Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Hesher Canon, Part I: Satan Laughing Spreads His Wings

It only took Black Sabbath three notes and two missing fingertips to create heavy metal as we know it.

"The Hesher Canon" is my attempt to create a guide for new metalheads - a list of the albums prospective fans need to hear in order to give them some history and context to the genre. A full explanation can be found here.

As unlikely as it sounds, my entry point to metal wasn't the radio or MTV. It was a book in my school library.

I often think about how I got into this music, how little the people around me knew, and how (most) of the magazines around were only interested in whatever bullshit corporate drivel MTV was shoveling. Frankly the most helpful resources were books like Tony Jasper and Derek Oliver's The International Encyclopedia of Hard Rock and Heavy Metal.  It was 1992 and the internet was still years away from being a helpful resource for me.

Even 20 years ago, the book was hopelessly out of date. But it was useful as a general overview of the genre and an introduction to older Seventies-era bands who were rarely if ever played on the radio.

For the record, I have never heard Black Sabbath referred to as "The Sabs".
And so it was that at 13 years old, as the flannel shirt tide encroached, I found myself with a handful of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin cassettes. But as a newly minted hesher looking for the next step from Megadeth and Iron Maiden, I was predictably underwhelmed. What I needed on my headbanger's journey was a band that provided a clear blueprint for the genre, and was still "heavy" by my standards. What I needed was Black Sabbath.

It seems ridiculous in hindsight, and impossible to justify why I didn't just buy every Sabbath album I could find (or at the very least, the first four). But Sabbath wasn't universally worshipped in the early Nineties the way they are now (despite their clear influence on the biggest bands of the time). At the dawn of the grunge era, Ozzy was much more prominent as a solo act, though on the verge of being made irrelevant by the changing of the corporate rock guard; Sabbath, on the other hand, had been irrelevant for over a decade.

Luckily, it was also the era of the covers album. Sabbath tribute after Sabbath tribute came out one after another, featuring the likes of Sepultura, Godflesh, and Cathedral. Pantera covered the spacey ballad "Planet Caravan" on their opus to testosterone and daddy issues, Far Beyond Driven. Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo even found the time to form Down, which was Sabbath worship of the deepest kind. The mainstream may not have had a place for the band, but the truest of heshers never forgot them, and spread that love to their fans. And so it was by the time I was 15, I knew a dozen Sabbath songs by heart. Never underestimate the power of a good cover.

One aspect of Sabbath that's often overlooked is how cohesive they were as a unit. Certainly Ozzy pulled focus as the front man, and in recent years devotion to Iommi has turned increasingly cultish. But the band at its best complemented each others' strengths: Iommi's leaden riffs, Butler's frenetic bass lines, Ward's frenzied drumming all worked together to shape heavy metal as a genre unto itself.

As far as Ozzy's enduring popularity, I defer to Jasper and Oliver:

Look closely, and you'll see the snarky seeds of this blog being planted.
Almost everything that heavy metal is now can be found on those early Sabbath albums: crushing riffs, wailing vocals, thundering drums; songs about war, alienation, and drug use. While the story of how Sabbath developed their sound and image is well-worn and has taken on mythic qualities, what's remarkable is how much of it was by happenstance: A freak factory accident took Tony Iommi's fingertips. By tuning his guitar down to C sharp, Iommi was able to both ease the tension on his damaged fingers and create the oppressive guitar tone that Sabbath became known for (and which would go on to define metal as a genre). The band's name, taken from a Mario Bava film that happened to be playing across from their rehearsal studio, was only adopted when they were forced to abandon their previous moniker Earth to avoid being confused with a pop act that were booking gigs under the same name. All these coincidences added up to create the first heavy metal band.

There were heavy bands before Sabbath: Psychedelic bands like Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly and Vanilla Fudge trafficked in rumbling low end and excessive fuzz. Cream provided a blueprint for slow and heavy blues rock. And there were bands that wrapped themselves in the occult - most notably the American band Coven, who had both a song called "Black Sabbath" and a guitarist called "Oz Osbourne". But Black Sabbath were the first  group to irrefutably deserve the label "heavy metal".

