THIS MONTH IN METAL No. 10: Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath”

The Legacy

It all had to start somewhere.  On Friday the 13th of February 1970, a prophecy was told.  There were warning signs; the occult was nothing entirely new to rock at the time.  Coven wailed of Satanic masses, Steppenwolf’s distortion was said to sound like a motorcycle made of “heavy metal,” and let’s not forget that Elvis’s hips had been ushering the devil into music for years.  This new prophecy, however, spoke of a sinister threat in a new language.  Accompanied by a faint storm, church bells and a haunting tritone, it posed the question, “What is this that stands before me?”  Fortunately we didn’t have to guess–all we had to do was fear.  It spoke simply of a pointing figure in black.  As the tale foretold, some turned around and ran away screaming, but others stayed.  The figure in black was then not one, but five as four young candidates named Bill, Geezer, Tony and Ozzy vowed to preach its dark word.  The four would wear a name, Black Sabbath, and speak the word: Metal.  Now thousands walk with the figure in black, spreading the word that is, as of this year, eligible for AARP benefits.

Black Sabbath cover artwork by Keith MacMillan (credited Marcus Keef). Photo: Genius

Widely considered to be the first metal album, Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath is turning 50 this February.  Metal is now a labyrinth of subgenres, recycled trends and innovative competition that few could foresee upon Sabbath’s debut.  They were just four kids from Birmimgham that loved horror movies and didn’t think music was scary enough.  So they did what came naturally, taking the name of a Boris Karloff film and infusing dark words with a new dark sound.  The rest, as they say so cliche, is history.  But if history has told us nothing else, it’s that every living human has some degree of dark fascination.  There may not have always been heavy metal and horror movies, but there were apocalyptic visions and well-attended public executions.  Even today with a plethora of violence in movies, videogames, music etc. there is just as much, if not more buzz of #WWIII and #coronavirus.  We love to be afraid, so why not master the craft?  Sabbath are the godfathers of bringing that same dark intrigue into the language of contemporary music.

Original LP Gatefold design by Keith MacMillan (credited Marcus Keef). Photo: Doug Wurzer via American History Now

Black Sabbath was thought to poison minds, which of course metal has always been accused of.  But metal doesn’t drive people to kill; it calls upon those who are comfortable with their dark intrigue that resides in everyone, thus willing to accept it into the creative spectrum.  From this lens, metal is perhaps the most natural genre of all.  Not every picture can be painted with bright colors, just as not every song can be played in a major key.  It encourages us to introduce a little black here and there.  The state of metal today reflects thousands of creatives who channel their dark impulses, emotions and interests into a genre that is willing to take the most risks.  That is the prophecy foretold by Black Sabbath.

Satan’s Choice

50th anniversary tribute artwork

Satan's Choice
Black Sabbath – “Black Sabbath” 50th anniversary // February 2020

Perhaps obviously, this work is based upon the title track.  Black Sabbath was one of my favorite songs as a kid as well as now.  It was, much how it lines up in the history of metal, a gateway into the genre for me.  The lyrics aren’t exactly poetry, but the simple narrative and sonic atmosphere are just as powerful to me today as they were when I was in 5th grade (or 50 years ago for that matter).  Being fresh out of Sunday school, I loved the vignette of encountering Satan (in the woods, I imagined) and being his “choice,” whatever that meant.  The denial of his proposition results in reality falling apart, unleashing total mayhem and chaos.  It scared me but, as stated before, I loved being scared.  With Satan’s Choice I wanted to capture the magic of the encounter that Ozzy details.  While I think the disastrous ending is super metal (pun intended, duh), the essence of ominous curiosity is what grabs me on the song.  The chaos to come is in’t meant to be the first cue, rather a later suggestion as the true hand of Satan grips the cliff’s head.  The mist is also thus softer towards the earth and more haphazardly distorted with texture as it distances.  This is an intimate rendezvous in which the viewer is isolated and victimized.  Satan’s choice is you.

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Happy 50th, Metal.