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A Video History of Metal, Part 1: Origins

You would be hard-pressed to find a musical style whose origin is more poetic than that of metal. On Friday, the 13th of February, in the year 1970, the first heavy metal album was released — Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut. The opening track, also titled “Black Sabbath,” sets an ominous mood with the sounds of a rainstorm and church bells, then erupts with a confident tritone.

 

The tritone — the diabolus in musica — was already a marker of musical irreverence since the 1940’s bebop revolution. Jazz musicians handled the interval delicately, by superimposing “tritone substitutions” in harmonic progressions, or adding a #11 to cadential chords. But in the opening seconds of “Black Sabbath,” the originators of metal announce that they are not as concerned with subtlety or nuance. If a tritone needs to be heard, then it needs to be highlighted. This attitude defines so much of metal to come: it isolates the key elements of rock — guitar-based arrangements, angsty vocals, and a strong rhythmic drive — and amplifies them.

In this track, singer Ozzy Osbourne laments being the “chosen one” — as though intuitive of the fact that he would become a primary target for media outrage over metal’s sinister overtones, yet compelled to stay the course, for the sake of dispelling the haze of naiveté, woven by 60’s idealists, obscuring Western youth’s vision of a stark, disappointing world. In Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal, Ian Christe writes:

The new Black Sabbath songs sought peace and love — not in the flower patches of Donovan and Jefferson Airplane but in the grim reality of battlefields and human ovens. Ozzy Osbourne delivered these lyrics as if in a trance, reading messages of truth written in the sky.

Metal’s sound was quite literally forged in the industrial city of Birmingham, where Osbourne and guitarist Tony Iommi worked in factories before devoting their full attention to their music careers. Sabbath’s classic loud, earth-pounding drones are surely an echo of the inhuman clang that was part of Birmingham’s sonic landscape. In a most serendipitous turn of events, Iommi lost the tips of two fretting hand fingers in a factory accident just a couple of years before Black Sabbath recorded their first album. To cope with the pain of playing, he would eventually detune his guitar three half-steps.

To this day, Black Sabbath’s second and third albums remain a blueprint for the creation of metal music. Their sophomore release, Paranoid, introduces the key elements of a metal arrangement — doubled bass and guitar, pessimistic lyrics, palm-muted guitar riffs, sparse textures, and agressive rhythmic grooves. The songs on Master of Reality are slower and beefier, forecasting the gloomy metal and grunge of the 90’s.

Black Sabbath were promethean. Christe describes the birth of metal more deftly than I could:

Emerging like the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a contemporaneous influence, Black Sabbath was as irreducible as the bottomless sea, the everlasting sky, and the mortal soul. There was no precedent–and no literal explanation of their power was needed. Their gloomy tones were a captivating siren call to a deep unsatisfied void within modern consciousness. The rumbling sludge of heavy metal was inevitable, lying in long wait to be introduced by Black Sabbath in 1970 and adored by the massive human sprawl.

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