315: BLACK SABBATH

On any given day, the heavy metal genre might as well be subtitled ‘Music Derivative of Black Sabbath’.

Lars Ulrich

Today’s band, our final Icon, was always going to be Black Sabbath. I’ve known since January. Because today, ten years ago (11/11/11), Black Sabbath reunited, and it was the biggest metal news in years. That’s just the kind of fanfare that follows you when you are responsible for an entire genre of music.

So, to begin, here is an inalienable truth: Black Sabbath were the first heavy metal band. There are other bands of the era who obviously helped influence the sound, but these are more of a proto-metal sound. Proper, for keeps heavy metal, though? Black Sabbath are it.

Central to Black Sabbath’s sound (and that of the greater metal landscape) is, of course, guitarist Tony Iommi. As a cofounder, and the sole continuous member for Sabbath’s near-fifty year existence, Iommi’s guidance of Sabbath was essential to their innovative style. By downtuning his guitar to relieve string tension (done to ease the fingertip pain related to an accident), Iommi inadvertently set in motion a defining characteristic of heavy metal. This along with power chords, playing in a minor key, and using distortion, essentially formed the archetypal metal guitar sound (which, in turn, determined the overall heavy metal sound).

With Geezer Butler downtuning his bass to match Iommi, and Bill Ward’s jazz influenced drumming style, heavy metal was bornX I have already discussed Ozzy Osbourne’s importance as a frontman, but it bears repeating. His unique wail and maniacal grin completed Sabbath’s uniquely evil sound and the groundwork for countless subgenres of subgenres was laid.

While the band saw multiple iterations over the decades, and multiple lineup changes (most notably a couple of stints with Ronnie James Dio on vocals), the core lineup of Osbourne, Iommi, Butler, and Ward remains the most iconic and influential. The four of them individually are among the most influential ever in their fields, but together they were an absolute world-breaker.

With downtuned guitars, sinister riffs, and diabolical melodies, Black Sabbath laid the groundwork for the incredibly broad range of heavy metal subgenres we see today, five decades later. Of course with some subgenres the lineage is more direct – namely doom, sludge, and stoner metal – but they all owe Sabbath a debt.

Every single one of them.

We all do.