Friday, January 20, 2017

LET THEM EAT METAL #7: Paranoid by Black Sabbath (Taking a look back at the beginning of a style while dealing with the end of an era)

In the days of yore, when pop music meant something, it was filled with nourishing musical ideas and showed the tides of progress.  But then something happened, the ability for it to fill our soul has nearly vanished, and the masses are starved on good music.  There’s the occasional quality track that stays good after multiple spins, but it has gotten to the moment where even good pop music gets stale.  We live in a white-bread world in mainstream music.  However, there’s salvation from the drek that the masses need to know about.  In the words of Marie Antoinette, or more accurately The Rods quoting her: “LET THEM EAT METAL!”

Hello degenerates, heathens, weirdos, and deviants.  I am the Rock Otaku, and I’m here to show you worlds such as hard rock, metal, punk, alternative rock, movies, TV, anime, video games, and anything that makes us scream and shout at the war pigs.

This series is dedicated to the best that heavy metal can offer.  As you will read, I will take you on a journey though the annals of heavy metal’s storied history from its beginning in early 70s, its crystallization in the late 70s and early 80s, its breakthrough into mainstream conscience in the early to mid-80s, its maturation in the late 80s and 90s, its dominance (sort of) in the 2000s and even today, and the rare moments that very few talk about unless in the company of like-minded fans.  Not in that order, but I’ll be looking at the footnotes oh metal history in the order I desire.  In short, this series is about metal, plain and simple.

And for this entry, depending on when you read it, it will have been posted at what is considered the tail end of an era of civility.  An era of progress.  An era of attempts at bridging our differences.  An era of forcing those ideals down the throats due to the left's superiority complex, which lead to the rise of the alt-right, a group of backwards-minded idiots.  And in my mind, what better way to bridge cultures, ethnicities, beliefs, and even interests without being annoying about them is there than heavy metal.  Heavy metal, a genre built on alienation, dark undercurrents, classical ideas (from composition to philosophy and even fashion sense), rebellion, and the sense that things are full of crap.  While it may be hard to deal with depression alone, one way that I can cope with such dark feelings is by laying back or doing something mundane or basic while turning up a mix of Metallica, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motörhead, Slayer, Megadeth, Accept, Anthrax, Ozzy Osbourne, Dio, Ratt, Dokken, Mötley Crue, Helloween, Manowar, Pantera, Jag Panzer, Lamb of God, Anvil, At The Gates, Shadows Fall, Killswitch Engage, Disturbed, Rhapsody Of Fire, Slipknot, Galneryus, Periphery, Edguy, Hammerfall, Sabaton, Skull Fist, X Japan, and many others and suddenly not just have a reason to live but realize that there are many others dealing with dark paths and preserving on.  It really is a cathartic genre, and it could be seen as musical therapy for depression, ostracization from society, and other issues.  It can work alongside alcohol and drugs or supplant them, and it can be seen alongside comics, anime, cartoons, and genre films, literature and TV as a form of expression or fandom for nerds of all types.  But thanks to crappy mainstream bands like Five Finger Death Punch, we forget how nerdy metal really is, and it all started, in the 70s, with Black Sabbath.

In short, Black Sabbath is heavy metal.  You can have a favorite subgenre of metal, a faction you belong to, or even no respect for the genre overall, but there’s no arguing that Black Sabbath doesn’t belong in the history and development of heavy metal as a musical force.  With their sludgy, dark riffs, thick basslines, pounding drums, and ear-piercing vocals from Ozzy Osbourne and then Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath are the band that crystalized heavy metal as an art form, even if they were not the first band to embrace the category (Judas Priest were the first).  Said riffs are the result of a factory accident that damaged the fingers of guitarist Tony Iommi, and the use of power chords, fast bluesy soloing with use of legato, and downtuning would influence guitarists everywhere.  Then there’s Geezer Butler’s and Bill Ward’s bass and drums, respectively, providing the rest of the melancholic thunder the band is known for.  Finally, there’s the melancholy-laden vocals of initial singer Ozzy Osbourne that told tales of horror, fantasy, science fiction, war, the occult, and drug use (not sure if he ever sang about giving high hard one to chief’s wife, though), with his replacement Ronnie James Dio going for more epic songs of brotherhood and overcoming the darkness.  They had a distinctive sound, a distinctive edge, and two of the most legendary vocalists of all time to have come out of their ranks, and they are probably one of the first bands you think of when you hear the term “heavy metal.”

