Although I would likely point the finger at King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” as the harbinger of ‘heavy’ in heavy metal, there’s absolutely no denying what a massive impact Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut had on the formation of the genre. With that context in mind, there’s no wonder why it’s still considered a classic by many, forty-odd years after its release. It is a lumbering, ugly hard rock record with strong ties to the blues and the occult, and though Black Sabbath do not impress near as much here as they would with the essential “Paranoid”, its historical significance alone warrants a listen.
“Paranoid” would solidify the band’s take on heavy metal, but the rich distortion and ‘evil’ tone have been nailed from square one. At this point, I might liken Black Sabbath to Led Zeppelin’s first two albums. Though rooted in the American blues style that swept through the British hard rock scene at this time, the aggression has toned up several notches. In the case of Sabbath- and arguably what most sets them apart- is their devotion to a dark atmosphere. The infamous ‘tritone’ is upheld from the very start; the title track “Black Sabbath” opens with an unforgettably doomy riff, and vocals to foreshadow impending damnation. The title track sets a standard for doom metal that many bands still compete with.
The distorted riffs are a constant throughout “Black Sabbath”, but the songwriting feels more at home with its time period after the title track. “The Wizard” through “Sleeping Village” are all rocking tracks that make no effort to hide the heavy blues influence. Of these, “The Wizard” and “N.I.B” stand out, the former for its deep harmonica work and fantastic riffs, and the latter for its superb bass work, courtesy of Geezer Butler. “The Warning” brings Sabbath back to a more epic format, relying heavily still on bluesy riffs, but taking the structure a step further, and giving Iommi plenty of time for fiery solos that draw a parallel to Jimmy Page’s lead style.
Although I loved his vocals on “Paranoid” and have been impressed by some of his performances thereafter, Ozzy Osbourne feels like the weak link on the debut. His nasal vocal tone fits the eerie atmosphere, but his voice feels unrefined and unkempt. Of course, this fits the description of the rest of Black Sabbath, but in the case of Ozzy’s voice, it doesn’t bode well. With the exception of the first two tracks and the catchy “Evil Woman”, the vocal melodies feel tacked on without too much thought.
It’s not the masterpiece that Black Sabbath would craft later the same year, but for the fact alone that they were able to revolutionize hard rock music within a single album, the debut deserves to be heard. Tony Iommi takes centerstage in everything the band does here, and though the songwriting does not feel as consistent or focused as they would for the two following records, the band’s gritty sound and influence cannot be underestimated.