Thursday, December 24, 2015

My Top 10 Favorite Black Sabbath Songs

There’s nothing I can add that hasn’t been said about this monumentally influential band. If heavy metal was personified as the United States, statues of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward would greet newcomers to this dark land. If heavy metal were incarnated as a landscape in Middle Earth, the Gates of Mordor would be engraved with towering sculptures of Black Sabbath. In other words: they’re a Big Fucking Deal. Just how important are they? James Hetfield got choked up when he spoke at Black Sabbath’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame:

Sans the difficult upbringing, I can relate with Hetfield. If heavy metal and all its spawnings didn’t exist, I’m not sure I’d want to stick around. Maybe an old geezer version of me won’t agree, but that’s how my thirty-six-year-old self feels.

In honor of this band—and because I’m bored at work (No work and little play makes Juan bored, bored, bored)—here’s a list of my favorite ten Black Sabbath songs:

Into the Void Master of Reality

You will probably read this several times in this post, but this song has a fucking sick riff. If I sat down and gave it some serious thought, “Into the Void” probably has one of my favorite riffs of all-time. The song’s slow, heavy groove is so tasty. It’s like the sonic equivalent of a rich, thick and beautifully brewed porter. (I’m thinking of you, Black Robusto!)[1]

To boot, this song might be one of the seeds for stoner rock. (“Into the Void” happens to be one of my favorite songs to listen to when I’m riding a dragonfly, so to say.) Black Sabbath was so goddamn influential.

Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener Vol. 4

Dear god, it’s taken me nearly thirty-seven years to gorge on this album, but better late than Never. Gun to my head, right now, I think I would pick Vol. 4 as my favorite Black Sabbath album, and this is the song I’ve been most obsessed with lately. “Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener” is a song with two distinct parts and a ton of movements: the bluesy riff to launch the song—a riff that is never repeated—and then the simple, overdriven main verse which weaves into the slightly manic-squishy middle of the song. Like many Sabbath songs, Geezer Butler’s lyrics are exceptional. I love the crunchy sound of Iommi’s guitar starting from 3:31-3:39. It’s only eight seconds, but sweet baby Damien that part always lights a fleeting bonfire inside me; it sounds like a coked-out Iommi is grinding his teeth and striking the guitar strings as hard as he fucking can. (At least that’s what I’m going for when I inevitably air-guitar to that passage!)

And then the outro starting after the five-minute mark: ahhhhhh—pure heavy metal gorgeosity. There’s something about that riff that is sing-song-like. I can’t put my finger on it but I love it, and then Iommi basically shreds over it for the last minute of the song. Maybe it is its relative novelty for me right now, but there’s something especially epic about this epic Black Sabbath song.

Black Sabbath Black Sabbath
As far as I’m concerned, a top-10 list of best Black Sabbath songs is flawed or incomplete if it doesn’t include this song. Judas Priest’s Rob Halford—another fucking heavy metal giant—said: “To me Black Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’ is the most evil track ever that’s been written in metal.”

I would go so far as to argue that “Black Sabbath” is the most startling introductory song for a band or musician in rock history. I could never listen to every first album ever recorded, but I don’t think this song could be topped in that respect. The opening church bell. The rainfall. The ominous thunder. The sheer evil sound of Iommi’s guitar. Ozzy’s frightening lyrics (What is this that stands before me / Figure in black that points at me) and his chilling screams just before Iommi, Butler and Ward explode again into the demonic-sounding, tritone-driven chorus.

If you were a kid—along with Britney Spears cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction—this is not a song you would want to play at night if you were home alone.

Electric Funeral Paranoid
Paranoid was the first Black Sabbath album I owned. For too many years, it was the only Black Sabbath album I was familiar with. Even after all these years, and all these changes (sorry, I couldn’t resist that Black Sabbath reference), “Electric Funeral” remains one of my three favorite tunes from Paranoid.

All that said, it wasn’t until a few months back that I realized that the song’s verse sounds like a lullaby. Don’t believe me?: try humming the riff. All these years, I now suspect I’ve been fond of this song because Iommi’s wah-pedal riff feels like an innocent lullaby but then Butler’s lyrics are nice and ominous in the imminent doom-like way.

Ever since I realized that, sometimes I listen to “Electric Funeral” on my iPod before I go to sleep. And what do you know, the song comforts me.

Children of the Grave Master of Reality
Like a film was meant to be projected on a big screen, “Children of the Grave” was born to be played fucking loud! It probably has the sickest intro to any Sabbath song. Geezer’s bass line and Ward’s drum crescendo is straight primal; it never fails to put hair on my balls (so to say). Honestly, I could be on my death bed and if this song came on I’m pretty sure it would make me feel like getting up to knock some heads.

On a related note, this is one of my absolute favorite songs to cycle or work out to. It’s like my sonic equivalent of Popeye’s spinach. It’s also pretty fun to listen to when I’m driving but the only problem is that it inevitably makes the car’s speedometer spike to +75 mph. “Children of the Grave” is like a magical incantation in that way.

Supernaut Vol. 4
Speaking of songs that put hair on your balls, few songs—in my humble opinion—can hold a concert hall lighter to Sabbath’s “Supernaut.” I’ve already written about it before in a write-up about my favorite songs about drugs.

But to recap, in case you didn’t know, Vol. 4 was like Black Sabbath’s ode to cocaine. They were getting that shit shipped to them in large speaker boxes! In his autobiography, Ozzy said, “When I listen to songs like ‘Supernaut’, I can just about taste the stuff.”