As for my introduction?  Well, I could go on a spiel about Guitar Hero again, but I feel that we’ve all heard “War Pigs,” “Paranoid,” and especially “Iron Man” from today’s album at least once, so that would get boring fast.  Plus I feel that going to the first year they released albums, 1970, with their most iconic would be my way of both showcasing the birth of heavy metal as we know it while feeling the weight of the end of the Obama administration right before Trump becomes president.  While this may not be as important to mention for this week, but we are in for a new conservative revolution of American politics, which could affect everything from the economy to our relationships with other countries, and we usually ended up with harder rock becoming huge when the President was either very conservative or preaching to right-wing Baby Boomers, the rural folk, and the alt-right.  Things get louder, angrier, and more likely to aim for the gut than for the head.  Don’t believe me?  We had hair metal, hardcore punk, and thrash metal under Reagan and those alongside grunge under Bush Sr., post-grunge, nu metal, emo, metalcore, and deathcore under Bush Jr., and now there’s a likelihood of traditional metal, djent, hard indie (or modern blues, hard, and glam rock on independent labels like The Struts), progressive metal, and kawaii metal under our first Orange president.  In short, say goodbye to indie folk on the charts for probably 4 years (maybe 8) and get ready to get your faces melted.  But that’s just my thought, and that would require liberals to get into much faster, heavier, and more aggressive music with the intent on playing it, and if the reaction to Trump is worse trap music, then I’ve lost my hope in humanity (and considering applying to NASA or Space-X to research off-Earth living).  To prepare, I’d recommend paying attention to what I say throughout this review.

But enough with politics and assumption-filled societal analysis, let’s get to the metal:

1.         Luke’s Wall/War Pigs:
Let’s face it, you already know this song from somewhere, may it be classic rock radio play (not the wimpy classic rock radio that plays Chicago, the ones that play harder songs from the days of yore such as this), Guitar Hero II, or when System of a Down referenced it in their anti-war anthem “B.Y.O.B.,” but it’s good to know where this song came from.  The year was 1970, and there was a conflict that occurred in Southeast Asia with the battle between freedom in the South and communism in the North, one that got so ugly thanks to most of the fighting taking place in the jungle and various methods to either destroy, demoralize, or desecrate the other side, and it was such a mess that it was probably the first ever war to be protested in the West publicly.  That was the Vietnam War.  And with all the stories of what happened, the people that went in to preserve freedom and democracy against communism and tyranny and what they went through, as well as where they came from, it led to the realization that A) getting involved over reasons that were based in beliefs and politics, B) the unpreparedness we were for this conflict, C) higher interests were preaching how this was important and preserving of our honor when they did nothing while normal people went through hell, and D) the impact of media getting dirty with the soldiers and seeing horrific sights led to anti-war attitudes, ones that would linger to this very day.  And while we’d end up with another unpopular conflict that divided the nation, specifically one in the Middle East, the Vietnam War was the first true unpopular war and a likely reason for the rise of hippies in the late 60s.  Then the 70s happened, and we ended up with counterculture icons dead, imprisoned, or deciding to live normal, drug-free, chaste lives (or just bang one woman or man for the rest of their life), while attitudes went in a much more negative direction. 

