Gimme Sabbath – With or Without Ozzy

black_sabbath_mattersAs one of the three people that defend’s Black Sabbath’s Forbidden album, their unfairly maligned 1995 release that was produced by Ernie C of Body Count and features guest vocals from Ice T on the opening track “Illusion of Power”, you could fairly assume that I’m more than a casual classic rock fan who was out to see Black Sabbath play all of the tried and tested FM staples, along with a few well known deep cuts, on their final tour.  But the final tour it is, and Sabbath know what the people want; and what the people want, the people get… sorta.

I was at their Chicago gig on September 4th at an outdoor amphitheater, standing on the lawn, watching a bunch of ants onstage, and while it wasn’t bad, I think the audience made up for Ozzy’s lack of energy.  For the Sabbath neophyte, since its inception in 1968, Black Sabbath pretty much defaulted to the leadership of guitarist Toni Iommi, who is the driving force behind every lineup of the band.  While the majority of rock fans consider the group’s original lineup – Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Toni Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward – to be the only lineup that matters, Iommi considers long time side man and keyboardist Geoff Nichols, former drummer Cozy Powell and former singer Toni Martin, to be as integral to the band’s career as the other four gentlemen; at least that’s the way it seemed in his autobiography, Iron Man.

And I’m not going to make the absurd claim that Toni Martin sung albums The Eternal Idol, Headless Cross, TYR, Cross Purposes or the aforementioned Forbidden are anywhere near as classic, good and important as the first six Sabbath records; neither will I say the Dio albums Heaven and Hell, Mob Rules or Dehumanizer are as good as those either, nor the same about the Ian Gillan album Born Again or the Glenn Hughes album Seventh Star.  I’m with the majority on this one, but I will say that, as a longtime fan, I realized that 3/4 of the original lineup was going to primarily stick with material that most people would be familiar with.

With that said, I think it’s absolutely pathetic that Ozzy just stood there saying the same two lines over and over again; “can I see your hands?!” and “I can’t hear you!” Okay, to be fair, he occasionally said, “can I see your FUCKING hands?!” and “I STILL can’t hear you!”, but, if THAT was going to be the performance I got from Ozzy, they might as well have had Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes or Toni Martin; hell, I’d much rather Iommi and Butler be joined by Rob Halford of Judas Priest, like they were in 1992.

So, for the longtime fan, it was the Iommi/Butler Black Sabbath review, featuring latest drummer Tommy Clufetos, a journeyman musician who has previously played with Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Rob Zombie, John 5 and Ozzy himself (there are others on the wiki page if you’re THAT curious).  I would have loved for Bill Ward to be there, but I would love lots of things, and, at least, Clufetos has lots of tattoos and a beard and was never in Rage Against the Machine.

As for the set itself, the exact count goes like this; three from Black Sabbath, six from Paranoid (that is if you include the opening bars of “Rat Salad”, which segues into a drum solo), three from Master of Reality, one from Vol. 4 and one from Technical Ecstasy.  That means they played NOTHING from Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage.  That also means they played nothing from their completely forgettable reunion album 13 or the passable The End, so that’s a plus. If we want to get REALLY technical, Geezer played “Basically”, the minute long bass intro to “NIB”, so feel free to count that as four songs from Black Sabbath.

While “Snowblind”, the group’s coke anthem from Vol. 4 is probably my favorite Sabbath tune – in spite Ozzy ruining any subtlety in the song by shouting “COCAINE!” at the end of every line – I would have loved to hear “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath”, “A National Acrobat”, “Killing Yourself to Live”, “Hole in the Sky”, “Symptom of the Universe”, “Am I Going Insane? (Radio)” or basically all of Vol. 4; I especially wanted to hear “Supernaut.”  I was also kind of surprised they didn’t play “Sweet Leaf”, but that they did play “Dirty Women”, from the Technical Ecstasy album, which would have been the worst album by the original lineup had 13 not come out.  On the other hand, their 1978 album Never Say Die! is remarkably underrated, so there ya go.

Unsurprisingly Sabbath played the customary hits “War Pigs”, “Iron Man” and “Paranoid”, and I wonder how they don’t get sick of playing that last one, since, like, come on… that’s the first song I ever learned to play on guitar.  At least when they played “Black Sabbath”, the tri-tone, three chord, plodder that opens their first album and scared the bejeezus out of the kids of a much more innocent America of 1970, Iommi added a few extra bars of soloing during the headbanging part, and I thought it was neat how they began with the first few bars of the instrumental “Rat Salad” before segueing into Clufetos’ drum solo, even it went on a bit too long.

I would mention something about opening band Rival Sons, but we arrived too late in their set to hear much.  From what I did hear, they’re a 70s rock revival band; not bad, but nothing essential.

