If You Like Black Sabbath, You'll Like...
It could be argued that Sabbath had an effect on every artist that followed them. They were the first to define an aesthetic based around darkness and heaviness. This had only happened in flashes from Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer, Cream, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Zeppelin. Those artists each took turns skimming the Void; Sabbath went into it. Sabbath were one of the first artists to break as a huge success with minimal support from their label, suggesting to future labels and artists that massive marketing expenditures were not as essential for success as resonance with "the people." And then there was the sound: downtuned, tritoned, and stacked. The downtuning was a semi-result of a freak factory injury that severed the tips of guitarist, Tony Iommi's, fingers. Downtuning, or loosening, the guitar strings helped him to reduce the pain of playing. The "tritone" was a chord or note sequence that, in Medieval times, was thought to be evil and to conjure the devil. What was nifty was that the tritone could be incorporated so smoothly into the blues scales that were already prevalent throughout the rock scene and in the band's music when they performed as Earth, prior to rechristening themselves Black Sabbath. And the stacking refers only partially to the crushing volume and "warm" sound amplification provided by their distinctive Orange amplifiers. The stacking I'm talking about is better discussed by Joe Carducci and refers to having the bass and guitar play the same line on top of each other, essentially doubling-up and filling out the riff to ever more massive effect. For solos and vocal parts, the bass and guitar could separate again, leaving space for atmosphere, building tension, and setting the stage for the cathartic rush of when the stacked riff would drop yet again, igniting some primal, chemical surge, often best expressed physically in head banging.
Compared to Pink Floyd and some of the artists I will look at in the future, it is easy to find bands who sound influenced by, similar to, or connected by essence to Sabbath. Basically, Sabbath's core sound is really simple: downtuned, minor-key, blues-derived riffs, with tons of tritone progressions, wailing vocals, and a hard-hitting, swinging rhythm section. The songs are usually composed as rough suites of one or two riff sections, a jam/solo section, and out.
As simple as the formula is, very few bands get it right, even when they're consciously trying to imitate Sabbath. The most frequent fault is not realizing how loose, swinging, and groovy the Sabbath rhythm section is. Without that, the sound can become stiff, leaden, stultifying and, ultimately, boring. Truly, no one doing the Sabbath style is ever going to do it "better" than Sabbath. So, rather than exclusively recommend bands that sound most like Sabbath, I generally lean to recommending bands who are steeped in one or elements of Sabbath's essence and then take it to unexplored regions.
[Just a quick side-note that I should have brought this up in the Pink Floyd piece because it is so crucial to the guidance/discovery game: do you recommend based on who sounds most similar to the core artist or do you try to lead a reader to take the "next step"? With several slots to work with, I can do a little bit of both]:
So, before we dive into the recs, let's break Sabbath down to its essentials, its core, defining traits.
Essence: As with all of what we call "Metal," it's about conjuring strength and power through the heroic and/or the foreboding. In Sabbath's case, the emphasis is clearly on the foreboding part. The thinking behind the love of the foreboding, or "doom," is that the acknowledgement of impending doom feels better than being hit by it unexpectedly or than trying to deny it. Negative x negative = positive. Then again, it might just be an awesome chemical reaction that the riffs set off.
Means: Downtuned guitars, minor-key riffs, recurring "tritones," stacked guitar/bass playing, high, wailing vocals, swinging rhythm section.
Special Sauce: They did the riffs first and freshest--and most melodic. Great chemistry. Underrated grooviness.
Who I have in Pockit Rockit and why:
Budgie: Second tier, but beloved in the UK and covered by Metallica.
A Welsh band and one of the surprisingly few bands to play close to the actual Sabbath style in the early 70s (most hard/heavy bands at the time sounded more like Led Zeppelin or Grand Funk Railroad). They had minor-key guitar riffs and the high wailing vocals. But when you actually listen to them next to Sabbath, it's clear that the bands are in different leagues: Sabbath had thicker guitar sound, more swing, and better musicianship. However, Budgie are widely beloved in the UK and one of their songs, an uptempo number called "Breadfan," was covered by Metallica, so I felt I would be remiss if I didn't give them their place on the Sabbath list. Squawk is probably their most enduring, and most Sabbath-like, piece.