You don't have to look farther than the first song on the first Black Sabbath album, both titled Black Sabbath, to hear metal as we know it being created. With just three notes - the infamous tritone, or "devil's interval" - Sabbath hewed the path for an entire genre to follow. Still, it took the band a while to shake loose those old blues band proclivities; interminable solos, meandering songs, and a harmonica do their damnedest to detract from the album's overall darkness. But if Sabbath's debut suffers from a lack of direction and a tendency to overindulge, it makes up for it with the first bonafide hesher anthems: "The Wizard", "Sleeping Village", "N.I.B.", and the band's eponymous signature song set the stage for everything (and everyone) who followed. Heavy riffs? Check. Manic vocals? Check. Satan? Summoned and hailed. Panned by most critics (including Lester Bangs), the first Black Sabbath album firmly established metal as a genre for outcasts and weirdos, and of no use to tastemakers. A "nativity in black", indeed.

If Black Sabbath had discovered their niche on their first album, Paranoid - their second album - saw them honing in and capitalizing on their newfound infamy. Originally planning on calling the album Walpurgis (the "witches' night" of European folklore), Sabbath knew that their appeal lay in being darker and heavier than everyone else. Hitting the listener with the songs "War Pigs", "Paranoid", "Planet Caravan", "Iron Man", "Electric Funeral", and "Hand of Doom" one after another, Paranoid doubles as a greatest hits album. Years before I owned a physical copy, I practically knew the whole thing by heart; by the early Nineties, the songs had become an unimpeachable part of hesherdom, in both their original versions and through many, many covers over the years. If the album's final two tracks feel weak, it's only by comparison. (For what it's worth, I have friends who love "Faeries Wear Boots" for its goofy humor. But it was the black in Black Sabbath that I always connected to first and foremost). If you need a place to start with Sabbath and/or heavy metal, this is it. I frequently lament that my fourteen year old self wasted so many hours with Led Zepplin when he should have been listening to this instead.

Following such a groundbreaking release, Sabbath's third album, Master of Reality, had a lot to live up to. If starting off with odes to marijuana ("Sweet Leaf") and God ("After Forever") seems at odds with the band's evil legacy, the third track "Children of the Grave" immediately rights the course, as well as making moot any arguments about who really created heavy metal - Jimmy Page never wrote anything this thunderous. Making up for the bible-thumping that precedes it, "Lord of This World" gives the devil a platform to proclaim his greatness - he is, after all, the "master" of the album title. Breaking up the album are a duo of Iommi instrumentals: "Orchid", the calm which precedes the storm of "Children of the Grave" (and which Opeth later cribbed for an album title), and "Embryo", which comes before "Lord Of This World". Master of Reality also boasts the fullest and heaviest production that Sabbath would enjoy in the Seventies, courtesy of producer Rodger Bain, who helped the band capture the genre defining sound of their first three albums. [He would go on to help Judas Priest create their own era-defining sound - but that's for a different post.]

The first album to be produced by the band themselves, Vol. 4 is rawer and hazier than its predecessors - in part due to the copious substances the band was ingesting by that point. [Though Sabbath are credited with being the godfathers of "stoner rock", their drug use didn't differentiate them from any other band of their era]. Sabbath would continue to show that there was more to them than just heaviness, with mixed results: The instrumental "Laguna Sunrise" showcased Iommi's skill in classical guitar, whereas the album's other instrumental "FX" (recorded while the band ran around the recording booth nude) is pointless; and the less said about the schmaltzy ballad "Changes", the better. But despite its chemically-derived excess, the album delivers several classics: The drug anthems "Snowblind" and "Supernaut" are among the most popular songs in Sabbath's catalogue, and the equally beloved "Under The Sun" closes  the album in style.

Henry Rollins once proposed that the hurricane El Niño should be called "The First Four Black Sabbath Albums", which speaks to their iconic status. Though those albums undoubtedly contain the group's most popular songs, there's a case to be made that the next two contain their heaviest.

