Sabbath in Space: The Multiplicity of Metal Through Softer Songs

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© Derren Toussaint

With seismic riffs and horror-heavy themes, Black Sabbath have worked hard to live up to their status as the godfathers of heavy metal. But there’s a song of theirs that temporarily fractures this facade and it’s a song on an aptly enigmatic subject: outer space.

Heavy metal is often misconstrued as a two-dimensional genre, artistry forsaken for heaviness and a vampiric aesthetic. In truth, heavy metal acts from across the subgenre spectrum prove themselves capable of musical tenderness and emotional dexterity, proving that it’s perhaps not an intensity of aggression that defines heavy metal, but an intensity of multiple emotions; a receptiveness to multiple influences. Listen to Iron Maiden’s delicate intro on “The Man Who Would Be King”, the melodious segments of Opeth’s “Reverie/Harlequin Forest”, the earth-loving poetry of Gojira’s lyrics.

When it comes to Black Sabbath, “Planet Caravan” is the go-to ethereal track. The song sounds like it’s being sung underwater—the real reason for this is the use of a Leslie speaker, but it’s more cinematic to imagine Ozzy wailing from the central depths of a murky lake—vocals bubbling and echoing over the backing melody’s soft, repeated trance of acoustic guitar and piano chords. A song about, according to the band, ‘floating through the universe with one’s lover’, “Planet Caravan” has that stretched-out, airy feel a lot of songs about space tend to have: a soundscape crafted from twinkling instrumentals, a gentle, persistent percussive rhythm indicating travel, and vocals that tail off into silence. A collector of space songs will enjoy Black Sabbath’s celestial contribution for its audible similarity to T-Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer”, Porcupine Tree’s “Stars Die” and of course, the original space person’s lament, David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”.

Attentiveness to the softer, more unorthodox releases of heavy metal artists pays off. What some might see as a chink in the armour of a brutal reputation can in fact shed light on some intriguing artist influences and new ways of defining ‘heavy’ music. After all, there is still something compellingly dirge-y about “Planet Caravan”. But it is arguably the multi-genred wild-card tracks, softer than their iconic, riff-driven peers, that help to break down the elitism that has plagued the world of heavy metal since, well, since Black Sabbath. Nestled amongst 10-minute long growl-heavy tracks, Opeth’s “Benighted” is a sweet gateway drug to Camel’s ethereal prog rock. (Their space-themed album Moonmadness is well worth a listen.) “Space-dye Vest” is arguably Dream Theater’s most idiosyncratic song, but it’s a valuable glint in the discography, setting them apart stylistically from other metal artists. These songs are strange standouts, “Planet Caravan” more so than the rest given that it was created by some of the early originators of metal, bent on exploring their artistry through themes violent and occult. Amongst Black Sabbath’s catalogue of witches, wars and funeral pyres floats this psychedelic space gem, but it should not be read as a betrayal or a glitch; it’s simply another side to the band, and a contribution to the genre as multifaceted. Sabbath reflect as they drift, on ‘the Earth, a purple blaze, of sapphire haze, in orbit always’. Sampling from outside a genre only enriches it, and what better vantage point for such perspective than outer space?

[This vignette is part of our 500 words on Black Sabbath series]

Image credit: illustration by Derren Toussaint (2018)

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Rhiannon Williams
About Rhiannon Williams 4 Articles
Rhiannon is a a poet, writer and member of the Feminist Internet collective. A lover of music and the outdoors, she writes extensively on the subject of islands - particularly Cyprus, where she lived for eight years. She has a bachelor’s degree in English Literature from the University of Exeter, and has had poetry shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and the National Poetry Prize. Currently studying MA Narrative Environments at Central Saint Martins, she is interested in gender, islands, liminal spaces, and the effects of environment on the psyche.

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