Prog Sabbath: Progressive Rock Elements in Black Sabbath's Music
a research project by
Dr. Nolan Stolz, music professor at University of South Carolina Upstate


The Emergence of Heavy Metal and Progressive Rock in Black Sabbath's Music from 1969 to 1971
Presentation at Progect 2020: Fourth International Conference on Progressive Rock: University of Ottawa (May 2020)
This paper begins how Sabbath, in their early years, created a blueprint for heavy metal by pairing their dark and heavy music with sometimes dark lyrics. Using musical examples from their first three studio albums and live recordings leading up to 1972, it shows how references to their origins as a blues band became infrequent and less overt. As they distanced themselves from the blues, Sabbath's music became aesthetically closer to progressive rock and what we now call heavy metal. Based on Fabbri 2016's list of musical elements that he argues help identify a musical event as progressive rock, this paper shows how Sabbath's increased formal complexity and chromatic density moved their style closer to prog territory. As classical music influence and reference is an important aspect of progressive rock, this paper identifies where Sabbath engaged with classical music in their early years. Band members' quotes from the early 1970s show that the classical influence was intentional. The paper concludes with a discussion of the commonalities of metal and prog as they apply to Sabbath's music.

Progressive Rock Elements in Black Sabbath's Music from 1972 to 1980
This essay was published in Prog Rock in Europe: Overview of a Persistent Musical Style, eds. Philippe Gonin et al., Dijon: Editions Universitaires de Dijon, pp. 143-150, 2016
but is available for download here as a courtesy
An earlier version of this essay was presented at the First International Conference on Progressive Rock in Dijon, France in December 2014
Both versions discuss how Sabbath became more experimental starting in 1972, especially by expanding their instrumentation (e.g. addition of keyboards, orchestral instruments, etc.) but also rhythmically and with more complex song forms. It also touches on their interactions with progressive rock musicians, including the years leading up to 1972.

Progressive Rock Elements in Black Sabbath's Music from 1981 to 2016
Presentations at: Third International Conference on Progressive Rock: Lund, Sweden, May 2018
College Music Society Pacific Southwest Regional Conference (Las Vegas, NV), March 2018
Download my lecture script here
This paper examines how and why elements of prog remained in their music after 1980. Musicological observations of the band's output since 1981 are contextualized with direct quotes from the band members to answer to this research question. Many changes in the band's lineup after 1980 affected their musical style and output, especially in how it related to prog. The methodology considers the musical backgrounds of the new band members and what they brought to the band. In addition to comparisons with classic prog bands such as Genesis, Rush, and Yes, given the post-1980 timeline, their use of prog elements are compared to second wave/neo-prog and prog lite bands (e.g., Marillion and Journey, respectively). This paper discusses musical elements often related to prog such as uncommon meter (e.g., 5, 7, 9, 14, 15 and 17), asymmetrical phrasing, complex song structure, tempo changes, exotic scales, and the use of keyboards and orchestral sounds.

More Than Metal: Black Sabbath's Use of Blues, Classical, Jazz, Prog and other Musical Styles.
Presentation at Home of Metal Symposium and Workshop: Music Heritage, People and Place. Birmingham City University (U.K.), Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Research, September 2019
Conference lecture script PDF
As the title implies, this paper covers not just their progressive rock stylings, but several other styles such as jazz, Latin, Afro-Cuban, funk, rap, classical, and an explanation why Ozzy likely described "Am I Going Insane (Radio)" as sounding "Mexican" (it uses the same I-bII chord progression found in Pascal Marquita Narro's "Espana Cani"). It shows examples from songs such as "Rat Salad" that use Dorian mode, signifying jazz ("Rat Salad" may sound unappetizing, but it was actually named after the drummer's hair having not been combed--this is according to the bassist in 1971, and band members have forgotten in recent years). Regarding prog, this paper summarizes the three periods as I've identified above (1969-1971, 1972-1980, and 1981-2016), giving select examples of multi-sectional forms, additive meter (e.g., "Master of Insanity" in 14), chromatic density, allusions to prog, and the use of classical instrumentation and harmony.

Experiencing Black Sabbath: A Listener's Companion
This book is available at all major online retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.)
This book covers every Black Sabbath studio recording and a few unreleased songs. The music is song is discusses through observation and explanation. Most songs are about a paragraph in length, but at least one song per album is discussed in much greater detail. Progressive rock is covered throughout the book. The index lists pages viii, 33–35, 49–50, 59–60, 62, 65, 71, 72, 81, 82, 85, 96, 99, 102, 127–128, 135, 146, 149, 151, 159, 175, and 203.