As for Sabbath, while I will always enjoy Toni Iommi’s and Geezer Butler’s guitar/bass interplay and think that Clufetos did a fine job on drums, I think the performance was little more than a revival show for the old timers.  As a fan of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Hawkwind and UFO, old bands who still put out new and interesting records – Now What?!, Outsider, The Machine Stops and A Conspiracy of Stars, if you were wondering – I think it’s sad that the band that takes the lion’s share of credit for this here heavy rock/heavy metal/hard rock/even heavy prog genre that we all love so much practically cashed in their chips onstage.  I know someone will yell at me for not mentioning the latest Nazareth record Rock ‘n’ Roll Telephone, but that one does suck.

On the other hand, nothing is stopping Iommi and Butler from rocking out with other musicians and creating new and interesting records, which I believe they are already doing…

Black Sabbath – 13

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If any of my loyal readers were wondering why I dropped off the blogosphere, I spent the weekend in Grand Rapids, acting drunk and stupid while attending the performances of Kylesa, Torche and Baroness, who just happened to all be in town on three successive nights.  Now I’m back and have the next week off work so expect to see lots of new posts; band profiles and reviews, reviews, reviews!!!  Old, shitty movies, new lousy records – although I’m being facetious on both fronts let me tell you about the mediocre new Black Sabbath album.

But before I get to that let me tell you about Blood Ceremony, who opened for Kylesa.  They sounded like Sabbath but with a flute playing front-woman who dressed in typical, Satanic cult garb.  It seemed like the only things she sang about were Satanism and witchcraft.  Which, leads me to my next point.  Where does Sabbath stand in 2013 among all of these stoner, doom and sludge metal bands?

Look, it doesn’t take a rockologist to know that these reunions are a pile of bullshit.  The first Black Sabbath album was released in 1970.  The world was a different place; nobody had heard anything quite like that first album.  In fact I was chatting with the gentleman at the Corner Record Shop and he told me that it really stood apart from Iron Butterfly, Blue Cheer and Led Zeppelin.  People really believed that Ozzy Osbourne, Toni Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward were card carrying occultists who drank goat blood and worshiped at the altar.  Or maybe that’s how they were perceived in conservative old Grand Rapids.

But back to this reunion thing.  Bands have a right to make money off their legacy however they should limit it to a tour and then kill it.  Why try to recreate the past?  And, for that matter, it’s not even a full reunion!  I was disappointed when I read that Ward wouldn’t be participating.  He plays in an atypical jazzy style where he struggles to stay in standard 4/4 time.  Brad Wilk, on the other hand, is just a rock drummer.  They could have gotten anybody and it wouldn’t have mattered.

But the bottom line is that Black Sabbath attempt to recreate the sound and vibe of their first four albums to a fault.  It seems as though the group surveyed their early catalog and found specific songs to replicate.  While most don’t go exactly by the numbers, opening track “The End of the Beginning” and third song “Loner” are musical sequels to “Black Sabbath” and “Planet Caravan.”  The former follows the structure of “Black Sabbath” to a t.  It starts with slow, doomy, heavy chords.  Then said melody is played on the root notes.  Then the song builds up and the headbanging part comes in with the only departure being that the song doesn’t end but detours into another part.  But it also starts the album with a question.  The opening line in “Black Sabbath” is “what is this that stands before me?”  The opening line in “The End of the Beginning” is “is this the end or the beginning?”  Yeah.

“Loner”, on the other hand, is “Planet Caravan” style acoustic, hippie, bongo drum music and attempts to combine the lyrical themes of both “Planet Caravan” and another Sabbath softy called “Solitude.”  Ozzy even sings through that weird, quivering bong water effect from the original “Caravan.”  Yikes.

But elsewhere you’ve just got a lot of slow, heavy, down-tuned songs, the very type you’ve heard countless times on Sabbath albums and by countless other bands.  Yes, Ozzy has a unique voice, Iommi plays occasionally solid riffs and Butler moves his fingers all over the neck of his bass to created that whirling sound.  So I’ll give them that.  There are parts of 13 which are solid and heavy.  But so what?  A few of these songs are just way too long!  Why does “God Is Dead?” have to go on for nine minutes when all they do is repeat the same parts over and over?  Also, two songs – forgot which – have stupid “funky” parts, sorta like you’d find on a Rage Against The Machine record, in other words, not good!  Furthermore Ozzy really hams it up and, sadly, sounds a little stupid when he’s deliberately singing every song very slowly decades after performing on the much more uptempo material of his solo career.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that the lyrics are really dumb, combining a melodramatic delivery, stupid cliches and bad rhyme schemes often at the same time!  The most egregious example I can think of at the top of my head is this line from “God Is Dead?”, which goes “Out of the gloom I rise up from my tomb into impending doom.”  That’s pretty terrible, isn’t it?  They’re mostly like that!  And this is 2013!  We forgave Sabbath for the clunky lyrics and overly earnest approach on songs like “War Pigs”, “Iron Man”, “Electric Funeral” and “Sweet Leaf” because they were young guys thinking that they were making serious statements!  But now that younger bands like Electric Wizard and Uncle Acid And The Deadbeats are singing cult, Satanic and witchcraft themed songs in a fun way, Sabbath’s philosophical musings on God, Satan, death and the apocalypse make them seem like old, out of touch, buffoons.