Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why I love Black Sabbath by Edward Gerard Brophy

Ordinarily , Bornagainnihilist would not cater to such obvious fawning , but . . . . it's about Sabbath . . so eh , yeah , of course it's going in .. . . Enjoy!!!

Edward Brophy, Black Sabbath

A three page essay on Black Sabbath…………..probably the best piece of work I’ve ever been assigned!

This essay will be completely subjective. I don’t want to write a history of the band, nor a review of the band, its all about Black Sabbath and I. OK, so as of now I have very little idea about what exactly I want to write because the exact reason(s) for why I love Sabbath more than anyone else is something I can't seem to pin point. I have known for some time that they have been my favourite band head and shoulders above all others, but why? As you can probably tell, I have decided to write down my train of thought as it comes. I imagine that as I write I will come to conclusions that I did not have before hand simply because I am being provoked into deep thought on the subject. I am now very interested to see what I will think at the end of this essay.

Just to give a brief summary of my personal history of listening to Black Sabbath: I was aware of them the whole time but only really began listening at about the age of fourteen after my dad gave me an old compilation CD. Being a guitar player I have gradually realised just how influential they have been on the whole metal genre. I don’t want to get into the ‘who were the first metal band?’ debate, all I will say on that subject is that I think they are the first because they were the first to offer a distinctive sound that was deliberately associated with the occult. This had of course been done in the sixties but I think Sabbath’s success with this formula came about because their's was, and still is more tangible, so-to-speak, than any that came before. They had occult leanings in fanciful lyrical territory (for example, their song ’N.I.B’ is about the Devil falling in love!). But also in more realistic ways: the whole ethic behind the band in the early days of their career was a rejection of the ‘flower power’ that was popular at the time. John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne has summed it up by saying, “the big hit from America at the time was ‘If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair’ (by Scott MacKenzie), well it wasn’t like that in dingy, industrial fucking Birmingham, so we wanted to sing about what things were like for us.”

I often find that a major reason for my respect for the band is that they are the no. 1 obvious influence in many of my other favourite bands. The Hidden Hand, High on Fire, Pantera, all these great acts have expressed their love for Sabbath both vocally and musically. Scott ‘Wino’ Wienrich, former front man of the Hidden Hand, during an interview had to clarify that Black Sabbath are not his only influence: “Black Sabbath wasn't the only band we listened to you know…” Wino was once a member of an underground ‘doom metal’ band named Saint Vitus, the name taken from the ninth track of Sabbath’s forth album. Pantera have covered three tracks by the band, one of which was recorded for a tribute album.

This fact however does not explain why I love Sabbath, it is more an expression of it. This is also not something unique to me. Since the early 1980’s there has been an underground movement of bands that hold Sabbath as their principal influence. These bands are usually given the ‘doom’ label because the earliest bands from this 'mini movement' (such as the a fore mentioned Saint Vitus) focused on the doom and gloom element of Black Sabbath’s sound. Playing painfully slow and tuned drudgerously low. To continue the rhyming: the slogan of a stand-out local Dublin band, Two Tales of Woe, is “heavy and slow, as the way of the Woe!” to use a convenient example.

I am currently sitting down typing while listening to three Black Sabbath albums being circulated on my stereo. I haven’t sat down and listened to one of these albums for perhaps a year. This made me a little worried. Often I find that having spent great lengths listening to the same album, when I return to it, for some reason the ‘magic’ is gone. When Wolfmother released their debut album I listened to it everyday for perhaps five or six weeks, but putting it back on a few months later I just could not get into it. Everything that I thought was amazing only weeks before suddenly seemed predictable. Sabbath seems to be the only band that has never allowed that to happen to me. Its as if these old albums create a certain atmosphere in which I feel most comfortable, (indeed some of my friends have speculated that my sexual fantasies involve Black Sabbath music being present, and I sometimes wonder if they’re right….). I think perhaps this ‘atmosphere’ may be the key to the love (to sound super fucking soppy!). I often have fond, almost nostalgic memories of when I was seventeen and I have never really known why. I was in fifth year in school, working fairly hard, no girlfriend, not much money, in a stagnant band and very little else interesting happening in my life. The one thing I can be sure of was it was about this time that I began to discover the doom metal and stoner rock bands that bore the Sabbath mark that have since become some of my favourites. Suddenly I was inundated with all these bands: the Hidden hand, High on Fire, Down, Sleep, Corrosion of Conformity, Saint Vitus, Cathedral, The Obsessed, Eyehategod, Crowbar…….. the list goes on and on! Reflecting on these memories and recalling the good feeling derived from them helps my appreciation of music. Sometimes I take for granted just how important music is to me and how boring my brain would be without it.

