There are several reasons why we’re opening this year’s (belated) Dystopian Halloween Party with a guide to the discography of Black Sabbath. First is the most obvious one: while pinpointing the precise “invention” of heavy metal (or any genre) is a fool’s errand, Sabbath were pretty much indisputably the architects of metal’s most Halloween-friendly strain. Plenty of artists in the late 1960s had dabbled in the occult, of course (most notably the Rolling Stones), and bands like Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin, and Grand Funk Railroad were earlier in developing a plodding, high-volume, post-psychedelic take on heavy blues. But Sabbath were the first to marry Satanic anxieties and Gothic horror aesthetics with truly monstrous minor-key riffs, spawning whole generations of future headbangers in the process. Second, on a more personal note, there’s this: Sabbath’s “Iron Man” was one of a small handful of songs that actually scared me as a child, to the point that I had to curtail my habit of listening to classic rock radio after dark (the other songs, in case you’re wondering, were Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My” and–don’t laugh–Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung”).
There’s also a good reason why we’re looking back at Sabbath this year in particular: because the original lineup (minus drummer Bill Ward) is currently nearing the last leg of what has been advertised as their final reunion/retirement tour, billed under the appropriately ominous name “The End.” It is, of course, wise to treat any rock band’s retirement announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism (how many times has KISS promised to call it quits, again?). But let’s be honest: this probably really is the end for Black Sabbath, a band for whom it is no exaggeration to say it’s a miracle that the original members are still alive, much less capable of playing together. It’s only fitting for a group as death-obsessed as Sabbath to be present at their own wake; and even if they do, somehow, lurch back to life in the future–well, zombies are a Halloween staple, too.
So please, as they take their final bow, join us in this exhaustive overview of one of the most important groups in popular music history. And I do mean exhaustive: while the current Sabbath lineup is hitting only the band’s highlights from their tenure with original singer Ozzy Osbourne, we’ve trawled their whole career: including the oft-overlooked period(s) with Ronnie James Dio in the frontman spot, and even their little-discussed wilderness years in the mid-to-late 1980s. I’ll be the first to admit, not all of it is great. But I think what we’ve come up with is a solid mix of recognizable hits, lesser-known gems, and noble failures–and yes, it will provide the perfect soundtrack for your next Halloween party and/or drive through the suburbs in an airbrushed stoner van.
As noted above, Black Sabbath were early in connecting themselves to the horror tradition: starting with their name, in fact, which they famously took from the English-language version of Mario Bava’s 1963 film I tre volti della paura. And while the eponymous song from their 1970 debut album (also self-titled) didn’t have anything to do with Black Sabbath, the film, it certainly sounded like a horror movie: opening with the gloomy sounds of a church bell tolling and a thunderstorm before exploding into the first of many indelibly evil-sounding three-chord riffs. It’s the perfect introduction to the band: lumbering, dramatic, more than a little silly, but also undeniably bone-chilling, with the palpable terror in Ozzy Osbourne’s vocals (“ohhhhh nooooooooooo!”) matched only by the sheer, bludgeoning insistence of Tony Iommi’s guitar. I can hardly imagine how this must have sounded to contemporary listeners; “terrifying” is my best guess.
Not all of Black Sabbath is quite as effective as its opening salvo, but a surprising amount of the album still holds up: even if several of the songs are linked together in ponderous (and defiantly playlist-unfriendly) prog-rock mini-suites. The best of these is the one that closes out the first vinyl side: beginning with an uptempo movement dubbed “Wasp,” then downshifting to the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired “Behind the Wall of Sleep”–the first of many examples of deceptively funky drumming by Bill Ward–and finally coming to a close with “N.I.B.,” a crushing love song from the perspective of Lucifer and one of Sabbath’s most devil-horn-worthy songs…but not before a fucking unaccompanied bass solo from Geezer Butler, which on the North American version of the album is given the dad-worthy title “Bassically.” Pearl-clutching Bible Belt parents take note: no matter how much they sing about Satan, no band with a taste for low-hanging bass puns should be taken seriously as envoys of the occult.