And thus, enter Black Sabbath with an anti-war anthem so bleak that it comes from many young realizations.  These include the fact that politics are a factor in where we go to war, and instead of saying how they would lead the charge to end it, they resigned themselves to the fact that the military-industrial complex has gotten too powerful, and only God can bring its end.  That is some bleak content.  And to match, the music is both angry and depressing, all in a minor key while having some serious punch.  If this is where the hippie movement died, then they did with a massive bang, and thus, they were unable to overthrow the governments they hated and resorted to just partying, ravaging their bodies with drugs, and screwing enough people to have every STD in their weakened bodies.  Thank Black Sabbath for destroying hippies.  However, I’d call this the evolution of hippies into something much darker, more nihilistic, and more likely to drink beer and wine than use LSD and have Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo paintings in their rooms rather than be the swinging type.  In short, we got metalheads from this attitude, and they would evolve into the kind we know today, just not as PC as the ones that run Metal Injection or MetalSucks.  And it came with thunderous music from Birmingham, England.

As for the music, we have Tony Iommi’s signature guitar tone buzzing as he plays various sustained chords in the opening with a slow opening rhythm by Geezer Butler and Bill Ward, all while a siren plays in the background.  Then the guitarist plays two chords at a much faster pace with Bill providing a steady rhythm with the cymbal bashing, that is before Ozzy Osbourne comes in to wail about the injustices of war as the intensity builds up.  While that setup is kept throughout the first part of the verse, we get to the second part, where Tony Iommi throws in a few licks.  After Ozzy screams “Oh, Lord yeah!” we get to the “chorus” which is a descending set of chords on the guitar and bass while Bill peppers it with drum fills.  Then we get a savage riff that goes into the next part (I’m sure it’s either the main chorus, another verse, or something else entirely), where Ozzy continues his rage at the war machine while Tony and Geezer develop a savage comradery on guitar and bass respectively, with the latter punching up the formers riffs.  Then we get to the part I designated the “chorus” again before a blazing guitar solo that’s as simple to understand as it is technical in its bluesy violence.  Then another riff comes in before the final verse, which repeats the structure of the first verse while detailing a sort of war-torn apocalypse.  After that structure repeats, we get to the outro, which includes an arpeggio, a memorably melodic guitar line, and another amazing solo, all before the songs ends in chipmunk mode.  This is a classic for a reason, and that opening spiel on the Vietnam War shows its significance as probably one of the greatest anti-war songs EVER WRITTEN.  It’s brutal, it’s dark, it’s depressing, and it’s aware how current events can be changed only through a miracle.  A true classic for the whole family, I guess?

2.         Paranoid:
As for the rest of the review, I have no plans on discussing historical politics or events that inspired songs, but it’s interesting when the backstory of a song is inspired by current history.  But for this song, this was meant to be filler, but it somehow became a classic.  I’m not going to discuss how, but I’ll give my two cents on why.  The reason?  It’s a fast, aggressive, and savage song about dealing with depression, and how it makes you look insane around happy people.  Starting with a savage opening riff before entering a palm-muted set of power chords which I’m sure influenced everything from punk to thrash metal and even grunge.  During the main riff, Ozzy sings about how his depression is causing him to have some sort of mental instability, leading to him cutting ties to people that care about him, looking for ways to make him happy but unable to, losing the inability to live, and somehow having no sense of humor.  It’s dark, but it’s so relatable to people with bouts of depression that, sometimes, we can feel blind to things that should make us happy, but we don’t see it that way.  I’m sure that’s why it caught on.  It’s relatable to when we feel down, and somehow, it’s also a warning for letting depression take over as the final part says.  Ozzy wishes that he could be happy, but he can’t, so he’s telling us that we should enjoy the lives we got and not succumb to the darkness.  And before I’ll talk about the ending, I’d like to mention that this song has another great guitar solo that showcases Tony’s guitar wizardry, with its great use of scales, legato, bends, and slides. 

As for that ending, people tend to think that he’s telling us to commit suicide rather than live a happy life, as they confuse “enjoy life” with “end your life” due to how Ozzy sings it.  The suicide angle doesn’t work here as the SINGER is the one likely to take his life, not the listener, he’s telling us how much it sucks to be depressed.  And as a result, his mission is to have us EMBRACE happiness rather than lose it, and us killing ourselves would be counterproductive.  But I can hear why people confuse the lyric: that’s what happens when your accent gets too strong on certain words (did I mention that I’m talking about ANOTHER British heavy metal band today?)  But great song though, regardless of whether you think about the end.

