No other band has come closer to embodying heavy metal than Black Sabbath. Over the years, their lineup may have changed, but their music hasn’t — it has remained the same loud, methodical guitar-based heavy rock that it was in the early ’70s. Their slow, sludgy attack was part design and part accident. Because of an accident that cut the tips of his fingers, Tony Iommi tuned his guitar down a half-step because he couldn’t play comfortably unless the strings were slightly slack; the lower tuning made his mammoth riffs sound heavier. Bassist Geezer Butler’s lyrics reveled in black magic, fantasy, drugs, mental illness, and the occult, but never sex; Ozzy Osbourne sang them in a flat, almost tuneless, banshee wail. Butler and drummer Bill Ward never had any flair for playing around with the rhythm, preferring to let the beat plod on and on. Their songwriting never strayed from one riff, a chorus, another riff, and a guitar solo, but that is part of their appeal. Taken together, the primitive musicianship, bad poetry, obsessive fantasy world, crawling tempos and overpowering volume simultaneously represents everything good and bad about heavy metal.
Critics detested them when they were at the peak of their powers in the early ’70s, and they still do. But critical acclaim was never essential to the band’s success. Black Sabbath was, in many ways, an underground band — parents hated them, hippies hated them, self-respecting rockers hated them. Everybody hated them except teenagers. And those were the teenagers that grew up and formed bands, from Metallica to Soundgarden to Henry Rollins. Everybody from the heaviest of metal bands to the sludgiest of grunge bands listened to Black Sabbath when they were teenagers.
Of course, after Black Sabbath hit their peak, they stuck around way too long. Some of their first six albums were great, some of them merely had good tracks, but all of them had something to recommend them. Osbourne hung around for two more records before jumping ship for good. Former Rainbow lead vocalist Ronnie James Dio replaced him in 1979; the new lineup released their first record, Heaven and Hell, in 1980. It was a far cry from their best, but it sounded like Paranoid compared to what they would later release. Throughout the ’80s, the band members kept shifting, with Iommi being the only member to remain in all of the lineups. At the end of the decade, he was the only original member left in the band. Not only was Black Sabbath suffering musically, but their credibility was in question by their devoted fans as well. In 1991, Iommi persuaded Butler to rejoin and, for a brief time, Dio. Black Sabbath continues to lurch forward in the ’90s (sometimes with Osbourne back in the fold, as on 1998’s live Reunion ), oblivious of the criticism and declining record sales, but their early records continue to inspire — as well as infuriate — whole new generations of listeners.