Tag Archive: heavy metal


For Aerosmith, drugs took a boiling point approach. Their lives got louder, faster and crazier until they simply blew up, and it culminated with the tepid reaction to their 1977 album Draw the Line and Joe Perry’s angry departure from the band. It was followed in short order by Brad Whitford also bidding Aerosmith adieu right after their 1979 album Night In the Ruts. Then came the feces storm that was Rock In a Hard Place, their audience’s extremely bad reaction to new guitarists Rick Dufay and Jimmy Crespo (“Where’s Joe f***in’ Perry?!?”) and Steven Tyler’s collapse on stage in 1982 – the rest of the band thought he was dead. Cocaine, hard touring and egos the size of Australia had killed Aerosmith with greatest discrimination.

But back in the mid-‘70s, Aerosmith was flyin’ high, both figuratively and literally. They followed up on Toys In the Attic 13 months later with another rock and roll behemoth, Rocks. Aerosmith were clearly on a roll, and the juggernaut wasn’t going to stop until it burned out. Drugs make it break down a lot faster, and Aerosmith had people putting lines of cocaine in front of them for years now. But this period was the golden state, the very narrow sliver of time when drugs are fueling a band’s creativity while the toll on the body still hasn’t reached an unmanageable level. For a great many bands that time is way too short, and Aerosmith are no exception.

Toys In the Attic and Rocks are the two hands-down greatest moments in the first phase of Aerosmith’s career, before they died their first death and were resurrected with Permanent Vacation. Like I said, the two albums are only separated by a scant 13 months, and are indeed musical twins. Comparing them to see which is better is like pitting siblings against each other with knives, but hey, that’s what music critics do, right?

Both Toys and Rocks are 9 tracks long, and there’s only 2 and a half minutes difference in runtime, so they’re just begging for a showdown. They have similar structures, both containing one menacing rock tune (“Sweet Emotion” and “Back In the Saddle”) and one heavy metal gem (“Round and Round” and “Nobody’s Fault”), and both cap off with a bloated rock ballad powered by piano (“You See Me Crying” and “Home Tonight”). They also both have a monument to sex and philandering (“Walk This Way” and “Lick and a Promise”). Indeed, most songs from one album have a loose parallel on the other.

And if you still say comparisons between the two are unfair, there’s that Rocks actually has a sequel song to a track on Toys In the Attic. The title track of that album is a fast and frenetic song about insanity with a killer guitar drone near the end. Steven Tyler screams like he’s really going insane, marking the first appearance of his signature screeching howl. And Rocks track #3 is a companion piece to that, with a similar musical tone and even a matching name, “Rats In the Cellar.” Whether you go to the attic to retreat into your own mind, or the cellar to party with the vermin, you’ll go insane either way.

But which album is better? I think for that you’d have to look at individual songs. “Nobody’s Fault” has a darker and more urgent groove than “Round and Round,” though “Round and Round” has a better sense of heaviness. “Home Tonight” is a better power ballad than its counterpart, and doesn’t contain the annoying falsetto whine that “You See Me Crying” does. Rocks has more jaunty, dirty numbers in “Last Child” and “Get the Lead Out,” but Toys In the Attic some great teenager anthems like “Walk This Way” and “Adam’s Apple.” Rocks acknowledges the toll drugs were taking on Aerosmith as a whole (“Combination” and “Sick as a Dog”) while Toys is practically silent on the matter. Rocks also features a slightly darker and more wicked tone, while Toys is more fun. It just depends on what you prefer.

In singles, however, there isn’t even a competition – Toys wins hands-down. “Sweet Emotion” and “Walk This Way” are both Toys, while the only very successful single from Rocks is opener “Back In the Saddle”. It’s a good song, no doubt, but can’t stand up to “Walk This Way” and is blown out of the water by the deliciously awesome “Sweet Emotion.” Success of singles definitely isn’t the only thing to take into account – there’s also cohesion as an album. Both Toys and Rocks score high marks on that front, but the presence of TWO iconic Aerosmith songs on Toys push it over the line for me.