3.         Planet Caravan:
But just because Black Sabbath killed the hippy movement doesn’t mean they got rid of everything about them.  Here, after two aggressive tracks loaded with loud guitars, thunderous drums and bass, melancholic vocals, and a depressing tone, we get an airy, acoustic track that would have not felt wrong on an album by The Doors.  With its chill attitude, spacey vocals by Ozzy, lower volume, and a guitar part that shines with a chill, jazzy solo, and probably some organs, Black Sabbath show that they can go from heavy to calming.  On some albums, this would be the worst, but as a song sandwiched between face melting metal standouts, it serves as a breather after the sadness-fueled rage.  Plus the percussion has that sort of chill, campfire bongo approach which adds to the Mary Jane-friendly groove of this song.  As for the lyrics, it’s all crazy space stuff, making this song somehow even weirder.  Plus, I’m sure that these lyrics are the result of an acid trip the band underwent while writing this album.  I mean, the song involves sailing the skies at night, crying while the earth is covered in a purple haze, orbiting over the world, David Bowie-style, then going off to explore the universe.  It’s weird, makes no sense, and is better after certain substances or, in the preferred case, after getting assaulted by “War Pigs” and “Paranoid” with their aggressive melancholy.  But while I’m not sure what to make of this track, I do dig what it’s going for, especially since things may get much heavier and darker down the line.  I need a good trip song sometimes.

4.         Iron Man:
Obligatory Tony Stark Reference:
I bet you didn’t know this existed, right?
But this song isn’t about the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist that got a 12-episode anime series that’s seen as a misfire, or 3 movies with 2 of them being contentious, is known as one of the Avengers, was a major player in Captain America: Civil War to the point where half the movie was about his struggles post-Age of Ultron, or a long running comic series from the 60s (plus I could mention other projects he stared or was a major player in).  It’s about someone else who gets the name Iron Man, not because he gets a mini-arc reactor in his chest.  It’s because he was literally turned into a man made of steel.  By time travel of all things, specifically to warn everyone about an apocalyptic future (man, Black Sabbath sure loves singing about end times, do they).  And the reason for doomsday?  This unfortunate son of a bitch IS the reason for doomsday, specifically for people not getting to hear his message.  So essentially, this dark, depressing, apocalyptic song is about a guy that the real Iron Man would have punched in the face for using his trademark to kill billions.  So why is this song a metal classic?

The riff.  THAT.  RIFF!  Hell, the song’s beginning, where the low e string is strummed with Tony bended it behind the nut while Ozzy says “I AM IRON MAN!” in the distorted way it was recorded (thanks to a metal fan, believe it or not), is iconic.  As for that riff, it’s an ascending set of minor chords (plus some downslides) that gives it a metallic, robotic feel that sounds like someone who’s fingers were damaged in a factory accident (for real, that’s what happened to Tony Iommi, and it's worth repeating here).  Plus there’s so many great riffs throughout, including the riff that opens and closes the guitar solo, where the beat gets faster and more heartpounding.  Throughout, Ozzy sings to the melody, except for parts where he sings between sustained chords before an ascending riff.  Plus I have to give credit to Geezer and Bill for keeping the rhythm in check with the pounding slow groove throughout, but speeding up when they need to, especially the outro.  What an outro it is, you get another great riff and another great solo that continues Tony’s showcase of this skills.  Overall, it’s a great song with a dark take on time travel and the apocalypse.  And speaking of Iron Man, did you know the credits for the 2008 movie used many of the riffs on this track, including the main one and the outro?  Anyone?  Or am I the only one who noticed that?  Next side then.

