For nearly fifty years now, Black Sabbath have been worldwide heavy metal superstars, widely touted as the genesis of all metal music. From humble beginnings in Birmingham as the Polka Tulk Blues Band to their final concerts at Birmingham’s Genting Arena in February, Black Sabbath are one of the biggest, most well known & legendary bands ever. Whether it’s Tony Iommi’s iconic riffs, Geezer Butler’s unmistakably brilliant bass playing the, or the instantly recognisable Brummie drawl of Ozzy Osbourne, everyone knows who Sabbath are, as the original heavy metal band. Who knew that a horrific workplace accident that cost Tony Iommi his fingers would shape part of history, but low tunings & heavy, doom-laden riffs are now the hallmarks of heavy music. Yet here we are, with the blueprint for all metal.
Sabbath have written & released countless iconic songs over their five-decade career, but the time has now come to narrow it down to just ten songs. Your hosts for this evening, and eventual targets of abuse because we didn’t include your favourite are Liam Toner (@tonerliam) & Oliver Butler (@notoliverbutler).
10 – Snowblind – Vol. 4
Liam Toner: I don’t think I’ve ever heard cocaine described so beautifully before until I heard this track. Full of winter metaphors such as “crystal world of winter flowers” you might not have immediately guessed this was a song about a stimulant drug if the word “cocaine” wasn’t whispered blatantly to the listener at the start of the track. The song does actually have some quite pretty instrumentation throughout with the string section near the end and Iommi’s arpeggio chord progressions around 1:40 into the track.
Oliver Butler: By the time Vol. 4 came around, Sabbath were global superstars & enjoying the excesses that rock and roll stardom could only offer. During the recording of this album, the band ended up with more snow than the Alps, and wanted to call the whole album Snowblind as a wink to their new nasal neighbour. That bridge in the middle is an iconic Iommi riff, the sort that you hum out loud and tap your foot to at a moment’s notice. Whilst plans to call the album Snowblind were quickly put on ice, the band give a shout out to the “COKE A COLA” company in the album’s sleeve notes.
9 – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
OB: Another iconic Sabbath song here, and another classic case of them playing two songs at the same time, with a heavy, doom laden riff moving out the way for a chilled out acoustic section. It really feels like Ozzy hit a peak with his vocals on this record, especially with him shrieking “You bastards!” on this track. Do you recognise the bridge? Of course you do, it’s every modern-day metal breakdown you’ve ever heard, another part of the blueprint that Sabbath unknowingly put down.
LT: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath has an interesting dynamic going from the big and heavy main riff into the very relaxed and chill sections with softly plucked acoustic guitar creating an almost serene vibe. This serenity doesn’t stay for too long however and when this song goes into it’s bridge section. The shock of heavy riff sections into soft sections that takes place in most of the song is trumped by the sheer power of the riff heard at the bridge section. Dirty, dark and palm-muted this particular riff can be compared to breakdowns you find in metal and hardcore music years down the line. Sabbath influential as always here.
8 – Fairies Wear Boots – Paranoid
Oliver Butler: Looking back on it, Sabbath were always on the cutting edge, and it’s no surprise they were superstars, with Fairies Wear Boots being a prime example of what made them so damn good. FWB just feels like a jam, but with such coordination, chopping & changing tempos, chord progression & vibe to really change the feel of the song, straight from the stoner rock intro into the jaunty verse & chorus, complete with a screaming Iommi solo. There’s a reason they’re still at the forefront of people’s minds 50 years later, and it’s because of innovative sounds like these.
LT: Fairies Wear Boots shows the band at its best. The bands ability to easily change from musical idea to musical idea effortlessly in to sections that vary in style, tempo and tone is inspiring to take in. Every member of the band really shows their chops here, if it’s not TonyIommi’s bluesy lead riffs and melodies then it’s Geezer Butler’s busy bass playing and they all pull their weight fantastically and show you how tight of a band they really are. Sabbath in their early days could regularly play up to 6 to 8 sets a night quite often just jamming most of the time you can really see how this turned the band in to a well-oiled machine on this track.
