No Bones About It: It’s Sacral Profanity as Sacred Bones Takes on Black Sabbath
Sacred Bones Records released a legitimately great Sabbath tribute album in 2020, and you’re gonna hear about it!
Strolling through the “Black Sabbath” tag on Toilet ov Hell is an adventure. You might come across R.M. Temin’s thoughtful look into the history of metal’s earliest and most persevering connections to reactionary politics and how we might resist, counteract, or nullify such entrenched and inextricably linked forces. The comments, which number well into the hundreds, are a mix of support for Temin’s measured and well-researched approach to the topic and an admittedly predictable response from a host of reactionaries. Temin, however, who heads the death metal supergroup Zealotry, stares down the tines of the rusted, dulled pitchforks of conservative banalities with aplomb.
Right around the time Temin published that essay, well-haberdashed good boy and Toileteer mainstay Snooty McWords penned an equally impressive missive on the impossibility of metal—of music as an art form—to be apolitical. Perhaps surprisingly, Snooty did not incur the wrath our dear R.M. did, though who could ever be mad at such a furry little homework-eater? Take some time to reward Snooty for his insightful essay by scooping up some Extinction merch:
Other stops along the journey through the “Sabbath” tag include the Toilet King himself being aggressively wrong about Ozzy’s solo career as compared to his time in Sabbath. “Simply ask yourself,” Joe ‘Bad to the Throne’ Thrashnkill, asks us, “what’s more appealing? Slow, ditch weed stoner blues or keyed-up, musically extravagant hard rock? The answer is in your heart.” The answer is slow, ditch-weed stoner blues, Joe. (Please let me keep contributing to your website!)
And not to mention, Sabbath was puh-lenty keyed-up, as their legendary appearance at California Jam 1974 demonstrates quite clearly:
Back in 2017, Spirit Adrift’s Nate Garrett shared with the Thunderful Lizard ov Auz his five favourite Ozzy-era Sabbath tracks. 40% of the tracks coming from Sabotage (1975) is a bit unexpected, but the last great Ozzy album affected Nate profoundly, and we’ve all benefited immensely from it. We’ll politely overlook Nate’s omission of any Master of Reality (1971) tracks. Privately, though, we will be furious. But, hell, what do I know? He’s the riffmeister extraordinare.
Our final stop on the Tour de Sabbat segues into the actual point of this article. Way back in 2015, Dagon the Fish God blessed the Bowl with their personal list of favourite Sabbath cover songs. Though Kyuss’ version of “Into the Void” is inferior, in every way imaginable, to Cavity’s version, the Fish God’s list is a treat of lesser-known gems.
But enough with the lit review already! It is the year 2020, 50 years after Black Sabbath (1970) and Paranoid (1970) changed music forever, and I am, in fact, writing about a Sabbath tribute album. If your eyes have not rolled the entire way out of their sockets, I hope you’ll keep reading. If they have fallen out of your head, please contact me, and I will yell-read the article to you, free of charge.
In the waning hours of Bandcamp’s May Day bonanza, What is This That Stands Before Me? (2020), a brand-spankin’-new collection of Sabbath covers curated by Sacred Bones, popped into my feed. It is entirely possible that if the curator in question wasn’t such an estimable label, I would have simply let the album fade from memory like fingerprints on an abandoned handrail. Sacred Bones, though, is nearly peerless in its concerted aesthetic, dedication to eclecticism, and staggering number of phenomenal releases, all while being almost impossibly cool. Some labels just get it.
So go Orchid-picking with the Children of the Grave, share your Sweet Leaf with the Lord of this World, and let’s Step Up to find out what comes After Forever: it’s
clobberin’ reviewin’ time!
1. The Soft Moon – “Black Sabbath”
The album opens with Soft Moon’s dwelling post-punk cover of “Black Sabbath.” The incessant pounding, static, deft switching between guitars and synths, and Luis Vasquez’s reverberated vocals capture so succinctly the track’s original atmosphere. It’s almost as if industrializing a track like “Black Sabbath” and soaking it in the sewer effluvia of U.S. city life makes it even more obvious that the band Black Sabbath was borne out of the conditions of a post-industrial Birmingham. If the original was imbued with the sort of bluesy warmth that always tempered the bleakest aspects of Ozzy-era Sabbath, Soft Moon succeeds in strip-mining away that warmth to leave nothing but the rotten core of industrial fallout.