Black Sabbath was a striking statement of purpose; but Paranoid, released later the same year, represented both a refinement and an expansion of their trailblazing sound. The classic title track–sadly not included here in the interest of space–basically kickstarted the New Wave of British Heavy Metal before critics even knew what to call the “old wave.” The spooky, spaced-out “Planet Caravan” (also not on the playlist–sorry!) proved that Sabbath could do subtlety. And, of course, there was the obligatory ponderous opening suite of “War Pigs” and “Luke’s Wall,” which refocused the previous album’s sense of Gothic terror on the real-life horrors of Vietnam. It was, for whatever it’s worth, the song that finally won over early detractor Lester Bangs: his legendary 1972 essay “Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber” favorably compared the lyrics to Bob Dylan‘s “Masters of War.” (Does this mean, given recent developments, that we might one day live to see Geezer Butler accept the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature? God, I hope so.)
Then, of course, there’s the aforementioned “Iron Man”: as goofy-terrifying as “Black Sabbath,” and to this day the second song learned on guitar by nine out of ten teenage boys (the first, of course, being Deep Purple‘s “Smoke on the Water”). “Iron Man” is easy to take for granted, having been played to death on everything from your local classic rock station to the 2008 Marvel Studios film of the same title. Listen with fresh ears, however, and it’s as bizarre as it was 46 years ago: a plodding, pulpy, stoned revenge fantasy about a metallic time traveler doomed to wreak the destruction he’s foretold on an unwitting human race. Ozzy sings the lyrics to the exact same melody as the riff. It’s at once astonishingly dumb and brilliant–a dichotomy no other band does as well as Sabbath, save perhaps for the Stooges and the Ramones.
The following year saw the release of another landmark record: Master of Reality, the metal purist’s Sabbath album. It was here that Tony Iommi perfected his trademark of downtuning his guitar by one and a half steps: an adjustment meant to reduce string tension, compensating for his loss of two fingertips in a pre-stardom industrial accident, while boasting the additional effect of bringing even more malevolence to his already diabolical-sounding riffs. Whole subgenres of metal–doom, sludge, stoner–were born out of the murk of tracks like “Lord of This World” (another of Butler’s inimitable odes to/warnings against the devil) and the self-explanatory nihilist’s anthem “Into the Void”: the favorite Sabbath track, for what it’s worth, of Metallica’s James Hetfield.
By the release of 1972’s Vol. 4, however, cracks were beginning to appear in the foundations. The album’s working title, Snowblind, is a frank statement of the conditions in which it was recorded: namely, a haze of cocaine use at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. The band’s prodigious chemical indulgences have been blamed (probably accurately) for Vol. 4‘s weak mix, which can sound positively anemic compared to Paranoid or Master of Reality; this is also the point when Sabbath’s songwriting starts to lose some of its focus, straying away from the monolithic heavy rock on which they cut their teeth. But the album remains a classic. “Supernaut” is a riff for the ages; no less a personage than Frank Zappa has praised Iommi’s honking guitar tone, and he knows a thing or two about honking guitars. Fans of the previous album can also find plenty to appreciate in the closing suite–yes, there’s one of those here, too–of “Under the Sun” and “Every Day Comes and Goes.”
The last truly undisputed classic in the Sabbath canon is 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. A more polished and assured extension of Vol. 4‘s experimentation, it nevertheless rocks hard enough to avoid tipping into pure prog territory: Slash of Guns n’ Roses has called the title track’s outro “the heaviest shit I have ever heard in my life,” and you won’t hear me arguing. Meanwhile, tracks like the sinister, Moog synthesizer-driven “Who Are You?” successfully expand the group’s sonic palette, while still retaining their go-to lyrical themes of paranoia and overbearing dread. Plus, the cover art by Drew Struzan is basically the definition of “metal as fuck.”
