Saturday, 18 September 2021


”Figure In Black Which Points At Me”

Any band’s first task is to sound like themselves. That’s if they want to climb out of the footnotes of music history. Which is not as easy as it sounds, in fact arguably they’ll face no harder task. But it’s like shaking a six. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the game, that’s the point everything actually starts.

And with Black Sabbath we can pin the moment quite precisely. In 1969, then still a heavy blues band called Earth, they wrote a track the decided to call… well, ’Black Sabbath’. Later described by guitarist Tommy Iommi as “the first time I knew we had something different.” Their contemporaries Led Zeppelin continued with the blues covers, which they were able to adapt. Whereas for Sabbath to be Sabbath, they needed to abandon them.

We fans can fixate on lyrics. But bands normally come up with the music first then devise words to fit. Rather than developing some philosophical point, lyrics come to be about evoking and amplifying the music’s mood. Sabbath were no exception, Iommi normally finding a riff on guitar, Ozzy Osborne then scatting lyrics over it which would be later worked up into actual strung-together words by bassist Geezer Butler.

Except this time everything, even the riff itself, seems devoted to the sound, so ominous as to be almost droney. While the words ostensibly describe some malevolent apparition (“what is this which stands before me?”), what the dread figure mostly seems to manifest is the power of the music. There’s an almost brazen lack of context, in which the nightmarish figure just appears in order to evoke the mood which powers the song.

The mood’s set in the opening seconds with the tolling of a bell - doleful, intonatory, resounding. When the guitar breaks in it’s more powerful, but it takes up all those elements. (They’d later play a similar trick by starting ’War Pigs’ with a siren.) Brian Eno was later to compare hard rock to (yes, really) bellringing, pointing out both evoked the feeling of “immersion in solid, thick, dense sound.” In other words, where sound stops being intangible and becomes almost a physical presence, something you feel as much as hear.

Where the song has the line “turn round quick and start to run”, the ominous music has quite the opposite effect. Chords don’t make their point and leave; once struck they hang around ponderously, thickening the air. There’s a terrible stasis to it. The drums do most of the work, but rather than drive the track along they cycle and shuffle. The oppressive, momentum-less sludge of sound adds to the (in about ever sense) heavy notion that time has stopped for you just when you needed it most. It’s reminiscent of the way horror fiction can used stopped clocks as a sign of the supernatural.

The ‘poem’ on the sleeve, mostly an overblown emulation of Edgar Allen Poe, refers to “the silence that surrounds and threatens to engulf all those that would listen”. And that silence seems pretty close to their sound.

Butler has claimed the song came from a dream he had, of a black-hooded figure appearing at the foot of his bed. And the track conveys that fever-dream feeling of immobility, of being in the presence of danger but unable to run from it.

And Osborne’s vocal performance adds to this notion. He was, to use a much-misused term, a natural. He never seemed to be performing the songs so much as living them, and here he sounds a mixture of mesmerised and petrified. Hard rock singers tended to be either Teutonically heroic or sexually frustrated. Ozzy, conversely, is a powerless protagonist. Imagine Robert Plant singing about meeting Satan. He’d either strike a deal or strike ol’ red down. Ozzy emits a high-register wail. (And frankly, so would I.) Typically his voice often works in counterpoint to Iommi’s riff, sitting above it and offering a more melodic line.

The feeling is so funereal it almost becomes liturgical. Is our narrator transfixed, unable to escape the pull of this malevolent power, or does some part of him want to stay where he is?

It epitomises this music’s predilection for Dark Romanticism. It’s a self-styled ‘black’ number whose darkness is strangely ambiguous. The creeping dread, the fear of dark forces is combined with a feeling of sublimation which is almost comforting. Our narrator seems simultaneously marked man and “the chosen one”.

In Dark Romanticism, the supernatural is often a means of conveying the natural, reframing it as an incomprehensible and overwhelming force. Being overcome by the ominous presence is akin to the surrender of being swept up by a raging storm, a sense of rejoining the all just as you’re obliterated.

