Dispatches from the Suburbs of Hell

Heaven is for the obedient. Hell is for the wrathful. What of the ones in between? We wind up in the Suburbs. Our sin is individuality. Our punishment is boredom. But at least we're in good company.

Location: New England, United States

Monday, June 28, 2010

Opening the Box

The recent passing of Ronnie James Dio (\m/) has prompted me to revisit my Metal Years. Specifically, to revisit one of my favorite music collections, Black Box. Eight complete Black Sabbath albums, covering the entire Ozzy period. I will say up front that I'm an Ozzy man. I grant you that Ronnie James Dio was a better musician than Ozzy Osbourne, a more professional singer and a far more together guy, but Ozzy...well, he's OZZY. He's the Prince of Darkness. His edge-of-madness voice is a huge part of what made the early Sabbath so scary. Listening to the Black Box again after so many years' absence, a wave of childhood memories washed over me...along with a few very strange realizations about Black Sabbath's music. They are considered the pioneers of the genre that became known as Heavy Metal, but their sound has little in common with the bands that followed them. They were not the loudest, or the fastest, or the heaviest. Sabbath's sound resembles nothing so much as the grinding of the gears in some intricate diabolical machine, taking a listener down an uncertain road. You're never quite sure where a Sabbath song is going to go. You just know it's going to freak you out on some level.

Another strange realization comes to mind listening to this early stuff: Black Sabbath first started out as an English folk and blues band called Earth. And they never really strayed too far from their musical roots. So it brings me to an odd conclusion: Metal did not evolve from Rock and Roll. Metal evolved from Folk.

Black Sabbath

Nowhere is this conclusion more evident than in Sabbath's first, self-titled album. Black Sabbath is practically a Folk/Blues album, even including a cover of the old Blues standard "The Warning." Many of the songs sound very much like they belong in the folk-influenced music of the last 1960's; several of the songs just break down into improvisational jams and lead into the next song organically. But of course it's what the songs are ABOUT that sets it apart from your typical Folk album. Songs about madness and black magic and evil. Ozzy and the rest of the band did dabble in the occult, which was nothing unique in the early 1970's. But Sabbath went in a different, weirder direction than other bands. These songs - particularly those like "Behind the Wall of Sleep" and "Sleeping Village" - evoke the outre fiction of authors like Poe or Lovecraft: lovingly, weirdly-crafted tales of insanity and the supernatural. In particular there are the songs "Black Sabbath" and "N.I.B." ones with the most overt Satanic references, surprisingly, in the entire Black Sabbath canon. They are weird songs about weird things, made even more so by Ozzy's crazy vocals and Tony Iommi's distorted guitar. No other guitar sounds like that. No other guitar could.

That's the thing about Sabbath's music: they weren't so much scary as they were WEIRD. And that's potentially more disturbing. They sounded strange, and they sang about strange things. It was all so off-kilter, as if turned just about forty-five degrees from the familiar. It's there, I think, you can see the Folk roots. Metal, or at least Sabbath's brand of Metal, is the far edge of Folk. Folk music of the 1960's was about activism, about social change and revolution, filled with righteous fury at the Man. Push that concept just a little further, and you get the nihilistic rage of Metal, and the outre imagery of Black Sabbath's music. Fall off the edge of Folk, and you land smack dab in Metal. And Ozzy is waiting for you there.


It's kind of ironic that Paranoid is Sabbath's best-known album. Because when you listen to their entire canon, you notice that Paranoid doesn't really fit. Thematically and sonically, it's a departure from their signature style. Even their best known song, "Iron Man," isn't even the best song on the album. Personally, I give that honor to "War Pigs," Black Sabbath's most overtly political song. The song is epic, clocking in at over seven minutes, and sounding just as apocalyptic as its subject matter. I know that when the world ends in Fire and Shadow, the last sound to be heard will be Tony Iommi's jarring power D chord, chiming like the Bell of Doom. Again, we see the dark mirror of Folk, as "War Pigs" is a sort of angrier companion piece to Bob Dylan's "Masters of War." Dylan wrote a poem of defiance, calling for resistance against warmongering politicians and praying for their swift end. Sabbath's piece is less hopeful, and far more wrathful. The warmongers aren't "masters" of anything. They're not even human. They will destroy the world, and the only judgment they will face is from God.

