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Black Sabbath Summer

Molly Lambert listens to the dark wizards of ’70s rock in 2016

August always sucks. It’s hot and disgusting and I spend it fantasizing about a fall season that doesn’t really exist here in Los Angeles. But in August I pin all my hopes on September, because September is “Sabbath Season,” an end-of-summer tradition my brother started where we listen to the first three Black Sabbath albums — 1970’s Black Sabbath and Paranoid, followed by 1971’s Master of Reality — on repeat. We do this in order to will autumn into being, as a yearly harvest ritual at the slightest sign of fall: a chill breeze, the first night where it’s no longer too hot to sleep, one lonely leaf falling off a tree.

This week was perfect timing to listen to the new Black Sabbath box set, released in promotional conjunction with the band’s current farewell tour. The set includes deluxe remastered CD versions of those first three albums with second discs of previously unreleased (in North America) outtakes and alternate versions, and a reissue of the out-of-print Past Lives, which collects live performances from 1970 to 1975, plus recently remastered versions of the band’s first 10 albums. That’s a lot of Black Sabbath CDs.

Like many people, I have abandoned compact discs in favor of listening to music through the internet. At some undetermined time — after iPods replaced the Discman and then replaced themselves with smartphones, and between when the CD player in my car broke and computers stopped being manufactured with CD drives — I stopped owning any devices that could play CDs. It hadn’t really occurred to me until I received a stack of beautiful Black Sabbath reissues, the kind of box set I’ve long lusted over, and stared at them like mystical tablets for which I was all out of Rosetta stones. All I could do was run my hands over the beautiful, glossy booklets until I got to Best Buy the next day and bought a cheapie personal CD player — an item I was not entirely sure was still being manufactured.

It turns out you can forget how to use a personal CD player if you had not used one in some time. Every time I wanted to turn the volume up or down, I reflexively did so on my laptop, before I remembered that my headphones were actually plugged into the CD player. I also kept wrongly pressing the same laptop’s space bar to pause the music. I guess old habits die remarkably easily. That said, I suddenly found myself contemplating the Discman as if it were a brand-new-to-me technology. When we traded in CD players for iPods, it was based on the assumed ease of having your music library at your fingertips rather than in physical form. Never again would we have to carry around giant binders of CDs or skim them in search of the thing we wanted.

CD players — once the cutting-edge, lightweight, portable alternative to vinyl — were now seen as excess baggage just as much as those crates of vinyl had been. Vinyl came back in again as CDs went out. But the lowly compact disc, once the most prized objects in any music collector’s life, went in the bin. I haven’t forgotten what I hated about compact discs: namely, paying $20 for them, and the fact that they are so easily capable of getting scratched and ruined. And, sure, Discmans skip if you move too much, but Spotify skips and glitches when I open a new browser tab. Everything is flawed.

In recent years, I mostly listened to Black Sabbath on used vinyl that was not in the greatest condition. It didn’t matter — the analog fuzz knitted with the album’s halo of scuzz and distortion. Listening to these remastered discs via my new portable CD player from Best Buy, I could appreciate the precision and clarity of the sludge. The outtakes and alternate versions emphasize that Black Sabbath were always as much a blues-rock band as they were a hard-rock proto-metal group — the wailing harmonica and cowbell on “The Wizard” come into sharper focus on the instrumental version included on Disc 2 of their debut. The different lyrics for “Planet Caravan” and “Paranoid” are more explicitly about women, and more closely connect them with other British blues boogie bands of the early ’70s. The official version of “Paranoid” is just that — the “alternative version” is not scary and includes the line “Everyone is saying I’m mad because you’re the only girl I’ve ever had.” It just doesn’t have the misanthropic pop of “People think I'm insane because I am frowning all the time.”

The deluxe edition of Black Sabbath also includes their first single, a cover of Minneapolis band Crow’s “Evil Woman,” which was omitted on the American edition of the album in favor of “Wicked World.” “Evil Woman” features a lot of rock flute (maybe influenced by guitarist Tony Iommi’s year spent in Jethro Tull?) and a rollicking chorus that verges on heavy bubblegum. The “evil woman” of “Evil Woman” is just a regular old bad girlfriend of the kind in blues lyrics, not involved in any sort of satanic practices. It’s a peek into what the band might have been like had they not seen a marquee for a revival showing of Mario Bava’s horror film Black Sabbath one night and been inspired to write the eponymous song that created and epitomizes their image, fusing the pentatonic blues scale to the locally grown pentagrams of Aleister Crowley.

Black Sabbath were hated by a lot of major rock writers at first, anticipating the mantle of stupidity that critics would continue to ascribe to fans and makers of the burgeoning genre of heavy metal. Some found their horror-movie theming hokey, but, in retrospect, it’s fairly restrained. It’s such a specific, European kind of horror, all earth tones and ancient paganism. They made writing songs about Druidism and magic seem heavy and cool instead of twee and silly. When Ozzy sings “Look over your shoulder, Satan is there” in an outtake of “Black Sabbath,” it’s scary when it could be laughable.

Sabbath specialized in long, slow grooves that build up a palpable sense of dread. What’s very apparent from the alternate takes and versions on the box set is that they had a strong, coherent vision for the band from the first album (recorded in 12 hours). And from the toll of the bell that opens that first album, Black Sabbath built a cinematic world. Who else can sing things like “Everyone's happy when the wizard walks by” without just sounding like goofs? A band that can make wizards seem scary are, in fact, wizards themselves.