A subject on which Wikipedia quotes GR Thompson: “Fallen man's inability fully to comprehend haunting reminders of another, supernatural realm that yet seemed not to exist, the constant perplexity of inexplicable and vastly metaphysical phenomena, a propensity for seemingly perverse or evil moral choices that had no firm or fixed measure or rule, and a sense of nameless guilt combined with a suspicion the external world was a delusive projection of the mind - these were major elements in the vision of man the Dark Romantics opposed to the mainstream of Romantic thought.”

Most people know how the track and the quickly renamed band got their name, a phrase which shows up nowhere in the lyrics. It was from a poster they saw for a Mario Bravo film. And horror films rely more on evoking a mood than ostensibly similar genres such as thrillers. They can be cliched or even ludicrous but if they can succeed at tingling your nerve-endings you’ll carry on watching. And they can rely heavily upon music for that effect. For fear is almost the opposite of reason. Unlike words or plot, music can bypass the brain and provide a short-cut to the senses.

Horror worked for Sabbath the way science fiction worked for Hawkwind. It was more than just a gimmick or handy tag, it was a perfect analogy for their sound.

Most people also know that impetus for this sound came largely by accident. Literally so, Iommi injured his fingers and adapted by tuning his strings more loosely. Yet just as importantly there’s something reductive about it, taking a hard rock sound that most had thought simplistic in the first place and condensing it further. And this is precisely where the genius lies. Taking something out can add to the overall picture, just as adding too much starts to take away. And Sabbath were consummately creatively reductive, boiling music down to some primordial essence.

The track also demonstrates how much the band were masters of dynamics, with an unerring instinct for just when to break it up. Each section of a Sabbath song can be in itself bone-crushingly simple, yet as it arrives it takes things into a surprising turn. Their talent lies in putting the pieces together. (It’s only really the singles which follow the straight verse/chorus structure.)

It’s bizarre now to think how derided the band were by the contemporary music press. But this stripping-down, combined with their working class origins, goes a long way to explain it. In the early days of Prog this was proof positive these Brummie oiks were know-nothing numbskulls!

What gets written about is often not what deserves to get written about, but what is easiest to write about. And Sabbath weren’t like a jewelled mechanism composed of a thousand intricate and glistening parts, something which requires an expert to explain to you how it works. They were more a simple implement such as a Neolithic hand axe, something that wasn't altered much over millennia because it couldn't really be improved on. They defy analysis the way Homer Simpson defied brainwashing by the Planetariains, by sheer dumb insolence.

Of course as we all know now it was the critics who were cretins and Sabbath created a whole new style of music. (More than one if we were to count black metal, sludge metal and stoner rock as different things.) But they also had a huge influence outside of all that. In his seminal treatise on post punk ’Rip It Up And Start Again’ Simon Reynolds compares Sabbath to… deep breath… early Pere Ubu, early Joy Division, Wire, Black Flag, Killing Joke and Tubeway Army! And I say, why no Throbbing Gristle while we’re at it?

Alas however, first drafts of history are most commonly messy and that first album caught them too soon, mid-transition. ‘Wicked World’ is the only song to survive from the Earth days, but more than a few plodding blues numbers cleave to that earlier time. It’s a bit like if tracks from Warsaw had made it onto the first Joy Division album. Luckily for us, they went on to do five further albums where none of that would be a problem…

Second part incoming…


  1. Interesting stuff, and well worth a listen back to the eponymous track.

    I can't agree with you about Ozzy's delivery, though. To me, the opening line ("What is this stands before me?") is not passive or even frightened by dripping with contempt. Back when I first heard this, I assumed he was singing in character as a wizard-king or something, looking down on some feeble mortal challenger. Obviously that reading is incorrect: it doesn't at all fit the rest of the lyric. But that's what the delivery says to me.

    1. I wonder if you're going with the phraseology rather than the delivery there. Somehow in English "what is this?" can mean both "what indescribable eldritch terror is this?" and "what even is this, nyuh?"

    2. Hmm, no, don't think it's just that. Listen back for yourself. Doesn't that sound more like contempt than terror?

    3. I don't think I could hear it as if for the first time. It's too ingrained in me!

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