Before moving to the second track, we should take a second to appreciate that Flower Travellin’ Band, maybe one of the coolest bands to have ever existed, first covered “Black Sabbath” back in 1970.
As a matter of fact, Rotting Christ, too, covered “Black Sabbath,” this time for a 2013 Sabbath tribute comprising only Greek bands, but since nobody here likes Rotting Christ, we can just leave it be and keep things movin’.
2. Molchat Doma – “Heaven and Hell”
Next, we have Molchat Doma’s glittering, 80s-inspired Belarusian dancefloor rendition of the only non-Ozzy Sabbath track on the collection. I don’t care much for post-Ozzy Sabbath. Hell, I don’t even actually listen to Sabotage all that much, even if I know it to be the last great Ozzy Sabbath record. Because of this, Molchat Doma’s utterly unique take on such a track is precisely in my wheelhouse. If I had my druthers, Lust for Youth would have been tapped to bring its effusive Copenhagen shimmer to “Heaven and Hell,” but Molchat Doma makes the cover entirely their own. It is a highlight of the whole affair when the synthesizer solo kicks in at 4:04. It’s as powerful a moment as Gary’s synthesizer battle from Regular Show, which I can only assume was Molchat Doma’s inspiration:
I can only hope that goth clubs, when they are able to safely reopen, will have already added this gem to their weekly playlists.
3. Thou – “Supernaut”
Did we really expect Those Internet Motherfuckers to pass up the opportunity to contribute a cover song? If Type O Negative were once the kings of covers, that royal title now belongs to Thou. Initially, I was a bit surprised that Thou chose “Supernaut,” but the cover affords the ever-experimenting and sonically expanding Thou plenty of room to play. The bouncy, groove-slathered riffs of “Supernaut” have never sounded so southern than in the hands of these Crescent City degenz. It seems counterintuitive, but the track blazes by, feeling significantly shorter than its five-minute runtime. The righteous solo and rowdy ’70s drums in the song’s latter half find Thou at their most rock and roll, upjumpin’ the boogie with a bell-bottomed flair rarely found in the band’s oeuvre. While it almost feels out of place to have a sludge cover of a Sabbath song on this compilation—it having more in common with Sabbath tribute albums of the past—its exactly this sort of range one expects from Sacred Bones. Consider it an ode to Earache’s 1997 Masters of Misery.
4. Marissa Nadler – “Solitude”
True to Ozzy-era Sabbath, things must inevitably slow down and the fog of self-doubt, despair, and worldly misery must arise to envelop us all. One of Sabbath’s most private, haunting tracks is in safe hands with Marissa Nadler, as the singer-songwriter wrings out all the pathos of the original while adding her own particular downcast despondency. So affecting is Nadler’s melancholic mezzo-soprano and resigned yet ample guitarwork, you almost forget this is a cover, only finding your way back to the original in fleeting moments. This is a sad track for sad saps smoking cigarettes on a dimly lit back porch on an ominously clear night.
5. Hilary Woods – “N.I.B.”
Hilary Woods’ dark psychedelic take on “N.I.B.” only brings the listener lower. If the original is a tongue-in-cheek take on Satan falling in love, somebody forgot to tell Woods, as her rendition of “N.I.B.” is a depressive masterpiece. It is also a song that demands headphones and your undivided attention to really parse out its devastating gravity. You can almost feel Kirsten Dunst hopelessly admitting, “It tastes like ashes.”
Along with Molchat Doma, Hilary Woods is the only artist with whom I was unfamiliar before buying this tribute album, and you better believe I have her 2020 Birthmarks queued up on Bandcamp after a few rounds of “N.I.B”
6. Zola Jesus – “Changes”
As I do with “Paranoid” and “Iron Man” from Paranoid, I skip “Changes” every time I listen to Vol. 4. Yet, I knew–I fucking knew–that Zola Jesus’ cover was going to make or break this whole album.
Simply put, “Changes” belongs to Zola Jesus now. This cover is fucking astonishing and an absolute triumph. I have nothing else to say.
7. Moon Duo – “Planet Caravan”
This is one of the album’s highlights, and it brings to mind immediately two personal anecdotes.
