Perfect Sound Forever

More Guitar Gawdz Than You Can Shake A Les Paul At
What's Guinness Got That We Ain't? Part III

Photo from Black Sabbath Online homepage

Hell on Earth: Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)
by Marc S. Tucker
(May 2006)

This is part three of a continuing series recalibrating the Guitarist Pantheon, a meadhall presently lobotomized by too interminable an immersion in the uber-capitalistic wiles of Rolling Stone and kindred drekgartens. The first installment centered on Robert Fripp as Prime Guitar Genius, while the second visited Mssrs. Steve Hackett and Gary Green. Both are available for perusal in PSF's vast archives, whence you are invited to wallow and cavort. From prog, we switch to metal, its incestuous sister, to again take a full-length look at someone who, though idolized, has never received his due as the true father of modern hellbrew guitar, interpolating into the assessment a premonitory re-evaluation of the term 'metal.'

Metal/Rock: What's the Diff?
"Only Pedals, My Son, Only Pedals"

When you're a crit, you have to field a lot of bizarre claims from people who should know better. For instance, an otherwise quite intelligent collector once attempted the luckless task of educating me on the apparently universally accepted fact that metal started with Cannibal Corpse... or maybe it was Dark Angel? Perhaps Celtic Frost? Slayer? Megadeth? Could even have been Keel... I just wasn't paying much attention after the first few sentences. Anything before that, the proposition went, couldn't be considered prototypically metalline. As I stared agog, he merely sat on the statement, assuming its merest utterance was inherently quintessential proof, QED. Well, then, I asked: Uriah Heep, Gun, Three Man Army, Black Sabbath, and the legion of '60's/'70's groups were.... what? Country rockers? Dylan clones? Bubble-gummers? No, he replied nonchalantly, all of that was merely "hard rock." I shook my head, sorry to hear this because, once, sitting amongst 18,000 people as Jimi Hendrix, Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding played their brains out, I could've sworn we all were listening to top-notch, brain-bending, cardiac-inducing, killer, psychedelic proto-heavy-metal music. Silly us.

Rivetheads need to get one very tiny, gratifyingly simple, extremely comprehendable fact into their heads: metal isn't really predicated on composition, nor on repeated chords, nor even on screaming vocals (yea!, lo!, I do sayeth: not even the new crushed-toad basso counterparts), and certainly not on any tonnage of pot-alloy studs and ebony leather, but only and solely on the devices between strings and amplifier: stomp boxes, trouble switches... you know: disfuckingtortion!

What first, last, and always has made metal metal has been the pulse-pounding warp of tone and pitch into colonnades of blazingly stygian darkness (to mix a metaphor or two). That C-chord that Dave Mustaine plays? It's the exact same one Ralph Towner and Andres Segovia strum, no difference anywhere except in intonation and electronic blast furnace upsurge. What makes a C-chord metal is the pedal catching the signal from the pick-ups, transforming it, then sending it to the speakers. The plain and simple truth is: without distorters, no metal. Doubt it? Go back and listen to Hawkwind's first LP (which antedates Death Angel by... what? 10,000 years?). Everything Dave Brock would do on later albums, screaming up from the crystalline bottom of diodes and humbuckers, is right there in his acoustic lines. They're not metal, they're rock. You could even make the case for dark folk if you strained things, and quite tame at that, though psychologically shuddersome and highly effective. Those songs also are the exact same framework which informed the foundry-massive In Search of Space just one year later. Kiss-whelped mop tops of the '80's, please pay heed.

The possibility for metal began as soon as Les Paul inserted electronics into a guitar body - it merely took a while for the inevitable twists to manifest properly: hardware, approach, etc. In the '60's, the most basic electronics had been changing, inventors soon devising outboard modules, giving players infinitely broader possibilities. All that new equipment couldn't possibly fit within the thin parameters of the guitar itself, so it got stuffed into pedals and boxes, sometimes serving as bells and whistles in amps. Distortion capabilities were the most interesting, leading to psychedelia, the bottom-line of metal and prog. From there, Dan Scratch's much belabored ruby rear and hellfire were just a breath away.