Sabbath's fifth album built upon Iommi's desire to explore "light and shade": Whereas its four predecessors interspersed the band's typically heavy songs with quiet instrumentals, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath made a point of doing both within individual songs. The title track lays out the format, lurching back and forth between crushing riffs and quiet interludes. Though it falls short of the first three Sabbath albums for iconic songs, it does contain the grandiose "A National Acrobat", which might be my favourite Sabbath song of all time. Rick Wakeman, from the band Yes, contributed keyboards to "Sabra Cadabra", having struck up a friendship with Iommi when their two bands toured together. For what it's worth, Tony Iommi himself has declared Sabbath Bloody Sabbath to be the band's pinnacle. And hell, having album artwork painted by the guy who did posters for Star Wars doesn't hurt.

In many ways, Sabotage is the overlooked gem in Sabbath's crown. As they had done with the album that came before it, the band looked to subvert expectations in new ways: "Hole in the Sky" kicks off the album in appropriately bombastic fashion before fizzling out abruptly. "Symptom of the Universe", one of the heaviest songs Sabbath ever wrote, ends with a jazzy acoustic jam. The grandiose "Supertzar" was recorded with the English Chamber Choir. And the album's closing track, "The Writ", contains Ozzy's strongest performance on record, and a rebuke to anyone who claims he can't sing. Sabotage may not have the cachet of the previous albums, but it's every bit as good. And it would end up being the last great record the original Sabbath line-up recorded together.

The band moved out to L.A. for the writing and recording of their next album (living in a home owned by John Du Pont of Foxcatcher infamy), and it's tempting to say that the change of locale, as well as the copious amounts of drugs that came with it, were the reasons Technical Ecstasy is such a departure from Sabbath's earlier work; but Iommi has stated that he felt pressure to deliver new ideas, as album sales had begun to dip. Continuing the experimentation of previous albums, keyboards became a more prominent part of the band's sound (courtesy of touring member Gerald Woodroffe). The album begins on an encouraging note, with the galloping "Back Street Kids" anticipating the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that was still gestating on the English pub circuit at the time. But other than that, the album sounds confused and indulgent. Of note is "It's All Right", a song written and sung by drummer Bill Ward. It's a testament to the Ward's talent and versatility, but no one ever wanted Sabbath to jump into MOR radio rock with such gusto.

By this time, tensions within the band had come to a head. Ozzy left the group while they were writing their seventh album, citing a dissatisfaction with the music industry (though it's been speculated that his growing drug dependency coupled with his father's death were the real motivating factors for his departure). Originally written with Fleetwood Mac vocalist Dave Walker, Never Say Die is definitely more Mac than Black: Sunny riffs, funky bass lines, tinkling pianos, and bleating saxophones...in other words, none of the things you'd associate with Black Sabbath. Confronted with the shorter/louder/faster aesthetic of punk rock, Sabbath tried updating their sound; their adjustments were in the wrong direction, embracing laconic dinosaur rock instead of combating it. Because a Ozzy (who had returned to the band during the album's recording) refused to sing songs written by Walker, Bill Ward sang the closing track "Swinging The Chain", joined by the aforementioned saxophones. Though he had returned for the album's recording sessions, upon its release Ozzy departed once again, seemingly for good; Never Say Die, ironically, marked the end of the original Black Sabbath.

