In its heyday from the late ’60s through the late ’70s, Black Sabbath ruled the world of rock. The British band’s songs were as controversial for their lyrical content — anti-war commentary that often used the devil as a symbol for political corruption — as for their fearsome, dark sound. That came courtesy of Tony Iommi, one of the most influential guitarists in heavy metal. (Sure, singer Ozzy Osbourne would go on to bite the head off of a bat, but Iommi invented the metal guitar riff.)
In the decades since, Iommi has remained the band’s one constant member, and his hammering guitarwork has been the band’s hallmark. There are classic Sabbath songs — “War Pigs,” “Iron Man” — that fans can name in just two notes; that’s how jarring and anthemic an Iommi riff is. Some of that has to do with the fact that he lost the tips of two of his fingers in an industrial accident in his youth.
“I had to come up with a new way of playing,” Iommi says, “I had to rely on the sound rather than the feel. I tried to make the sound as big as I could, putting vibrato on the strings.”
Sabbath went through several singers after Osbourne left to go solo in 1979, and members came and went as the band made records through the mid-’90s. The June release of “13” marks the first time original members Osbourne, Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler have made a studio record together in 35 years (drummer Bill Ward did not join them). Produced by Rick Rubin (Kanye West, Adele, Public Enemy), the album debuted at No. 1 in the U.K. and the U.S.
“13” sounds like early Sabbath, which Iommi attributes to Rubin’s insistence that the band members develop songs and record together live in one room, something they hadn’t done since 1971’s “Paranoid.”
“It was good to treat us the way [Rubin] did, trying to get us to get back to the basic sound, the basic way of recording,” he says. “We even played the solos live.”
The first single, “God Is Dead?,” has vintage foreboding Sabbath lyrics: “Out of the gloom/I rise up from my tomb/Into impending doom.” Ultimately, as with many of the band’s older tunes, the song is about a struggle between good and evil; the conclusion is that God is not, in fact, dead.
As in the early days, most of the lyrics were written by Butler. And not many people — including Iommi — can explain what they mean.
“It’s like the early albums,” Iommi says. “One’s about a priest and — well, Geezer’s the one to talk to. He’s the one who comes up with all this. I mainly concentrate on the music.”Jiffy Lube Live, 7800 Cellar Door Drive, Bristow, Va.; Fri., 7:30 p.m., $41-$149.50; 703-754-6400.