Official AO verdict: Toys In the Attic wins out over Rocks, but only just.

Paranoid deals chiefly with three subjects: depression, drugs, and social issues relevant to the day. Two songs out of eight don’t fit the pattern, those being “Iron Man” and “Planet Caravan.” The latter doesn’t fit any pattern established by the rest of Paranoid, and is a very odd duck amidst the heaviest album ever, coming right before the two most metal songs on here.

“Planet Caravan” is a quiet, ethereal dreamscape. Its’ lyrics speak of the moon, the skies, starlight, and even the planet/Greek god Mars, supposedly being about a journey through the universe with your loved one. The one pattern this sets up is metal artists having one quiet, subdued, or sensitive number on their albums. Black Sabbath was consistent, having “Solitude” on their next record Master of Reality, “Changes” on Vol. 4, and “Fluff” on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.  While I think metal musicians generally suffer from insecurity about the size of their male organs, a lack of a “Planet Caravan” track somewhere in their catalog seals the deal.

The peaceful calm of “Planet Caravan” only lasts a few minutes before it’s utterly shattered by the stomping inevitability of “Iron Man” in what’s one of the most famous riffs in all of rock and roll. But “Iron an” arguably isn’t the heaviest track on here. In my estimation, that honor goes to the opening song of the vinyl flip, “Electric Funeral.”

Loud, doomy and quivering, “Electric Funeral” has the same element of impending destruction “Iron Man” does so well. Like “War Pigs” does with war, it deals with the topic of nuclear holocaust through horrifying imagery. Musically, this is even more terror-inducing than their Satan opus “Black Sabbath.” It’s not enough to tip me over into actually believing this, but “Electric Funeral” makes a pretty strong case for some music (regardless of lyrics) being inherently evil.

It’s also an example of a motif that’s present in much of Black Sabbath’s early output; the heaviest songs are often the slowest. Heavy metal acts from the 80s onwards took the approach that faster is better, more notes equals more awesome.  Metallica in particular developed early on a hard-charging musical personality. For them, it came out of playing in L.A. clubs where no one was listening to them, so they decided to play louder and faster in order to get the crowd’s attention. More and more, I’m realizing that while fast songs translate anger better, slow songs have much more doom. Doom is the most dangerous weapon in the heavy metal arsenal.

hey, fairies DO wear boots!

I mentioned drugs as a subject of Paranoid, and it gets two songs as well. “Hand of Doom” is a fairly straightforward song about the dangers of hard drugs, particularly heroin. It’s long and meandering, featuring an extended solo in the middle that has Tony self-indulging, like “Warning” from the previous album. At the cap, there’s “Fairies Wear Boots,” a more subtle treatment of hallucinogens. The fabled story goes that Geezer wrote the lyrics to this after he and Ozzy encountered some skinheads wearing combat boots. Geezer mocks them in the song calling them “fairies.” BS had a tendency to sensationalize themselves, and I have a feeling the skinhead story is simply that. Even a cursory analysis of “Fairies Wear Boots” tells me it’s about drugs, particularly the last 3 lines. “So I went to the doctor to see what he could give me / He said ‘son, son, you’ve gone too far / ‘Cause smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do.’”

Two of my closest friends are practicing psychologists. One of the things in the shrink’s bag of tricks is the word association game. If a psychologist played that game with me and they said “Metal,” I would have to respond with “Paranoid.” Led Zeppelin are responsible for the genesis of the genre with II, but Black Sabbath wear the metal crown by having the single greatest and most influential statement in metal’s entire history, even to this day. Paranoid did 90% of the work that was started by II and brought it to full fruition by perfectly capturing what it means to be heavy metal, defining that term in a way that’s lasting through the ages. When musical scholars talk about heavy metal, they’re talking about Paranoid.