Dwindling album sales, a sea change in the music industry, and creative ennui had already signaled that Sabbath's trajectory was trending downwards; the departure of a beloved frontman could very well have ended them permanently. But the band - out of either foresight or desperation - drafted a little known singer from New York named Ronnie James Dio (who was fresh off his superlative stint with Richie Blackmore's Rainbow). The result was Heaven and Hell. Undeniably a more technically proficient singer than his predecessor, Dio and Sabbath's music compliment each other best by staying out of each other's way. Nowhere is this more evident than on the song "Heaven and Hell", where the guitars cut out and the bass limits itself to a single pulsing note, allowing Dio's verses the space they deserve. Elsewhere, the driving pace and overeager bass lines of "Die Young" eerily mirror Iron Maiden (who released their self-titled debut that same year). While not entirely shorn of the meandering excesses that characterized the final albums with Ozzy, Heaven and Hell refocused the natural chemistry of Iommi, Butler and Ward, while establishing Dio as one of the greatest metal singers of all time. The album also marked the debut of keyboardist Geoff Nicholls, who would remain a member of Black Sabbath til the end of the Nineties. Heaven and Hell introduced a more musically accomplished and mature Black Sabbath - one more confident in its place atop the heavy metal totem pole.

Due to substance abuse issues, Bill Ward left the band midway through the Heaven and Hell tour; he was replaced by Brooklyn-born Vinnie Appice. That's the biggest distinction between the first Dio-led Sabbath album and its follow-up: Having rediscovered themselves after years of fruitless experimenting, the band wisely chose not to tamper with a successful formula. Mob Rules wasn't a huge leap forward for the band, but neither was it a step back. The album kicks off with "Turn Up The Night", where both Dio and Iommi turn in strutting performances. On the measured "In The Sign of The Southern Cross", Sabbath gave their new frontman space to flex his impressive range, punctuating his verses with huge crashing chords. Also worth noting is the fact that the album's title track was written for the animated movie Heavy Metal, and featured prominently in a scene revolving around rioting aliens, or something. Mob Rules was arguably Sabbath's last release as a relevant and influential creative force.

Live Evil (released when "live" was a somewhat exaggerated claim) was Sabbath's first concert album. Released in 1982, it encapsulates the excess of the coming decade, from the stage banter to the way each band member is given their own solo spot. It's mainly notable for documenting how Dio handled Sabbath's early classics. [It should go without saying that the Ozzy-era material sounds better with Ozzy singing it - something Ozzy proved with his own first live album, which consisted entirely of Sabbath material and was released a month before Live Evil.] The creation of the album wasn't without acrimony - Dio clashed with the rest of the band during the mixing sessions, bringing a (temporary) end to their collaboration. After years of being a hired gun for the likes of Tony Iommi and Richie Blackmore, the diminutive frontman struck out as a solo act (taking Appice with him) and established himself as a heavy metal icon of his own.

For all intents and purposes, Sabbath's most important work (and their contributions to "The Hesher Canon") end there. The material released with the band's name in the following decades is little loved, and most people (understandably) curtail their interest to the Ozzy and Dio years. Still, the albums Sabbath put out in the following decades aren't without their charms; anyone with a love (or maybe just a high tolerance) for Eighties' bombast and camp will probably enjoy these albums. They certainly seemed to influence the likes of Solitude Aeternus and Candlemass.

Following Dio's departure, Sabbath considered several candidate to be their new frontman - including, unbelievably, a then-unknown Michael Bolton - before settling on Deep Purple's Ian Gillan.  "I was the worst singer Black Sabbath ever had" is the self-deprecating way Gillan describes his time with the band, which began with the divisive Born Again album. On paper, the idea of Deep Purple's legendary frontman teaming up with Iommi, Butler and a returning Bill Ward is exciting - the songs, alas, never deliver on that potential. Other than "Digital Bitch" (rumoured to be about Sharon Osbourne) and "Zero The Hero" (which Godflesh covered and Danzig cribbed on "Her Black Wings"), Born Again is forgettable. It's a collaboration between members of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple that's unlikely to satisfy fans of either. Perhaps its biggest impact was to popular culture - the song "Stonehenge" (and its accompanying stage theatrics, which included a dancing dwarf) were lampooned mercilessly in the movie This Is Spinal Tap. Born Again would be Butler's last appearance with Sabbath for almost a decade, and the albums released after his departure suffered for lack of his characteristic bass lines.

