The word "genius" is so overused and devalued within rock criticism that it seems to be applied to any artist who completes three albums in any given decade. (The exception being Paul Simon, who manages only one.) Think of Madonna changing stylists, Stephin Merritt writing too many love songs, Courtney Love standing up straight. Fine accomplishments, yes; applause due all around for being as entertaining as entertainment should be. However, it's pop music, and much of it today -- even the good stuff -- will be gone before the ADD-addled music industry sets up for tomorrow.
Genius reveals itself over time, not at the insistence of a sales chart or the whisperings of an earnest publicist. Not that those who survive the Darwinian challenge necessarily will be the most deserving. Boardroom politics, corporate alliances and aesthetically indifferent systems of measure will ensure the Doobie Brothers their inexplicable continuing stay on classic rock radio playlists, and the floating nucleus of pure evil created the Eagles and Billy Joel may well remain a part of daily life ad infinitum. (Only complete vigilance can prevent these scourges from reaching future generations. Whoa, whoa, whoa, do not listen to the music, if you care.)
Black Sabbath, a band much derided by critics in their day and solidly ignored by radio throughout their 30-plus years of influence, have been lavishly celebrated with a new and long-overdue boxed set that may help in the process of redefining genius. These eight studio albums -- featuring the original lineup of Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward -- have been remastered to sound even more intimidating and are accompanied by a velvet-draped book that includes several explanatory essays tracing the group's history, endorsements from fellow noteworthy musicians and -- for the collector who must have everything -- a bonus DVD featuring the greasy foursome cranking through three originals and an amphetamine shriek of "Blue Suede Shoes" for a solid if unspectacular "Live at the Beat Club" television performance. It's a classy retrospective for a band never schooled in the ways of charm, and it certainly goes to show what a hit TV program can do for your application status at the Hall of Legends.
Led Zeppelin rocked. The Rolling Stones rolled. Black Sabbath plodded. Their early attempts at blues-based rock with guitarist Tony Iommi's factory-damaged fingers negotiating the fretboard guaranteed the band's whipping post would never be the genre's traditional shuffling rhythm. As they switched their name from the environmentally-friendly Earth to a Boris Karloff-inspired horror movie title, storm clouds gathered and their sound turned dark. Lumbering notes from Iommi's Gibson SG coalesced into definitive thuds; with bass and drums syncopated, the resulting power chords were transformed into a knockout punch. It's the true "heavy" in heavy metal.
Their first few albums were recorded quickly as inspiration ran hot. "N.I.B.," "Paranoid," "War Pigs," "Sweet Leaf" and "Snowblind" all deservedly reign in any aspiring hard rocker's basic riff vocabulary. Like Chuck Berry's or the Ramones', Black Sabbath's songs feature the elemental building blocks from which further rock songwriting springs forth, rarely with improvement.
Drugs and inner turmoil eventually eroded the group's singular identity. 1975's Sabotage still cuts at maximum velocity -- "Hole in the Sky" and "Symptom of the Universe," in particular, kick a definitive jam. But by 1978's "Never Say Die," Ozzy isn't singing all the songs, and their trademark sound is augmented by superfluous keyboards and other standard hard-rock production tricks of the era.
Despite the degenerative downward spiral at the end of their first incarnation, few bands define an era -- or its disaffected youth -- like Black Sabbath in the '70s. Idiots savants of the highest order, masters of one skill, but genius nonetheless.