Before Black Sabbath, there were plenty of rock groups that played heavy: The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly, Led Zeppelin. But the music that Sabbath created in the early 70s was heavier and darker than anything that had come before, and it would prove seminal.
“Black Sabbath are the forefathers of heavy metal,” says Rick Rubin, the producer of the band’s final album 13. “They may well be the heaviest band of all time. And I don’t know of a more influential band other than The Beatles.”
It was in 1969, in Birmingham, that Black Sabbath was formed. The four band members – guitarist Tony Iommi, singer Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward – had been playing together for a year previously, first as Polka Tulk, later as Earth. “When we started out,” Iommi says, “we were a blues rock band.” But one day in ’69, they wrote a song changed everything.
This song, titled Black Sabbath after a horror movie starring Boris Karloff, was based on an Iommi riff that incorporated the tri-tone, known as ‘The Devil’s Interval’. The lyrics warned that “Satan’s coming round the bend.” And with this as their calling card, the band – renamed as Black Sabbath – would open up a new frontier for rock music.
Much of Sabbath’s legendary reputation rests on the first six albums recorded by the original and classic line-up. “It was a completely original sound,” Rick Rubin says. “Riffs as powerful as they come, Ozzy’s one-of-a-kind vocal delivery, cool words, great rhythmic interplay.”
But in a recording career that spans the best part of half a century, a total of 23 Black Sabbath albums have been released – some of them great, some of them average, and some downright embarrassing.
The best Sabbath albums made during Ozzy Osbourne’s long absence featured the man who replaced Ozzy after he was fired in 1979 – Ronnie James Dio. And every Sabbath album, from 1970 to 2013, has been shaped by Tony Iommi – the band’s sole ever-present, and the undisputed master of the heavy metal riff.
23. Forbidden (1995)
When Tony Iommi calls Forbidden “a total shambles”, he’s being too kind. This is by far the worst album Sabbath ever made. It was recorded with the same line-up that had made Tyr: Iommi, Martin, Murray and Powell. But this time there were two new faces on the team. And their influence would prove disastrous.
The album’s producer was Ernie C, guitarist for rap-metal band Body Count. His tin-pot production made Sabbath sound like a pub band. And when Body Count’s leader Ice-T rapped on Illusion Of Power, the whiff of desperation hung heavy in the air. Forbidden was Sabbath’s nadir. But just two years later, the reunion with Ozzy restored the band’s legendary status.
22. Born Again (1983)
Bill Ward’s return added a third original member to the line-up, but Gillan was simply too big a personality for Sabbath to accommodate. Square peg, round hole. Born Again was a mess. Iommi conjured up a mighty riff on Zero The Hero, stolen by Guns N’ Roses for Paradise City. But throughout, Gillan sounded like was singing in a different band. And he soon was. After a Sabbath tour famed for an oversized Stonehenge stage-set – later parodied in This Is Spinal Tap – Gillan rejoined Purple.
21. Tyr (1990)
In the latter half of the 80s, Sabbath had become increasingly marginalized. Misconceived albums such as Born Again and Seventh Star had damaged their credibility. So too had a series of baffling personnel changes. And as Sabbath declined, younger and more dynamic metal bands had risen: Metallica and Slayer among them.
Sabbath’s 15th studio album Tyr – loosely based on Norse mythology – made little impression in 1990. It deserved better. With former Whitesnake bassist Neil Murray on board, the band served up robust old-school metal on Anno Mundi and The Law Maker, the latter reminiscent of Rainbow’s Kill The King, although Feels Good To Me was an undignified attempt at a power ballad. But when Tyr sold poorly, three little words entered Tony Iommi’s head: Ronnie. James. Dio.
20. Seventh Star (1986)
Originally planned as a Tony Iommi solo album, Seventh Star wasn’t so much bad as badly marketed. “I certainly didn’t want to release it as a Black Sabbath album,” Iommi said. But with a record company keen to exploit the Sabbath name, the album was credited to ‘Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi’.
The guitarist’s chief collaborator on Seventh Star was former Deep Purple bassist/vocalist Glenn Hughes – at the time, a raging drug addict. “He did ten times more coke than me,” Iommi said. “But he had a God-given voice.” What resulted was a polished hard rock album that sounded nothing like Black Sabbath, and a tour on which Hughes was deemed a liability, and was duly sacked.
