Black Sabbath’s debut LP turned 50 years old in February 2020. The band did not release an expensive box set to mark the occasion (they left that for the October anniversary of ‘Paranoid’, where the 5LP reissue was prohibitively expensive and the CD box set was just a quick repackaging of the 40th anniversary edition). There wasn’t even a notable vinyl reissue of the seminal debut recording – but to be fair, as welcomed as that would have been, no vinyl pressings sound anywhere near as good as the original Vertigo spiral label edition. Instead, fans and press were invited in limited numbers to go to a pre-arranged location in London and listen to the album in pitch darkness.

Enter Black Label Society head honcho, former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist and outspoken Sabbath fan, Zakk Wylde. Having made an impression on the live circuit with his Sabbath covers band, Zakk Sabbath, and certainly not one to pass up an opportunity, he decided this would be a good time to take his band into the studio and recreate the US edition of the Black Sabbath debut as faithfully as possible.

The resulting ‘Vertigo’ is interesting…but only to a point. The recording works best when the band are a little looser and more unafraid to be natural, as is the case with ‘The Wizard’ where a few of Wylde’s guitar fills are busier and drummer Joey Castillo puts a much heavier accent on Bill Ward’s classic rhythmic groove ever had. Zakk, finding the more melodic end of his Black Label voice, sounds like a man who’s truly living in the moment as he steers a fine power trio through a fantastic four minutes. The equally short and sharp ‘Wicked World’ churns out a riff that inspired a billion stoner bands, only played with extra volume and fuzz by a band that sound ready to take the roof off the studio. Wylde’s unaccompanied blues runs in the middle of the track not only show off how and why Sabbath’s early work still holds up after half a century with or without a little embellishment, but also why he’s always considered one of the finest players on the metal circuit. This is one of those recordings that definitely benefits from the volume being cranked – and it’s definitely one that’ll make you glad the band chose the US version of the album as their blueprint: a Zakk Sabbath cover of Black Sabbath covering Crow’s (inferior) ‘Evil Woman’ – although possibly fun – almost certainly wouldn’t have had the same immediate impact.

The stone cold classic ‘N.I.B’ – one of the only Ozzy era Sabbath songs that sounds just as good with the mighty (and sadly missed) Ronnie James Dio adding his powerhouse vocals – is another track that works well in the well-worn hands of Zakk Sabbath. This is partly because the song has one of those riffs that seems absolutely bulletproof; it can sustain a little extra volume and a lot of fuzz and still shine as one of the most melodic and distinctive metal riffs ever laid down by anyone. Wylde and bassist Blasko lock down an immense groove throughout and thankfully Zakk’s obsession with impersonating Ozzy never really grates, while his two featured solos are immense. During the second lead break, especially, his retro tones combined with a fretboard melting speed provides a welcome reminder of his work on Ozzy’s solo masterpiece ‘No More Tears’.

The rest of the recording doesn’t fare anywhere near as well. It’s too much like hearing a band churning out pedestrian Black Sabbath covers to fill their time. ‘Sleeping Village’ latches onto a great riff but ultimately comes across like an inferior rendition, even with Wylde’s best playing; save for a shoutier vocal and an angrier guitar solo loaded with horsey squeals, ‘Behind The Wall of Sleep’ is the sound of a band going through the motions, and in terms of all round inferiority, ‘Black Sabbath’ is, perhaps, the worst case in point. The performance has a great tone and Wylde’s guitar work feels slightly more rooted within 90s extreme stoner sounds than a straight homage to Iommi’s pioneering doom, but paired with a vocal where he seems hell bent on impersonating Ozzy as best he can and in a way that becomes a mild irritant, any genuine interest – or potential to add even the slightest new twist – flies out of the window. The slower parts of the track almost sound like a “reconstructed on a budget” affair made for a film where the producers didn’t want to fork out for the original recording, while the faster coda veers too much towards a band hammering through the riffs in a muddy way; like hearing Black Label Society looking to bank a quick pay check. ‘Black Sabbath’ may seem a little pointless, but the ten minute trudge through Aynsley Dunbar’s ‘Warning’ is worse and almost misses the point altogether. When Sabbath recorded their cover back in the day, it would’ve been a new and threatening take on the blues; it now sounds like one of a billion heavy blues bands, losing the feel of the Sabbath recording in the process. By speeding up the jazzy section and replacing Iommi’s emotive soloing with speed oriented showboating where Zakk hammers his whammy bar, it doesn’t necessarily add excitement. It’s fine enough if you fancy 70s doom blues occasionally lapsing into a few later metal tendencies, but it doesn’t really warrant more than a couple of listens.

…And even for its good points, that’s ‘Vertigo’s main flaw: it’s full of good intentions, but never really becomes the kind of record you’ll love in the long-term. The musicians obviously love the material and really get off while playing it and jamming with each other; there are a few renditions of old favourites that are definitely worth hearing and, as a whole project, the recording sessions sound like they might have been fun. But, from a listener’s perspective, it never truly excites. That’s fine enough if you want a familiar and undemanding listen, but if that’s the case, firing up your record deck and reaching for your spiral label copy of ‘Black Sabbath’ will always represent time better spent…with or without the lights off.

September 2020