5.         Electric Funeral:
So there’s an iconic doom metal named after this song.  Due to that, I have some slightly higher expectations about this Side B opener.  How does it sound?  It’s rather doomy.  Unlike Side A, where there was a sense of rage with the melancholy, while “Planet Caravan” gave us a breather, Side B gives us the Black Sabbath style that made them famous as well as infamous.  Staying at a slower tempo with a wah-laden riff, this song starts with a tone that screams bleak apocalypse thanks to our obsession with nuking anyone who gives us a bad look.  After that, we get lyrical imagery that gives off not exactly a classical apocalypse, but one more influenced by the atomic age, the space race, Isaac Asimov, and Salvador Dali, and the plastic culture of the modern day (in 1970).  Then the song gets faster while Ozzy starts belting about things getting worse and you get a moment when Ozzy and Tony combine a low chant of the title and guitar string bending, respectively.  While there’s a semblance of a guitar solo here, it’s nowhere near as interesting as the previous tracks.  But then the original beat and riff return with a vengeance while Ozzy sings about how the robots taken over, the apocalyptic war has begun, and the evil souls are damned to Hell, trapped in an eternity of torment.  Is this song good overall, it’s interesting, but it isn’t great.

6.         Hand of Doom:
Where the last song was doomy, this somehow continues the sense of dread “Electric Funeral” solidified from Side A.  While this song may be interpreted as a song about how we are practically killing ourselves, and that the titular “Hand of Doom” is upon us always, you may be right.  With references to waiting for the end, the atomic bomb, napalm, heroin, pills, acid, and searching for ways to get high, this song presents a bleak understanding about how our psyches can be ruined by the allure of Death.  To match this, we get a low-key performance at the beginning where Bill Ward provides restraint, Geezer Butler picks a menacing bass line, and Ozzy sings at a low tone.  Then when the emotions rise, and Tony joins with a riff based around the bassline, with a few licks, and everyone picks up in intensity.  Then the songs speeds up, is driven by Tony’s raging guitar parts, and becomes a song to headbang to.  Meanwhile Ozzy starts singing at a higher tone throughout the song.  During this, he sings about how the drugs are screwing you up, both mentally and physically, especially physically.  Then the beat gets even bouncier, while Ozzy belts out “You’re having a good time baby/But that won’t last” while continuing the bad drug trip narrative.  This all launches into a guitar solo that I’m sure that might be my favorite solo at this point in the album, if not the entire album.  After that, the slower, doomier, and bass-driven tone of the opening returns, with the same increases in volume from that opening.  This time, the song is how about you overdosed by accident, you start to get worse, you lose consciousness, and then die.  In short, Black Sabbath, a band infamous for making weed popular in metal, sang an anti-drug song.  A great, doomy anti-drug song, but I’m not sure if I can take it seriously when the music has been used in this context:
Guess what Ozzy did again?
Before we continue, type in "black sabbath cartoon" and you'll get that reference after you watch it.

