Classic Rock Corner

Every Metal Subgenre Began as a Black Sabbath Song

Some people out there argue that heavy metal was not invented by Black Sabbath. These people are wrong. To be sure, the Led Zeps and Deep Purples of the world certainly had their metallic moments, but it wasn't until Tony Iommi sheared off his fingertips in a metal stamper and down-tuned his guitar to compensate for this maiming that a new and sinister strain of rock and roll was truly sired.

Now, it's a fact that Sabbath didn't consider themselves heavy metal — not at first, anyway. They viewed themselves simply as putting a slightly new twist on the thunderously heavy blues-rock pioneered by the likes of Cream. There's a lot of truth in that self-assessment. But not even Clapton and co. can claim quite the broad influence on rock and roll that Black Sabbath has produced.

Need proof? Well, how's this for a premise: Practically all of heavy metal's 18 jillion, multifaceted subgenres can be traced back to a specific Black Sabbath song. In cranking out nearly an album per year back in the '70s, the band did a lot more stretching and exploring than they're sometimes given credit for. The result is that they managed to create an entire heavy-metal universe, one track at a time.

They didn't do it alone, of course, and today's metal is as rooted in hardcore punk as it is in '70s hard rock. But the seeds are there.


"Into the Void," 1971
Let's start with an easy one. Nowhere in the wide, wacky world of heavy-metal subgenres is Black Sabbath's influence more keenly felt than in doom metal. The band's slow grooves, down-tuned guitars and murky riffs embody the style to this day. The eerie spirit of impending doom on their early songs remains the template for the majority of doom metal's modern practitioners. "Into the Void" is a particularly good example of the doom metal sound from Master of Reality, but it could easily be replaced on this list by any number of tracks from the band's first few albums.

"War Pigs," 1970
Black Sabbath wouldn't truly lead the charge toward power metal until Ozzy was replaced by Ronnie James Dio, one of the preeminent operatic voices in rock history. But the predilection for power was there almost from the very beginning. "War Pigs," possibly the greatest anti-war screed ever set to a backbeat, ranks as one of the most spine-tingling songs in heavy-metal history thanks largely to the most powerful vocal performances of Ozzy Osbourne's long career. It doesn't get a lot more anthemic than this one. If you needed any additional proof of the profound influence of "War Pigs" on the formation of the power metal subgenre, consider that it was a favorite cover tune of Dio's pre-Rainbow group, Elf.

"Symptom of the Universe," 1975
Sabbath infinitely preferred a slow, rumbling sound to high-octane speed. Almost nobody had more influence on the powerful guitar riffage that was the hallmark of thrash metal than Tony Iommi, however. The chugging crunch of "Symptom of the Universe" clearly predicts the rise of bands like Metallica and Slayer in the decade to come, not to mention Geezer Butler's lyrical themes dealing with evil, war and, uh, dirty women that were employed throughout the group's run in the '70s.

"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," 1973
A gore-obsessed outgrowth of thrash metal, death metal retains almost none of the blues-based rhythms in which Black Sabbath trafficked. Thematically, though, Sabbath's influence still looms large. The song "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath," with its lyrical allusions to "living just for dying," strongly hinted at the attraction to oblivion that would be cranked up significantly by early death metal bands in the '80s and early '90s. Not to mention the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album cover! Seemingly scientifically engineered to freak out your mom, the artwork depicts a terrified man tormented by demons on a bed evidently possessed by Satan himself. It set a benchmark for horrifying imagery that death metal bands are still trying to outdo today.

"Black Sabbath," 1970
Black Sabbath never sounded anywhere near so ugly and extreme as the earliest practitioners of black metal did, but there's no denying that their influence is present. In particular, there's black metal's fascination with Satanism: While never expressing overt sympathy for the devil, early Sabbath flirted heavily with the Adversary; never more so than on their signature tune, "Black Sabbath." The song was constructed around a tritone, a dissonant musical interval derided as diabolus in musica (the devil in music) since at least the 18th century. The song's moody, cinematic opening, full of heavy rain and droning church bells, would also heavily inform the softer, more atmospheric strains of black metal that would arise in the genre's second wave.

"After Forever," 1971
The Satanists weren't the only rockers finding inspiration in Sabbath's music and lyrics. While they typically preferred to explore the dark side of the struggle between good and evil, Geezer and the gang weren't above occasionally inserting Christ and the Church into their musical morality plays. The song "After Forever," in fact, makes the claim that "God is the only way to love," and scolds nonbelievers for their faithlessness. While no one has ever called Black Sabbath "Christian rock" with a straight face, there's no doubt the band throws in solidly with the light side on this tune. Lord knows it rocks a damn sight harder than Stryper, too.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nathan Smith
Contact: Nathan Smith