Black Sabbath's early Seventies albums played a huge role in the development of heavy metal, but the band didn't stop there. They carried on through the Eighties, Nineties and 2000s, swapping out band members more often than most NBA teams and continuing to tour at a pretty heavy pace. They were a club act by the late Eighties, but reunion tours with Ronnie James Dio and Ozzy Osbourne brought them back to arenas and giant festival crowds in recent years. They finally released a new album with Ozzy Osbourne earlier this year, and are on tour right now to support it. In typical Black Sabbath fashion, this is yet another new lineup, with Tommy Clufetos playing drums in the place of Bill Ward. Last week, we asked our readers to vote on their favorite Black Sabbath album. Click through to see the results.
The original lineup of Black Sabbath was on its last legs when they went into the studio to cut Never Say Die! in early 1978. It was their eighth album in as many years and they were simply tapped out, not to mention terribly hobbled by cocaine and alcohol abuse. The Ramones opened for them on their last tour, and the band started to realize their sound was a little passé. A burned-out Ozzy quit the group shortly before recording, so Tony Iommi turned to Dave Walker. "We were grasping at straws," Iommi wrote in his memoir Iron Man. "We have a studio booked and no singer!" They played with Walker on a single TV show and cut a few songs with him, but then Ozzy came to his senses and returned. They started from scratch, but nobody was really happy. "It's hard to relate to that album," says Iommi. "It was a bitter time for us." Despite the endless problems, the LP has some very nice moments, particularly the title track and "A Hard Road."
Ronnie James Dio infused Black Sabbath with incredible energy when he joined the band in 1980. Heaven and Hell is an absolute classic, and just one year later they followed it up with Mob Rules. Drummer Bill Ward checked out midway through the Heaven and Hell tour, so Vinny Appice took his place behind the kit. When they released Heaven and Hell Ozzy had yet to kick off his solo career, but by the time of Mob Rules he was scoring massive hits and packing arenas. The competition was probably a good thing, and tracks like "The Sign of the Southern Cross" and "The Mob Rules" rank up there with anything in the Sabbath catalog. This was the last album with Dio for over a decade, and it began a long period of decline for Sabbath.
Black Sabbath briefly went into crisis mode when Ronnie James Dio quit the group. This was their second high-profile vocalist to leave the band in just three years. Scoring a huge album with a second singer was almost a miracle. Doing it a third time seemed virtually impossible. Luckily for them, Deep Purple were on hiatus at this point, and Ian Gillan was looking for a gig. He was clearly the best man for the job, and in 1983 they entered the studio to cut Born Again. This extremely brief period of Black Sabbath has been mocked for years. The demon baby artwork has been called the single ugliest album cover of all time, and the tour was such a disaster it inspired This Is Spinal Tap. (They even had a mistakenly sized Stonehenge prop.) All that said, Born Again is far from a musical disaster. The fusion of Deep Purple and Black Sabbath yielded some very nice songs. Check out "Zero the Hero" for proof. Gillan left the group as soon as the tour ended, though he remains tight with Tony Iommi.
Few people expected great things from Black Sabbath in 1980. Ozzy was out of the band, and their last few albums were less than inspiring. This was the year of Devo's Freedom of Choice and the Clash's Sandinista!. Sabbath seemed hairy relics from another age. But all doubts ended when Heaven and Hell hit shelves. The opening notes of "Neon Knights" are absolutely explosive, and the album doesn't let up until the final second of "Lonely Is the Word." Dio is one of the most powerful vocalists in rock history, and he played a huge role in crafting these songs. "Heaven and Hell" and "Die Young" rank with anything in the Sabbath catalog. The album gave Sabbath an entirely new lease on life, though they quickly squandered it.