The first being that I heard Pantera’s cover of “Planet Caravan,” as featured on Far Beyond Driven (1994) before I heard Sabbath’s original version. Though I believe I owned Sabbath Bloody Sabbath before I bought Far Beyond Driven, I hadn’t yet purchased Paranoid because of the two aforementioned songs that I skip every time I listen to that record. Anyways, Far Beyond Driven, which I bought from Circuit City (R.I.P.), was my first Pantera album because my mom wouldn’t let me buy The Great Southern Trendkill (1996) due to the songs “Suicide Note Pt. I” and “II”. How might my life have changed if Trendkill was my first Pantera record? Would I be more into solos and less into dumb, brute-force riffs? Would I actually agree with Joe that solo Ozzy is better than Ozzy-era Sabbath? One shudders to think of that alternate timeline.
The second anecdote is less direct but more personally damning. I was in a fraternity at an SEC university, which meant that I was plagued by jam-band aficionados. I spent years trying to find bands that friends and I could share while they spent years just force-feeding me Yonder Mountain String Band, O.A.R., String Cheese Incident, Phish, and all other manner of insufferable bullshit. If we ever connected outside of the world of hip-hop, we did so over anything that had any sort of psychedelic tint. I even got a few dudes to join me at a Dead Meadow show at the long-dead Tasty World club in Athens. Try as I might, though, Earthless proved a little too righteous for these denizens of short shorts, Rainbow flip-flops, Chevy Tahoes, and Vineyard Vines pullovers. (Admittedly, my shorts were, and still are, the shortest. Daisy dukes 4ever.)
Having nothing better to do for junior-year spring break, I joined a group of friends for a trip down to the swamps of south Florida to attend a multi-day hippie fest. We camped and slept in cars, walked miles between stages, our homebase, and frighteningly ill-tended port-a-johns, ate horridly cheap food, and took in a long weekend’s worth of music that I (mostly) totally hated. That being said, I was still a jolly compatriot, open to watch whomstever, walking around in various hazes and states of euphoria in a green Trash Talk shirt. I might not have liked many of the bands, but a Positive Mental Attitude is easily adaptable to posi vibes. The highlight of the weekend, personally, was accosting Pelican during a 1AM set, imploring them to play “Mammoth” in front of the 18 people who weren’t watching the fucking Disco Biscuits. None of the other 18 people watching them had ever heard the band (the lone metal band on the entire bill), but still, they would not oblige my request. We’ve been enemies ever since.
I could go more into the weekend, but I probably shouldn’t. Suffice to say that Moon Duo’s spacey, ethereal cover of “Planet Caravan” is exactly the kind of trippy tune my fraternity brothers and I would have bonded over. I can picture us on the stoop of our Vine St. house, the cover on a loop with Amorphous Androgynous, gettin’ chilly with the disc and hackin’ a sack in the front yard. It’d be a small victory for me, but a victory nonetheless. What a time.
8. Dean Hurley – “Warning” (Bar Band Version)
David Lynch’s buddy Dean Hurley imagines what it might sound like if a local band at a college-town juke joint tried its hand at turning the sprawling “Warning” into a tight four-minute ditty to keep things lively as the Lone Star continues to flow ever so freely. There’s nothing I hate more than live music that I did not actively seek out, so I’m not inclined to like this track, but the execution is heady and it’s not without its merits. It makes me wonder what a late ’70s Tom Waits could’ve done with such a track. Can we still make that happen? Who’s got a Tom Waits connection? Help us out, Tom!
9. Uniform – “Symptom of the Universe”
What Is This That Stands Before Me? ends with the frantic madness of Uniform’s industrial noise-punk corruption of fan-favourite “Symptom of the Universe,” and it does not take long to figure out that this is a no-brainer combination. Not only does the song’s famous main riff lend itself perfectly to the band’s militaristic machine-gun rhythm section, Ben Greenberg’s flashy, adept musicianship culminates in an absolute freak-out explosion in the song’s latter half, while York Factory Complaint’s Michael Berden’s harsh vocals and affinities for affronting noise bring the song, and album, to a suffocating and thrilling conclusion.
It goes without saying, but Sabbath is just one of those bands. I have as many memories of discovering Sabbath riffs as I do sharing them with friends. Even still, we’ve all grown weary of the tribute albums and covers, though, as Sacred Bones has proved quite convincingly, there’s still so much invention and imagination left in such adventures. Now, go enjoy this record, or I’ll write an article that ranks the various Sabbath tributes. And then we’ll really be Embryos staring Into the Void!