Tony Iommi

Black Sabbath didn’t sound like any other band, and they carved out for themselves a niche that was original and foundational. They had a deep, bottom-heavy tone, reaching low notes that other bands simply didn’t reach. Led Zeppelin, who were almost as heavy, had a similar musical method, and both bands are considered ancestors of heavy metal. But in addition to Led Zep being more blues-influenced, they also had a more standard range of musical notes. Black Sabbath, however, made music that came from a deeper place in your gut. That lent itself very well to their more apocalyptic and pessimistic lyrical approach.

But really, the origin of their unique sound is pretty simple and unexciting. Tony Iommi worked at a sheet metal factory when he was 17 to help his destitute family with money. On his last day, an accident with a machine cost him the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. He had been playing guitar for a while, and considering he played left-handed, the accident could have ended his guitar days for good. Instead, he used lighter strings and tuned his guitar way down to C# from the normal E to ease the tension on his fingers. Geezer also tuned his bass to C# in order to match Tony, and Black Sabbath’s sludgy, bottom-heavy sound was born.

“you shall not pass!!!”

Black Sabbath bears more than just a passing resemblance to Led Zeppelin; they too have a fascination with Lord of the Rings. “The Wizard” was inspired by the character of Gandalf, a charismatic wizard, mentor to Frodo Baggins, and de facto leader of the Fellowship of the Ring. The song also has application to the band’s drug dealer at the time, according to Geezer.

Here’s my own interpretation. The second verse goes like this: “Evil power disappears / Demons worry when the wizard is near / He turns tears into joy / Everyone’s happy when the wizard walks by.” Maybe it’s just because I grew up knowing Jesus like a member of my family, but “the wizard” in these lyrics sound an awful lot like the Son of God to me. “Everyone’s happy” indicates this was in the first part of Jesus’ ministry when people were glad to see him coming, before the Powers That Be decided he was big trouble. As far as I know, the only “demon” Gandalf ever made “worry” was the Balrog. He did more than make it worry, though; he smacked the crap out of it. However, Jesus was casting out demons all over the four Gospels, most notably the “Herd of Swine” incident as recorded in the book of Matthew. But again, it’s just my own interpretation.

“Behind the Wall of Sleep” features several time signature changes, which makes me grumble a little bit. Even so, it’s a pretty groovy song. It draws inspiration from the H.P. Lovecraft short story Beyond the Wall of Sleep, but the story has only tangential relation to the actual lyrics. They speak of a greater awareness lying behind the “wall of sleep,” one a person can access one they “take [their] body to a corpse,” which I can only assume means to shuffle off this mortal coil.

“Evil Woman,” while fitting right in with Black Sabbath’s motif of darkness and dismay, is not their song. It’s a cover of a song by Crow (if you’ve heard of them, you deserve a medal). Lyrics like “I see the look of evil in your eyes” plays right into Black Sabbath’s wheelhouse. I’ve never heard the original, but I have a hard time imagining it to sound very different from the BS version. Unless you looked into it, you probably wouldn’t even know it’s a cover, so seamless is the integration into BS’s oeuvre.

Finishing off Black Sabbath, we have the schizoid “Sleeping Village” and “Warning.” I talk about them together because they’re very much a medley, despite their separation on the track listing (though not on all editions – more on that later). I confess I haven’t been watching my iTunes like a hawk when listening to this album – I know, I know, forty lashes – so I haven’t seen when track 6 ends and track 7 begins. Nevertheless, the two songs together total up to about 14 minutes, a lot of which is just Tony Iommi improvising to fill studio time. “Warning” is another cover, this one from the Ansley Dunbar Revolution. Again, you can’t actually tell it’s not a Black Sabbath original.