You’ll note, however, that while I called Sabbath Bloody Sabbath the last “undisputed” classic by Black Sabbath, I didn’t say it was my favorite. That honor–aside from the obvious first three albums–falls to 1975’s criminally underrated Sabotage. There are, of course, reasons why Sabotage doesn’t make most people’s list of top Sabbath records. The band was a shambles at this point, coming apart due to legal struggles with their former management and the ever-present exacerbating factor of hard drugs; with that context in mind, it would be all too easy to see this record’s exceedingly terrible cover and facepalm-worthy pun title, and assume that it’s a perfunctory effort by another group of past-their-prime ’70s rock dinosaurs in ill-fitting scarlet pants. But I defy you to listen to “Symptom of the Universe” and tell me it doesn’t rock at least as hard as anything from Master of Reality. The same goes, tenfold, for closing track “The Writ”: a blazing showcase for Butler and, especially, Ozzy, and for my money the best Sabbath epic this side of “War Pigs.”
It was only with the following year’s Technical Ecstasy that Sabbath really began to stumble–though even here, there are more highlights than you might think. Opener “Back Street Kids” brings at least the muscular riffs we’ve come to expect from Black Sabbath–albeit with lyrics that sound more like Ian Hunter than Geezer Butler, and synth flourishes that would feel more at home on a Kansas album. “Dirty Women,” meanwhile, is Sabbath’s take on the sleazy ode to prostitutes that was apparently de rigueur for all hard rock bands in the 1970s and ’80s. Technical Ecstasy isn’t a great album, but it isn’t a terrible one either. It is, more than anything, a product of artistic confusion and inertia: the kind of floundering effort with which more than a few of Sabbath’s colleagues from the first half of the ’70s ushered in the second half, caught between the era’s dueling titans of punk and arena rock but not confident enough to fully commit to either.
Much less forgivable was 1978’s Never Say Die!: the album that marked Osbourne’s ignominous departure from the band, and the demise of the original incarnation of Black Sabbath. Ozzy had already left the fold back in 1977, during which time he was temporarily replaced by former Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac frontman Dave Walker. But for better or worse, he was coaxed into returning for one last album, and his enthusiasm level (not to mention that of the rest of the band) is pretty much as you’d expect. There are redeeming moments on Never Say Die!–an ironic title if ever there was one–but they’re just that: fleeting moments,none of which ever really coalesce into satisfying songs, like the knotty synth and guitar riffage of the otherwise-corny “Johnny Blade.” The closest thing to a genuine highlight on the album is also its most experimental cut: the weirdly gorgeous “Air Dance,” which pairs Iommi’s heavily-processed guitar with, of all things, delicate piano by session player Don Airey. In general, though, I have to agree with Osbourne’s scornful assessment: the flaccid, depleted band captured on Never Say Die! “might as well have been called Slack Haddock, not Black Sabbath.” It’s one of the most underwhelming conclusions to a run of classic albums that I can think of.
It’s fortunate, then, that Never Say Die! wasn’t really the end–far from it, in fact. After Ozzy’s final departure from the group in 1979, Iommi soldiered on, recruiting ex-Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio for what was initially intended to be a whole new band. It’s been observed that the Black Sabbath that made its recorded debut on 1980’s Heaven and Hell doesn’t sound much like classic Sabbath, and that’s fair; at times they sound more like a dry run for Dio’s own eponymous solo band, especially on numbers like the hard-charging opener “Neon Knights.” Dio’s trademark Dungeons & Dragons lyrics aside, however, it’s not hard to hear the cornerstones of Black Sabbath’s creeping menace in Heaven and Hell‘s title track; and on the quieter moments of the album’s second single, “Die Young,” one can hear a more polished take on earlier Sabbath “ballads” like the aforementioned “Planet Caravan.” If nothing else, Iommi, Butler, and Ward sound more energized on Heaven and Hell than they’d been in years.
