Sep 16, 2012

Sabbath vs Sabbath

Where would any type of music that ends with the word "metal" be without Black Sabbath? Almost every metal band points to them as an influence.  Their aesthetic spoke to millions of people who appreciated dark as much as light.  Some had even more reverence for all things morbid, morose and macabre.  I was one of those people...  probably still am!  Black Sabbath weren't the first band to step into the world of occultism, but they were the first to play such dark and eerie music while taking jabs at various establishment icons.  They picked at society's scabs and freaked a lot of people out.

Musically speaking Black Sabbath were very primitive, but they were able to spark something in people.  Ozzy Osbourne's vocals were rough and often clumsy, but he was as sincerely soulful as a man could be.  No one could sound like him and in forty years of trying, no one ever has.  He laid it all out there for you, and when you juxtaposed that with their tuned down riffs you had a band that turned everyone's head, either in joyful celebration or unnerved anxiety.  They really tapped into some new energy.  Enough energy to ignite an entirely new subculture.  Every black t-shirt you have ever seen with a band's ineligible logo came as a result of the Sabbath spark.  They should be on every thank you list of every metal band from now until the Hand of Doom touches us all.

There are two eras of Black Sabbath that matter; the Ozzy years, and the succeeding Dio years.  I know that there are people who followed them through their myriad singers after the two Dio records in the early 80's, but I could never go that far with them.  In fact, they had fallen so far off of my own personal radar that I was surprised to learn that they were still making music.  It was like when you find out that some older actor just had a birthday, but you thought they had been dead for several years.  Eventually the Sabbath brand became a mockery of itself by releasing records as "Black Sabbath; featuring Tony Iommi".  Let that be a lesson to all bands out there... cut your freaking losses and move on, man!  Comebacks are one thing, and lord knows there are dozens of bands making a go of it again ( something to which I can attest personally ) but the Creator of all metal need not have stooped to such an embarrassing low point.  

Ozzy versus Dio: that is the question at hand.  Both incarnations were very different.  The second album with Dio sounds almost nothing like the albums they put out with Ozzy Osbourne. However, the last two albums with Ozzy have only the most tenuous of connections to the first six studio albums they released.  Black Sabbath was in a constant state of evolution, which is something to be admired.  At their best they were dark and artful, but they were occasionally bad in a shockingly cheesy way.  Having said that, every album had its gems with the possible exception of "Technical Ecstasy", which I have never been able to appreciate.  With all Osbourne and Dio albums taken into account ( minus the two attempts at comebacks with Dio ) nine good records out of ten is pretty damned impressive!

Okay, this will seem like blasphemy to some and something bordering on vindication to others. The Ozzy albums are schizophrenic.  The band tried to throw everything it could conceive of at its fans, and while I can appreciate their creativity, that approach did not make for really strong, solid albums.  My favorite of the Ozzy albums is actually the last one, "Never Say Die".  It isn't heavy at all, but it is a more cohesive album than all of the others except the first album, which I appreciate without being crazy about.  There is an element of traditional classic rock that permeates the band's first few recordings and keeps them from feeling "bigger than life".  The Osbourne albums show their age but they are genuinely creative, and insofar as how they affected the musical landscape, they are historically significant enough to warrant owning.  Let there be no doubt that there are some timeless classics on those albums, and the kinds of heavy, slow dirges that make it easy to see why people freaked out and how an entirely new form of music was born in part from those early recordings.  Heavy metal might never have existed without Black Sabbath, but their best was yet to come.

Black Sabbath became a much more polished band once Ronnie James Dio took over as the vocalist.  Their song structure and riffs started to have more purpose and for me, they had much more impact.  With Ozzy at the helm there were parts here and there that I really liked but they almost always lost me in each song as I waited for the coolest section.  Dio was obviously a perfectionist and he was able to make their songs flow more smoothly.  They had a new power that was a direct reflection of his own vocal style.  He was only about two and a half feet tall, but he was surely all lungs and vocal chords.  Both "Heaven and Hell" and "The Mob Rules" have songs that sound as though they may have been written for radio play, but the rest of the material on those albums is timeless.  Of the two, "Heaven and Hell" is the record that has more of a connection with the last albums the band recorded with Ozzy Osbourne.  I didn't hear the similarities until just a couple of years ago, but some of the riffs could have been leftovers from "Never Say Die".  The difference is that "Never Say Die" is Black Sabbath's laid back, Sunday afternoon album whereas "Heaven and Hell" is one hundred times more dramatic.  The title track stands with "The Sign of the Southern Cross" ( from their next record ) as the most perfectly executed Sabbath songs and both are a testament to Dio's vision as a singer and narrator.  

The band's second album with Ronnie James is one of the handful of albums I will take with me into the afterlife.  Wherever a red headed stepchild is allowed to spend eternity ( next to where rented mules finally graze in peace ) "The Mob Rules" will play until the end of time. The band had evolved from their spastic, schizophrenic song structure and guitar work into a much more forceful and serious group of song writers. Tony Iommi's leads and flourishes had become more structured and melodic, which really helped paint more of a complete picture than the barely contained, random spasms that filled their earlier work.  Vinnie Appice filled in for Bill Ward behind the drum kit, and that change had at least as much to do with the undeniable power of that album as the band's newfound focus.  "The Mob Rules" stands front and center in the pantheon of heavy music, and though it may have been nothing more than a fortuitous snapshot in the band's evolution, it is a masterpiece of unparalleled grandeur. 

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