7.         Rat Salad
So we have an instrumental here.  Neat, I was wondering when we’d get a song where Tony, Geezer, and Bill would shine.  And here it is.  With this track, they manage to provide both the gut punch necessary, to make this work.  The energy to keep things in gear, enough riffs too keep things from getting stale and repetitive, and enough moments to keep us on our toes when we listen.  One aspect that keeps us on our toes is the crazy drum solo in the middle.  Though for the title, I’m not sure why they gave it the title of “Rat Salad.”  Was it because they found a meal at a restaurant somewhere and decided to name a song after that?  I mean, that’s how we got Robot Chicken.  Was it because they were trolling their record company?  A lot of artists do that.  Was it because they found rats on a salad?  That’s what happens when a kid watched Ratatouille way too many times and is easily impressionable.  Was it because they were trying to creep us out?  Not sure if that works.  Was is because the musical elements tied together made them think of rat salads when they listened back to it?  Then they were drugged out of their minds when they recorded this.  Was it because…
Okay, let’s get to the next song.
8.         Jack The Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots
Starting with a guitar part that’s given an echo effect a more traditional intro is performed, all with guitar solos.  After that, the beat changes to have more of a funky beat, and we get to the main song.  Here, Ozzy sings about being terrified by the sight of a fairy wearing boots dancing with a dwarf.  If there’s one mental image I get from this song based on the lyrics, it would be...
dancing with...
And I react like this:
You thought of this too, I’m sure of it.
Before realizing that Ozzy beat Crocker to going mad over fairies (wearing boots here), let’s get to the music.  As for the riff when Ozzy goes nuts, we get some rad riffs with a funky beat, while we get some thunderous drums and bass, with extra punch in the intensity when the Ozzy tries his best to convince you that he saw fairies wearing boots.  Later, we get a kickass guitar solo afterwards that might be Tony’s best solo here.  Then the beat changes to something slightly more mid-tempo, before returning to the bouncy beat of the verse and chorus.  After the second chorus, Ozzy decides to go to the doctor and ask for advice on this weird sight, but the doctor decides to tell him that he’s been smoking and tripping way too much, and this is the likely effects of a bad trip.  Then we end with a crazy guitar lick from Tony Iommi that is in no way simplistic.  Overall, this is a fun, funky song with some crazy elements, and I do have to admit that there are some definite weird elements here.  I also think that this is in no way a song about anything other than a crazy trip leading to Ozzy seeing magical creatures.  But when you think about it, the band might have been doing some crazy drugs here.  Good song though.

Any final thoughts, Denzel Crocker?

I actually think that this is a good album.  Not the best album of all time, but up there as one of the more interesting albums to have come out of the 70s.  It’s a dark, gloomy, but heavy and aggressive ride throughout, and there are moments where the volumes turns down to offer something more than darkness.  But don’t think that this album is all sunshine and rainbows.  With themes of war, depression, the apocalypse, darkness, and drug abuse, this band taps into some very dark subject matter and provide music that fits the darker themes they sing about.  As a result, outside of conditioning on certain songs through radio play, pop culture use, and Guitar Hero, this is a rather hard album to get into if you’re looking for a good time.  As a result, for 70s heavy metal fans, I’d recommend this to the demented, dejected, and depressed lot while convincing the happy-go-lucky fans to stick with Deep Purple or Led Zeppelin (plus KISS and Aerosmith, if we count American bands).  But despite that, this album rocks.  The production is surprisingly good for this album, with some muddiness to add to the bleak nature of the album while also being clear enough to hear each instrument.  The vocals by Ozzy are spectacular, with their haunted, howling feel while also having a surprising amount of range.  Geezer Butler’s bass work is perfectly thick and heavy, and allows for some great grooves.  Despite his alcoholism, Bill Ward is one of the more underrated drummers, being both tight with his rhythm while providing a strong backbone for the songs.  But the standout is Tony Iommi, whose riffs are the ones that you think of when you think heavy metal guitar at the root.  He’s probably one of the first guitar heroes alongside Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, and Jimi Hendrix to have developed and codified the guitar techniques and tricks that would be used in hard rock and heavy metal.  In short, if you have to listen to the album, it’s for the guitar work.  I’d say that this album is without its faults, as there are moments when it would drift on and drag, leading to moments when you’d want some punch or a moment where there’s some speed, but there’s enough changes in the tone, beat, and volume to keep you from getting bored.  For the best song, I’d say that the entire Side A would enter a bar brawl to determine the winner.  For worst, I’d have to give it to “Electric Funeral” because it’s nowhere near as strong as the four tracks before it, or even the tracks that follow it.  But if I have a suggestion about this album, it’s probably a better idea to not think too hard when listening to this, or you’ll end up completely depressed for the rest of the day.

Final Rating: 8.5/10 (A stellar heavy metal classic that helped codify the genre and deserves its status)

Next Time on Let Them Eat Metal: Van Halen by Van Halen (don’t expect that next week)

Until next time, this is the Rock Otaku.  Live Loud, Play Hard, and Eat Metal.

All used references are done under the rules of fair use and are owned by their original creators.

I like to say something for readers.  The next release will not be next week.  I’ll go into detail on why as soon as possible.

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