Which means, of course, that it was high time for the group to implode yet again. Bill Ward departed in the middle of their 1980 world tour, suffering from alcoholism and dissatisfied with the band’s post-Ozzy musical direction; he was replaced by Vinny Appice, the younger brother of Vanilla Fudge/Beck, Bogert & Appice drummer Carmine. Appice is more than capable behind the drums, of course, but it’s still hard not to miss Ward’s idiosyncratic presence on 1981’s Mob Rules: the album feels like a slicker take on the already-slick Heaven and Hell, and tracks like opener “Turn Up the Night”–while awesome on their own merits–feel even less like the work of the group that had emerged from the darkness 11 years earlier. Still, plenty of Iommi’s old black magic remains evident in the slow songs: if much of Mob Rules feels like Dio with half of Black Sabbath sitting in, then at least “The Sign of the Southern Cross” restores the appropriate dynamic of Black Sabbath featuring Ronnie James Dio.
Unfortunately, “Black Sabbath featuring Ronnie James Dio” had always been something of a shaky proposition, and things fell apart during the mixing of the group’s 1982 live album, Live Evil. Dio allegedly earned himself the nickname “Little Hitler” for his high-handed attitude during the sessions; Iommi and Butler were also none too pleased when he and Appice began openly rehearsing for his own aforementioned solo group. The straw that broke the camel’s back, so the story goes, was when the Sabbath vets found out that Dio had been tweaking the mix to highlight his own vocals–a charge, for the record, that Dio denied. Whatever the case, Live Evil is an interesting document for fans of Sabbath’s second major era, as it includes versions of several older songs with Dio’s wildly different vocal style; the only problem is that he never really sounds “right” singing them. The newer stuff works, though: especially the opening salvo of Iommi’s moody Mob Rules instrumental “E5150,” followed by a breakneck runthrough of “Neon Knights.”
The dissolution of the third lineup of Black Sabbath served to underline the massive cultural shifts the group had been through: starting out as a relatively homogenous group of working-class blokes from Birmingham, they’d ended up as a trans-Atlantic cabal of rock stars, each with their own competing egos, ambitions, and addictions. In a way, then, it made sense that Iommi and Butler would replace the departing Dio and Appice with more familiar faces: Ward and another English heavy metal pioneer, former Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan. It’s an idea that looks great on paper; but the resulting album, 1983’s Born Again, is the most unfairly maligned in Sabbath’s discography.
That’s right, I said “unfairly” maligned, because Born Again is actually a much better album than most give it credit for. Yes, the demon-baby cover art is a little on the nose; and yes, Gillan’s laddish, party-hearty persona never entirely gelled with the rest of the band’s stoner-Gothic mystique. Many of the mishaps around the album and tour have also entered the annals of rock’s ridiculous history: notably the stage prop intended to accompany their performance of “Stonehenge,” which was so big it wouldn’t fit into several of the venues where the band played; this goof naturally inspired the scene with the ludicrously undersized Stonehenge prop in Rob Reiner‘s This is Spinal Tap. Taken on its own merits, however, Born Again is a solid record. Stupid title aside, “Zero the Hero” boasts a vicious, grinding Iommi riff; Born Again‘s title track, meanwhile, is haunting, melancholy, and even surprisingly pretty, with some nice use of Gillan’s trademark shriek on the chorus. All in all, Sabbath sounds more like “Sabbath” on Born Again than they’d sounded for the better part of a decade. And for the record, Ozzy agreed with me: in a 1984 interview, he dubbed the album the “best thing I’ve heard from Sabbath since the original group broke up.”
But grudging praise from erstwhile lead singers isn’t enough to keep bands together, and Black Sabbath splintered yet again in the ensuing months. Ward, still battling alcoholism and anxiety, didn’t even make it to the tour, where he was replaced by, of all people, Bev Bevan of Electric Light Orchestra. Butler and Gillan split after the tour concluded in 1984. The next “Sabbath” record, Seventh Star from 1986, was actually recorded as a Tony Iommi solo album–hence the weird billing, “Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi.” Frankly, it shows: most of the record’s slick, bluesy ’80s rock sounds more like it was intended for a Lethal Weapon movie soundtrack than a new album by the godfathers of heavy metal. I guess the title track is okay, though.
