Point/Counterpoint: Black Sabbath

Manley and Hastie go at it hard about a subject that keeps them up at night: Is Black Sabbath awesome, or merely pansies? The question is posed.

Point: Alexander Manley

I got into a bunch of hot water with Hastie a week or so ago. He was extolling the virtues of Black Sabbath (much as he extolled the virtues of DMX yesterday) and I was having none of it. He was all "Sabbath bla bla bla" and "Ozzy bla bla bla" and I was like "Nuh-uhh."

My thinking was, Black Sabbath is a band built around a concept. That concept is that they are evil. It's pretty basic. Their name is Black Sabbath, and literally everything they do is draped and shrouded in gloom, murk, doom, and terror. It's the essential conceit of metal music. Just like rap: we are harder than you. Now just as rap has its Will Smiths, metal has its Mike Pattons as well. But the majority of metal bands are hell-bent for leather on seeming tough and evil and mysterious. It's why they use Latin words as song titles, it's why Scandinavia has produced so many seminal metal bands, and so on. In many cases, the posturing works.

Why does it work? Because the music backs it up by actually sounding evil. This is where my problem with Sabbath comes in: they don't. They don't fucking sound evil. They don't sound scary. I remember watching a video of Ozzy doing an acoustic cover of the Beatles' "In My Life" a few years ago and there was nothing incongruous about it. For one, Ozzy doesn't have a particularly intimidating voice. For two, he doesn't really push it to its limits. He doesn't scream, he doesn't growl. He sings. He practically fucking croons. And for three, the music he sings over is... blues-based rock. It's not very heavy, it's not very fast. It doesn't sound like it's going to tear the shit out of your house. It... it's just not powerful-sounding.

Now, the main thing to keep in mind here is that it's not Sabbath's fault. They are old as hell. When they were getting started, there were no pre-existing metal bands for them to evolve from. They represent a logical step in the progression of music from black American blues to white British rock and so on through the NWOBHM and then to the present. Without them, none of the heavy music I respect—Cancer Bats, Protest the Hero, Propagandhi, Genghis Tron, HORSE the Band, etc.—would probably ever have come to be. But when it comes to that short path between my ears and my brain, they leave me dissatisfied. I like Chuck Berry and I like the Rolling Stones. Sabbath? Not so much. They're a heavier, gloomier version of the Beatles parading around like they're the most evil and Satanic thing on the planet. Please.

So. I will stick to listening to Trap Them—who sound like the sort of horrific, shit-tearing-up music that I mentally associate with Sabbath's posturing—and Hastie can have his old-school metal.

Coming Later: Part 2: Why this doesn't apply to The Clash, but does apply to the Sex Pistols.



Counterpoint: R. Brian Hastie

Being a life-long fan of most of Sabbath's catalogue (yes little Billy, Hastie even likes late '80s Sabbath), I feel the need to clear up some points Manley may have not thought of while composing his last entry.

Firstly, check out the title track of their self-titled debut. Sabbath guitarist-cum-god Tony Iommi makes effective use of the Devil's Third. Also known as the diabolus in musica, the thing just reeks of scary. The three notes employed by Iommi handily do the trick over a drawn-out, nightmarish backbeat. The story the Ozzman telleth is one of seeing a spirit (possibly even Satan!) that actually happened to bassist Geezer Butler before Sabbath's formation. Close your eyes and listen to the 6-minute opus and then then wonder if there's a sense of danger in there. I do belive there is.

No one at this time was making music that was inherently evil at the time. Their peers, like Pentagram, didn't start up until 4 or 5 years after Sabbath's apparition. Sabbath was, as Manley noted, singular and so didn't have a preset path to follow. Some of their riffs were based around blues-rock, sure, but Iommi also recognized the need to amp it up and so in a live setting he plays loud as fuck (employing multiple Laney stacks) and tunes down to C. He played beyond those blues riffs and created his own brand of riffing that incites instant recognition. How's that for powerful-sounding?

Secondly, Electric Funeral. The song itself, a testament to apocalyptic war, is aided by another nasty riff and Ozzy's lower register. Shit just sounds EVIL (even live). Ozzy's "crooning" works effectively here once more.

Watching Ozzy cover 'In My Life' isn't considering the fact that he makes/made up one-fourth of the members of Sabbath. One latter-day piece of work by one member of the band doesn't necessarily taint the whole band, I feel. Also, Tony Iommi's Iommi album features a host of screamers and screechers on there anyways.

Similarly, I could argue that watching HORSE The Band cover the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles song lowers them down by sounding like a second-rate punk band throughout most of the song. They don't sound evil, they sound snotty and and whiny, like prepubescent teeangers extolling their love of cartoons, but that would be taking the entirety of their music out of context too.

Manley's problem is that he equates fast music with evil. All of the bands he listed as contemporaries love to play fast. Sabbath's idea of being a lumbering giant in the night, destroying the shit out of stuff with giant prodding footsteps is in stark contrast to Manley's quest for speed, and therefore evil. Staying at a certain BPM (usually under 100) automatically takes a band out of the running for "evil".

Manley's assertion that Sabbath are just "a heavier, gloomier version of the Beatles parading around like they're the most evil and Satanic thing on the planet" is plainly false. When's the last time the Beatles wrote a song about the perils of cocaine? Or about the horrors of the war in Vietnam? Or about hell? No other band dealt with these aspects head-on, preferring to drape their musings in heavy metaphors for fear of being labelled 'Satanic'. The Beatles were all about having a good time and keeping their songs at the 3 minute mark, something that the Sabs blatantly disregarded. The Beatles embraced radio play while Black Sabbath never went looking for it, preferring the tried-and-true live route as the big way to gaining more fans.

The differences listed above are integral to each band's make-up. The Beatles were a pop band because their songs were cheery and radio-friendly, their albums packaged in a message of peace and love. Black Sabbath were angry and confused, their songs overtly long and only finding a pseudo-home once FM radio came to prominence in the '70s and even then played sparingly. Pop music's main objective is to reach as many people as possible (hence the popular moniker). Sabbath understood that they were a niche, an acquired taste, a real alternative to the Led Zeppelins, Deep Purples and Yes' of the day. Zeppelin, who definitely copped a few (dozen) riffs from the blues-rock domain sang about love and hot summer days. Yes crafted intricate concept albums that emphasized the use of synthesizers and a distinctive sonic space. Deep Purple similarly looked towards synth use as a primary vehicle for their music, as well as the need to jam things out in a live setting, like their 'Stairway to Heaven' brethren. Sabbath stood in defiance, offering up songs in a live setting that had a little bit of tweaking but largely remained the same, offering up a selection of evil-sounding songs and a message of danger.

Sure, the occasional love song would slip into Sabbath's repertoire ('Sabbath Cadabra' comes to mind), but they were mostly a bunch of evil-sounding Negative Nancys. Sabbath understood their place in the world and continued onwards, undettered. I do believe they sound evil and threatening, and are far removed from the pop moniker Manley wishes to attach to them.

NOTE: I've decided to stick with the "classic" '70s line-up due to the fact that they managed to stay together for most of the decade and have a lasting legacy. Dio's involvement in Black Sabbath/Heaven and Hell was all start-stop-start-stop and the various incarnation of the band in the '80s and '90s make it hard to judge because of lack of consistency.

-You can find these two geniuses fighting it out on a weekly basis on Countdown to Armageddon, Thursdays from 4 to 6 p.m.