Listening to Black Sabbath’s self-titled 1970 album is a lesson in heavy metal history. Though bands such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple influenced the formation of the genre, Black Sabbath is often considered the first true heavy metal band, perhaps because they were the first to devote their focus to the darker themes that became an often controversial element of metal. Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin also has been quoted as saying he thought Black Sabbath was the first true heavy metal band. Living in an impoverished English town where career choices for most were limited to factory worker or criminal, the boys of Black Sabbath could not relate to the idealistic hippie music that was popular when the band formed in 1968, considering themselves a blues band. Guitarist Toni Iomi observed the lines that formed at the local movie theater whenever it showed horror films and remarked that if people were so willing to pay to be scared, perhaps they should try playing evil-sounding music. With that in mind, they took their name from a Boris Karloff film.
The title track exemplified Sabbath’s goal of capturing horror in music. It began with atmospheric sounds of heavy rain, thunder, and a single, tolling bell. Then Iomi played a slow, ominous riff based on the “devil’s tritone,” an interval notoriously avoided in medieval music because its dissonance evoked a sense of evil—perfect for Sabbath’s purposes. Though speedy, seemingly effortless shredding has become nearly synonymous with heavy metal, the slogging pace of this formative song was truly heavy, creating a feeling of immense weight and pressure intensified by the dread-soaked vocals of Ozzy Osbourne in his prime. The story of being dragged to hell by a figure in black was not conveyed so much by the lyrics as by the despair in Osbourne’s voice when he moaned, “Oh no, no, please God help me.” The song was haunting in a way that most listeners in 1970 had no idea how to process. This dire sound eventually became the primary influence of the doom metal subgenre in the early 1980s.
“The Wizard” opened with evidence of Black Sabbath’s blues roots in the form of a forlorn harmonica, soon backed up by bassist Geezer Butler and the real star of the song, drummer Bill Ward. The simple, repetitive melody taken in turns by Osbourne’s vocals and harmonica required little focus from the listener, freeing them to be carried along by Ward’s varied, jazz-influenced rhythms.
With “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” Sabbath became the first of countless metal bands, including Metallica, to be inspired by psychological horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. After the sparse sound of the previous track, this one gave more prominence to melodic riffing by both Iomi and Butler. It was another bare bones performance from Osbourne, suggesting that at this point in his career he had not yet discovered his full range of ability.
“N.I.B.” was a Sabbath song for bass-lovers, introduced with a long, funky solo from Butler. It also boasted one of Osbourne’s more dynamic performances on the album, demonstrating a broader range on the choruses as he delivered the spooky, off-beat profession of love, building to the climactic lyrics:
Iomi’s solo showed off his signature deep, bluesy style, which he had developed after losing two fingertips in a workplace accident on his last day at his factory job. He downtuned his guitar to make fingering easier with his damaged hand; this affected Sabbath’s sound and influenced legendary metal guitarists such as Slayer’s Jeff Hanneman, Pantera’s Dimebag Darrell, and Anthrax’s Scott Ian.
Sabbath’s cover of “Evil Woman” by Crow was their first single, probably because the straightforward blues rock was the most accessible song on the album. Sabbath made it their own, turning up the bass and attitude and replacing the brass with Iomi riffs.
“Sleeping Village” began as a mournful dirge that Osbourne crooned over Iomi’s soft, acoustic picking. From there it made several somewhat jarring shifts in tone, often sounding like an improvised 60s jam before returning to rigid structure for one ominous, plodding riff. Its unpredictability transitioned from the radio-friendly “Evil Woman” to the psychedelic rock trip of the next track.
“Warning” was a cover of a song of the same title by The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, but the original version was less than four minutes long while Sabbath’s, at nearly 10:30, took up most of the album’s second side. The verses were a standard twelve bar blues not far from the original, but in between Sabbath engaged in a jam session that made “Sleeping Village” sound like a warm-up. Osbourne took a break while Butler and Iomi wove smooth melody and harmony over Ward’s frenzied, stormy drumbeats. At one point, Butler and even Ward stepped back while Iomi shredded sans rhythm section, reminding the listener that even then metal was sometimes all about the speed. This track was the least accessible on the album, but the skill displayed in the rambling middle section became more appreciable with repeated listenings.
“Wicked World” was more of the same musically: more catchy riffs, resounding bass guitar, intricate drumbeats, and raw vocals. Lyrically, it reflected Sabbath’s jaded view with a political message:
This was remarkably similar to the theme they later explored in “War Pigs” on Paranoid. Black Sabbath had seen a world that wasn’t all peace and flowers and chosen to make music that was darker and less optimistic. They attracted people like them, misfits who saw a hard life ahead, and the music became a rallying point for the first generation of metalheads.