It would be as false to say that any one group could be singled out as having "invented metal" as to assert that the style didn't emerge until the advent of much heavier distortion devices in the last couple decades. Those present from the inception can point to peach crates full of lonely LP's, each completely foreign to the cereal box mentality of modern metal zines but pregnant with delicious polymer ephemera, from Armageddon to Zephyr, with such colorful occupants as Dust, Bloodrock, Mountain, Blue Cheer, and an endless procession of ensembles who'd come and gone without the necessity of Metal Blade, Combat, Grudge, or similar merchants ineptly trying to put a gold star to their credentials.

Tons of groups in the '60's and '70's were unearthing the archetypal staples, from '50's pop chartmakers to bluesmen, but, in fact, the debt of rock back to blues stretched also to metal because, believe it or not, the hypnotic insistence and pounding fury of metal culture actually began in the churning root chords of Bo Diddly and others, a fundament white blues'ers were never shy of latching onto. They weren't the only ones. Chart hopefuls everywhere caught that train, hopping on the caboose when necessary. The laity need look no further than one of the most enduring novelties in the catalogue: Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" was folk-gospel in metal mascara and it tore up the charts. So, we had to wait for Mike Varney, Century Media, and Mausoleum to rear their mercantile heads before the phylum was acceptable? Hardly. Off the shelf, outta the bin LP's opened up the doors for a whole new masthead while neo-Metal labelheads were still chasing Mommy's apron, and no one put venom-dripping fangs into the mouth of the medium more decisively than Tony Iommi, continuously defining the mode's quintessentially satanic wellsprings from the very first Black Sabbath LP, all the way up to Ozzy's departure (whom, we will find, was the real motive force behind the ensemble, perhaps its true genius, oddly enough).

The Dark God Emerges
Tony Iommi: 1970 - 73

What really happens in any new genre is a matter of some splinter-sound from other styles developing, bands playing around with it, no one quite realizing what's in the shadows until someone steps up, tears the brass ring off the wall, and issues what's then recognized as the definitive commencement point, wherein the melding has ceased and a full-blooded style emerged. Black Sabbath was that point. For all intents and purposes, heavy metal began as a category of music with their first LP.

Iommi wasn't just a guitar player, but rather a sonic dramaturge and literateur. He may have slowly fallen to pieces after Never Say Die - though acceptable arguments could be framed that the process actually began with Sabotage - and Ozzy may have been far more an influence than anyone suspected, but it was Iommi's fingers that were fretting the chords and flying through the leads. No one, but no one, has ever equalled that work. It's so devastating a body of output that even the most brain-dead punkers (that is to say: most of 'em) stand in awe of it. Sabbath's first LP sits as one of the most untouchably immortal rock albums ever produced and the riveting sounds twisting and turning therein haven't aged a micro-second since they burned themselves into the minds of eager young audiences. Many nimble-fingered technicians were faster than Iommi, many more had broader backgrounds and could switch sounds and tempers, but no one could choose notes or chords, nor play, with such consummate restraint and taste within the milieu. Especially on that first LP, the listener knew he was hearing something never heard elsewhere. Had horror writer H.P. Lovecraft been able to inspissate an alchemical longevity philtre (potion), plop a wild tousled wig on his balding bigoted pate, and join a drug-swilling groupie-ravaging band (a hilarious image, actually, considering what a roaring conservative Lovecraft was), he'd have been Tony Iommi. The raven-haired meister played the exact same way the shuddersome Arkham fabulist wrote: with class, dignity, pacing, and a marrow-deep taste for macabre mind-theater.