Ozzy Osbourne

Black Sabbath was released when difference between American and British editions was a thing of the (recent) past, but somehow this one slipped through. Perhaps it’s because no one expected the album to make as big splash, even in Britain. Thus, there are several different editions of Black Sabbath with different track orders, and even an extra song. “Wicked World” is an interesting slice of sludgy blues, delivered with what is now Ozzy Osbourne’s trademark sneer. It’s exclusion from the original British release doesn’t really make sense to me. It’s a good song, it fits in with the scope of the album as a whole, and it makes it a little longer without it being filler.

This entire album was produced in just a few days: two for recording, one for mastering, one for mixing. This makes perfect sense, considering the album’s bluesy, thrown-together feel, but it’s still kind of amazing. Tony Iommi actually said he thought two days was a little long to record. In less than 20 years, artists would routinely be spending multiple years on albums, crafting and honing everything in a meticulous and perfectionist way. Producers would insist on take after take after take until the musicians were on the brink of madness. Black Sabbath, however, would play a song a few times through and then say, “yeah, that sounds good.” Some of those perfectionists could learn a thing or two from early BS, not the least of which is when to say, “yeah, that sounds good.”

On Monday: “What the bloody hell is that noise?” “I think it’s the Beatles.”

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath – 2/13/1970

The evil mojo needs to be taken out of Black Sabbath; after doing that, you discover that they didn’t really have any to begin with. They started out the same exact way that countless other bands did. There was no demonic ritual that they used to bless their origin; the four members were not birthed from the mouth of hell. In fact, they weren’t even called Black Sabbath at their genesis.

Tony Iommi was a teenager had dreams of getting out of economically depressed Birmingham, England and starting a band. He recruited several other musicians to play with him, and it’s really that simple. The lynchpin came when they were auditioning lead singers and Ozzy Osbourne showed up with his own PA system, something the band needed. From there, they were off and running, complete with the name Polka Tulk. They must have realized that name was just bloody awful, so they redubbed themselves Earth. They soon discovered that there was another band with the same name, and they had to make a change. They went with Black Sabbath, the name of a famous Boris Karloff horror film from 1963. The name was a suggestion from their bass player, Geezer Butler.

Geezer can lay claim to Black Sabbath’s long association with darkness and Lucifer and all that foolishness; he wrote most of the band’s lyrics throughout most of their career.  He was very Catholic, so he identified with all that gothic, religious iconography, as well as Satan being a powerful, epic being. His conception of Satan was probably a little skewed, as everyone’s is. And like a lot of teenagers who are denied something, he got curious.

In truth, Geezer’s – and consequentially the band’s – early preoccupation with the devil loomed large on their first album, the eponymous Black Sabbath. Their understanding of the Prince of the Power of the Air, however, was childish and immature. This isn’t really a bad thing, ‘cause it worked for them and created groovy music. But I can’t help but give just a little chuckle when they mention Satan because they’re just so earnest about it. They’re like 6-year-olds dressing up in their dad’s clothes with his briefcase and trench coat, saying things like “I’m off to work, dear!” As upset as they would be about me thinking this, it’s just so cute.

Black Sabbath begins on an ominous and doom-heavy note, with just the sound of falling rain. A church bell chimes somewhere off in the distance. And then, heaviness beyond heaviness with the first track, which is also called “Black Sabbath.” The opening strains are tonic, then octave, then diminished fifth. Diabolus in musica. It’s also slow, deep, loud, and accompanied by frenzied drumming.

The lyrics are about a true life experience Geezer had. Ozzy had given him a book about witchcraft as a gift, and one night he awoke from a nightmare to see a dark figure whose face was obscured sitting in the chair across from his bed. The figure vanished soon after, and when he got up the next morning, the book Ozzy gave him was gone from the table in his bedroom where he had left it. Embellishment was multiplied a hundred times, ending with a song.

If you ask me, it was probably something as stupid as another band member stealing the book while Geezer was sleeping and never telling anyone. And after the song was recorded and they had become famous, they simply couldn’t let the myth die.

