Reviewing Hell: Black Sabbath (1970)

Black Sabbath’s first album starts with the sound of rain and the tolling of bells—and then you get forty minutes of Hell that invented heavy metal and brought Satan roaring back to the mainstream. This self-titled debut is many things: loose, messy, menacing, spooky, and completely unlike anything that had come before it. By the time Ozzy Osbourne sings “Is it the end, my friend? / Satan’s coming ’round the bend” near the end of the first track, music history had already changed for the better. Since then, a thousand bands have tried to take us back to Hell, and none have ever done it better than Black Sabbath did on their first record.

The Set-Up: Black Sabbath is a series of haunting “songs”—there aren’t any choruses, and the only musical hooks are provided by Tony Iommi’s riffs and Ozzy’s terrifying voice. From the underworld perspective we focus on here at Hell Mythos, it’s the title track “Black Sabbath” and the multi-part “Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Bassically/N.I.B.” that are the heart of the record. Both are songs explicitly about Satan, setting heavy metal along it’s dark path. With sludgy, grinding riffs, Black Sabbath takes us on an odyssey into the black parts of the human mind, whether the songs be about wizards, sleeping villages, or Lucifer’s hollow promises. A little more unity across the songs would be nice, but that’s nitpicking. 9/10.

Scope: Ozzy and the boys take us across a surprising range of topics and sounds: “Black Sabbath” is spooky sludge; “The Wizard” has a kind of demented blues feel complete with harmonica; “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” references Lovecraft with a hooky opening riif; “N.I.B,” which most people mistakenly think stands for “Nativity in Black,” is our open love-letter to Satan. There’s even a mediocre cover of a pop song in “Evil Woman,” shoehorned into the album in a misguided attempt to make it more popular. That misstep aside, this is a musically broad album, with an impressive range of content. 9/10.

Horror: Before Black Sabbath, no one realized how scary rock and roll could actually be. There’s always been a despairing, minor-key dirge buried deep in the blues and jazz, and Ozzy and the boys bring it out here. If you want to think of heavy metal as a horror movie on record, this is a great place to start—other albums have been more shocking and more grisly, but none have been darker than this. 10/10.

Originality: You can argue that Black Sabbath invented most of the major sub-genres of heavy metal, from death metal to thrash. I want to focus on what else Black Sabbath brought back to the forefront, which is the revitalization of Hell, Satan, and demons as part of the horror canon. Authors like Lovecraft had been pushing horror in a more cosmic direction, with Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos recasting the demons and devils of traditional mythology as aliens and creatures from the beyond. Brilliant stuff, but the sheer terror of the underworld was being lost—Black Sabbath put us back on the path of supernatural Hellish horror, and we’ve stayed on it ever since. 10/10.

Enjoyability: Paranoid has catchier songs, and Black Sabbath IV may be their darkest and gloomiest masterpiece. But this is Black Sabbath at their blackest and most Satanic. The whole album is charged with the excitement of a band finding their voice and their material. You could ask that the songs be more organized, the riffs and singing more focused, but that would be missing the point. To listen to Black Sabbath is to listen to heavy metal becoming itself, and how could that not be enjoyable? 9/10.

Total: 47/50. If you listen to one album about Satan, this should be it!

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