Friday, November 5, 2010

The Complete 70's Replica CD Collection 1970-78
(Sanctuary Records)
Uncut, 2001

by Simon Reynolds

The mystery of the riff--so crucial to rock, so oddly neglected by critics. Or perhaps not so strangely, given that riffs are almost impossible to write about: just try explaining why one monster-riff slays you where another one fails to incite. Riffs just seem to bypass the aesthetic faculties altogether and go straight to the gut. A killer riff is by definition simplistic--which is why self-consciously sophisticated rock tends to dispense with them altogether in favor of wispy subtleties. Riff-based music seems lowly, literally "mindless" because it connects with the lower "reptilian" part of the cerebral cortex which governs flight-or-flight responses, the primitive emotions of appetite, aversion, and aggression.

Talking of reptiles, Black Sabbath--perhaps the greatest riff factory in all of rock---irresistibly invite metaphors involving dinosaurs. For a group that wielded such brontosauran bulk, though, Sabbath were surprisingly nimble on their feet. Listening to this box-set, which comprises all eight albums of the classic Ozzy-fronted era, I was surprised how fast many of their songs were, given ver Sabs' reputation as torpid dirgemeisters for the downered-and-out.

Even at their most manic, Sabbath always sound depressed, though. Rhythmically as much as lyrically, Sabbath songs dramatise scenarios of ordeal, entrapment, affliction, perseverance in the face of long odds and insuperable obstacles. Tony Iommi's down-tuned distorto-riffs--essentially the third element of the awesome rhythm section of Bill Ward and Geezer Butler--create sensations of impedance and drag, like you're struggling through hostile, slightly viscous terrain. Joe Carducci, Sabbath fiend and theorist supreme of rock 's "heavy" aesthetic, analyses about how bass, drums, and guitar converge to produce "powerfully articulated and textured tonal sensations of impact and motion that trigger hefty motor impulses in the listener." But let's not discount Ozzy's role: his piteous wail is one-dimensional, sure, but it sounds utterly righteous in this abject context. And he's effectively touching on forlornly pretty ballads like "Changes" too.

With a few exceptions (Lester Bangs, notably) the first rock-crit generation abhorred Sabbath. Criticism typically lags behind new art forms, appraising it using terminology and techniques more appropriate to earlier genres. So the first rock critics, being postgraduates in literature, philosophy, and politics, treated songs as mini-novels, as poetry or protest tracts with tasteful guitar accompaniment. Expecting rock to get ever more refined, they were hardly gonna embrace Sabbath's crude putsch on Cream, which stripped away all the blues-bore scholarship and revelled in the sheer dynamics of heaviosity. Riff-centered rock--Zep, Mountain, ZZ Top, Aerosmith---was received with incomprehension and condescension. But while Seventies critical faves like Little Feat and Jackson Browne have sired no legacy, over the long haul Sabbath's originality and fertility have been vindicated by the way their chromosones have popped up in US hardcore (Black Flag/Rollins were massively indebted), grunge (Nirvana = Beatles + Sabbath x Pixies), and virtually every key phase of metal from Metallica to Kyuss/Queens of the Stone Age to Korn. Sabbath are quite literally seminal.

Sabbath dressed like hippies: check the groovy kaftans and loon pants in the inner sleeve photos of these CDs, which are miniature simulacra of the original gatefold elpees. And they clearly hoped to contribute to the post-Sgt Pepper's progressive tendency: hence pseudo-pastoral interludes like the flute-draped "Solitude," an idyll amidst Master of Reality's sturm und drang. But critics deplored them as a sign of rock's post-Sixties regression , mere lumpen bombast fit only for the moronic inferno of the stadium circuit, and as a symptom of the long lingering death of countercultural dreams. In retrospect, with Sixties idealism seeming like a historical aberration, Sabbath's doom 'n' gloom seems more enduringly resonant, tapping into the perennial frustrations of youth with dead-end jobs from Coventry to New Jersey: headbanging riffs and narcotic noise as a cheap-and-nasty source of oblivion. Sabbath's no-future worldview always becomes extra relevant in times of recession, like the economic down-slope looming ahead of us right now. Looking back, the much-derided Satanist aspects seem relatively peripheral and low-key, especially compared with modern groups like Slipknot. In old TV footage of Sabbath, the group seem almost proto-punk, their sullen, slobby demeanour recalling The Saints on Top of the Pops. There's little theatrics, and the music is remarkably trim and flatulence-free.

But then no one really goes on about Iommi's solos, do they? The riffs are what it's all about, and Sabbath's productivity on that score is rivalled only by AC/DC. "Sweet Leaf", "Iron Man", "Paranoid", "Children of the Grave," "Wheels of Confusion", the list goes on. So we're back with the mystery.... just what is it that makes a great riff? Something to do with the use of silence and spacing, the hesitations that create suspense, a sense of tensed and flexed momentum, of force mass motion held then released. If I had to choose one definitive Sabbath riffscape, I'd be torn between the pummelling ballistic roil of "Supernaut" and "War Pigs", whose stop-start drums are like slow-motion breakbeats, Quaalude-sluggish but devastatingly funky. "War Pigs" is that rare thing, the protest song that doesn't totally suck. Indeed, it's 'Nam era plaint about "generals gathered... like witches at black masses" has a renewed topicality at a time when the military-industrial death-machine is once more flexing its might.

No comments: