Archive | December, 2014

Certain Songs #63: Black Sabbath – “Symptom of the Universe”

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Album: Sabotage.

Year: 1975.

While Paranoid is generally considered the greatest Black Sabbath album, and Master of Reality is often cited as the most inflential, my favorite Sabbath album has long been their 6th album, the eternally underrated Sabotage.  And my favorite track on Sabotage – quite possibly my favorite Sabbath song ever – is “Symptom of the Universe.”

Anchored by maybe the last of the classic early Iommi riffs (filled to the brim by Geezer Butler’s bass, natch), “Symptom of the Universe” comes chugging out of the gate even faster than “Paranoid,” with plenty of space for Bill Ward to remind contemporaries like Ian Paice (and warn newbies like Neal Peart) that he knows his way around a drum fill. And Ozzy has never sounded better as he’s screaming “a symptom of the universe is written in your eyes!!”

Pure speed. Pure power. Pure Sabbath.  

But then, after one of those Iommi guitar solos that sounds like angry hornets suddenly attacking from out of the sunshine – the song suddenly changes into an acoustic guitar jam not unlike the one at the end of the Rolling Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” Nary an electric guitar is heard again, instead, it’s 666 overdubbed acoustic Tony Iommis all playing off of each other

In no way, shape or form should this ending work after the proto thrash metal that started the song, and yet it does, working as a chill room for anybody overwhelmed by the first part of the song.

No speed. Hidden power. Pure Sabbath.

Video for “Symptom of the Universe”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #62: Black Sabbath – “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”

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Album: Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

Year: 1973.

It’s weird: I’m discovering that my favorite Black Sabbath songs are so ingrained in me, I’m having trouble figuring out what to say about them. Like for example, “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.”  

Do I point out that’s one of their great multi-part songs? Do I walk you through how it starts with a typically doomy multi-part riff in the verses before dropping into an acoustic chorus? And that it features a relatively organic Iommi solo prior to becoming a completely different song?  And that at the end, it changes again, with a nearly-psychedelic storm of guitars, some of which might even be backwards?

Or do I point out that because it was their fifth album in a little under 4 years, the strain is definitely beginning to show, especially on Ozzy’s voice? So much so that you can practically see him straining to hit the notes he hears in his head when he sings “Whe-aaairrrr can you run to?”

Maybe I’ll just I point out that it doesn’t matter, because I simply love how Ozzy screams “You BASTARDS!!!!” just before Iommi’s solo? For sure should  point out that for nearly 40 years I’ve been playing this song just to hear Ozzy sing:

Sabbath, bloody sabbath
Nothing more to do
Living just for dying
Dying just for you
Yeah!!

… which is followed by one last amazing Iommi riff that would power an entire song by a lesser band before jumping into that nearly-psychedelic coda?

Video for “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #61: Black Sabbath – “Paranoid”

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Album: Paranoid.

Year: 1970.

Contrary to popular mythology, it is my firm belief that Black Sabbath’s overarching lyrical theme wasn’t really Satan or whatever ( :: makes devil horns ::), but rather, mental health. Especially the type of mental health issues where the sufferer is continually worried about their sanity.

Since neither Ozzy (or Geezer Butler, who wrote a ton of the lyrics) could ever be mistaken for subtle, it’s right there in song after song:  "Fairies Wear Boots,“ "Am I Going Insane,” “Megalomania,” and of course, their most popular song, the actual world-wide hit single “Paranoid.”  

Anchored by a speedy, bass-filled repeating riff, with drummer Bill Ward heavying it up by lagging behind the beat, “Paranoid” is the musical and lyrical link between Led Zeppelin and the Ramones, and – unlike most great Black Sabbath songs – short, simple and to the point.

“Paranoid” performed in 1970

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #60: Black Sabbath – “War Pigs”

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Album: Paranoid.

Year: 1970.

At some point in the mid-1970s, I became friends with a guy who lived across the street from me. He was a few years older than me, already at Fresno State while I was just entering high school. And while he was a totally normal, short-haired accounting major who was incredibly athletic and never did drugs, he was also a total metal head. And by far and away, his favorite band was Black Sabbath.

And because of his influence, one of the earliest albums I ever purchased was the two-disc Sabbath compilation We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll, which was a near-perfect (give or take a “Laguna Sunrise”) cherry-picking from their first six albums and still a helluva introduction one of the greatest and most influential bands of the 1970s,

And if I was forced to distill Black Sabbath down to a single song (which I wouldn’t recommend, of course), I would pick “War Pigs.”  Nearly everything that made them great is here: big doomy riffs chock full of Geezer Butler’s world-filling bass; Bill Ward jazzily barreling himself through tricky multiple parts; Tony Iommi’s guitar solos appearing from thin air; and of course, the eternally underrated Ozzy Osbourne, who somehow gets away with rhyming “masses” with “masses.”

Unlike their contemporaries and competitors in Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin, who left plenty of room even the studio for improvisation, Black Sabbath’s best songs always felt well-thought out, with every note and beat in place, right down to the multiple overdubbed guitar solos.

“War Pigs” Performed Live at California Jam, 1974

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever

Certain Songs #59: The Black Crowes – “Hotel Illness”

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Album: The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion.

Year: 1992.

Mannnn, I hated the Black Crowes when they came out. Shake Your Moneymaker was a huge huge record in 1990, and its huge popularity vis-a-vis what I saw as its complete derivativeness  (derivativity?) rubbed me the wrong way. They were being held up as the standard-bearer of rock & roll, and in my eyes, they clearly weren’t, even in what was an admittedly down period.

Here’s a typical drunken rant at a Sedan Delivery rehearsal that was caught on tape:

“But the thing I don’t understand, I’ve seen two articles in the last week bringing up the Black Crowes as the Last Rock & Roll Band, and then dissing ‘em!!! Because they know they SUCK! They know that in terms of advancing rock & roll, which any rock & roll band should try, at least try to do, because they’re not doing anything new!! And that’s the point! The point is that they’re saying that this is IT!! This is the BEST that rock & roll can do!”

I didn’t believe that then, of course — there was plenty of great rock & roll being made in 1990, and 1991 would prove to be my favorite year in music ever — but nearly a quarter-century later, with rock & roll essentially dead as a popular art form, the Black Crowes are still at it, and I now see the Robinson brothers as true believers doing what they love instead pretenders making a quick buck.

The long road from that initial contempt to at least a grudging respect started when — based upon some good reviews — I took a flyer and bought a used copy of The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion at Ragin’ and felt the shock of recognition hearing the chord changes of “Hotel Illness.”

It’s just that simple: “Hotel Illness” targets my Rolling Stones’ based pleasure center like Oliver Queen on a tear, and I can’t imagine myself not liking a song like this  And since one of my cardinal rules is that I even an artist I completely hate can make a song I completely love, I was forced to admit that maybe I was initially wrong about them.

The Black Crowes performing “Hotel Illness” in Houston, 1993

My Certain Songs Spotify Playlist:

Every “Certain Song” Ever