By now, it's common knowledge that Seventh Star (credited, tellingly, to "Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi") was intended to be Iommi's first solo album. [The Eighties were the peak of guitar hero self-indulgence, after all.] The galloping opening track showed that Sabbath were at least capable of keeping pace with a new decade, but as a whole Seventh Star hasn't aged well  - in particular, its neon tinged vocals (courtesy of yet another Deep Purple singer, Glenn Hughes) and its Eighties torchiness. It may be churlish to take the album to task for straying from Sabbath's signature sound, since it was never intended to be a Sabbath album in the first place; but it's hardly a showcase for Iommi's range or creativity, either. More than anything, it signaled the beginning of an era when the band was little more than Iommi joined by a cast of talented ringers. Lacking Geezer Butler's manic fret walking and Bill Ward's looseness, the albums for the next two decades embraced mechanical precision but left behind most of the frenetic energy of their earliest albums.

Released in 1987, Eternal Idol began the Tony Martin era of Black Sabbath - perhaps the only of the band's singers less loved than Ian Gillan. A bombastic 80's frontman in the Dio mould, Martin had the range and the chops to hang with Sabbath, even if the mid-paced rockers he was given to work with are largely forgettable. [Eclipsed by the two iconic singers whose shoes he had to fill, Martin himself is largely forgotten; Jack Black certainly never sang any songs about him.] In a confluence of Eighties' campiness, the song "Nightmare" was intended for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, before the band's management priced them out of inclusion.

Even if Tony Martin didn't generate much excitement, at the very least he helped establish a consistency that Sabbath had been lacking since Dio left. Headless Cross continued where its predecessor left off, and added ex-Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell to the band's revolving line-up. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this album resuscitated Black Sabbath's popularity in Europe, where the love for both cheese and metal has never waned.

Apparently, concerns that Martin was overusing occult themes prompted him to try something different. If Black Sabbath singing about vikings sounds like more camp than you'd find at a national park, you have a rough idea what to expect from 1990's Tyr. Roughly coinciding with Bathory's own viking metal phase (and as good as anything Manowar did along the same lines), Tyr put Martin's soaring pipes to good use, and pulled off a ridiculous concept with infectious enthusiasm. In my opinion, this is the best album of the Martin-Sabbath era: Eighties ostentatious at its best and least self-conscious.

Despite increasing album sales and the growing acceptance of Sabbath's new members, Dehumanizer saw the return of Ronnie James Dio, Geezer Butler and Vinnie Appice - the same line-up responsible for Mob Rules. Reinvigorated by Dio and Butler's songwriting contributions, Dehumanizer was the strongest Sabbath album in over a decade. Among the stand-out tracks, "TV Crimes" turns up the speed - something that was always lacking when songwriting was left to Iommi alone - and the Ozzy-ish vocal phrasing on "Sins of the Father" shows Dio was capable of impersonating his predecessor when it suited him. "Time Machine" was included on the soundtrack to the hesher-ribbing Wayne's World movie - probably a mixed blessing for a band still living down their role in inspiring Spinal Tap. That aside, Dehumanizer is the best album that ever followed a Sabbath reunion, even if it wasn't the Sabbath reunion the world was clamouring for.

Dischord over opening for Ozzy (whose popularity had eclipsed Sabbath's by the time the Nineties rolled around) led to Dio's departure and Tony Martin's return. Cross Purposes underscored the difficulty Sabbath had in adapting to the decade, despite their clear influence on the biggest bands of the era. Though it mostly settled on Eighties schmaltz, the album showed that "grunge" wasn't out of the band's wheelhouse - "Psychophobia" wouldn't have been out of place on a Soundgarden or Screaming Trees album. Cross Purposes also has the questionable distinction of being the first Sabbath album released after I became a full fledged metalhead -  I remember seeing ads for it in magazines, though I didn't hear it until now. That's probably for the best.

