Why Black Sabbath Matters

How heavy metal keeps us sane

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Ozzy Osbourne's seminal metal crew announced today that they're returning with their first new album in 33 years and a tour in 2012. To mark the occasion, take a look at this James Parker piece from the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic: a paen to the genre that Sabbath spawned.

It’s been 40 years since the release of Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality and 25 since Metallica’s Master of Puppets, the first presenting us with the aboriginal metal vision, the second refining that vision dramatically. And today we find ourselves in something of a metal slump. There’s plenty of it around; the kids, in hundreds of thousands, are buying albums by Disturbed or Avenged Sevenfold; longtime casualties like your correspondent are enjoying Mastodon, High on Fire, and the smoldering Zoroaster; the extremist has his niche metals—his death metal and his black metal and his drone metal and his vocals that sound like a man vomiting in a cathedral. And the hoary old gods (Slayer, Metallica) are still chucking the odd thunderbolt. But metal’s profile is low: the mega-tours seem to pass invisibly from city to city, with no new figureheads arising at whom the general populace can scream and throw turnips. Metal didn’t even dent Billboard’s top 50 best-selling albums of 2010. Prompting the question: Have we passed peak metal?

Unlikely, I think. Metal renews itself, as we shall see. Nonetheless, the moment invites us to cogitate a little upon the whole heavy-metal thing—to go back, as it were, to first principles.

Black Sabbath created heavy metal. We can say that with a satisfying kick-drum thump of certainty. Cream was heavy; Hendrix and Led Zeppelin were heavier still; in Japan, the Flower Travellin’ Band was shockingly heavy; but Black Sabbath, from Birmingham, England, was heavy metal. No joy here, nor any wisp of psychedelic whimsy. From the first note, this band sounded ancient, oppressed, as if shambling forward under supernatural burdens. With his use of horror-movie atmospherics—the tension-building tritone or flatted fifth—and the leering majesty of his riffs, guitarist Tony Iommi redirected the spiritual drag of the blues into an uncharted world of bummers and black holes. Bassist Geezer Butler, a mystical vegetarian, wrote the lyrics. Raised Catholic, Butler as a youngster had entertained thoughts of the priesthood, and for all the band’s occult trappings, his view of things was essentially orthodox, if a little on the medieval side: God over here, Satan over there, man flailing and biting his nails in the middle. “Lord of This World,” from 1971’s Master of Reality, made it all very clear:

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