19. The Eternal Idol (1987)
Tony Iommi describes the making of The Eternal Idol – during which he had to find a new singer, bassist and producer – as “ridiculous.” Yet he still managed to create, amid this chaos, a credible album. Recording began with American singer Ray Gillen. But when producer Jeff Glixman said he didn’t rate Gillen, Iommi replaced Glixman with Chris Tsangarides – only for Gillen to quit, joining ex-Whitesnake guitarist John Sykes in Blue Murder.
After this, bassist Dave Spitz also walked. But the album was completed with ex-Rainbow bassist Bob Daisley alongside Iommi, keyboard player Geoff Nicholls, drummer Eric Singer and new vocalist Tony Martin. And the best tracks – The Shining, Ancient Warrior – had a power that vindicated Iommi.
18. Reunion (1998)
In December 1997, the original Black Sabbath reunited for two homecoming shows at Birmingham NEC. There had been previous reunions: at Live Aid in 1985, and at two Ozzy shows in California in 1992. Ozzy had also performed with Sabbath in the summer of ’97, albeit without Bill Ward. But the drummer’s return for the Birmingham gigs made them, as Ozzy says, “momentous”.
The resulting live album confirmed it. It features all of the band’s most famous songs – plus cult classics such as Electric Funeral – played as only the original band can. But the album ended on a bum note with two new studio-recorded tracks, Selling My Soul and Psycho Man, both of them plainly uninspired.
17. Cross Purposes (1994)
The early 90s reunion of the Dio-era line-up lasted for just one album, before Ronnie took umbrage at the idea of Sabbath playing on the same bill as Ozzy and quit for a second time. Re-enter singer Tony Martin, a mainstay of the band’s late 80s line-up, who joined Iommi and Butler, for an album that landed just as grunge peaked.
Sure, the crawling Virtual Death nodded towards the granite-booted heaviness of Alice In Chains – a band they’d inspired in the first place – but Sabbath largely avoided jumping on that particular bandwagon unlike certain of their peers. Instead, the likes of Back To Eden, Cross Of Thorns and Cardinal Sin wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Dio-era album, which is as much a compliment to the under-appreciated Martin as it is to Iommi. It’s just a shame that the world at large didn’t give a damn about Black Sabbath in 1994.
16. Headless Cross (1989)
In a period when Black Sabbath’s membership changed like the weather, Iommi had a reliable foil in singer and fellow Brummie Tony ‘The Cat’ Martin. Between 1987 and 1995, Martin appeared on five Sabbath studio albums. His debut, The Eternal Idol, was written before he joined the band and recorded first with Ray Gillen. But on the follow-up, Headless Cross, Martin had grown into his role, was a co-writer, and sang with genuine authority.
Featuring a new drummer, the legendary Cozy Powell, and session bassist Larry Cottle, Headless Cross included some punishingly heavy and darkly atmospheric songs, such as Nightwing and When Death Calls. The best album Sabbath ever made without Ozzy or Dio.
15. Live Evil (1983)
The palindromic title of this double-live album suggested business as usual for Black Sabbath. But in controversial circumstances, Live Evil would mark the end of Sabbath’s first era with Ronnie James Dio. Using recordings from the Mob Rules tour, the band were mixing the album when their studio engineer informed Iommi and Butler that Dio had been altering the mix in secret, pushing his vocals to the fore.
Although Dio pleaded innocence, Iommi barred him from the studio. The singer promptly quit, taking Vinny Appice with him and forming a new band, which of course he named Dio. After all the drama, Live Evil turned out okay. But it came at a heavy price.
14. Dehumanizer (1992)
In 1992, Dio and Sabbath needed each other. Dio had been successful with his own band in the decade since he resigned from Sabbath in protest over Live Evil. But in 1990, Dio’s album Lock Up The Wolves had bombed, as had Sabbath’s Tyr. So, inevitably, Ronnie rejoined Sabbath. Geezer Butler already had.
And after Cozy Powell was injured in a bizarre horse-riding accident, Vinny Appice completed the old early-80s line-up. If Dehumanizer wasn’t quite the glorious comeback fans had hoped for, some of the old magic was evident on Time Machine and the haunting I. But Dio resigned again in November ’92 when Ozzy, his nemesis, invited Sabbath to participate in his ‘farewell’ shows. C’est la vie.