There is one other song on the album dealing specifically with Satan, “N.I.B.” The origin of the name is kind of silly: Geezer thought drummer Bill Ward’s goatee (now called a soulpatch) resembled a pen nib. He took a song he had already written that didn’t have a title and called it “Nib.” To add some ambiguity to the name (since it had nothing to do with the lyrics), he changed it to “N.I.B.” to make it look like initials. As soon as some dumb kid got his hands on the suggestion that Black Sabbath were into devil worship and anti-Christianity, it was over. That kid suggested that “N.I.B.” might stand for “nativity in black,” and because of the image Black Sabbath had created for themselves, they weren’t in a position to argue. Their fans wouldn’t have listened anyway, since they were so obsessed with the band being “evil.” After they became legends, Black Sabbath’s two tribute albums, contributed to by some big names in heavy metal, were both titled Nativity In Black.

As for the lyrics, they’re a first-person account of Lucifer (called by name) declaring his love for a human. It’s generally thought to be Lucifer using his deceptive, lying ways to seduce a young girl into Satan worship. Geezer tells a different story, and says it’s about Lucifer having genuine love for this girl, casting off his devilish ways, and becoming a “good person.” I think Lucifer (the real Lucifer) might have seduced Geezer into writing this song about him with those intentions. If that’s the case, though, everyone saw right through it; Geezer botched the job.

Friday: did Tony Iommi chop off his first two fingers in a Satanic rite? You be the judge… 😉

Diabolus in Musica

I graduated from college with a BA in English, and knew I was going to be an English major ever since I was 14. Another type of no-brainer was selecting a music minor; it was a no brainer not because it was really easy and I didn’t have to even think about it, but because if I had actually used my brain, I would have said “not on your life.”

Nevertheless, I was technically a music minor for the entirety of my freshman year; I dropped it when I had my fall sophomore conference with my academic advisor. During that freshman year, I took Music Theory I and II. It was stimulating, if you can call taking an electric drill to your own forehead “stimulating.” But despite the mechanizing of something I found to be completely organic, Music Theory taught me a great deal about the craft and science of music. I learned about the diatonic scale, counterpoint, the different modes (Ionian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, etc.), and the I IV V (one, four, five)pattern.

One of the things that stuck in my mind was the interval (the amount of distance between two consecutive notes) called a diminished fifth. Now, the technical definition of that interval involves a lot of math and calculations and other things I don’t find at all interesting (and you probably won’t either).  But like music itself, it has an aspect that transcends the menial, ordinary mathematics of it.

The diminished fifth is a rather infamous interval in the music theory world. Its nickname is diabolus in musica, which is Latin for “the Devil in music.” Different from every other interval, its inherent dissonance strikes the listener as unsettling at best, terror-inducing at worst. It’s reserved for when the composer wants to portray a sense of dread and danger in his music. The Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux thought it smacked of evil, something that could only come from Satan himself.

The most famous use of diabolus in musica in popular music comes from none other than Satan’s most loyal servants, the pinnacle purveyors of all things evil and malignant, Black Sabbath.

Sense the sarcasm, people.

The name Black Sabbath indicates all sorts of evil, unsettling things in a very cliché, stereotypical way. As a young Christian boy, I was warned about Satan and his wicked influence in the world so vehemently that he turned into a caricature, and I became skeptical that he even existed at all. In particular, I was warned about the rock and roll music I was becoming interesting in. Some even said there was a one-to-one connection between rock and roll and the worship of Satan; one inevitably lead to the other in a short period of time.

Poppycock and foolishness, all of it. Music can’t make you worship Satan any more than watching Bob Newhart on TV can make you go bald. The idea that millions of kids everywhere are falling into the “trap” of rock music is one of the more insulting things I’ve heard – not just to rock musicians, but to kids.

For the record, I do think Satan exists. In my opinion, he’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz; behind the smoke, lights and big scary machine, there’s a small, scared, pitiful person operating that machine. The difference is that while the Wizard of Oz constructed it himself, Satan’s frightening guise is our making. He only has as much power in your individual life as you yourself give him. In truth, you have power over him.

