What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me
Turn around quick, and start to run
Find out I’m the chosen one
While Sunn O)))’s “Báthory Erzsébet” may stand alone with regard to the utilization of a lead singer’s genuine terror, the eponymous first song from the eponymous first album by the unquestionable Black Sabbath was the logical conclusion to Robert Johnson in establishing a musical legacy of concurrent familiarity and alienation in the face of evil. Although arguments over who constitutes “the first heavy metal band” rage on, even ignoring the unforgivably boring candidates like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and instead acknowledging the proto-Oh Sees stoner psyche of Blue Cheer, the proto-industrial barbarism of Cro-Magnon, or the para-ecclesiastical gothicism of the band who just straight-up called themselves H.P Lovecraft, Black Sabbath are most certainly what Foucault might consider the instigators of heavy metal’s discursivity.
What sets Black Sabbath so apart is the manner in which they managed both to establish a genre, and play with it, all at once. They draw the defining line in the sand that demarcates “heavy metal,” and yet decide not to step fully over it – combining old psychedelic rock practices with an unabashedly ominous aesthetic, they defy conventional temporality by introducing the house style both for the original genre of heavy metal, and for its descendant subgenre doom, concurrently.
And this brings us back to that opening track. Though the inside of the gatefold is indeed an upside-down cross, Ozzy is predominantly seen wearing his the right way up: the fear, the horror, the dark premonitions are all in many ways the church’s own. Nevertheless, the figure of Satan throughout Black Sabbath’s work is compellingly inconsistent, at times acting as dark tempter of souls, pitiless judge of hawkish capitalists, and looming harbinger of unknown yet surely awful fates. Indeed, Satan’s multivalence is as such that all things in the world may be definable in relation to Satan, including and especially God, who exists less as a presence, but as a name, cried in vain at the sight of the demonic, and seemingly very real, figure in black.
An alternative to the pantheistic understanding of God as residing within all things, the chilly – if suspiciously sweet-smelling – world of Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath is one of pandemonium. Though we may rebel, our battle cry is one of terror, horror, and dread.
Big black shape with eyes of fire
Telling people their desire
Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling
Watches those flames get higher and higher
Oh no, no, please God help me!