7 – Symptom of the Universe – Sabotage
LT: Sabbath reminding us how ahead of their time they are as always on this one. The main riff of this song is a sound people would soon have to get used to when the sounds of Thrash Metal manifested a few years later. Punk band Doom would open their first Peel Session with a cover of this as well turning it into Crust Punk anthem which speaks volumes about the stretch of influence one Black Sabbath riff can have on music as a whole
OB: Sabbath is easily the foundation that modern metal is built on. There’s probably kids in metal bands today who think that Sabbath are a bunch of old men that your dad listen to, but little do they know what coarses through their veins, and as our man Liam Toner just referenced, this riff could have easily been placed onto one of the many thrash metal bands that broke through a decade later, and it wouldn’t have sounded out of place. It’s not so much Sabbath being ahead of their time, it’s more a case of them setting everyone else’s watch. It’s another classic case of Sabbath playing two songs at once, with the thrashy riff making way for a cool, sweetly picked acoustic bridge. Why? Tony fucking Iommi, that’s why.
6 – Iron Man – Paranoid
LT: Tony Iommi grabs the listeners attention at the beginning of this track with droning whammy bar sounds before the song erupts in to it’s main riff. Iron Man perfectly blends heaviness with catchiness in this song and Ozzy, singing lyrics on top about a great iron giant following the melody and rhythm of the riff itself is nothing short of anthemic. Although this main riff is probably a bit overplayed in people’s minds due to it being a favourite riff for beginner guitarists often heard in music and guitar shops the rest of the songwriting on the track is far too interesting to ignore. At around 3:40 in the track the band plays a descending scale pattern that switches in the blink of an eye into a slow pummelling groove you can’t help but appreciate how much chemistry this band has.
OB: Bewwwwwwwwwwwn, bewwwwwwwwwwn, bewwwwwwwwwn, DER, DER, DER DER DER,DERDERDERDERDER, DER DER DER. Even typed out, you know how that riff sounds. Despite the fact that Randy Rhoads rolled his eyes when Ozzy suggested playing this in his solo outfit, the simplicity of Iron Man’s riff is what makes it iconic. But like many Sabbath riffs, they were simplistic in their composition, but with the innovative downtuning giving it a demonic presence, every Sabbath riff struck with the force of an atomic bomb. Best bit of this song though? Definitely the ending, beginning with Geezer’s rattling bass and ending with Tony’s howling solo right over the top.
5 – Hand of Doom – Paranoid
LT: Hand of Doom starts with quite a mellow bluesy vibe letting Geezer Butler’s smooth bass playing lull you into a false sense of security so when the distortion and the drums really come in that same riff now hits you like a tonne of bricks. A few minutes into the song and then the band fall into this very static head bang worthy groove. As this song ramps up it’s intensity throughout it always goes back to Geezer’s bass line. This is dynamics at their best.
OB: Anyone who say Sabbath aren’t blues influenced need to take a long, hard look at themselves to be honest. Geezer Butler’s smooth, muted bass intro feels like you’re slowly sinking into a cushy red leather armchair, with the band kicking in all as one feeling like you’ve just been booted off that chair by four angry Brummies. It’s the way the dimly lit smoking bar is incinerated by a fireball that makes this song an iconic Sabbath song. If you’re looking for a good place to start with Black Sabbath, Paranoid is easily one of the best records to absorb yourself in.
4 – War Pigs – Paranoid
OB: Just the whole fucking Paranoid album man, look at this list, listen to the album and you’ll understand why this list is more or less Paranoid’s track list. The album was originally meant to be called War Pigs, and the chap on the front cover is a War Pig. However, the band needed a single from the album, and hey presto, Paranoid was born.
War Pigs is another song that’s still as lyrically relevant today as it was when pen was first put to paper on this song. Right from the slow intro that’s had millions of hands clap along to it, right to the solo at the end, there’s few songs as anthemic as this.
