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Black Sabbath: The Blues Unchained

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As Ozzy Osbourne recuperates at home–his (alleged) final large-scale tour postponed due to ill health, let us come together now to mark the Sabbath: four hairy Brummies seemingly inventing heavy metal almost by brilliant mistake after Tony Iommi’s steel mill accident.

Just like Cream! But worse,” Lester Bangs wrote in his review of their self titled début for Rolling Stone. But isn’t the essence of the blues in slowing things down, stretching them out, putting across a message? Robert Johnson may well have thought twice about going to the crossroads to do his fateful deal had he heard their opening statement, the “devil’s interval”/diabolus in musica used in a bid to ward off the chap with the horns as Geezer Butler’s crawling riff on the Mars section of Holst’s The Planets mirrors the narrator’s desperate hands and knees plea for salvation.

“Satan sitting there he’s smiling. Watches those flames get higher and higher. Oh, no, no, please God help me….”

You’ll perhaps forgive me a lack of understanding of exactly how the Sab Four were tarred with the brush of devilry while warning people off getting involved–the strength of one of the bassist’s dreams alone enough to inspire a pre-sweary old wreck Ozzy to implore others not to go over the edge.

That old devil called love even rears its head for Lucifer on N.I.B, the view that all souls can be saved espoused rather radically by Geezer, who once said, “The song was about the devil falling in love and totally changing, becoming a good person.”

Quite the leap of faith, most would argue.

And so from the tolling of church bells to an air raid siren, as the bringer of war gives way to War Pigs. As you’d expect, it isn’t pretty. But two familiar faces are again present….

Now in darkness, world stops turning

Ashes where the bodies burning

No more war pigs have the power

Hand of God has struck the hour

Day of judgement, God is calling

On their knees the war pigs crawling

Begging mercy for their sins,

Satan, laughing, spreads his wings…Oh Lord, yeah!

And if there’s even a battle still going on, who’s winning? After Forever has perhaps the definitive answer, after posing one of the big questions: “When you think about death do you lose your breath or do you keep your cool?”

Keeping this in mind, Master Of Reality suddenly takes on another dimension.

The sound may be dark in places, but there is hope here. Even at its sludgiest, there’s always a message to be heard. Stomach for the fight against indifference, if you will. “Show the world that love is still alive, you must be brave “ intones perhaps the unlikeliest of bluesy preachers.

Throughout their golden period, Bill Ward at times practically swings behind his kit, a big band drummer seemingly lost in the fug…see Fairies Wear Boots, Supernaut and similar for the most conclusive evidence, though the chops remain throughout the whole of his tenure, if you know where to listen.

And for all their blues roots, it’s not just the sticksman who’s got a touch of jazz. Following the above mentioned workplace accident, Iommi was introduced to Django Reinhardt, the loss of the tips of his right middle and ring fingers eventually proving no barrier to picking up the guitar once more. 

Of this, Iommi once said in an interview: “My friend said, ‘Listen to this guy play’ and I went, “No way! Listening to someone play the guitar is the very last thing I want to do right now!”But he kept insisting and he ended up playing the record for me. I told him I thought it was really good and then he said, “You know, the guy’s only playing with two fingers on his fretboard hand because of an injury he sustained in a terrible fire.” I was totally knocked back by this revelation and was so impressed by what I had just heard that I suddenly became inspired to start trying to play again.”

As a left-handed player sometimes lacking the motivation to try again myself, knowing that somebody was able to turn what could have been a negative into an innovation will most likely be what leads me into trying again–a favourite warm up exercise was the simple two-string fret-hopping of Iron Man. Django unchained, we might conclude. Necessity as the mother of invention leading to the low tunings (by Geezer in step with Tony) we almost inevitably associate with Sabbath, that “bigger, heavier sound” aped by many an imitator since underpinning the oft-misunderstood originators.

…who would then go on to revisit familiar themes upon their return to us with 13, considering Nietzsche on God Is Dead?.

In a sense we were back where we started….

Lost in the darkness

I fade from the light

Faith of my father, my brother, my maker and Saviour

Help me make it through the night

And though we may never see the likes of them again, we can at least reflect on a legacy that stretched far beyond metal–sheet or heavy.