As for rock and roll, Satan finds it to be a rather useful tool; but so does God. Rock music has been used by humans to promote some pretty awful things, both obvious and subtle, but it has also been used to save kids’ lives, lead people to God, and generally uplift humanity. Rock and roll (and all music) is one of the most striking places we can see God.

Every Inch

Led Zeppelin I

Led Zeppelin’s first album carved out a name for them and let the world know that things would be different from here on out. Led Zeppelin was about taking blues music and giving it a hard, modern edge. Nearly every song takes a standard blues formula and spins it to a different angle so it’s almost unrecognizable. “Dazed and Confused” is a good example. It was technically released long before the Altamont Free Concert, largely agreed upon to be “the death of the 60s.” But it heralded changes in the sound, stability, and mindset of rock and roll. It was getting nastier, darker, and more sexual. Led Zeppelin and Beggars Banquet prepared people for it; II made it a reality.

I’ve heard II described as the template for heavy metal. Most metal artists at the birth of the genre looked at II and thought, “we’ll just do that.” In that way, all metal artists from Stryper to Mayhem, Twisted Sister to Slipknot, owe Led Zeppelin big time. Without them, there would be no heavy metal, and that’s just the truth.

Led Zeppelin - II - 10/22/1969

The opening guitar strain of “Whole Lotta Love” is, without a doubt, the heaviest thing the world had heard thus far. Every time I hear this track, it only takes a few seconds before it captures my attention and I think, “wow; this is some serious business.” As plodding and unmerciful as the guitar part is, the vocals are serpentine and smooth, a feat Robert Plant was the first to pull off in this setting. But beware, Plant isn’t a wilting flower or a lovesick puppy – he’s dangerous. Mothers, lock up your daughters.

I once heard Robert Plant say in an interview something to the effect of this song letting the world know that Led Zeppelin “possessed sex.” Each time I listen to this song, I get it. The music is very sexual, but not like a horny teenager. No, it’s more like an experienced womanizer, a lion who hunts prey. The lyrics appear innocent enough, but have an undercurrent of male libido that is almost overwhelming. “I’m gonna give you my love” could be taken at face value, but I think the listener is intended to take it one step further.

Let’s be blunt: every instance of the word “love” in this song could be replaced with “penis.” Near the end, Plant even modifies the lyric to “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love!” It would take football fields full of naivety to miss that meaning. I could do without Plant having an orgasm into the microphone half way into the song, though; it’s not very manly to finish early.

After that burst of aggressive male sexuality, things slow down for a moment with “What Is and What Should Never Be.” The song has soft-on-the-verse, hard-on-the-chorus cycle; this is just one piece of II’s influence on not just heavy metal, but rock and roll in general. I think the concept is supposed to be the contrast between the extremes of hard and soft, like sleeping and waking. The verses are almost dreamlike, while the chorus is hard-driving and intense. Despite that, the melody in the chorus isn’t very compelling, and the verses aren’t formed enough. I understand that that’s the point of the song, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

“The Lemon Song,” on the other hand, really does. This song is full of sexual innuendo; Robert Plant saying “the way you squeeze my lemon, I’m gonna fall right outta bed” is more deliciously bawdy than all the modern sitcoms, rap songs and stand-up comedians combined. Sexual humor is always funnier when it’s presented with a wink. “If you know what I mean…”

“The Lemon Song” is arguably Led Zep’s most blues-influenced song; that’s saying a lot for a band that makes its name on updating the blues for the changing times. It borrows from Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, and John Paul Jones’ bass track has funkiness that simply defies his age. Best of all is Robert Plant’s splendid and perfectly timed delivery. I feel I would have a lot of people on my side if I said that Plant is the greatest lead singer of all time.

On Monday: Being a man is more than what’s between your legs.