Black Sabbath’s inaugural record is generally considered to mark the birth of heavy metal, though few appreciated the gravity of the moment back in 1970. Critics and many other listeners compared Sabbath to their better-known contemporaries, Led Zeppelin – and not favorably.
Today that may seem a laughable comparison, given the totality of the bands’ respective catalogues. But it made sense back then, because in listening to Black Sabbath’s first album, one can hear a band in transition.
Before they became the chief purveyors of the devil’s music, singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Toni Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward were toiling as blues band. They were probably indistinguishable from the countless other Clapton-inspired blues bands playing pubs in England in the late 1960s.
Then came an episode that changed both the band’s direction and their prospects. As legend has it, bassist Butler awoke one night from a terrible dream and swore that he saw a figure in black, standing at the foot of his bed, pointing at him. He shared his experience with Osbourne and Iommi, who wrote a song based on their bassist’s nightmarish vision.
The song that would come to be called “Black Sabbath” was built around a pattern of notes known as the devil’s tritone, so named for its sinister sound and reported to have been banned by the church in the Middle Ages. The band that would come to be called Black Sabbath played the song in a pub the next night to stunned reactions.
Beyond the Blues
Recognizing that they were on to something, Ozzy and company adopted the occult persona that would follow them throughout their careers. Their debut album is dark and ominous from the moment the needle hits the vinyl, summoning the sound of a rainstorm and a bell tolling in the distance.
But for all its gloom and doom, Black Sabbath plays like a collection of extended blues jams. They might be drenched in heavy distortion and punctuated with menacing lyrics, but the songs are loose and open, with plenty of space for improvisation and unaccompanied solos.
Selling their Souls
Listening to Black Sabbath on vinyl is to hear those songs in their intended context. A well-known tune like “N.I.B.” sounds entirely different when you realize it’s the conclusion of a nine-plus-minute suite. Side B consists mostly of a sludgy, riff-heavy jam that culminates in “The Warning,” a 10-minute blues cover.
Both sides of the record are peppered with extraneous song titles such as “A Bit of Finger” and “Wasp,” which ostensibly break up some of those longer tracks. Added at the record company’s behest so that the buying public wouldn’t feel like they were paying full price for an album of five songs, they’re exactly the sort of titles one might skip over with a swipe of the thumb, assuming they’re filler.
Taken together, though, and they reveal Black Sabbath’s evolving identity – a Cream-inspired jam band discovering the commercial appeal of doom. It’s an identity they’d hone on later albums, with tuned-down instruments and dark lyrics. But their first album is a glimpse of a band in the process of discovering itself, just as the world was about to discover them.
Coffee Old Fashioned
It might not sound profound, or even particularly original, but this is easily one of the best drinks I’ve ever made. I whipped up a batch of cold brew and was looking to use it in some cocktails. In an Old Fashioned, the cold brew adds rich notes of coffee and mocha without overpowering the bourbon.
But it’s the xocolatl mole bitters that really steal the show here. With notes of chocolate, cinnamon, and spice, the bitters add another layer of flavor to this timeless classic.
- 2 ounces bourbon (I used Four Roses)
- ½ ounce homemade cold brew
- ½ ounce simple syrup
- 2 dashes Bittermen’s xocolatl mole bitters
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Orange twist
In a mixing glass, stir all ingredients (except the orange) with ice. Strain into a double rocks glass with a large ice cube. Twist the orange peel over the drink, rim the glass with the peel, and drop it into the drink.
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