It occurred to me just after the new year that 2011 marked the 40th anniversary of the release of the Black Sabbath album “Paranoid” in the United States. Naturally, when Black Sabbath comes to mind, it’s easy to get lost in their immense legacy, especially on the heels on another milestone anniversary. While “Black Sabbath” put Osbourne, Iommi, Butler and Ward on the map, it was “Paranoid” that cemented them as one of the most unique and powerful bands in the world. Between the title track which contained the shadows of punk rock and the hammering anthem “Iron Man” that made heavy metal possible, “Paranoid” had parents scrambling to rally against it while their children were rallying at the record store to buy it. The album instantly became one of the benchmarks against which all rock and roll, and down the line all metal, would be judged.
(Parenthetically, “Paranoid” was released in 1970 in the United Kingdom, but delayed until January of ’71 across the Atlantic because Black Sabbath’s debut “Black Sabbath” was still on the charts in the United States.)
It therefore seemed only appropriate to put together some kind of tribute to the band that started it all. Which got me to thinking: what is the most essential part of the legacy of Black Sabbath? It came to me almost in a whirlwind of epiphany: The Riff. Tony Iommi may have not been the best or most prolific virtuoso guitar player ever, but he may have had the best ear for creating riffs that haven’t been heard before or since. His ability to blend blues archetypes with modern (at the time) amplification and combine those elements with a healthy sense of darkness and bleak imagery is often imitated but never duplicated.
In short, The Riff is the essential reason we all love Black Sabbath and the reason that those songs find their way into our playlists even forty years later.
It didn’t seem right to have me be the only person paying tribute to one of the most iconic counter-culture (or counter-counter-culture, depending on your perspective) bands in the history of popular music. Simply stated, the legacy of Black Sabbath is bigger than me, bigger than my space on the Internet, bigger than any one person can pay homage to and call it a complete work.
So I rallied as many people as I could, contacted everyone I could get my hands on and asked them the simple question “What is your favorite Black Sabbath riff and why?” For the purposes of argument, even though this is technically a celebration of “Paranoid,” I told all participants that they were not limited to that album in their selection. This is Black Sabbath we’re talking about people; there are no limits.
To begin the festivities, I needed a solid beachhead to start this week-long operation. So while I asked everyone to pick just one riff, I needed a couple people to conjure up a Top Ten to get everyone’s mind in the right gear. I tapped myself as one of them, but to start things off, I turned to my old friend Greg, occasional writer for For the Love of the Band, Black Sabbath expert and the same guy you might remember who helped me out with the re-release of The Stooges’ “Raw Power.”
Later on in the week, you’ll see my own personal picks followed lastly (but certainly not least,) by the picks of people in the music and metal universes, including Henry Rollins, Eddie Trunk, John Laux of Warbringer, Jerry Garcia of Bonded by Blood and a small army of others. So make sure to keep your eyes here this week, as its Black Sabbath week! With all that said, I turn to Greg to get us started, he begins after the break:
First of all, I'd like to thank M. Drew for once again asking me to weigh in here on some great music. Second of all, Black Sabbath. Oh, I how love this band. I first received the pitch for this while checking my email at work in the morning and thought "This sounds cool." Then I couldn't think about anything else, or get any work done, until I had banged out an early Top Ten.
Of course with Black Sabbath it didn't take any time at all to think of ten amazing riffs. The hard part is ranking them. It's like ranking the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, or Top Ten Celebrity Crushes You Had as a Teenager. Proper respect must be paid to each. With that in mind, let's get right to it.
I have to throw in two shout-outs for two fantastic Sab riffs that couldn't quite make the cut. The first is "that middle part in 'War Pigs' that leads to the outro." I couldn't quite include "War Pigs" as a song on here, since it's really about Ozzy's preaching and the guitar serves as exclamation point more than anything. But that part in the middle is so simple, and so epic. I especially like how it sounds on live recordings of the song. I also have to include some love for "Wicked World" on here. "Wicked World" is just a little too ridiculous to make the cut, but goddamn if it doesn't get me drumming on my steering wheel whenever I hear it.
The Dio years provoke mixed reactions amongst Sab fans, as Dio unquestionably possessed a voice with more range and power than Ozzy, yet seemed to not fit much of the classic material as well. Preference in vocalists (and lyrical topics) aside, it's safe to say that Tony Iommi's stable of crushing riffs wasn't quite as large in the early 80's as it had been in the classic days. A fortunate exception to this is the lurching, majestic "The Sign of the Southern Cross." The riff here would kick ass just about anywhere, but it benefits even further from Dio's transition from soft cooing in the intro to his traditional mighty bellow and the sound of rushing wind added for effect.
SOMEWHERE! NOWHERE! ARRRGGGGHHH!!!
One of the few Sabbath songs to truly "swing", "Sabra Cadabra" grabs you early with its speed and surprising up-beatness. Probably the only Sab song that I catch myself whistling to when I'm in a good mood, and the closest the band came to 70's cock rock (still not that close).