Candlemass: Took doomy Sabbath sound into neo-classical and operatic realms.
Here's one of those "next step" bands I was talking about. The Sabbath doominess is all over the place, downtuned guitar, minor-keys, tritones, the whole nine. However, these Swedes also add some neo-classical guitar mastery, giving a sound that moves Sabbath's earthiness closer to the grandeur of Mussorgsky. But Candlemass' true trademarks are the bellowing, magisterial, bombastic, operatic vocals of Messiah Marcolin. If there were any questions about the separation from the blues, the vocals obliterate them. As Priest and Maiden did with traditional Metal, Candlemass were probably the first to separate Doom Metal from the blues. Nightfall is their best.
Cathedral: 90s Sabbath flag-bearers, label builders and scene stalwarts.
Often cited as the major flag-bearer of the Sabbath sound in the 90s, especially in the UK. I don't want to diss Cathedral since they have been consummate professionals, really working to build a scene and support many artists. Tons of respect. However, their music has always fallen flat to me. The riffs sound generic, their vaunted groove feels more pedestrian than swinging, and the gruff vocals are limited an unappealing. But that could just be me. They're huge and respected in the scene so check 'em out.
Electric Wizard: Rawer, heavier, screamier, and much more wasted take on Sabbath.
Widely touted for a while in the doom underground for their gargantuan, drug wasted, post-Sabbath sound, I started having my doubts after seeing them in a dreadfully pathetic live show. Still, much of their recorded output is impressive, if you want the Sabbath rawness, but even rawer, heavier, thicker, screamier, more drugged-out. Dopethrone is yours. If you still want the Sabbath melodicism, look elsewhere.
Eyehategod: Nasty, heroin-fueled vibe but with heavy, melodic riffs and great swing.
Every bit as wasted as Electric Wizard, and probably on worse drugs. Despite the New Orleans scum and needle vibe, what Eyehategod really get right (especially on their best album, Take As Needed For Pain) is the melodicism and the deep grooviness of their riffs. Yes, the vocals are wretched, anguished screaming (not a completely bad thing in this band's context) and the production (not to mention the lyrics) is nasty as a crack addict squatter's bunghole, they know what makes riffs kick and what makes them move. Hugely revered and influential in the early 90s underground.
Melvins: An idiosyncratic amalgam of the history of hard/heavy rock.
They synthesized so many different strains of heavy rock history into their sound that they could be placed almost everywhere and nowhere. In truth, they're much screwier than Sabbath, with unpredictable song structures, some consisting of one riff (or digital silence), others bouncing around several. Some are glacial and massive, some are tight and peppy. But they love heavy rock profoundly, as do most fans of Sabbath. That love cuts through the perceived differences and should result in many fans of both bands. Bullhead shows them at their heavy, idiosyncratic, best, with no screwing around.
Penance: Straight-forward, classy doom with excellent musicianship, strong vocals and melodic riffs.
A good example of idolatry done well. All that you could want in the Sabbath sound, with a bit of 90s updating: lowered, yet still clean, vocals, stronger musicianship, and melodic influences that draw from classic, traditional metal. Consistently solid, but Parallel Corners was their breakthrough.
Pentagram: The closest thing there was to a second Black Sabbath in the early 70s.
If I had to name one band that sounds most similar to prime-era Sabbath, it would be Pentagram. Coming up with a similar sound at almost the exact same time, but in Baltimore rather than Birmingham, this is your band if you are looking for the Sabbath sound. Go with the excellent comp of early stuff, First Daze Here. With consistently high quality riffs, songs, and doomy vocals from Bobby Liebling, the major place Pentagram comes up short next to Sabbath is with their comparatively stiff rhythm section.
