissuade them.
The band quickly rolled out two more albums within one year - 1970's 'Paranoid' and 1971's 'Master of Reality' - where they continued to explore the novel sound and themes they had introduced in their debut. By the time 1973's 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath' rolled out, Black Sabbath had not only won critics over, but unleashed a wave of metal unto the earth, the full magnitude of which would not be realized until thousands of bands all over the UK, Europe and eventually the world sprouted in the late 80s onwards to create the definitive genre we know today as metal.
Sabbath's influence is so wide-ranging that it could be argued that even individual songs of theirs gave birth to entire sub-genres of metal. This is what Rob Zombie alludes to in his aforementioned quote about the metal legends.
Songs such as 'Black Sabbath', 'Children of the Grave', 'Electric Funeral' could be credited as the early influences that shaped one of metal's oldest sub-genres: doom metal, which is characterized by it's deliberately slower tempos and thicker, heavier, distorted sounds. Interestingly, this sound that was pioneered by Iommi was serendipitous. Much before forming the band, Iommi had lost two of his fingertips in an accident at the sheet metal factory he worked at. To compensate, the legendary guitarist wore plastic fingertips and slackened the strings to provide a distinctly bass-heavy, thicker sound.
Meanwhile, the industrial town of Birmingham, where Sabbath cut their teeth during their early days, provided the perfect backdrop for a style of metal that would incorporate these sounds into The New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), pioneered by the legendary Iron Maiden, Saxon and Motorhead. This would further pave the way for a more experimental sound that incorporated electronic sounds and what would be dubbed 'Industrial Metal', the flagbearers of which include Rammstein and Nine Inch Nails.
1971's hit single 'Sweet Leaf' from the album 'Masters of Reality' could arguably be traced as the singular origin of stoner rock/ stoner metal. The studio version of the song opens with a hacking cough on loop that gives way to a sludgy, heady riff as Ozzy delivers an ode to cannabis. The song practically sowed the seeds for the wave of stoner and desert rock that would arrive a good two to three decades later, championed by bands like Kyuss, Electric Wizard, Queens of the Stone Age and Sleep. Speaking of Sleep, the influence that Sabbath had on the genre is still relevant as ever, as proved by Sleep's epic comeback album of 2018, 'The Sciences'. The album even includes a song called 'Giza Butler', an obvious reference to the bassist and primary songwriter of Black Sabbath, Geezer Butler.
Like all umbrella genres of music, metal today has morphed and metamorphosed through several rebirths, and the list of sub-genres is as lengthy as it is blurry and obsolete. Sludge metal, black metal, grindcore, drone metal, depressive suicidal black metal (also abbreviated to DSBM, and no that's not a made-up genre), power metal - no matter which derivative form of the genre you choose, it is hard to deny Sabbath's influence in the field in one way or another, as Rob Zombie so eloquently put it.
Today, more and more underground metal acts are redefining the landscape, trying to emulate the role Black Sabbath played half a century ago. Bands like Deafheaven (who served up a near-flawless album this year in the form of 'Ordinary Corrupt Human Love') are tearing down the walls of the genre by juxtaposing ear-splitting black metal with intricate shoegaze melodies. They've even secured a Grammy nomination for their work, producing a form of metal that even its harshest critics cannot dismiss. While it would be hard to see a direct influence of Sabbath on today's post-modern era of metal, it can still be argued that if it weren't for the genre-defying genius of Black Sabbath, we wouldn't be where we are today.