Time and time again, one riff has topped lists of the greatest rock riffs of all time. It’s muddy, it’s doom-laden, it’s faintly satanic: its ‘Black Sabbath’s ‘Symptom of the Universe’. Guitarist Tony Iommi, presumably hammered on cocaine and whisky at the time, can’t even remember when Sabbath wrote the track. What he does remember is that it was born from a desire to avoid mimicry, to write something unique.
Composed spontaneously over a single day, ‘Symptom of the Universe’ was released on Black Sabbath’s 1975 album Sabotage. With its dark modality and velvet-lined fuzz, the central riff near-singlehandedly lay the foundation for thrash metal. The track was written by Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi, the latter of whom was asked to explain how the song came about during a conversation with Hammer magazine. “Oh my god, it was a long time ago. I can’t remember, to be completely truthful. I imagine we would have probably been in rehearsal,” the guitarist began.
Iommi was never one to “work things out as such”. Rather, he preferred to come up with riffs at home and tape them for posterity. This way, he always had a bank of guitar lines to use during Sabbath’s expansive jam sessions. The riff for ‘Symptom of the Universe’ was one such recording.
According to Iommi, the track was an attempt to craft something truly original. Answering if there were any guitarists he was trying to evoke at the time, he said: “Me. I was in competition with myself. I would always try to come up with more and more inventive ideas – different tunings, changing the amps, just fiddling about with the guitars really. I would constantly be trying to improve things and change things. I didn’t really listen to other people, just in case I started playing someone else’s riff by mistake.”
‘Symptom of The Universe’ is not only one of Black Sabbath’s most beloved tracks, but it’s also one of the most experimental. The second half of the recording sees the group make a sharp left turn and venture into jazzier territory. According to Iommi, the track’s hybrid character was far from intentional: “that was just us jamming together,” he added.
“It was something I came up with and Geezer [Butler, bass] and Bill [Ward, drums] followed, and then Ozzy came in. But then a lot of Sabbath’s stuff went to places you didn’t think they would go.”
You can revisit ‘Symptom of The Universe’ below.