Like many Black Sabbath albums after their initial burst of creativity in the early Seventies, recording Sabotage was an absolute nightmare. They kept getting pulled out of the studio to testify against their former management team in a nasty lawsuit. "It was so distracting," Iommi writes in Iron Man. "It felt like we were being sabotaged all the way along the line." If that wasn't bad enough, a technician aligned the master tape the wrong way, and midway through they had to start all over. Once again, they rose above the chaos to create a stellar disc. "Symptom of the Universe" basically invented progressive metal, and the gentle "Supertzar" took the group in an entirely different direction. Some hardcore fans think that Sabotage is the last truly classic LP from the Ozzy era.
Tony Iommi experienced something completely new when he began trying to write songs for Sabbath Bloody Sabbath in 1973: writer's block. The band started to work on the album in Los Angeles, but they were newly rich men and there were too many temptations in the city. Tony's failure to produce decent riffs made them fear the whole band might be coming to an end, so they rented a giant house in Wales and basically locked themselves inside until they came up with songs. The very first day they were there, Tony came up with the killer riff for "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath." The song kicks off the album, and it restored his confidence. From there the band was on fire, churning out masterpieces like "Sabbra Cadabra," "Killing Yourself to Life" and "Spiral Architect." You don't hear these songs on the radio like you hear "Paranoid" and "Iron Man," but they're every bit as brilliant.
Black Sabbath were reaching a creative peak when they started work on Master of Reality. Their 1970 debut established them as a must-watch band, and Paranoid (released just seven months later) actually turned them into pop hit-makers. The success finally gave them a little time to spend in the studio. (The debut was recorded in two days, and Paranoid in about a week.) With Master of Reality they finally had time to experiment and really focus on each song. "Solitude" is their first legit love song, and Tony tuned down his guitar three semitones to produce the supremely heavy "Children of the Grave." This was Sabbath's third album in less than two years, and they were only getting better with each offering.
A lot of rock stars were snorting mountains of cocaine in the Seventies, but few had the balls to write a song about the subject as explicit as "Snowblind." To varying degrees, the guys in Black Sabbath were all snowblind when they cut Black Sabbath Vol. 4 in 1972. They went from dirt poor to incredibly rich and famous pretty quickly, and it was tough to dodge the inevitable temptations. Those issues eventually destroyed the band, but for a few years they managed to use heroic amounts of drugs and still craft brilliant music. This record shows the band stretching their limits, particularly on the tender piano ballad "Changes." Many metal bands would be unwilling to release a song so dramatically different than their signature work, but Sabbath truly didn't care. Meanwhile, the supremely heavy "Supernaut" shows they had lost none of their edge.
If Black Sabbath never released an album after their 1970 debut, they'd still be legends. It's hard to imagine how heavy metal would have evolved had this album not existed. They recorded it in just two days in November of 1969, barely realizing they were breaking ground. They were simply four guys from Birmingham sick of hippie songs about peace and love. They wanted to write songs that would scare and thrill people like horror movies. The slow, haunting title track set the tone for their entire career. It was a sound they stumbled upon in rehearsal one day, and more than four decades later it can still send a chill up your spine. "N.I.B" showcases Geezer Butler's amazing bass skills, while "The Wizard" set the stage for about ten million metal songs about wizards and dragons.
The track listing of Paranoid looks like a greatest hits collection. The band's three most famous works, "War Pigs," "Iron Man" and "Paranoid," are all from this one record. Many of the songs were born during jams on the road during their first tour. They also started smoking weed around this time, resulting in wild songs like "Iron Man" and "Fairies Wear Boots." After cutting nine songs, they felt they were done. They called the album War Pigs and even commissioned a cover showing a soldier with a sword and shield. But their producer Rodger Bain felt they needed one more song, and during a lunch break Tony Iommi came up with the "Paranoid" riff. Geezer Butler scribbled down some lyrics, and the band's biggest hit came together very quickly. The album was quickly renamed Paranoid and the song reached number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100. Forty-three years later, the album remains a staggering achievement. They've cut some amazing albums since this, but nothing has been quite this flawless.