The High Points: Black Sabbath, Behind the Wall of Sleep, N.I.B
The Low Points: All the damn unaccompanied solos
The Verdict: Sabbath got it right the first time.
The Rating: 8/10
Lots of people argue about where heavy metal really started, and who was responsible. It’s hardly as simple as that; during the last few years of the sixties everybody from Cream to Hendrix to the fucking Beatles recorded tracks that could best be described as proto-metal, with Led Zeppelin dipping their toes a little more definitively into these blackest of waters on their first two albums in ’69.
Nonetheless, it was in March of 1970 that a platter was unleashed upon the world so dark, so sludgy, and so relentlessly heavy and evil nothing that came before could even remotely compare. Sabbath didn’t just record a heavy track or two, they recorded a whole album of them and did it in such a way that the band would be the very definition of heavy for most of the next five years. It was Sabbath that left the backbeat behind in a way that no one else had and brought forth the full force of the doom. After 1970, nothing would be the same.
Right from the start you have no doubt what this band is about. The record kicks off with the slowest, doomiest, darkest blast of malevolence the lads from Bimingham had on tap. After 40 seconds of the now-famous bells and rain intro that dark, evil riff grabs you by the back of the neck and slams your skull into the ground. Sabbath was the first to recognize what too many bands today still don’t get… slower is heavier. This shit doesn’t make you headbang; it pounds you relentlessly into the ground one slow, painful step at a time. The band then backs off and gives Ozzy his space. He sings in a weird low-register warble that he hasn’t really repeated since that first album, delivering a dreary warning of the coming of Beelzebub himself. Everything here sets up the mood perfectly, from Iommi’s restrained single-note riffing to Ward’s reverb-soaked toms. When the fast riff kicks the song into overdrive 2/3 of the way through the contrast is startling and the tremendous sense of forward momentum carries the song through the solo and then out. Cranked up in a dark room this track still has the capacity to give me chills; I can only imagine what it sounded like to a bunch of washed-out hippies just coming down off of the flower power high. Sabbath’s eponymous song is still one of the finest examples of heavy metal ever recorded… and we’re just talking about the first track on the album.
The whole first side is just fucking classic. We get The Wizard, with it’s blues inspired riff and Ozzy blowing a harp solo of all things. Totally effective in spite of Butler’s weird-ass lyrics about Gandalf. Behind the Wall of Sleep is an unsung classic, a dreary number about dying with kick-ass call/response phrasing between the guitar and vocal. We then have to suffer through a silly but mercifully short wah-wah bass solo before we get our asses kicked by the uber-catchy concert favorite N.I.B., which is the first recorded example of Ozzy using the guitar riff as a vocal melody. I guess when you have a riff that fucking good anything goes…
Side two of this album varies a bit depending on what version you have. The European release had godawful pop cover Evil Woman as the first track on the second side, but the US version had the much more happening Wicked World, an ode to misery which covers ground from disease to war to poverty in just three verses. I’m reviewing the US version here, BTW. Regardless of which version you have most of the second side is taken up by a 14 minute behemoth of a track that starts with a short but creepy original piece called Sleeping Village before seguing into a lengthy blues jam on Warning by the Ansley Dunbar Retaliation.This track gets panned pretty hard, but I love it! It’s convoluted and messy in a totally good way, and it’s a dirgy sort of take on the blues that only Sabbath could pull off. Besides, it’s the one glimpse we have into Sabbath’s orgins as a blues cover band; our only insight into what a club band called Earth might have sounded like when they first started gigging in 1968. And hearing Ozzy get the chorus lyrics wrong every time on a fucking album is beyond hilarious.
My one complaint about The Warning is the lengthy unaccompanied guitar solos. Seriously, why is this shit even here? There’s also a mercifully short one in the middle of Wicked World, and then there’s Geezer’s goofy little bass solo on side one. There’s enough of it to damage my enjoyment of what is otherwise a damn near perfect record.
Soundwise this thing is amazingly good considering the circumstances. Sabbath signed on with a small label that gave them a pathetic advance to record the album and sent house producer Roger Bain their way. The whole project was done in a little 4-track London demo studio for 600 English pounds in about 24 hours of studio time. Bain did a shockingly good job given the time and the tools at his disposal, and the album still sounds fresh and powerful today. Performances are good if a bit raw; the band was clearly not yet comfortable in the studio. If you check out some of the live recordings you’ll find a lot of the songs being played at much slower tempos; it seems drummer Bill Ward was pushing the tempos just a bit out of sheer excitement and nervousness. Ozzy sings lower than he would on any subsequent release, with an odd sort of warble in his voice. Makes it creepier, really. Speaking of Ozzy, this album features one of his very few lyrical contributions; he wrote the words to the title track.
The jacket art is also worthy of mention; the cloaked girl in front of the old mill is a powerful image. If you check your track listing you’ll find it to be a weird sort of mess; there are more songs listed than actually exist. There were more royalties involved if there were a certain number of tracks, so the intro to Sleeping Village gets it’s own title. Not the last time this would happen on a Sabbath record, either.
Every rock fan MUST have this record. Sabbath created the first true metal album, and pretty much got it right the first time. 46 years have gone by, and the evil has not diminished even a little bit. Be careful it doesn’t steal your soul.