How metal really obtained its landmark birth came as a matter of fate. Iommi had been with the garage band Earth when he suffered misfortune at his industrial day job: the tips of two of his fretting fingers got lopped off. Though ample legendry abounds regarding what came next, the plain truth is that he melted down a detergent bottle to fashion prosthetics for digits now ultra-sensitized to pressure. This helped matters but what really aided him, and all metal, was the detuning of his guitar strings, making them looser, easier to play, but also investing significant depth, as happens in such instances. To detune a string down is to drive its sound lower in register, obtaining longer-ringing fuller harmonics with plenty of natural transient distortion, the psychological result being a sense of much heavier substance.

When Black Sabbath emerged in 1970, it fell on the landscape like the hordes of Daemonia loosed to prep an unwitting planet for insensate doom, monsters and goblins snaking up from the four corners of Hades, ravening for flesh and brains. No one had ever heard such chilling music. Holst was a piker in comparison. It was straight from the darkest corners of the mental ward, emitted by fevered inmates locked away in the bowels of an institute headshrinkers instinctively feared. The LP cover alone was Gothically unsettling: a color-shifted and seemingly aqua-tinted photo of a dark-robed tight-lipped witch trudging along backcountry weed-choked woodlands, a solitary crow (etched into the print) stolidly perched atop a gnarled and dying tree trunk. The first word that sifted up from the limbic system was 'Salem'. Then came the sonics.

In the recent-ish Castle reissue/remaster, Hugh Gilmour makes the idiotic statement that the recording quality of Black Sabbath was "rough." Balderdash. It's perfect. What on earth could be flawed? Roger Bain, who'd later helm many top-notch ensembles (Judas Priest, Barclay James Harvest, Alquin, etc.), produced it. Tom Allom, likewise involved with many stand-outs (Strawbs, Wishbone Ash, Siren) co-engineered. The result was as purgatorial as the most demented necromancer could have cast runes for, tailored for exactly the atmosphere it belched forth: dark, brooding, menacing, hellish, and dementedly literate. Strikingly, even a harmonica and jaw harp were employed and managed to come off not Okie but rusticly bizarre. Raw? Not at all.

The record opens with dismal rain, church bell tolling forlornly in the background. The group crashes in on the eighth chime, an odd choice (7 and 3 are mystical numbers in the occult lexicon), beginning a constant contrast of thundering pronunciamento and subtly tense volume shifts. Iommi wastes not a single note in the entire LP - if you listen to the US version, that is. The English issuance had a cut the record company (Vertigo) boneheadedly thought would be a hit, a middling cover of "Evil Woman." It went nowhere, having been recorded half-assedly and quarter-heartedly in comparison to the rest of the disc. The song did no real credit to either the American bluesrockers who wrote it (Crow, a great unkown band) or to the Brit demon-mongers themselves. Wiser heads prevailed and it was, thank all the squibberish dark gods, shitcanned in the States.

When one writes poetry sublimely, not a word is used but that each is first long considered and entirely apt; here, Iommi followed that deeply analytical suit. Lacking a companion for dueted overlays, he resorts to frequent dubbing. This is where Hugh Gilmour had missed the boat entirely: the obvious differences in timbre are far from flaws, they bolster the ubiquitous sense of weird dimensions all sitting alongside one another, creating the sort of disjointed atmosphere necessary to horror. Ozzy croaks out his gooseflesh-inducing trademark vocals, Bill Ward plays dead-on perfect drums, and Geezer Butler provides an ebon-murky bottom, but Iommi displays what would be a constant for many LP's: every single bar is maddeningly perfect. He trotted out, for a long period, what other axe maestros, most of them under-received (Mick Ralphs, Tim Renwick, Dick Weigand, etc.), could maintain for only brief periods, trading off chords and runs with a precision and artfulness rare to the form in any of its many sub-categories. Iommi's true genius lies not just in his pristine choice of notes and chords, but in the timing, restraint, and arrangement of them. Arrangement, though, is a matter little noted, misunderstood even amongst the most attentive, therefore deserving of a moment or two of discussion.