LT: It’s hard to get a song as iconic as this. When this song gets in to its main section with those fast and precise 2 chord changes it creates a great feeling of anticipation during which Ozzy’s expressive vocals fill the gaps in the music as the piece builds into the absolutely devastatingly powerful riff that’s nothing short of an absolute classic.
3 – Electric Funeral – Paranoid
LT: It’s the bass wah on this track that really makes this song stand out. An already dark and heavy riff in it’s own right but the wah gives the main riffs an extra catchiness factor that keeps this song in your head. The song then shifts into a seemingly different song where the instruments pick up the pace and turn into a bluesy frenzy.
OB: Geezer Butler’s use of the wah still feels innovative to this day, with Electric Funeral being a prime example of this. Of course many bass players have used wah before & since, but nothing feels as cutting edge as this. It’s the slow, stoner vibe at the start that really makes this song, but the way it breaks from a slow, stomping groove into a total ragefest is textbook Sabbath.
2 – Black Sabbathh – Black Sabbath
LT: This is where it all begins. An eerie church bell rings out and then you’re hit with a crushing, dark but most importantly evil guitar riff that chills you to the bone. Black Sabbath is without a doubt the first heavy metal song created. The aforementioned riff is based on a tritone (sometimes known as the devil’s interval) and ever since it actually becomes a challenge to find a song in almost all metal genres that doesn’t feature this style of riffing. The song actually manages to get creepier in the verses when Ozzy’s haunting lyrical delivery describes scenes of fear of satan himself. To top it all off the last section of the song breaks off from its dirge and into a great mid-tempo groove section as the song comes to climax.
OB: What a way to start off your recording career as a band. Whilst Evil Woman, Don’t You Play Your Games With Me was the first Sabbath song to crawl into people’s ears, this is the first song that transformed the band then called Earth, into the heavy metal godfathers that are Black Sabbath. That doom-bringing tritone riff with Ozzy’s apocalyptic lyrics layered over the top is the reason it’s widely touted as the first ever heavy metal song, and that growing riff at the end makes it one of the best introductions to a band you’ll ever hear. From the mouth of Geezer Butler, this song was written at a rehearsal when they were still playing 12 bar blues as Earth, then when this song dropped at one of their gigs, the crowd went wild, and as they say, the rest is history.
Ooooh here we are folks! Nine awesome songs have been covered, but now we get to the final one, the one that both of us have argued & agreed that is the best Black Sabbath song of all time. What do you think it is? What’s yours? Be sure to tell us in the comments so we can roundly agree with you or roundly deride you for your wrong choice.
But before we announce the best Sabbath song of all time, we’d like to give honourable mentions to Changes, Cornucopia, Zero the Hero, Heaven & Hell, Zeitgeist, God is Dead?, Planet Caravan, Lord of this World, Under the Sun/Every Day Comes, N.I.B, Dirty Women and of course, Paranoid. You are all filthy, dirty rifferoonies, but unfortunately, this hall is for the GOAT-tier Sabbath tracks, and the GOAT-iest of all GOAT tracks is:
1 – Children of the Grave – Master of Reality
LT: This song is dark, it’s heavy, it’s menacing and just has so much power behind it. The lyrics spark images of revolution in the mind and the backdrop drop of this song really makes this a soundtrack to bring down governments too. At the same time the song sounds totally apocalyptic as well and especially when that mammoth riff in the middle section comes in. This is Sabbath at their absolute best, each musician on their own is doing some great creative work here but this song isn’t about the individual musicians it’s about each member coming together to make something truly mighty and timeless, never losing it’s edge.
OB: Right from the muted intro into the stomping riff, through to the emphatic finish, this is one of the definitive Sabbath songs. Like most Sabbath songs, it’s the little idiosyncrasies that make this song, from Geezer’s fiddly bits in the verse, Tony’s riff that make a three piece feel like a five piece, Bill’s little fills on the drums and of course, Ozzy’s iconic voice acting as a call to arms. Despite the fact it was written over 40 years ago, many of Sabbath’s song, especially their political & anti-war songs still pack the same punch today as they did when the needles first hit the grooves of Master of Reality.