The High Points: War Pigs, Electric Funeral, Hand of Doom
The Low Points: Rat Salad
The Verdict: Arguably the most influential metal album still stands the test of time.
The Rating: 8/10
Not much changed for Black Sabbath after recording their debut. No big royalty checks, no tour packages… just right back into the same old clubs they’d been playing. It was probably just as well; it wasn’t long before they got signed on with Warner Brothers for future releases, and WB wanted the next album pretty damn fast. Not having a heavy touring schedule gave them time to get an album written. It was their first time working under deadline pressure, and they managed to deliver in spades.
Everyone knows this album. Even if you’re not into Black Sabbath or heavy metal, you probably know Paranoid and Iron Man. The former is short, zippy, and to the point… exactly the opposite of what Sabbath usually does. It was written quickly at the last second because the producer wanted one more song, and it’s the only real radio hit the band ever had. Iron Man also got airplay mostly on the strength of it’s insanely catchy riff. Ozzy takes the lazy road here and just follows the riff with his vocal melody (it wouldn’t be the first time or the last), but the song goes through enough different movements to stay interesting, speeding up to double time for the solo in the middle and then another at the end.
Honestly those are two of the weaker tracks on the album. Wanna hear some badass? Check out the creepy wah-fest Electric Funeral, or the haunting Hand of Doom. Butler’s lyrics are hilarious… Sabbath of all bands writing about the dangers of heroin? Jeez. Planet Caravan is a cool lightweight bit of atmosphere. The idea was that putting something soft on the album would make the heavy shit sound heavier, and it totally works.
The album’s best moment, however, is the mighty opening track. War Pigs is the third really famous song on this album, and it’s a great example of a phenomenon that’s very nearly unique to heavy metal. It was never going to be a hit single; it’s too long, too heavy and lacks a chorus. Nevertheless it’s one of the band’s best known tunes and a must-play live number just because it’s that. fucking. good. It’s one of the best examples of the band’s ability to paste together four or five completely unrelated riffs and craft it into a masterpiece of a song. Amusingly it wasn’t originally War Pigs; the original title was Walpurgis and it was about satanic rituals. Management asked them at the 11th hour if they could change the lyrics; they wanted to put the band on tour in the US where people were still sensitive about that sort of thing and didn’t want to get blacklisted. The lyrics were re-sung on the fly; Ozzy would be in the booth singing a line while Butler was sitting outside writing the next one. The result was the brutal anti-war classic we have today, and it’s still one of heavy metal’s finest moments.
The album missteps in a couple of places. The worst is Rat Salad, which is really just a frame piece for… god help us… a drum solo. Message to all musicians everywhere: unaccompanied solos sound bad. Everyone please just stop. I hate them live, on record it’s unforgivable. Fairies Wear Boots is also a bit of a letdown, although it’s not terrible. Mostly it’s a musically interesting track with bad lyrics. I’ll never understand why they feel the need to play it live every time they do anything with Ozzy.
The record was produced by Roger Bain, who had also recorded the band’s debut. He does a serviceable job but no more, although it’s probably actually pretty impressive considering it was recorded in roughly a week. Performances are raw and exciting but a bit rough around the edges; clearly the band was still finding it’s feet in the studio.
This is the album that put Black Sabbath, and by extension heavy metal, on the map. It could have been the last thing they ever did, and the band would still have been important. In the wake of this album they became one of the most important acts of the early 70s… all the more impressive considering an almost complete lack of radio airplay. It still sounds fresh and powerful today, and is an essential part of any rock record collection.