Black Sabbath is far and away the metal band I like most. Basically I love their enthusiasm. I listen to them and I get the appeal of bands like Grand Funk and AC/DC - here's a band that just wants to rock and rock and rock and does so with a dark horror-movie sound that isn't particularly scary, but is certainly cool and unique and fits their "stoned teenagers who read too much Lovecraft" persona, which in turn feeds back into the enthusiasm. They're the teenage dweebs who couldn't get prom dates, started a sludgy rock band and decided they liked being in a rock band more than the prom anyway. You might think I'm mocking them, but as an ex-teenage dweeb myself (I did have a prom date but it was an awful experience for both of us), I love that.
And the king of the dweebs is Ozzy Osbourne. I was gonna be mean to the most mocked rock star of all time, say that he very much lucked into the whole rock-star thing and that Black Sabbath worked despite him rather than because of him. But the more I thought about it, the less true that seems; if Ozzy didn’t add something, I wouldn’t have such an intense dislike for Sabbath sans Ozzy. So let me modify that. I also dislike solo Ozzy’s power-metal theatrics, which clouds my opinion of him. He's got three modes. There’s the Ozzy who sings like he’s so stoned he has no idea he’s being recorded, which is terrifically endearing. Think “Iron Man” for this one, or here think “Sweet Leaf,” which by the way is fucking awesome. Then there’s the sickly seedy junkman Ozzy, the Ozzy who uses his vocal limitations (a thin, reedy voice without anything by way of range) and uses them to his advantage. Nobody else sings quite like this, and it’s awesome. “Hand of Doom” is the best reference point, but for this album think “Into the Void,” which are also awesome. Last and least is the anthem-belting rock-god Ozzy, which doesn’t work out because "thin, reedy voice without anything by way of range,” remember? He only did this well on “N.I.B.,” and he slips into it a little here (see “Children of the Grave" and "After Forever," which are both awesome otherwise), but not too often.
Of course, the Black Sabbath story is about a band using their limitations to their advantage. Tony Iommi still seems to have only learned one basic guitar solo. It’s fast-fingered but also muddled, as if he couldn’t quite do what he was trying to. To make up for it, he tones his guitar down as low as it will go and creates a monstrous tone capable of devouring whole cities, and plays the best riffs ever on it. It’s most famously displayed on “Sweet Leaf,” that terrific weed ode (does Ozzy sing “I love you, sweet leaf! Though you can’t hear?” Because that’s awesome), but sounds best on the world-devouring monsters “After Forever” and “Into the Void.” Bill Ward isn’t the world’s most subtle drummer, but he makes up for it, and not just because that’s the only way to drum for Black Sabbath. He’s got a much bigger rhythmic range than guys like Moon and Bonham, and he has so many cool percussion instruments to just fucking wail away at and a good understanding of when to wail away at them. Geezer Butler’s no John Wetton, but he gives the band so much bottom it’s unreal. Sometimes you can’t tell his parts from Iommi’s, which might be a problem in another type of band, but when the whole sound is based on bottom anyway it makes so much sense.
Besides, the three of them made really lock in together. That’s how they create that world-destroying sound I keep talking about, how they attain that massive heaviness and dare I say it catharsis. Everyone’s on the same page, everyone’s devoted to the goal of rocking their listeners’ faces off. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise, and that's why in my head they're closer to the Stooges than Metallica. A lot of metal strikes me as soulless showing off, but “Children of the Grave” is all the better for avoiding it and instead letting the instruments dialog. Butler shows his flexibility here; like any good bassist, he always underscores the rhythm, but he also fills in Iommi’s riffs. So does Ward, who uses the chorus sections to smack a clattery percussion instrument that a) kicks ass and b) dialogs well with the guitar riffs. They even get away with a “spooky-sounds-of-Halloween” keyboard bridge that comes the fuck out of nowhere. Yes, I can imagine evil laughter over it, but it’s fun in a stupid way so I like it.
Drawbacks? Well, they try out another “Planet Caravan” and call it “Solitude,” but we all know how many times lightning strikes. The link tracks are a little too boneheaded and seem mostly to be in here as padding; I don’t know if they were trying to emulate the acoustic instrumentals Steve Howe loved to toss all over Yes records, but Tony Iommi can’t do Steve Howe any better than Steve Howe could do Tony Iommi. The lyrics are a little preachy, although the stoner testimonials on “Sweet Leaf” are hilarious, but you could do far worse and it’s not Black Sabbath’s fault that evangelism was the worst idea ever. Still, I don’t listen to Black Sabbath to hear about the fate of my soul! I want to hear about the Great Magnetic Field and wizards coming out of nowhere to sell me acid and Satan becoming good because he fell in love! You know, goofy stoner shit! Note that I partake a fair amount myself and have texted friends about fights between Shaft and Superman, so I know where they’re coming from. But hell, these guys know what’s up. Just give them some studio time and they’ll rock your medulla out of your brain.
Shaft would totally win that fight, by the way. The Man of Steel has nothing on the cat who won't cop out when there's danger all about.