13. Past Lives (2002)
With this retrospective two-disc live set, a part of Sabbath’s legacy was reclaimed. In 1980, Live At Last – a concert recording from 1973 – was released without the band’s consent by their former label NEMS. For Sabbath and new singer Ronnie James Dio, the arrival of a live album featuring Ozzy was the last thing they needed.
Adding insult to injury, it sounded like a shoddy bootleg. 22 years later, the matter was finally resolved when a remixed, officially sanctioned version of Live At Last was reissued as Past Lives, with a second disc of recordings from 1970 and 1975. And after all that aggro, it’s Sabbath’s best live album: capturing a great band in its ascendancy, blowing minds.
12. Heaven & Hell – The Devil You Know (2009)
It was the last album that Ronnie James Dio would ever make – the triumphant final act in a brilliant career. Dio had reunited with Iommi, Butler and Appice in 2006 – the latter again replacing Bill Ward, who bailed out during the early stages of the project.
They called themselves Heaven & Hell to avoid confusion with the Ozzy-led Black Sabbath, which had only recently finished touring. But of course, Heaven & Hell was Sabbath in all but name. The Devil You Know, their only album, had a sound that was unmistakable. Inspired by Iommi’s monolithic riffs, Dio’s performance was his best since the 80s. He went out on a high. “That,” Iommi says, “was wonderful.”
11. Technical Ecstasy (1976)
After six great albums in as many years, Sabbath faltered on Technical Ecstasy. “I liked it,” Iommi says. “But with this one, the decline really started.” In a surprise left turn, Sabbath gave a prominent role on this album to guest keyboard player Gerald Woodroffe. Melody Maker praised the band’s ability to “break the mould and still provide exciting music”. Many diehard fans thought the album sucked.
The truth lies somewhere in between. Some songs, notably Back Street Kids, sound hokey. But there are great songs too, including the sleazy Dirty Women, and a ballad sung by Bill Ward and later played live by Guns N’ Roses, with a title that sums up the album: It’s Alright.
10. Never Say Die! (1978)
If ever an album title was proved false, it was this one. Following the sacking of Ozzy Osbourne in 1979, Never Say Die! ended up being the last studio album made by the original Black Sabbath. And so it remains, given Bill Ward’s absence from the band’s comeback album 13.
Having briefly quit Sabbath in 1977, Ozzy was by his own admission “fucked up” during the recording of Never Say Die! But even when carrying their singer, Sabbath still produced flashes of brilliance on the album’s explosive title track, slow-rolling boogie A Hard Road, and the beautiful, jazz-influenced Air Dance, featuring Don Airey (Rainbow/Deep Purple) on piano. Alongside Technical Ecstasy, this is Sabbath’s most underrated album.
9. 13 (2013)
It arrived as a major landmark: the first Sabbath album with Ozzy since 1978. And now, it has even greater significance, as the last Black Sabbath album, period.
13, produced by Rick Rubin, did not deliver all that Sabs diehards had dreamed of. Bill Ward was absent due to a contractual dispute. His replacement, Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk, while powerful, lacked Ward’s groove and feel. But in the bigger picture, 13 was a triumph, with echoes of the band’s classic early albums in key tracks such as The End Of The Beginning and God Is Dead?.
When 13 was released, Geezer Butler called it “a perfect way to finish”. He’s been proven right.
8. Mob Rules (1981)
Sabbath’s second album with Ronnie James Dio was almost as good as Heaven And Hell. Mob Rules was also the first album the band recorded without Bill Ward, who quit during their 1980 tour. But his replacement, Vinny Appice, was solid enough, if lacking some of Ward’s flair.
The album’s centerpiece is Sign Of The Southern Cross, a seven-minute epic in which the power of Iommi’s funereal riff is matched by the mystique of Dio’s lyrics. Four other songs are genuine classics: Voodoo, Turn Up The Night, the belligerent title track, and the thundering, apocalyptic Falling Off The Edge Of The World. But never again would Black Sabbath and Ronnie James Dio reach such heights together.
7. Vol.4 (1972)
Master Of Reality was Sabbath’s stoner album. On the follow-up, cocaine was king. Recording Vol.4 in LA, the band did so much coke that it was delivered to them in soap powder boxes. And on Snowblind, this album’s Sweet Leaf, they eulogized their new favourite drug. “This is where I feel I belong,” Ozzy sang.