The rest of the album is not bad, with songs like "Iron Man" and "Electric Funeral" - and the bizarro hippie-jam session that is "Planet Caravan" - veering off into science fiction. Songs toward the end of the album, like "Hand of Doom" and "Fairies Wear Boots" bring us back to the supernatural, drug-induced madness that Sabbath is famous for. In all, the album plays like a fever dream, a dream of a coming apocalypse, full of atomic horror and technology run amok. Scary because of its disorienting feel, more so than any of its subject matter.

Master of Reality

If Paranoid represents the political phase of Black Sabbath's music, then Master of Reality represents the psychedelic phase. It's probably Sabbath's most "up" album, heavily influenced by flower-child type music. First we have "Sweet Leaf," in praise of pot. Then "After Forever," a kind of born-again anthem about the afterlife. And then there's "Children of the Grave," an exhortation to the young people to take the world back from The Man. Seemingly optimistic, timeless themes, but because it's Black Sabbath, they all sound vaguely disconcerting and menacing. Not so much a friendly tap on the shoulder as it is a smack upside the head.

And yet, there are songs of dark beauty on this album. That's an interesting thing about Black Sabbath: they were talented musicians, and were not afraid to sound pretty at times. The instrumental interludes "Orchid" and "Solitude" are trippy things, with copious use of the piano and the flute - perhaps the least Metal instruments imaginable. It really speaks to just how experimental Black Sabbath was: the rules didn't exist yet, so they were free to take their music in very atypical directions. Even if it was some kind of weird "demon-hippie" direction.

Black Sabbath Volume 4

It usually takes bands a few albums to perfect their sound, and Black Sabbath was no exception. Volume 4 is the album where the band found their sound, and perhaps represents their creative height. The infernal machine is fully assembled, and grinds away without mercy. Long, dark songs like "Wheels of Confusion" and "Under the Sun" evoke the rage of the frustrated idealist, trying in vain to carve a meaning from an empty world. They are glorious in their darkness, Tony Iommi's plodding distorted guitar dragging us down a dark road. And yet, once again there are some lovely songs to be heard, like the instrumental "Laguna Sunrise," and the plaintive "Changes," a simple but effective breakup song.

In a weird way, Volume 4 almost represents a philosophical shift in Black Sabbath's themes. Coming from a Folk background, Sabbath's material inevitably had its roots in religion or spirituality. Of course Sabbath's music always chose to explore the dark flip-side of those roots, becoming basically Hell's favorite Folk Band. By the time of Volume 4, the band had moved philosophically beyond those roots. Beyond even their dark flip-side. The philosophical theme explored here is the sort of Nihilistic landscape that Nietzsche wrote about: that existential state of depression and anger that comes with realizing that God is dead. Their Folksy ways will not help them in this new world; they need to create a whole new sound. And create it they did.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

Unfortunately, success often has the seeds of its success already built in. After all, when you've reached your creative height, you can only go downhill. And sadly, after Volume 4 came the slow decline. Fortunately Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is still a pretty strong album, despite not being as heavy or as philosophically complex as its predecessor. With Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, we see Black Sabbath's thematic shift, away from grim cosmic musings about evil and emptiness, toward more intimate themes, like madness and death (yeah, a bit more upbeat there). With the exception of a couple of songs toward the end of the album, including the wonderfully-weird "Spiral Architect," we don't see the same level of Lovecraftian influence as there was in previous albums. In fact, this is about the period where Sabbath began to flirt with Progressive Rock, making heavy use synthesizers and string sections for many songs (even bringing in Yes frontman Rick Wakeman for a few tracks).