As a side note, "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" is probably my least favorite of the classic albums (hey, there has to be one), which is a shame because it has the best album cover.
Simple but near-perfect this one is. I can't really offer a lot of analysis here other than that this is a song that I find myself turning to quite a bit. Slow, monstrous, but oddly catchy, a quintessential Sabbath riff and song.
I am 99% certain that M. Drew is going to rate this song higher on his own list, so it's important for me to note here that putting this song at number seven is not a diss! Keep in mind we are ranking wonders here. And this song is awesome. I just feel that the awesomeness here belongs at least as much to Ozzy as it does to the riff, he's in full-on Prophet of Doom mode here.
The riff is great too. No real fireworks, just miring in post-apocalyptic murk. Perfect soundtrack to go along with footage from one of those black-and-white H-bomb test films.
Oh yeah! This one is probably known more overtly known to fans for its bass intro than for its guitar, but the two follow each other quite closely and complement each other perfectly in this song. The riffs are also aided by 1) The bluesy touches that Iommi adds to the end of each one, in many cases sounding like an evil version of the wolf whistle 2) Great bridge/solo touches in the middle of the song, a classic Sab element making its first real appearance on this list 3) Tambourines.
Much like "Lord of This World" (and also appearing on "Master of Reality", probably the best album that the band put out if measured purely in riffs) this one is just simply classic. A slow, grinding intro (even by Sabbath standards) followed by a chugging riff as the rocket flies into space and a quickened pace as the crew "leaves the earth to all its sin and hate" before returning once again to the pummeling main riff. Best album closer the band ever did.
Great proto-thrash riff here, which has to go down as one of Black Sabbath's most influential as well as one of its best. An unusual riff and song for the band (you don't hear a lot of palm-muting in their other riffs, or a lot of weird calypso outros in their other songs) this one gets partial demerit points from me for the closing section, which is musically pretty interesting but vocally pretty bad. When you start off with "Womanchild of lost creation / Come and step inside my dream" you've already dug a pretty big hole for yourself. And not a Hole in the Sky either. A bad kind of hole. Anyways, the main riff and the entire first section of the song are fantastic.
Also of note: Sepultura's version of this song is my all-time favorite Black Sabbath cover.
We're reaching the cream of the crop here, the best of the best. "Supernaut" is not only a great riff; it's a great song, and one with more interlocking pieces than the typical Sab piece. Let me explain, because that sounds a bit clunky.
Through their first three albums the band was more or less willing to ride one punishing groove through an entire song, and that was fine because those grooves were amazing (you'll notice this list is weighted heavily towards the first three albums). By Volume 4 the band was ready to branch out a bit, with results good (this song, "Wheels of Confusion") bad ("FX", the track that sounds like an echo-y fart!) and ugly ("Changes", don't even get me started).
"Supernaut" contains a fantastic, propulsive riff from Iommi, but it's made even more forceful by how it is complemented by the other bandmates. Bill Ward in particular is amazing, bashing away during the verses but varying his tempo and throwing in perfectly-timed rolls. This song also contains Sabbath's all-time best breakdown, quieting things down to acoustic guitar and some mixed percussion before the main riff comes roaring back like a jet engine.
We've reached the point now where the greatness of the riffs far, far exceed my ability to describe them. Suffice to say, if you have even the slightest interest in Black Sabbath, hard rock, heavy metal, any of that, you absolutely need to hear this song. The creeping dread, the massive unstoppable riff, the absolutely pummeling bridge, it's all there. This is a song that bears down on you.
Geezer Butler claims to have invented headbanging, and while I can't say whether or not that's true, I can say that "Children of the Grave" will make your brain hit the front of your skull.
This is it, the granddaddy of them all, the most classic riff from the most classic riff band, "Iron Man." And while this might seem like sort of an obvious pick, that doesn't make it wrong. There is a reason why this riff continued to bubble up in popular culture for so long, to be used as an anthem for Beavis and Butthead over twenty years after it was written and as the closing song to the Iron Man movie nearly 40 years later.
Think about that. Huge, blockbuster, summer spectacular movie, and they close it out with the original recording of Iron Man. That's staying power right there. Not even Led Zeppelin gets to close out a good summer movie with one of their songs! All they got was a bastardized version of "Kashmir" in the crappy Hank Azaria Godzilla movie.
Anyways, Iron Man. Above, I said that anybody with an interest in hard rock or heavy metal needs to hear "Children of the Grave." Well, anybody with functioning ears needs to hear "Iron Man." It's that good, and it's that powerful. I still get a chill down my spine every single time the main riff kicks in from the intro. I still picture myself on stage, in some kind of band, every single time I hear this song. "Iron Man" is Black Sabbath to me, and Black Sabbath is Rock n' Roll.
So keep it here, metal fans, we’ve got a full week ahead. Plus, I want the whole internet talking about this, so get on your Facebook and your Twitter and tell all your friends. Share this article. I would love to see hundreds of fans from all walks of life commenting on this article with what their favorite Black Sabbath riff is and why, because it will take that many of us to pay proper tribute to the Fathers of Metal.