But if cocaine would hasten Sabbath’s descent into personal chaos, it also emboldened them to further expand their musical remit. Supernaut, the hardest hitting track on Vol.4, turned funky halfway through. Wheels Of Confusion has the complexity of progressive rock. And on piano ballad Changes, Ozzy wailed like a wounded Elton John. More than just a great album, Vol.4 is a monument to excess.
6. Sabotage (1975)
There was black humour in the title of Sabbath’s fifth album, made while they were in litigation with their former manager Patrick Meehan. But in a time of crisis, the band created another classic. Sabotage was conceived as a back-to-basics album, a return to what Bill Ward called “the iron-clad sound of Black Sabbath”.
This much was evident in the bludgeoning riffs of Symptom Of The Universe and The Writ, the latter a stinging riposte to Meehan. But as a whole, Sabotage was as expansive as Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – its most leftfield track, Supertzar, featuring a choir, and described by Ward as “a demonic chant”. It was the last great album from Sabbath’s golden age with Ozzy.
5. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
Sabbath had a blast making Vol.4 in LA and returned to start the next album. But Iommi was burned out and suffering writer’s block. Only when the band relocated to Clearwell Castle in Gloucestershire – where they believed they saw ghosts – did Iommi rediscover his mojo. The castle’s creepy aura inspired the first song he wrote for the album: its title track, featuring not one but two of his greatest riffs.
And the finished album was even more adventurous than Vol.4. The mesmeric Spiral Architect utilized a string section, and Sabbra Cadabra – later covered by Metallica – had Rick Wakeman playing piano, for which he was paid in beer. “For me,” Iommi says, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was the pinnacle.”
4. Master Of Reality (1971)
Following the huge success of the Paranoid album and single, Sabbath didn’t screw up by trying to write another hit. Instead, they delivered what is arguably the heaviest of all Sabbath albums. “Master Of Reality was an experiment,” Iommi says. “On songs like Children Of The Grave and Into The Void, we tuned down three semitones for a bigger sound, with more depth.”
The result was an album that set the template for stoner rock, sludge and doom metal. Sweet Leaf is the quintessential pothead anthem, introduced by the sound of Iommi choking on a joint. And in contrast is the quiet beauty of Solitude, cited by the guitarist as “the first love song we ever did.”
3. Heaven And Hell (1980)
For many purists, Sabbath isn’t Sabbath without Ozzy. But for Geezer Butler, Heaven And Hell – the band’s first album with former Rainbow singer Ronnie James Dio – is as good as the first five they made with Ozzy. And he’s right. Undaunted by the task of replacing the seemingly irreplaceable, Dio rejuvenated a band that had been in decline for five years.
His powerful, richly melodic voice and poetic lyrics added a new dimension to Sabbath’s music, an epic scale illustrated by the album’s colossal title track and the eerily atmospheric Children Of The Sea. And on Neon Knights, one of the heaviest songs Sabbath ever recorded, Dio proved himself the greatest metal singer of them all.
2. Black Sabbath (1970)
Famously recorded in one day, Sabbath’s debut was released on Friday February 13, 1970 – a symbolic date. The title track and N.I.B. were the most potent examples of Sabbath’s elemental power. But elsewhere are traces of blues and psychedelia. As Rick Rubin says: “Sabbath was always a groovy, soulful band.”
The reviews were, in Tony Iommi’s recollection, “awful”. Rolling Stone mocked both the music and the occult imagery, declaring the album “a shuck… like Vanilla Fudge playing doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley.” But in America, Black Sabbath sold a million. In the UK, it made the Top 10. And over time it would be acknowledged as a landmark album in the evolution of heavy metal.
1. Paranoid (1970)
Released just seven months after their debut, Sabbath’s second album is their masterpiece.
Three of the eight tracks are deathless heavy metal classics: War Pigs, a cataclysmic protest song that resonated powerfully in the Vietnam era; Iron Man, a sci-fi fantasy driven by an earthshaking Iommi riff; and of course Paranoid itself, which was thrown together in 25 minutes and went on to become Sabbath’s most famous song, hitting the UK Top 5 and helping send the album to number one. From the definitive metal band, this is the definitive metal album.