For their next album, Sabbath enlisted Body Count guitarist Ernie Cunningham as producer. Iommi claims that the pairing was instigated by the band's label, who hoped the pairing would give Sabbath "street cred". As a result, Forbidden is underwhelming; in particular, Cozy Powell's drum performance was compressed to the point that he may as well have been a drum machine. Ice T contributed a menacing spoken word verse on opener "The Illusion of Power" that sounds predictably out of place. For a band that was on something of an upswing, Forbidden was a new low and brought an inauspicious end to the Tony Martin era of Black Sabbath. It would be two decades before the band released another studio album - under their own name, at least.

Around that time, Black Sabbath announced a rare tour of South East Asia; even in this metal-starved region, the band had a hard time generating ticket sales, and half the dates were cancelled. As a teenage hesher, the picture of the middle aged rockers with their poodle hair didn't fill me with any kind of enthusiasm, and was probably the reason I didn't buy a Sabbath album til I was in college.

But anyone in the music industry circa 1995 who thought that Black Sabbath needed "street cred" (and that Body Count were the ones to bequeath it) was a clueless jackass and should have been fired immediately. Newly crowned rock royalty like Soundgarden and Alice in Chains dominated radio and MTV with a sound heavily indebted to Sabbath; ditto Metallica's platinum-selling "black" album. Just under the mainstream's view, festering and waiting to explode, a growing sub-genre of doom and sludge metal bands approached Sabbath with a single-mindedness that was nothing less than worshipful. Decades removed from their creative and commercial peak, Black Sabbath was somehow more relevant (and revered) than ever.

All this led to the inevitable reunion of the original Black Sabbath line up - first, as a touring act (accompanied by an inessential live album) and ultimately in the band's final studio release. The live album, titled Reunion, netted the band their first Grammy nomination. It also created two new Ozzy/Sabbath songs - "Psycho Man" and "Selling My Soul", which are unremarkable, and bear a closer resemblance to Ozzy's solo work than any of Sabbath's. My apologies to anyone who waited 20 years for Ozzy and Iommi to bury the hatchet and had to settle for this.

The first new studio album from the original Sabbath members was a big deal - as well it should be. But 13 fell short of my expectations for several reasons - the first being the exclusion of Bill Ward (for reasons related either to his health or his salary, depending on which side of the story you get). Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilks became the unlikely scab to sit on the drum stool. Rick Rubin was brought in to produce, perhaps in the hopes that he could achieve the same stripped down, back-to-basics results with Sabbath that he had with Johnny Cash. To that end, he may have been too successful: 13 doesn't just revisit the early albums, it graverobs and corpsefucks them. "End of the Beginning" essentially rewrites "Black Sabbath" with four chords instead of three; the spacey "Zeitgeist" is "Planet Caravan, Redux"; "Live Forever" is built around a riff suspiciously similar to "Zero The Hero". In a way, Sabbath was a victim of their own legacy: It was unreasonable to expect the band that spawned an entire genre to reconvene 40 years after their creative peak and create an album that lived up to their best work. But having digested Sabbath's entire discography - and willingly subjected myself to dreck like Seventh Star and Forbidden - I can honestly say that while 13 isn't as moving or memorable as Sabbath's early albums, it could have been much, much worse. If nothing else, their re-emergence was impeccably timed, coinciding with Electric Wizard and Sleep spreading the Sabbath gospel to their widest audiences. After spending the next few years playing to the widest audience of their own careers, Black Sabbath finally called it quits in November, 2017, after playing a sold out arena in their hometown of Birmingham.

Outside of the Black Sabbath discography, each of Sabbath's original members and the two most iconic frontmen created work worth investigating on their own.

Ozzy Osbourne, of course, had the most successful career outside of Sabbath, in short order becoming an MTV staple - first as a solo artist, then ultimately as a doddering reality television clown. Perhaps after years of playing the self styled "prince of darkness" - and having been accused of everything from nazi sympathies to causing teen suicides - Ozzy was relieved to finish his career as an unthreatening punchline. [I'd be more forgiving of Ozzy's stint in reality television if it hadn't unleashed his odious brood unto the public consciousness along the way.] If Ozzy sans Sabbath gifted the world one thing, it was his flawless solo debut Blizzard of Ozz wherein - paired with guitar wunderkind Randy Rhoads - he created enough classic songs to justify the decades of buffoonery to come. While I personally feel that Ozzy's solo albums stretch the definition of "metal", the ones with Rhoads raised the bar on radio-friendly stadium rock.

