Metal music is known for dabbling in dark, evil, sinister subjects. Black Sabbath— generally considered the first real metal band — was certainly no exception!
Was Black Sabbath the first metal band? Not 100%. Led Zeppelin, Cream and even Jimi Hendrix at least had significant proto-metal aspects to their music. However, Black Sabbath came along and more clearly defined the heavier aspects of hard rock.
Before I get to the list, let me address a few points about my criteria. First, yes, I am only including Ozzy-era Sabbath in these selections. Why? While few wish to be seen as “anti-Dio,” it’s ultimately a matter of preference. The classic line-up was arguably the definitive Black Sabbath. Now let’s get to the list!
Heavy as hell yet strangely vibrant and uplifting, “Supernaut” is one of Sabbath’s best, catchiest tunes. While it’s not particularly dark and gloomy, it’s nevertheless peppered with great lines like, “I’ve seen the future and I’ve left it behind.” You also have to love the funky breakdown, which reminds you Sabbath is also a very groove and rhythm-driven band.
The main riff commands attention and respect, and you also have the trill-infested guitar solos. It’s claimed that “Supernaut” features alternative icon Beck’s favorite riff of all time. Similarly, Frank Zappa is said to have loved the song, as well as “Iron Man.”
Keep in mind, Frank wasn’t really a lover of all popular rock music, so it kind of means something. Again, it’s not the darkest Sabbath song, but it’s one of their best. This list would be naked without it!
From the 1970 album of the same name, “Paranoid” is a short yet sweet anthem about depression and paranoia. It features simple lines like, “Happiness I cannot feel and love to me is so unreal.” It’s a very relatable song for people who have dealt with depression. Sometimes happiness indeed seems like an impossible thing, at least sometimes.
In many ways, “Paranoid “may be Sabbath’s most straightforward and even “punkiest” song. Its driving, insistent rhythm and bouncy bass fills are always classic. Fun guitar fact: The guitar solo makes use of a seriously underrated effect called the ring modulator.
Said to be influenced by Cream’s main riff to “Sunshine of Your Love,” “N.I.B.” is understood to stand for “Nativity in Black.” Basically, the song is about the birth of the anti-Christ — a horror theme, to be sure.
Of course, it’s also theoretically about Satan falling in love and changing his ways. While not all of Sabbath’s songs use Satan in a literal way (or at all), it’s something they became quite notorious for.
Musically, this is one of their most instantly recognizable riffs, heightened by the presence pf a snarling wah tone on guitar. The North American Edition begins with other song segments titled “Wasp / Behind the Wall of Sleep / Bassically.”
From the album “Vol. 4,” “Snowblind” is quite simply about cocaine. Or is it? (Okay, yes it is. The guys sniffed up a lot of white powder in their days). Still, this song isn’t exactly glorifying the drug. It refers to “Icicles within my brain” and even throws in the line, “You’re the one that’s really the loser,” as if the lyrical narrator’s pathetically defending his habit with a loved one or friend.
Seriously, when I listen to it I imagine someone flipping over a table before, during or after angrily shouting that line. It’s another Sabbath song that could arguably become a movie.
It’s actually a rather sad theme, as opposed to saying, “Hey, kids! Why not try a white line?” Of course, it could be interpreted other ways, thanks to some clever wintry imagery in the lyrics.
Even though the word cocaine is even whispered at times, one could reasonably say it’s about feeling cold and unloved and leave it at that. Featuring some epic trill guitar from Tony Iommi, “Snowblind” is arguably one of Sabbath’s best (and oddly darkest) songs.
6. Iron Man
How to start a classic rock song? There’s one way we all know of: Cue the bass drum, then the bent low guitar note, and then Ozzy’s robot voice saying “I am Iron Man.” Top it all off with one of the most recognizable rock riffs of all time. Boom!
“Iron Man” is definitely one for the ages. Its story is weird, involving a time-travelling man going to the future, seeing the apocalypse, travelling back and being changed into steel my a magnetic storm. Then, when he gets back to earth, no one believes his message and it fuels a murderous rage and desire for revenge, thus fulfilling his own prophecy.
Weird, huh? Supposedly, in order to get his voice distorted in the intro, Ozzy spoke through a metal fan. Personally, I think it sounds like another ring modulator effect, but maybe it is just a fan. It’s a nice touch, either way!
5. Electric Funeral
Boasting a sinister sounding, wah-infused guitar riff, “Electric Funeral” is another blatantly apocalyptic tune. It appears to be about a nuclear holocaust, comparing it to hell on earth. The lyrics are definitely not for ultra-optimists who require songs about smiling people holding hands, or birds, trees, puppies and flowers (there’s always John Denver for that, although even he wrote some sadder tunes).
Another great thing here is the fluctuation in moods. The initial slow parts give way to a transitional breakdown, then there’s a somewhat funky and frantic section, as if to emphasize an increasingly imminent demise. Then, when things slow down again, there’s a sense that humanity’s just barely alive, faced with a hell of its own design. Cheerful stuff!
4. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Boasting some of the heaviest riffs in metal of any era, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” is sometimes considered the song that saved the band. Oddly enough, the song also has some splendid softer sections before getting to the heaviest, crunchiest parts. At about 3 minutes and 20 seconds in, this was probably the heaviest sounding guitar riff available anywhere at the time.
That sounds like hyperbole, but it’s really not. In fact, plenty of metal heads still consider this the heaviest metal song of all time, even without the “cookie monster” vocals so common to metal nowadays.
3. Hand of Doom
With hard-hitting lyrics by bassist Geezer Butler, “Hand of Doom” is arguably Sabbath at their most specifically topical. Released in 1970, the song was timely in that it noted the increasing number of Vietnam Veterans dying from drug addictions, as a result of them trying to forget the atrocities of war.
Yes, this song also has some heavy riffs and a slower, rather jazzy verse section, but the lyrics to this one aren’t to be trifled with. They are heavy as hell even without the music. Although some of his lines are silly, Geezer is sort of an underrated lyricist.
2. Black Sabbath (song)
Widely considered to be the first doom metal song, Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” comes from the album Black Sabbath, and it also seems to come from hell. Its main riff features an interval called “diabolus in musica,” which helps lend it that sinister quality.
Also, the slow, lumbering pace of the track assists in that vibe, as well as Ozzy’s strained and almost tortured vocal delivery. Of course, the pace does quicken, which again makes it sound like people panicking during the end times.
After singing about a “Big black shape with eyes of fire” who is “Telling people their desire” as “flames get higher and higher,” you know it’s not about the Care Bears on a picnic. While some other bands were equally ahead of their time in some ways, Sabbath had this ability to simultaneously also sound ancient. Finally, you gotta’ love the wah guitar parts in this song!
1. War Pigs
One of the greatest anti-war songs of all time, “War Pigs” is arguably also the darkest song in Black Sabbath’s arsenal. It’s apparently also appreciated in an endless supply of reaction videos on Youtube. While most reactors don’t like certain songs, I have yet to see a single Youtuber say this song sucks.
Now, I haven’t talked enough about bassist Geezer Butler, but this song hugely showcases his frantic and bouncy bass playing. There are also some legendary drum rolls, and Iommi’s riffs and playing are once again perfect for the song.
Ozzy delivers the lyrics in a rather bluesy manner, but it does nothing to prevent this from being a metal song. Interestingly, “War Pigs” manages to sound timeless, like a heavy 1970s track, and very futuristic all at the same time.
What are your thoughts on Black Sabbath and this list? Let us know in the comments!