“Storm coming, you’d better hide.” So sings Ozzy Osbourne on Black Sabbath’s song, “Electric Funeral.” Written by bassist and lapsed catholic Geezer Butler in 1970, while the U.S. military was dropping tons of bombs on North Vietnam and Cambodia, the song warns of the catastrophic consequences of wanton destruction of the earth and neglect of the common good. Commentary on the war in Vietnam was widespread at the time, especially in the lyrics from youth countercultures. Black Sabbath stood out, however, because of the extreme dread in their lyrics and the awesome weight of their louder-than-ever rock music. They were an apocalyptic band in an apocalyptic time. Like many apocalyptic prophets before them, Black Sabbath lamented the status quo, condemned corruption, injustice, and state violence, and encouraged listeners to imagine the wholesale destruction of the present order to make way for the realization of higher humanist ideals.
Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward all came from working-class families in Birmingham, England, which at the time was a war-torn area known mostly for its factories. Everyday life was engulfed by industry sounds, as trains crisscrossed the city and industrial plants could be seen almost anywhere. A 1946 Birmingham Public Health Department Housing Survey found that “noise and smoke from the factories hindered light and air from reaching the houses they surrounded.” Having been a key city in the production of arms, the area was completely transformed by the war’s destruction and the modernization that followed. Each of these four young musicians were shaped in some way by the poverty, industrial setting, and postwar depression that defined life in Birmingham in the mid-twentieth century.
In his autobiography, Ozzy recalled seeing his mother weeping when she could not afford to pay the bills. He got a job at a car horn factory as a teenager, and in his retelling called factory life a “trap” he was desperate to get out of. Geezer, in interviews, recalled his hometown being full of bombed-out buildings and run-down homes. Bill Ward said he would lie in bed at night and hear machinery pounding away—sounds which came to influence his heavy drumming style. Guitarist Tony Iommi’s fingertips, which had already brought him some level of fame at the age of seventeen, were severed in an accident on his last day working on factory machines. The modifications he made so he could play without hurting his fingers determined what would become his signature sound.
With their flagship song, “Black Sabbath,” the band gave voice to the trauma and pessimism in the world at the end of the 1960s. The song repeats a tritone, or “Devil’s interval,” which proceeds from E to octave E to an eerie Bb. That Bb, combined with the low growl of Iommi’s guitar, the deep booming of Geezer’s bass, and the effortless cadence of Bill Ward’s drumming, together establish an unsettling, sinister mood, which culminates in Ozzy’s haunting vocals. Their goal was to create the horror movie of songs, and their execution is spot on — a perfect marriage of form and content. Audiences were stupefied by it, often neglecting to cheer or clap when the song ended because they were stunned to silence.
With “Black Sabbath,” a whole new genre was born. It was aptly called “heavy metal”—exactly why is debated, but the moniker reflects, quite literally, the environment out of which the music sprang. The heavy metal factory sounds that defined the airwaves of their hometown shaped their loud, bombastic music. Yet over the years the music came to be known by another name: doom metal. This descriptor captures the darkness and foreboding in their sound and lyrics. It also gets at another of their unique qualities—the theological resonances of their songs, especially their apocalyptic character.
“War Pigs” is another song for which they are well-known. It is an epic tour de force of apocalyptic songwriting. In 1970, it was an indictment of the American war effort in Vietnam, but its message is timeless. Generals who make war are “Evil minds that plot destruction / Sorcerers of death’s construction.” Corrupt politicians make “war just for fun” and send the poor to fight and die on their behalf. Together, generals and politicians create a “war machine” that brings only “death and hatred to mankind.” Opposing this horrible system, Black Sabbath invokes apocalyptic promises. “Time will tell,” Ozzy sings, “Wait ’til their judgment day comes”—and like an amen shout, he adds, with ruthless glee, “Yeah!”
The lyrics go on to prophesy a future of revolution and retribution. “No more war pigs have the power / Hand of God has struck the hour.” In this day of judgment, the generals and politicians are not safely in power, beyond the reach of the masses they exploit. Instead, they are crawling on all fours begging for mercy.
The resemblance of “War Pigs” to apocalyptic literature is unmistakable, but it especially resonates with the book of Enoch. 1 Enoch 62 says on the day of judgment, “all the kings, the governors, the high officials, and those who rule the earth shall fall down before [the Son of Man] on their faces … ; they shall beg and plead for mercy at his feet” (62:9; NVK). The book sought to comfort the downhearted, promising, “The righteous shall have rest from the oppression of the wicked” (53:7). In the end, God will have vengeance and the earth will have justice, for God will “destroy” all injustice on the earth, “and every evil work shall come to an end” (10:16).
In an article from 1972, music critic Lester Bangs called Black Sabbath “moralists”—a surprising descriptor given the band’s reputation. But it is not untrue. Geezer Butler’s lyrics are infused with an act-consequence interpretation of history, typical of apocalyptic texts. The Sabbath song, “Lord of This World,” off their album Master of Reality, could easily be read as a supplement to 1 Enoch 63. The mighty and the rich will fall down on their faces before God,
And they will say, “Would that we might be given respite, …
Now we desire a little respite and do not find it,
we pursue it and do not lay hold of it.”