Ronnie James Dio may have been heavy metal's ultimate underdog - a small man with an outsized voice who was tasked with replacing one of the most beloved personalities in rock history. From Elf to Rainbow and throughout his lengthy solo career, his oeuvre was one that deserved to be painted on the sides of vans. Starting with his solo debut Holy Diver and extending through ten albums, he epitomized "true metal" and made music for the die-est of die hards. And one can't overlook his biggest contribution to the sub-culture: Dio introduced the metal world to the mal'occhio - the so-called "devil's horns" that are flashed with abandon from hesher to hesher as a sign of faith and fellowship. Dio never drew any attention from the mainstream until Tenacious D came along and made him a pop culture icon - not in spite of his camp appeal, but because of it.

As the Ozzy/Sabbath reunion cooled in the late Naughts, Dio (with Vinnie Appice in tow) once again joined Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler. The line-up responsible for Mob Rules and Dehumanizer reconvened under the name Heaven & Hell; the fruit of their union was 2009's The Devil You Know, which crushes virtually everything that Sabbath made after Mob Rules. Soon after the  album's release, Dio succumbed to stomach cancer. The Devil You Know stands as a fitting coda to a man who fearlessly flew the flag for metal, no matter which direction the winds of public opinion blew.

Tony Iommi was the primary songwriter for Black Sabbath, which made his prospects for a solo career redundant; as noted above, his individual endeavours were inevitably attached to the Sabbath name, whether he liked it or not. In 2000, Iommi finally released an album under his own name, joined by Nineties signifiers like Billy Corgan, Henry Rollins, and Peter Steele. Iommi (the album) was met with a lot of excitement upon its release, but seems disjointed and pandering in retrospect. It's the work of an artist from a bygone era borrowing credibility from some of his most famous fans - as well as Ozzy, who joined the guitarist for the song "Who's Fooling Who". [Unbelievably, the album was released by Sharon Osbourne on her vanity label Divine Recordings - presumably she never heard "Digital Bitch".] Still, the album established that Iommi could still summon bone crushing riffs when the mood was upon him, which justified the excitement for a new Sabbath album.

Geezer Butler also pursued a solo career around the turn of the millennium - the first of installment of which, Plastic Planet, managed to rope in Fear Factory's Burton C. Bell at the height of his popularity. [Like most things Fear Factory-related, that was cooler in 1995.] Plastic Planet still sounds unbelievably heavy, doing the Nineties groove metal thing with full-on double bass drumming and barked vocals. The two later albums of the G//Z/R triptych, Black Science and Ohmwork, unfortunately pursued the nu-metal moneytrain  -  without Bell, who was pursuing the same train with Fear Factory (as were several other prominent metal vanguards of the time).

Perhaps the least appreciated of the original Sabbath line-up, the solo work of Bill Ward is almost entirely removed from Sabbath's legacy of doom and devil worship. The albums he released under his own name are commendable for how adventurous they are (and for the fact that Ward is a pretty good singer). As progressive as anything by King Crimson, and as eclectic as anything in Bowie's discography, these albums are a far cry from the bandwagon-chasing that plagued the other Sabbath alumni. Metal journo Martin Popoff (who wrote two Sabbath biographies) has compared Ward to both John Lennon and Adrian Belew, and I'm not nearly qualified enough to argue. Fans of Sabbath at their heaviest are unlikely to glom on to these albums, and in truth I can't recommend them for any reason besides their sheer strangeness. But Ward's fearlessness, juxtaposed against Sabbath's creative decline immediately following his departure, suggests his role in shaping the early Sabbath material might be in need of reappraisal.


Black Sabbath • Paranoid • Master of Reality • Vol. IV • Sabbath Bloody Sabbath • Sabotage • Heaven and Hell