Back to Hell

Black Sabbath is a museum piece for the discretionary process inherent in truly great art. Its full measure cannot be properly expressed in words. If this debut was indeed "rough," the fact failed to register with the public, who snapped it up at an astonishing rate, placing the release in the Top 10 alongside the Beatles (Let It Be) and The Who (Live at Leeds), guaranteeing continued life to a group which had earned respect thus far only through an impressive concert schedule, unknown beyond street level word of mouth. The LP was produced for a pittance and in just three days, but the "primitive" equipment used was obviously not all that deleterious - moreover, though completely beside the point, the decision to issue the product on Friday the 13th of February, 24 hours before Valentine's Day, was slyly subversive.

To that end, Iommi came up with a strange little twist on dubbing. On songs like "Wicked World," he had a bizarre penchant for running on top of himself in such claustrophobic proximity that the notes practically spike one another, further stranged-out through dislocated timbres. Yet it works like a charm. As well, where Fripp and Hackett mastered volume levels as compositional side-pockets, Iommi crafted his own sonic distancing through the soundboards, placing the guitar all over the stereo field. One moment, it might be magnified to sit right next to the listener, then telescope away to a graveyard a mile away, glowering like a frustrated, smoldering, malevolent imp, rain pouring on its head, steam rising as the little monster huffs over vexations and torments. The rest of the group benefitted from this as well. Bain had a hand in it, but Iommi caught the imaging beautifully, warping his presence into stereo wizardry.

The extremest charm of that dimensionalizing, unfortunately, was immediately shed for the second LP, Paranoid (1970 as well, rushed out in case the hit status of the first slab was somehow a fluke), in favor of more straightforward documentation. The pace picked up a bit but the simple tunes were as compelling as before and Iommi's expressions faultless. The dumb-ass cover abashed itself with a ridiculously offputting time-lapsed photo of some yokel in a cheapshit comic-book outfit brandishing sword and shield, but the use of the title track for a single proved wise, shooting the LP immediately to the #1 slot in the UK. Iommi showed nothing technically overpowering, but his pristine taste once more won the day. Bizarrely, "Iron Man," of all Sabbath's incredible tunes, was to become the band's marker, brayed out at concerts by drunken lunkheads, to the dismay of those who appreciated music over Nugent-oriented thump-a-bump and jingoisms.

Subject matter shifted drastically, from Lovecaftian environments to modern-world hells, inveighing against the "War Pigs" infesting the globe and pondering diseased mental states ("Paranoid"). What few knew at the time was that Ozzy was singing about himself in the latter tune. However, the instrumental flavors remained solid. If there's a rougher Satie of metal, it's Tony Iommi (and Rammstein seems to be about the only modern ensemble to have picked up on it). "Planet Caravan" though showed a side to the group that would emerge only rarely, a threnodic capability in crafting balladic lament, slightly jazzed toward the end on this cut, with Alvin Lee-ish leadwork. Iommi, when he wanted, could work with the delicacy of a Blackmore, threading in the same sort of embellishments fans so favored in Ritchie. Every second of this album reeked of class and unutterable discernment; the guitarist was playing with the same sense of sublime perfection that only the best writers and graphic artists invoke.

Master of Reality (1971) juggled the first two LPs thematically but tended ever more toward a juxtaposition of dark but positive philosophizings on the modern human condition, calling down hypocrisy and tackling social phobias normally avoided by rockers ("Sweet Leaf"); all the while, the guitarist was carrying out the same sounds with gratifying fidelity. Iommi dropped into the grinding groove, dredging up inverted riffs, eruptive tectonic chords, and time-slowing progressions. As ever, the simple melodies were letter perfect, the change-ups dramatic, and the hooks spellbinding. Ward and Butler supplanted his frontline with boulder-solid rhythms, Ward especially charismatic as a guy who never indulged in histrionic percussives but held the line with arresting imagination in such a narrow window. "Solitude" continued the minute mellifluous bent, ironically the lyrically darkest return to occult hopelessness after the debut, mourned atop Iommi's troubadoric strumming and delicate leads. Lester Bangs, in one of his too many inchoate essays, made much of this release as an example of monotony in regalia, but it's nothing of the sort. The Bangheaded One, Romilared in the bullpen, was merely vacantly drooling while waiting for the Ramones to slouch up to the plate and put a backbeat to his codeine haze.