Of course this was inevitable. After recording Volume 4, Sabbath experienced a bit of creative drought, and needed to re-think their direction. It was an interesting direction to take, though perhaps not the best one. And of course, this was where the seeds of destruction were finally sewn. The rift between Ozzy and Tony had its origins in the difficulties the band had creating this album, and it only got wider as time went on, as Tony Iommi became more of a control freak, and as Ozzy Osbourne became more of a freak, period.


Sabotage is an interesting album, creatively speaking. On the one hand, it hearkens back many times to the Nihilistic themes of Volume 4 and earlier albums, evoking some spiritual, cosmic horror in songs like "Hole in the Sky" and "Symptom of the Universe." On the other hand, it continues some of the Progressive Rock sound started in Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, with copious use of strings and choruses and studio effects. It's still a strong album, but it does have a fractured feel to it, as if the band just couldn't quite decide where it wanted to go.

Which may not have been too far from the truth. Ozzy Osbourne has famously stated that this was the album where things started to really go downhill between him and Tony Iommi. Iommi's insistence on studio perfection clashed with Ozzy's desire to just make some music. The album itself reflects this in the hearing, swinging from scary to funky at the drop of a hat. Of course, without Sabotage we would not have the famous song, "Am I Going Insane?" Which frankly, only Ozzy can sing and have it sound like a fair question. Are you going insane? Yeah, pretty much, Ozzy.

Technical Ecstasy

...and this is where it all goes wrong. The last two albums of the Black Box share the same flaws: radical change in theme. The thing that always made Black Sabbath unique was that they were not "rock stars" in the traditional 1970s Rock and Roll sense. They didn't sing about the Rock and Roll lifestyle, about girls or drugs or doing shows. Until Technical Ecstasy, that is. Songs like "Rock 'N' Roll Doctor" and "Back Street Kids" celebrate sex, drugs, and rock & roll. There's very little to be found on this album that's scary or epic the way old-school Sabbath could be. Frankly, only Ozzy's unique vocals make them distinguishable from any other 1970's hard rock band. In fact, Ozzy doesn't even sing on one of the songs, letting drummer Bill Ward take the hippie-dippy "It's Alright."

Technical Ecstasy was very much the beginning of the end for the the Ozzy years, as tensions between Ozzy and Tony finally came to head with Ozzy leaving the band. It might have been for the best; Ozzy is best when he's scary, and he wasn't being allowed to be scary. You cannot contain the Prince of Darkness, man...

Never Say Die!

...or can you? For whatever reason, after leaving the band, Ozzy came back briefly to record Never Say Die! This somewhat ironically-named album was the final Ozzy album, and perhaps Black Sabbath's least impressive. There's very little to recommend here, apart from the poignant "Junior's Eyes," written about the death of Ozzy's father; and the surprisingly melodic "Air Dance," complete with piano solo. That song is a nice nod back to early Sabbath, where despite their heavy sound and dark subject matter, they were not afraid to sound pretty. But again, this album is nowhere near as scary as Sabbath could be, or frankly needed to be at this point. Kind of sad, really. But then, I suppose, it's difficult to maintain that level of darkness for five or six albums without having to lighten up every so often.

So, there it is. The entire Ozzy period of Black Sabbath. Viewed as a continuum, it's a fascinating study of the origins of Metal. That Metal did not have its origins in popular music, but in something older, more primal. That the great themes of Metal come from the longings of Folk songs: prayers to an indifferent god twisted into the machinations of Lovecraftian god-beasts. Righteous indignation at social injustice pushed to Nihilistic fury. The frustrations of idealists, beating their heads against the wall trying to make sense of the world, until their frustration gives way to madness. It makes so much sense upon a second look. It makes me love them even more. It also makes me wonder if I wasn't too hard on the late Ronnie James Dio, thinking him inferior to Ozzy as a frontman. He was fresh meat, a shot in the arm the band needed after Ozzy left. He was a Metal God, and now a throne in Valhalla is no longer vacant.

Can't help but wonder who's saving a place for Ozzy, though....\m/