Saint Vitus: Unpolished, with a touch of punk amateurishness that many find endearing.
Ozzy had been officially out of Sabbath for six years (eight, unofficially) when Saint Vitus released its first album in LA in 1984. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal had done its thing, Def Leppard and Motley Crue had started doing their thing, Metallica and Slayer had started doing theirs. Sabbath was as ancient history as the Druids. Except Saint Vitus wasn't going to accept that, as their album title, Born Too Late, laid bare. They, as well as Chicago's Trouble, still worshipped the old gods throughout the 80s, despite the radical unfashionability of that stance. Personally, a lot of their stuff sounds like underproduced, slightly amateurish Sabbath, but those qualities can be very endearing to the right ears.
Sleep: Made the Sabbath sound even more monolithic and psychedelic.
Building off of some of the momentum built by Eyehategod, Sleep probably did more to bring Sabbath into the 90s than any other band, short of Sabbath's reunion, itself. Despite not selling particularly well during their career (probably due to limited touring and drug-related issues), their stature has only become more legendary as time has gone on. Sleep somehow managed to make Sabbath even heavier and more monolithic than it ever was, while also blowing out the psychedelic elements that were sometimes more suggested than truly explored in Sabbath. All this, while still maintaining that ever-elusive, swinging groove. Of course, as things got heavier and heavier and more and more psychedelic (by the time of their swan song, Jerusalem), melody tended to disappear into the cannabis haze, but this may deepen the trance. Start with Holy Mountain.
Solitude Aeturnus: Brought elements of progressive rock to post-Sabbath doom.
If Candlemass brought neo-classical elements to Sabbath, Solitude Aeturnus brought progressive rock elements to the doom sound. Featuring some of the best musicianship and strongest vocals in doom metal, SA were able to stay doomy while also attaining a level of dynamics and complexity that few others in the style could match. Some might say that you don't need chops in doom. Maybe not, but it makes for highly engaging listening. For those coming from a more Maiden/Fates Warning direction, this would be a doom band to check out. Beyond the Crimson Horizon shows them at their prog-doom best.
Trouble: Very melodic doom, with psychedelic pop and thrash touches.
Of the very few 80s bands carrying the Sabbath flag, Trouble is probably my favorite. They were easily Saint Vitus' equal in the heaviness department, but because of their better skills, they could gallop as well as crawl. Trouble's songs were consistently well put-together, highly melodic and memorable, as their influences ranged from straight doom to psychedelic pop to thrash. A great, important, and underappreciated band in the history of metal. Start with the Rick Rubin-produced, self-titled, Trouble.
Some bands I deliberately did not choose:
Blue Oyster Cult: despite the black magic imagery and occasional heaviness, their music was really not particularly heavy. Solid classic rock with some heavy moments, but not nearly enough to be a relevent comparison to Sabbath.
Obsessed: Important band in 80s doom scene, but I see them as kind of a more straight-forward, biker Saint Vitus. That, plus the common presence of Wino would have made their inclusion redundant.
Sir Lord Baltimore: Early entry to the US heavy rock pantheon. Some genuinely heavy moments, but also a lot of weak tracks. Lastly, their heaviness probably has more in common with, say, Mountain, than with Sabbath.
Bang: Another frequently-cited, early heavy rock band. The vocals are not dissimilar to Ozzy's but, as with Sir Lord Baltimore, I think consistent quality is lacking. Also, the drums are mixed very weakly, diminishing much of the potential power of their first (and best) album.
Orange Goblin/Alabama Thunderpussy: Both are high quality bands, especially live. Both could have been chosen for the list. However, both bands' reliance on boogie rhythms (which, admitedly, Sabbath used on occasion) gives them a feel that deviates just enough from any kind of doom to put them in a slightly different category. Taking this application to an extreme would be someone like Fu Manchu who, despite having many heavy riffs (some even semi-Sabbath-derived), give off a totally different vibe due to their rhythms, vocals, song structures, etc.