“Supernaut” is a couple of ridunkulous lines of cocaine incarnate. Iommi’s riff during the verse feels like the driving, frenetic, teeth-grinding, I’m-fucking-invincible! sensation one gets from snorting a few choice lines.

Let’s put it another way: if “Supernaut” was inserted as the soundtrack during Tony Montana’s shootout at the end of de Palma’s classic, Scarface, the movie would end with Pacino’s character standing at the end, yelling the lyrics of the first verse to all the bullet-ridden corpses lining his mansion.

Megalomania Sabotage

Over the years, Sabotage has become one of my favorite Sabbath albums.[2] Without a doubt, it’s the last solid to excellent (depending on your vantage, of course) Ozzy-era Sabbath album. I could be speaking for myself, but “Megalomania” is exceptional in that it doesn’t feel like its 9 minutes and 43 seconds long. The opening section is distinct and then the song really takes off at the 3:24 mark. A cowbell + Iommi’s wicked dirty-sounding riff = metal bliss.

For all we know, the classic “More Cowbell” SNL bit with Christopher Walken might have been inspired by Bill Ward’s cowbell playing in this song?

Heaven and Hell Heaven and Hell

“Heaven and Hell” is my only Dio era song on this list. Although I think Dehumanizer is a far superior album than Heaven and Hell (and Sabbath’s most resoundingly underrated album), this song is peak RJD and Black Sabbath. The production is exceptional—it is truly a modernized Black Sabbath for the mid-1980s. Butler’s simple but relentless bass line is perfect for this song, and Iommi is back to being his bad-motherfucker self with his riffs. His solos in the middle of the song are excellent—and a new wrinkle in his game compared to their work in the classic Ozzy-Sabbath era.

Starting around the 4:30 mark, it’s strap-your-seatbelt time with Ward’s drums and cymbal crashes driving Iommi, Butler and Dio to some mighty heights. And then, after that searing high, the song ends with the classical-influenced Iommi playing some simple yet elegant acoustic work. Black Sabbath wrote a lot of epic songs that defined the genre, but I think “Heaven and Hell” might be the one Everest of a song that stands tallest amongst them all. I think you could argue that this 6:59 song contains just about everything that made Sabbath a legendary band.

Symptom of the Universe Sabotage
What a fucking song. Every once in a while a song comes along that so evidently spawned others; “Symptom of the Universe” is one of those compositions. The fast tempo and Iommi’s opening riff can easily be heard in Diamond Head’s classic “Am I Evil” or another metal classic, Metallica’s “Master of Puppets.” Some people have gone as far as to say that “Symptom of the Universe” gave birth to thrash metal. I’m no metal scholar, but that definitely seems like it could be the case.

Just one song write-up before I had argued that “Heaven and Hell” possibly contained everything that made Sabbath an epic band. I think the same could be said for this song. Just give it a listen: from a musical standpoint, everyone is at their peak. Ward bangs some crazed drums in the song’s first half. Iommi’s crunching riff sounds like it could jackhammer through a fucking mountain but listen to Geezer’s punctuating bass notes throughout, especially during the interludes between verses. Second for second, minute by minute he always hits the right note. And Ozzy’s vocals are especially potent; his wailing in the opening infuses the song with a delicious maniacal spirit. (I can’t think of a better vocalist for this song.) Sometimes I don’t care for his vocals in the song’s chillaxing outro, but few Sabbath songs better display his range. All these musical elements intertwine for a truly exceptional piece.

War Pigs Paranoid
From the top-10 lists I’ve read online, “War Pigs”—Black Sabbath’s most political song—pretty much makes everyone’s cut. I can sum it up in a few lines: “War Pigs” is like the musical equivalent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (which is probably my favorite novel); as long as humans roam this earth we are rapidly destroying, this song will always be timeless. This will always be us. As a species, we will never know true peace because it’s just not in our nature. There will always be enough war pigs amongst us, and they will always creep and plot and plunder and do whatever is necessary to assume a critical position of power because enough of us will always be sheep and allow it—until we’re all wiped off this planet. You deluded optimists can call me a cynic but I’ve read enough history books to know that this is simply a realistic conclusion.

Musically, this song is epic. “War Pigs” is the template for long epic heavy metal songs.

Honorable Mentions:
Sabbra Cadabra Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Classic Sabbath. Iommi’s riff is sick. Even though the song is an outlier because it’s about love, it contains quintessential Ozzy vocals. And the musical production is perfect. With the trippy keyboards and amped-up vocals, it is a distinct offering—and no one can touch this song. Just listen to the Metallica cover; it’s awful compared to the original, which—in my humble opinion—is a rare feat for Metallica since most of their covers are so good (and oftentimes superior to the original, in my humble opinion).

Snowblind Vol. 4
Classic Sabbath. Iommi’s riff is sick. (I could say that about many Sabbath songs, right?) These British boys sure loved their cocaine!

Hole in the Sky Sabotage
Like “Children of the Grave,” this song has a seemingly magical effect on me whenever I’m driving a car because it always makes me drive faster for some reason. (And, may I add, it’s an excellent song to blast from your stereo while speeding down Highway 24!)

[1] I swear, Drake’s did not pay me for that plug. No one pays me to write except my employer when they give me nothing to do.

[2] Right now, if I had to rank my top-five Black Sabbath albums, it would be: 1) Vol. 4, 2) Sabotage, 3) Master of Reality, 4) Paranoid and 5) Dehumanizer.

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