Monday, November 29, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 84 - Black Sabbath

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I spent last week being thankful for all sorts of things. Thankful for the ability to listen to my entire music library even while flying at 30,000 feet. Thankful for Amazon extending Black Friday for an entire week, and selling music at ridiculously low prices. Thankful for the public library to offer me lots of music for free (well, I guess I do pay taxes, but at my income they're marginal at most), and thankful for Grooveshark and Youtube being there to fill in what my iTunes and the library don't have.

I was so busy being thankful that my post is a little late this week. But thankfully, I've finally found time to get it done. Am I thankful for Black Sabbath? Keep reading to find out.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: When I was young and in high school marching band, the band would play a brass rendition of "Iron Man" at football games in order to intimidate the opposing team. I may not know the words, but the marching band version of that song is stuck in my head forever.

MY LISTENING: I listened to Paranoid (1970) every day this week. I also listened to Black Sabbath (1970) and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) twice, and Master of Reality (1971) once.

WHAT I LIKED: Black Sabbath is really into the ten-minute track that starts slow and gradually rises to a killer guitar solo for a rousing conclusion. It takes some patience, especially when listening to multiple Black Sabbath albums in a row, but when this formula works, it's pretty cathartic, like the heavy metal equivalent of a Romantic symphony. "War Pigs" and "Hand of Doom" are two examples from Paranoid. Don't expect to go anywhere fast. Instead, just settle down with some popcorn and appreciate the thirty-second guitar riffs in between every one of Ozzy's lines.

The band goes fast-paced far less than it should. "Paranoid," for example, is undeniably a great song, and it has the energy and pace that a lot of Black Sabbath's other stuff unfortunately lacks. The band's plodding sludge metal can be hit or miss, but the pulsing guitar riff in "Paranoid" and Ozzy's lively screams make for some great hard rock. "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" is a more densely-arranged song in a similar style. In some ways, it's as if the band could only work up the energy to rock out this hard once per album, but it's always worth it when they do.

In general, I enjoyed Sabbath Bloody Sabbath more than the other albums this week. The songs are louder, denser, and more solid all around. Whereas Black Sabbath seems just to be jamming without a purpose in earlier albums, the songs on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath all have direction, as well as some great backing instrumentals. The piano at the end of "Killing Yourself to Live," the layered guitars on "Looking for Today," even the sweeping strings at the end of "Spiral Architect," all help to make these tracks bombastic and grandiose...which, after all, is the whole point of listening to heavy metal.

Finally, though "The Wizard" is sort of a stupid song, I can't help but love any metal track with a harmonica solo. I don't know why this wizard is playing a harmonica, but he should do it more often.


Especially on the earlier albums, it feels as though Black Sabbath is great at writing riffs and hooks and catchy guitar lines, and pretty terrible at stringing them together into an actual song. "Iron Man," despite its recent Downey Jr.-related resurgence, is a song whose individual parts are stronger than the whole. I could listen to any one of those riffs all day long, but melded together like this, the song seems disjointed and silly.

The band also lost me whenever it tried to get slow and quiet and psychedelic. "Planet Caravan" is a pretty uninteresting attempt to capture all of this, but it just left me hungry for the next rocking guitar solo. "Electric Funeral" is louder, but still has the same problem. The songs are too long, too repetitive, and just keep going in circles.

Finally, Black Sabbath's earliest stuff is way too excited about the whole "we're into black magic and darkness and creepy things" schtick. "Black Sabbath" goes way overboard with the tolling bells and rain sound effects and Ozzy's belabored screams (though, from a purely music-nerd perspective, I have to acknowledge their effective use of the tritone). I'll take my heavy metal without the side of pseudo-mysticism, please.

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: The one "classic" Black Sabbath album I didn't listen to this week is Volume 4 (1972), which might be worth checking out. There's also Sabotage (1975), but after that the band apparently spirals into subpar synth rock and a whole host of personnel changes.


I wish more Black Sabbath was as exciting as this song. It's like Ozzy jumping out and punching you in the face.

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Killing Yourself to Live"

Am I a sucker for rock songs with pianos? I think I'm a sucker for rock songs with pianos. 

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Captain Beefheart