Finally, I understand Black Sabbath and it is about damn time. Musically, my preferences tend toward the durable and dependable blues pentatonic. That is something that, harmonically, I can understand from down in my DNA. That said, when I was a teenager, I wore into nothing, the first four Black Sabbath recordings. As much as they appealed to me, they could not compete with the Allman Brothers Band of the same period. What I had always wondered was where the harmonic underpinnings of Black Sabbath and Tony Iommi's guitar playing came from. That is until I listened to Bobby Previte's Mass
. In one of the boldest mashups imaginable, multi-instrumentalist Previte takes as his starting point, Baroque Franco-Flemish early Renaissance composer Guillaume Du Fay's Missa Sancti Jacobi
and pours molten heavy metal into the center of it creating a work that dares the listener not to pay attention.
If the measure of a piece of music is how it provokes one when hearing it, then Previte succeeded famously. Whether the project actually works
is beside the point (depending, of course on what the point
is and how one defines "works"). In his Missa
, Du Fay is heard veering from the monophony of plainchant to the polyphony soon to constitute a majority of liturgical writing. It was in this polyphony, intermixed with electric guitars, that Black Sabbath comes into my pinched focus.
The goal of late-Medieval/Early Renaissance vocal composers was to unify all the movements of a polyphonic mass. Early English composers such as John Dunstable (c. 13901453) and Leonel Power (c.13801445) inaugurated a compositional method creating mass cycles in which every movement began with musical maxims and where the tenor voice in each movement used different amplifications of the same melody. Dufay's Mass of St. James the Greater (Missa Sancti Jacobi
) brought this method to a high point. I am hearing this as an historical and harmonic basis for what Black Sabbath did better than anyone.
It is informative to listen to Du Fay's Missa
to gain some context of the period music from which Previte draws. A quick review of streaming services revealed a couple of recordings, form which I chose, La Reverdie's Missa Sancti Jacobi
(Arcana, 2009). The Missa
was scored for 3 or 4 voices and small orchestra. Based on plainchant melodies Dufay used in the Proper settings of this mass indicate an association of the liturgy with the Franciscan church of San Giacomo Maggiore in Bologna. The composer possibly wrote both this mass and his motet Rite majorem
to honor the Saint's feast on July 25, either in 1427 or 1428. The music is beautifully solemn and varied. Not a bad jumping-off place for a daring 21st Century musical raconteur.
Previte remains faithful to Du Fay's original nine-part mass, preserving those anonymously realized texts for the Ordinary of the Mass; Introit (from the Vulgate: Psalm 138: 17); Offertory (from the Vulgate: Psalm 18: 5); and Communion (from Matthew 19: 28). While that sounds brilliantly clinical, what he surrounds this text with is, at once, cacophonous, menacing, and deeply spiritual (with a megaHertz-hum of existential anxiety). Hell, Jamie Saft
is on hand, you know this will be noisy. And noisy it is. Previte gets his Iron Butterfly on in the "Gloria" and begins slaying dragons in a mutinous "Credo." Things begin well-behaved enough, with Previte introducing the piece with a pipe organ (via Mike Gamble
and Stephen O'Malley have a guitar fire fight punctured by the occasional polyphonic vocal spurt.
The "Sanctus" sustains the tension between the "Offering" and "Agnus Dei," where everything becomes quiet and sublime. The ghost of Jon Lord is strong in this one. The closing "Communion" is very much the pinnacle of the mass realized through Previte's provocative prism. I suspect that there will be those who hear this release as pure rubbish. I am not one. Previte swings for the fences with Mass
and in the process creates something new and bold from something old and gold.