The lords of this world have had their fill, but now they will answer to the Master of Reality—“the Lord of Spirits and the Lord of kings” (v.2)—who transcends even the rich and mighty. Compare Enoch’s words with Black Sabbath’s song, which is told from the perspective of the devil to the wicked:
You’re searching for your mind, don’t know where to start
Can’t find the key to fit the lock on your heart
You think you know but you are never quite sure
Your soul is ill but you will not find a cure
Your world was made for you by someone above
But you choose evil ways instead of love
The parallels to Enoch are striking. Both texts depict a stark contrast between the glory and might of rulers, and the hopeless state they come to on the day of judgment. While now they may be in control with their power secure, then they will search and not find, want and not get. They desire respite and find none, they are sick but will not be cured. Even when they are moved to confess their sins, it is too late for them (63:8). As Ozzy sings, “Evil possessor / He’s your confessor now.”
This before-and-after is heightened as our poet-prophets Ozzy and Enoch prophesy the ultimate fate that awaits oppressors:
1 Enoch 63:10 (OTP)
Our souls are satiated with exploitation money
Which could not save us from being cast into the oppressive Sheol
Black Sabbath, “Lord of This World”
You turn to me in all your worldly greed and pride
But will you turn to me when it’s your turn to die?
The contrasts here are brilliantly effective. Today they’d each be called a “mic drop.” The authors drive their judgments home with wit and vivid imagery. And once more, they are perfectly in sync with each other, spotlighting those who abuse power for selfish gain, and reveling in the abusers’ doom. “All the oppressors will be eliminated,” Enoch states plainly (62:2; NVK).
In order to point the way to the beauty and glory of God’s liberatory promise, the apocalyptic prophet lays waste to the idols of men. They undermine the oppressors’ claims to glory with the unsettling reminder that even the highest and strongest of the rich and powerful are yet finite creatures; even the most totalizing government is generated and therefore destructible. All are inviolably headed straight to their own demise. Reminding them of this fate is an essential part of the prophet’s cautionary vocation, and it is a role Black Sabbath took up with inspired zeal and creative power.
Many more examples of apocalypticism can be found in Black Sabbath’s catalog, and we have only scratched the surface of the vast body of apocalyptic literature throughout metal music and subculture. The songs examined here set templates which have been reworked again and again by an ever-growing multitude of metal bands, artists and musicians. Examples are Metallica, Pagan Altar, Candlemass, Sleep, YOB, and Inter Arma, but thousands more could be listed. Black Sabbath did not just create a new musical genre, they began a new chapter in the reception history of apocalypticism, breathing new life into the apocalyptic genre. Even further, they made cunning use of the radical, anti-imperial thrust of apocalyptic proclamation—an aspect of apocalypticism long-since forgotten, of which most present-day Christian eschatologies haven’t the slightest hint.
Baked into Black Sabbath’s gruesome imagery, in their bleak jeremiads, and their ominous proclamations is a theology of divine judgment and promise, shot through with an Enochian revolutionary spirit. Black Sabbath’s doom theology is both worldly and otherworldly, hellish, and heavenly. Like the best of apocalyptic texts, their songs spotlight the brokenness of the status quo, and point beyond to the heights of justice and love.
[Note on 1 Enoch translations: Quotations from the Nickelsburg/VanderKam translation will be labeled NVK. Those from the Isaac translation will be labeled OTP.]
For further reading:
Bangs, Lester, 1972. “Bring Your Mother to the Gas Chamber” (2 parts). Creem 4(1): 40-45, 78-79. 4(2): 46-49, 78-80.
Bongiorno, Joe, 2017. Black Sabbath: The Illustrated Lyrics, Vol. 2: Songs of Protest and Apocalypse. Valley Stream, NY: The Royal Publisher of Oz.
Holloway, Jack, 2022. Hands of Doom: The Apocalyptic Imagination of Black Sabbath. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
Iommi, Tony, with T.J. Lammers, 2011. Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath. Boston, MA: Da Capo.
Isaac, E. (trans.), 1983. “1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch.” In James H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Nickelsburg, George W. E., 2001. 1 Enoch: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 1–36; 81–108. In Klaus Baltzer (ed.), Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.
Nickelsburg, George W. E., and James C. VanderKam, 2012. 1 Enoch 2: A Commentary on the Book of 1 Enoch, Chapters 37-82. In Klaus Baltzer (ed.), Hermeneia: A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.
Osbourne, Ozzy, with Chris Ayres, 2009. I Am Ozzy. New York, NY: Grand Central.
Portier-Young, Anathea E., 2011. Apocalypse against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Wall, Mick, 2013. Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe. New York, NY: St. Martin’s.
Photo by Ana Grave on Unsplash
About the writer
Jack Amos Holloway (he/they) is a writer, music producer, film director, activist, minister, and dog-sitter based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of Hands of Doom: The Apocalyptic Imagination of Black Sabbath, and is also Founder and Creative Director of Morbid Instinct, a film and music production collective and record label. Jack sings, produces, and plays lead guitar in the heavy metal / dark wave band The Heavens, and has over a hundred original songs to his name. He wrote and directed a short film called The Prisoner, and he promotes and organizes for prison abolition under the name Act for Abolition. Jack received a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in 2018, and a Bachelor of Arts from Regent University in 2013. His master’s thesis looked at two leading anti-fascist thinkers of the 20th century (Theodor Adorno and Karl Barth), putting critical theory in conversation with liberation theology.