BLACK SABBATH Black Sabbath (Sanctuary)

BLACK SABBATH Paranoid (Sanctuary)

Following last summer's mammoth quadruple album compilation, Castle's Sanctuary subsidiary present for our delectation the alpha and beta of black metal, stickered as "Limited edition classic re-issues on 180 gm vinyl". I'm not at all enthusiastic about heavy metal myself, but there seems to be something about early Black Sabbath that makes them entirely other from the genre. Maybe it's the way their influence has irradiated the music of hip young gunslingers from Nirvana to Mogwai, or how the underlying quality of the band's songwriting was exposed by The Cardigans' successful attempts to transpose "Iron Man" and "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" into twinkling, fluffy Europop. I'd wager that it has a great deal to do with the fact that, in their formative years as Earth, Sabbath unashamedly played an amalgam of jazz and blues that gives their early albums myriad extra dimensions and possibilities compared to the elephantine amped-up R and B of many of their contemporaries.

These albums might be over thirty years old, but they still remain an astonishing listen. "Black Sabbath" was reputedly taped for the princely sum of 600, as the band simply replicated their live set in the studio environment (bar the introductory few seconds of tolling church bells and thunderstorm). So authoritative a bootprint do they leave over the material that it comes as a surprise to discover that two of the seven tracks are covers (the single "Evil Woman" was written by a band called Crow, and "Warning" is a product of Aynsley Dunbar's Retaliation). From the sluggish tempo of the title track, where the beats-per-minute struggle to hit double figures, to Ozzy's lightning harmonica work on the high-kicking, kinetic and surprisingly joyous "The Wizard", this album drips with innovation, driven along by an ever-present undercurrent of threat and foreboding.

Released later in 1970, "Paranoid" might be seen as the populist Sabbath choice, spawning their trademark tune in the title track. Compared to the debut it definitely seems more carefully co-ordinated and together, their influences meshing together seamlessly in their quest for the definitive Sabbath sound. The change in the band's music is analogous to that undergone by Led Zeppelin between their first two albums: the different strands are woven more tightly together, and the juggernaut begins to gather pace. They still play at glacial pace when the need arises ("War Pigs", during which Ozzy rhymes 'masses' with 'masses', and are you going to complain?, and "Iron Man") but there's also the crunching poptones of the title track and the foggy psychedelia of "Planet Caravan" to contend with. "Hand Of Doom" practically invents grunge, alternating bluesy, creeping verses with crashing, wailing choruses. Even the token, "Moby Dick"-esque drum solo, "Rat Salad", is tolerable. But the rough edges and genre-straddling lurches that characterised their debut seem to have been smoothed over, and whilst still indisputably a great album for me it has to come second to the all-conquering might of "Black Sabbath".

These reissues are presented with the respect that these albums deserve, which comes as something of a relief after years of murky Sabbath pressings. "Paranoid" has been cleaned up to the extent that the piano line that slithers through "Planet Caravan" is now clearly audible, and "Black Sabbath" matches the dynamic donner and blitzen of Castle's excellent (for a CD, at least) Essential! reissue. The sleeves arrive in the full glossy gatefold glory of the originals, with neat replications of the front cover artwork on the side A labels. If you've somehow escaped the might and majesty of Black Sabbath over the last three decades, these albums offer the perfect opportunity to rectify that oversight.

BLACK SABBATH Sabotage (Sanctuary)

Sanctuary's excellent 180 gram vinyl reissue program reaches possibly the last Black Sabbath album worth getting excited about, here presented in a fabulously dated wallpaper textured sleeve. Having introduced the synthesiser to heavy metal on the groundbreaking "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" album, the band travel even further out of the box on "Sabotage": "Don't Start (Too Late)" is a brilliant, brief snatch of acoustic guitar that borders on flamenco, and "Supertzar" introduces a choir. But at the same time the basic quality of songwriting seems to be teetering on the brink of the terminal decline that would see the band slide progressively into parody over the next few decades, offering little more that regressive rehashes of former glories, enjoyable in a faded, nostalgic fashion but no longer at the cutting edge. Admittedly the other members of British metal's Big Three, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, suffered similar declining inspiration at around the same time, only to be dealt a mortal body blow by the arrival of punk. In fact, you have to wonder how the Black Sabbath legacy might be viewed today had they done the decent thing and split up in the mid-70s, close to their artistic peak. All of which makes "Sabotage" an interesting but ultimately inessential document, finely pressed and packed to Sanctuary's usual high standards.


Ozzy Osbourne