Volume 4 (1972) was peppered with healthy doses of psychedelia, starting off, in "Wheels of Confusion", with an intro that would've done Amon Duul proud. Iommi multi-tracked more than usual, doubling up the hallucinatory power of his lines. The entire LP possessed a greatly skewed sense, somewhat because of the inadequate engineering (Roger Bain had exeunted, co-producer Patrick Meehan being an inadequate sub, hence not all the choices do justice to the group) but also due to the fact that the lads seemed to be more poetic this time out, perhaps Romantically so. "Changes" was their most naked concession to the mainstream, the latest toned-down number on the menu, this time lushed out by a mellotron. "FX" abstracted psychedelic noodling into the ozone for a few minutes until "Supernaut" pounded it into submission. "Snowblind" featured an extremely clever recovery from the middle eight while "Cornucopia" was hideously mis-documented, drowning the players, muddy beyond belief, providentially rescued by the new wrinkle: an orchestral context. The instrumental "Laguna Sunrise," also not very well captured, would prove an item of hot debate and anxious anticipation for many years amongst Sabbophiles, a rumor to the effect that Tony was planning a full LP with just himself, an acoustic guitar, and a background symphony. Given the masterful colorations of this cut, it was an irresistable seduction from the grapevine, one that would rebloom many times until it became obvious the whispers were nothing more than just that: formless, insubstantial, and doomed to disappointment.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) was first infamous for its magnificent Drew Struzan cover, a combination of Andrew Wyeth, the Marquis von Bayros, and Mike Kaluta (who would illustrate two superb Sab-Trib CD's). It stirred controversy with, first, unapologetic nudity and, thereafter, the blatantly satanic theme of a dying man preyed upon by incubi and succubi, a demonically ghosted version of the flip-side painting - wherein the same victim, now virtuous, is attended in his death bed by the same mourning relations who had, seconds ago, been the monsters. The band opted to assume production chores, cleaning up the Meehan problems to a degree but by no means completely (Meehan had been retained for "direction," whatever the hell that might have meant: a glorified A&R flunkie?). Bain should've remained their permanent producer. Overall, a great LP but Iommi was losing the razor's edge he'd maintained to this point. The spotless separations of their instrumental armada gave way to a more homogenous triage, nicely bludgeoned but not as stultifyingly commanding. "Fluff" became the instrumental continuation of "Changes," with "Laguna Sunrise"'s near-symphonic overtones, even a bit of Peter Green-ish reverbed backscatter tossed in edgewise, nicely composed and Faurevian in its simplicity, not dissimilar in a harpsichordal way to Fripp's "Song of the Gulls."

"Sabbra Cadabra" proved that the band could swing, not to the extent of a "Buck's Boogie" but with barrelhouse rolling through the intro. It switches into a progressive take halfway through and... that piano you're hearing? Rick Wakeman. However, when Wakeman's not present, we're hearing Tony on the ivories, and not a bad presentation either. Moreover, he also tackles the harpsichord mentioned a moment ago, along with organ and synths, and flute and bagpipes, Geezer circling in behind on secondary synths and mellotron. A complaint is made that the keyboards took over on this LP and it's true; the band's no longer Iommi's. At least for the time being, he's more a rhythm guitarist - which isn't to say you don't get a fair share of those noble strings but that the arrangements are decidedly weighted away from previous norms, edging into symphonic metal. For all that, Bloody is regarded as a metal staple and the fen were given a look-see into Iommi's fuller capabilities.

See Part 2 of the Tony Iommi article

Also see our article on Black Sabbath's early years

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