While on the subject of intellect, this reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend on a long walk home late at night a few weeks ago. I was telling him about the lecture we had in our Music module concerning censorship. Everyone who said that metal should be censored for the simple fact that it is ‘ugly’, I didn’t even bother to get angry with. That would be giving too much credit to an opinion that is below contempt, it's just plainly stupid, even someone who couldn't care less about metal can see.

Instead it gave me food for thought. The subjective opinions of others matter so little to me that I often forget just how taboo heavy metal still is. We began discussing music as an art form. I feel that art cannot be censored because it is always subject to interpretation. So as the conversation progressed, we began to discuss  possible reasons why metal fans hold their music so near and dear. Why do some like to define themselves by their taste in music? Why do some get so into it that it becomes border line obsession?  This got us thinking: the reason they are considered weird is because society has labeled them as such. Some facet of their thoughts or behaviour (or an assumption as to what their thought and behaviour is) is ‘taboo’, and historically speaking, art and literature are always the first places where societal taboos are expressed.

In the mid 1980’s, heavy metal was literally put on trial because Ozzy dared to sing about drinking oneself to death and Twisted Sister dared to sing about teen rebellion. In court Frank Zappa’s opening statement began with him reading out the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States;

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. “

The only result of this court case was the addition of the ‘parental advisory’ sticker on album covers which seemed to increase record sales as soon as it was implemented!

The point of this ridiculous tangent I’m on is that for me metal can be an important vehicle for social commentary. From the beginning (which is Sabbath of course!) it was used to face, undermine, and sometimes celebrate that which is taboo with no apologies. The first step towards solving a problem is to recognise that the problem exists. Most societal taboos like sexuality, death, drugs, etc, are avoided because they are said to be 'ugly' so, in my opinion, anything that provokes us to think about these matters can only be a good thing.

Exercising interpretation I can demonstrate how the above appears to be outlined in the tracks of Black Sabbath’s debut album;

1. BLACK SABBATH: Here we come face to face with evil itself, a song about meeting Satan and one’s reaction to it. The opening lines of this song being, “What is this that stands before me? Figure in black which points at me.” Inspired by the bass player, Geezer Butler’s late night encounter with a ghostly figure outlined in black which appeared at the end of his bed, the next morning he found his 16th century book on black magic had disappeared! But then again, Geezer was the only member of the band experimenting with acid at the time……

2. THE WIZARD: A song loosely based of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. This is a rather upbeat and happy song but carries a strange tension caused by some harsh riffing from guitarist Tony Iommi. An atmosphere of apprehension is felt as a result and in this little interpretation of mine it represents second thoughts about facing this evil

3. BEHIND THE WALL OF SLEEP: This is the resistance. Someone or something thinks you’re asking too many questions and is trying to confuse you with contradiction like; “faces shine a deadly smile” or “icy sun with frosty glow.” You have no intention of stopping and eventually win out; “now from darkness there springs light, wall of sleep is cool and bright, wall of sleep is lying broken, sun shines in you have awoken.”

4. N.I.B: Often said to stand for Nativity in black, the truth is these letters do not mean anything at all, just an in-joke. We are now at the point where our relentless and unapologetic exploration of the taboo has yielded results. This song as I said before is about Satan himself falling in love with a human and becoming a good person. Basically this represents a change that could never happen before now and what better metaphor than the embodiment of evil expressing it’s love.

5. SLEEPING VILLAGE: Here we see represented, the rest of the world still blissfully ignorant that their world has changed at all. A mostly instrumental song that only has four lines sung over the intro during which we hear perhaps the most depressing reverb soaked acoustic guitar ever recorded. “Red sun rising in the sky, sleeping village, cockerels cry, soft breeze blowing in the trees, peace of mind feel at ease……”

6. THE WARNING: This final track is a ten minute, partially improvised jam that shows us Sabbath’s roots as a blues band. Tense to the point of being sinister, this is the song that ‘warns’ us that the road we are now on, having entered this brave new world that Sabbath have opened the door to, is a chaotic and unpredictable one, from which there may be no return………………………………...........................

Well, I’m pretty happy with that. The most interesting piece of writing I’ve had to do lately. Really made me reflect on my affair with that four piece misfit's band from Aston Birmingham. That same band who are the only band I’ve ever really felt a lyrical connection to and as a guitar player continue to amaze me with the sheer depth of their impact. As Rob Zombie once said, “every cool riff has already been written by Black Sabbath, I mean they did it all and everything since has basically been a copy, whether you’re playing it faster or slower or backwards it doesn’t matter, they did it………..its sickening!”


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