Black Sabbath Purgatus: Medievalizing heavy metal


This essay explores the medieval ensemble Rondellus’s tribute album to Black Sabbath, Sabbatum (Beg the Bug 211200-002, 2002), and the extent to which instrumental timbre, vocality, rhythm, and musical setting help communicate ‘authentic’ medieval music. Of paramount interest is the way in which these performance practice elements are directed by the emotional expression consistent with the genres. Most of the Black Sabbath songs chosen perform emotions that range from anger and aggression to bitterness and pain. They do so through musico-emotional codes that communicate the body’s physicality: snarled or shouted vocals, distorted bass and guitar, pounding drums, and melodies characterized more by rhythm than pitch. Rondellus’s adaptation of Black Sabbath’s musical codes and emotional register is positioned against Ute Frevert’s theorization of emotional display as governed by social etiquette. The body in Rondellus’s ‘medieval’ music thus appears emotionally controlled, suggesting interiority and restraint.

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  1. 1.

    The question of ‘authenticity’ in medieval music performances has been problematically conceived, given the historical span, the wide range of notational practices, the lack of detailed information regarding instruments, and the necessity of invention: see Leech-Wilkinson (2002), Taruskin (1995), and Treitler (1991), among others.

  2. 2.

    Compare, for instance, with imagery on Rondelluss (1995a, b, 1998). These ‘historical’ images support the academic pedigree (Tallinn Music School and Schola Cantorum Basiliensis) of the two main members Maria Staak (vocals) and Robert Staak (lute, percussion).

  3. 3.

    For an introduction to medievalism in music, see Meyer and Yri (2019); see also Kreutziger-Herr (2015).

  4. 4.

    David Munrow (Early Music Consort), famous for his BBC productions Pied Piper and Ancestral Voices, was also instrumental in bringing early music to the public. Munrow provided musical selections for Ken Russell’s 1971 horror film, The Devils, which dramatized the supposed witchcraft of the Catholic priest, Urbain Grandier.

  5. 5.

    The growth of black and Viking metal, and these genres’ interest in medieval imagery (and anti-Christian imagery), have made Black Sabbath’s associations with medievalism more readily apparent; see Trafford (2019).

  6. 6.

    Consider, for instance, Errores Gazariorum (1430); Malleus Maleficarum (1486); Nicholas Rémy’s Demonolatry (1595); Francesco Maria Guazzo’s Compendium Maleficarum (1608); and Pierre de Lancre’s On the Inconstancy of Witches (1612) for well-known sources.

  7. 7.

    Tritones have a lengthy history as code for darkness or evil in classical music (Berlioz, Liszt). Crime and horror films from the 1950s and 60s – Perry Mason (1955), Mission Impossible (1966), Dr. No (1962), The Witches (1966) – continued this method of connoting fear and danger (Cope, 2010, 52).

  8. 8.

    For further discussion of this concept, see Cumming (2001).

  9. 9.

    The name was taken from a 1963 horror film, which, together with The Haunting and Rosemary’s Baby, inspired the band to pursue the experience of fear and horror in their music.

  10. 10.

    Compare with the ‘Vite perdite’ (CB 31); ‘Homo quo vigeas’ (CB 22); and ‘Dum iuventus floruit’ (CB30), released on the Studio’s recordings.

  11. 11.

    The use of imagery of the body also unites Black Sabbath’s songs with some of the songs on the Studio’s Carmina Burana albums. Compare ‘Junior’s Eyes,’ with the medieval ‘Planctus ante nescia’: ʻheart, sense and eyes torment your wounds.’

  12. 12.

    For more on melodic passages and their ability to emote confidence, reassurance, surprise or uneasiness, etc), see Meyer (1956, especially 157–85, 197–232); and Kivy (1980, 71–111).

  13. 13.

    In this regard, the influence from the chanted sections of Orff’s Carmina Burana (‘O Fortuna,’ ‘Fortune plango vulnera,’ and even ‘In taberna quando sumus’) can be heard throughout.

  14. 14.

    Compare songs on Black Sabbath and Paranoid with those on Master of Reality and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath: the earlier songs are frequently in standard E tuning, but the latter albums experiment with drop D and C sharp tuning. (‘After Forever’ and ‘Solitude’ use D whereas ‘A National Acrobat’ and ‘Spiral Architect’ use C sharp).


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Yri, K. Black Sabbath Purgatus: Medievalizing heavy metal. Postmedieval 10, 466–481 (2019) doi:10.1057/s41280-019-00146-8

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