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Black Sabbath

      Black Sabbath (Warner Bros., 1970)
      Paranoid (Warner Bros., 1971)
     Master of Reality (Warner Bros., 1971)
    Volume 4 (Warner Bros., 1972)
     Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (Warner Bros., 1973)
     Sabotage (Warner Bros., 1975)
   Technical Ecstasy (Warner Bros., 1976)
     We Sold Our Soul For Rock 'N' Roll (Warner Bros., 1976)
    Never Say Die (Warner Bros., 1978)
     Heaven & Hell (Warner Bros., 1980)
    Mob Rules (Warner Bros., 1981)
    Born Again (Warner Bros., 1983)
   Seventh Star (Warner Bros., 1986)
   The Eternal Idol (Warner Bros., 1987)
   Headless Cross (I.R.S., 1989)
  TYR (I.R.S., 1990)
   Dehumanizer (Warner Bros., 1992)
   Cross Purposes (IRS, 1994)
  Forbidden (Capitol, 1995)
    -Reunion (Epic, 1998)
     Symptom of the Universe: The Original Black Sabbath 1970–1978 (Rhino/Warner Bros., 2002)
      Black Box: The Complete Original Black Sabbath 1970–1978 (Rhino, 2004)
     Greatest Hits 1970-1978 (Rhino, 2006)
    The Dio Years (Rhino, 2007)
    Live From Radio City Music Hall (Rhino, 2007 Rhino) [Released by Heaven and Hell]
    The Devil You Know (Rhino, 2009) [Released by Heaven and Hell]

Black Sabbath the album, the song, and the band have been studied by metalheads with all the fervor accorded the Dead Sea Scrolls. "Black Sabbath" the song starts off the not-feeling-so-fab four's 1970 debut, and from the moment that its first fearsome notes were unleashed on an unsuspecting public it has remained one of the unshakeable cornerstones of heavy metal. While Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and even earlier gods of noize such as Blue Cheer and Jimi Hendrix are also responsible for the storied future of hard rock and metal, this Birmingham, England, quartet stands apart from its peers on a high mountain peak of doom, cannabis, and the monster riffs that—along with evil T-shirts, volume, and shaggy hair—have fueled a million basement dreams of dark glory. They took the blues out of blues-rock and replaced it with Wagner, creating epic battle rhythms filled with a tension and release. Thanks to Roger Bain's production, Black Sabbath sounds really big and really unhealthy. It's an album that eats hippies for breakfast; also, it has even been statistically determined that if a brain cell were the size of a grain of sand, the amount lost while listening to this record could easily fill the Grand Canyon.

What people forget about Black Sabbath—and it's understandable given their demonic imagery and All Hallow's Eve vibe—was that it was one of the most God-driven, puritanical, wet-blanket rock bands in history. Its "mankind is evil and must repent for its wicked ways" thesis would influence almost all the future bards of the metallic arts. On their second and supremely heavy album Paranoid, there are laments on the destruction of war and the hypocrisy of politicians ("Electric Funeral" and "War Pigs"), the perils of technology ("Iron Man"), the perils of drug abuse ("Hand of Doom"), and the perils of mythical creatures and their choice of footwear ("Fairies Wear Boots"). On "Hand of Doom," Geezer Butler's subatomic bass, Ozzy Osbourne's tortured bullfrog yelp, Bill Ward's smack-you-in-the-face drums, and Tony Iommi's fuzz guitar lead mesh seamlessly into something so unholy and beautiful that it would take lesser bands years of back-to-the-drawing-board grunt work to achieve such badassed symmetry.

Masters of Reality is an even darker album, if that's possible. The moralizing reaches new heights and the world is given the generous gift of "Sweet Leaf" and "Children of the Grave." Vol. 4 is one of those difficult "cocaine" albums that bands were fond of making back then. Sabbath was rich, bored, huge in America, and it was the Seventies—you do the math. Sluggish and muddy, it nonetheless has its moments and remains a hard-to-beat monument to bloat and excess. Plus, it features a heartfelt ballad from Ozzy called "Changes" that just might be the scariest song the band ever committed to tape.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, from 1973, is yet another drugs album, but there is inspiration here that suggests the band found another supplier. Not even Yes's Rick Wakeman can kill the schizophrenic weirdness of a track like "Sabbra Cadabra." Ambitious and tortured, the group creates the first conceptless concept album. "Killing Yourself to Live" is a keeper, as is the now-classic title track. Sabotage continues the theme of themeless epic suites with twisted stoner-prog anthems that rock as hard as the early days, but also hyperextend themselves in unexpected ways. It might be the most underrated of their albums, and was certainly the original band's last stab at greatness together. Songs such as "Hole in the Sky," "Symptom of the Universe," and "The Writ" are weird, wild, and massive.

Technical Ecstasy is the Seventies-era Sabbath album least likely to be found in a hard-rock fan's collection. It's not horrible, but you wonder if anyone in the band remembers making it. Is it an ill-fated attempt to snag some of the boogie-rock money that Ted Nugent was rolling around in? Or had they just run out of steam? Tony Iommi's guitar is the only thing left alive. The same might be said of Never Say Die, the last album Ozzy appeared on before taking a hike and finding solo fame. The songs are better, though, especially the title tune, and it sounds like someone poked Bill Ward with a stick because the drum work is great throughout. Not a blaze of glory for the original foursome but better than people might remember.

There are several good-to-great Sabbath compilations out there, most of which are heavy on Ozzy-era material. Shy, retiring types and scaredy cats looking for an easy way into Black Sabbath's diabolical cosmology can't go wrong with the 1976 best-of We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll, which is all a weekend blasphemer could ever need. For a more complete overview of Sabbath's glory days, check out Black Box, which collects the first four albums and tacks on a load of bonus material. (Symptom of the Universe is the abridged version.)

Buyer beware: Of the post-Ozzy albums—and a good many of them should have been sold under the name the Tony Iommi Experience—there are three essential purchases. Heaven & Hell and Mob Rules, featuring the elfin dragon-slayer Ronnie James Dio on vocals, are both excellent.Born Again, recorded with ex–Deep Purple yelper Ian Gillan, is likewise a monstrous beast and one of the best Sabbath albums that hardly anyone has heard. Anything after that is recommended only to diehard freaks who can't go a day without hearing yet another spitfire lick from their master's Gibson, fans of train wrecks who want to hear The Eternal Idol (one of Iommi's attempts to cross over into the world of Eighties pop metal), and Otto the bus driver.

By 2007 the original lineup had been touring, off and on, for a decade and had only two underwhelming new tracks from 1998s Reunion to show for it. Frustrated at being relegated to an oldies band on Ozzfest, Butler and Iommi once again teamed up with Ronnie James Dio—only this time they dubbed themselves Heaven and Hell to differiante themselves from the Ozzy-led incarnation. Their 2007 concert set Live From Radio City is surprisingly powerful, even though it's limited exclusively to material from Dio's era. 2009's studio set The Devil You Know doesn't break any new ground or match the brilliance of Heaven and Hell, but it's still the best set of new Sabbath (regadless of what they call themselves) tunes since the early 1980s.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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