The following year’s The Eternal Idol is a little better, but only just. The personnel Iommi had used on Seventh Star formed the core of a new Sabbath lineup: Eric Singer (later of KISS) on drums and Geoff Nicholls on keyboards, with Bob Daisley (formerly of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo band–small world, indeed) stepping in for Dave Spitz on bass, and Tony Martin’s workmanlike vocals replacing those of Glenn Hughes. “The Shining,” an homage to the 1977 Stephen King novel and 1980 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick, is a decent effort, if still a little butt-rocky for my tastes; but hey, if you’ve ever wanted to hear Tony Martin sing “the house is gonna haunt you!” like his life depended on it, this is your moment.
Sabbath’s Martin-fronted lineup continued, with a few more personnel changes, for two more albums: 1989’s Headless Cross and 1990’s Tyr, neither of which are represented here because they’re unfortunately out of print. Then, in 1992, the group’s lineup from the Mob Rules era reunited for Dehumanizer–and man, after the overproduced Eternal Idol, just hearing Iommi’s grimly unadorned opening riff on “After All (The Dead)” is like a breath of fresh graveyard air. True to its name, Dehumanizer is Sabbath at its heaviest. Not all of it is great, of course; Dio’s lyrics can, as always, err on the side of cheesiness, and that cover art looks more like low-rent Iron Maiden than Black Sabbath. But tracks like the apocalyptic “Master of Insanity” recapture the spirit of the band after yet another near-decade of floundering.
By all rights, then, Dehumanizer should have been a rebirth for Sabbath: as always, however, it wasn’t that simple. Dio left again after the tour, and the band’s next two albums, 1994’s Cross Purposes and 1995’s Forbidden, once again featured Martin as frontman (and are, once again, out of print and unavailable for streaming–what gives, people?). So we pick up with another reunion: specifically, the 1998 live album Reunion, which featured the original lineup of Butler, Iommi, Osbourne, and Ward together for the first time since 1979. And I have to say, for a late ’90s classic rock reunion record, it’s actually pretty damn good. “Children of the Grave” from Master of Reality–complete with its preamble instrumental “Embryo”–and “Paranoid” both rock way harder than one would expect after 20 years of disuse; and the crowd, at the National Exhibition Center in Birmingham, is clearly having a blast. Even the bonus studio tracks hold up decently, with “Selling My Soul” in particular capturing some of that vintage Sabbath feel.
The logical next step, at this point, would have been for the original Sabbath lineup to get back in the studio for a full album–and that is, in fact, what they did, commencing sessions with producer Rick Rubin in early 2001. But the recording quickly ground to a halt after Ozzy was pulled away to complete work on his own solo album. Ultimately, it was the Dio lineup of the band that reunited: first with a few new tracks on the 2006 compilation The Dio Years, then (after legal action from Osbourne prevented them from using the Black Sabbath name) with a new album under the moniker “Heaven & Hell.” Incredibly, 2009’s The Devil You Knowmight be the best album by that lineup of “Sabbath” since, well, Heaven and Hell. Unrelentingly heavy and unflinching in their treatment of mortality–Ronnie James Dio would, tragically, succumb to stomach cancer in early 2010–songs like “Follow the Tears” and the Miltonesque closer “Breaking Into Heaven” are career highlights for the group, whatever they might have been legally obligated to call themselves at the time. It’s ironic that it took the Dio era of Sabbath two reunions and a name change to truly live up to their legacy, but I can’t think of a better note for Ronnie to have gone out on.
That leaves us with 13: the long-delayed culmination of those earlier sessions with Rubin, and–so they say–the last album ever by Black Sabbath. Again, it’s a strong note to go out on: unapologetically backward-looking–opener “End of the Beginning” is practically a rewrite of “Black Sabbath,” while closer “Dear Father” cops the same song’s rain and church-bell sound effects–but more importantly, at peace with the band’s tormented 40-year heritage. It is, like the back cover of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, a Good Death. And after all this time and tumult, a Good Death is really all we can ask of Black Sabbath (as a band, I mean–please, 2016, you’ve had your pound of flesh, don’t take any of these guys now!). So rest in peace, Black Sabbath. October won’t be the same without you.