By Jon Fine
The problem is, you grow old. Your hair falls out, your ears go dead; if you're not careful drink bloats your face and frame and speeds the breakdown of your internal architecture. And that's just how it is for ordinary folk--so you can imagine how it's been for the four 50-ish guys in Black Sabbath, who spent their early adulthood in a band as legendary for the brute physical force of its music as for its excessive intake of unhealthy substances.
Lest anyone think those years didn't exact a serious toll, the photos in the booklet for the recently reformed band's new double CD, Reunion, reveal that Ozzy Osbourne needs a TelePrompTer to remember the lyrics. And rehearsals for the supporting tour, which comes to the Rosemont Horizon on Tuesday, were severely disrupted in May when drummer Bill Ward suffered a heart attack. He recovered enough to hit the road, but I'm not sure if that's a triumph or a punch line. The band's sheer will to live on--and/or cash out--inspires a mix of admiration and apprehension: the old boxer is brave to climb into the ring one more time, but doesn't he know what might happen to him there?
The Sabbath juggernaut lumbers ahead today on the strength of five incredibly fruitful years in the 70s, when the group churned out a classic cycle of albums--Black Sabbath (1970) through Sabotage (1975)--even as burnout inevitably crept in. In 1979 Ozzy split for a lucrative solo career in which the more tired his shtick became, the more controversial he was pronounced. In his absence, the band went through half a dozen more vocalists and so many other personnel changes that by 1986 guitarist Tony Iommi was the sole remaining original member.
But those first six albums wrote the book on heavy: slow, lugubrious, with bass lines tracking guitar lines an octave below to give the sound a tangible depth. Yet they're tempered with moments of cloying, even creepy, sweetness--acoustic guitars, piano, a surprising quiet in the midst of all that heft. If you need another reason to hate Ozzy and company, you can probably blame 'em for the classical-guitar motifs that precede too many metal bands' most extreme songs (see Metallica's "Fight Fire With Fire").
Of course if you're looking for reasons to hate them, you've probably only heard the two Sabbath songs that have made it into the classic-rock pantheon--"Paranoid" and "Iron Man," both from the second album, Paranoid (1970). Unfortunately they're two of the band's stupidest. Sabbath was always a bit more complicated than its rep. Notorious for unrelenting doom and gloom, it ended Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) with the oddly sincere life-is-good sentiments of "Spiral Architect." Allegedly obsessed with Beelzebub, in two songs on Masters of Reality (1971) it explicitly points listeners to the man upstairs instead. "After Forever" contains some of the most pro-God lyrical imagery you'll find this side of Stryper.
Musically, the group's best work all plumbs much greater depths than the inspired melodic idiocy of "Iron Man." It's suffused with psychedelic murkiness, studded with oddball only-in-the-70s production touches, and swampy with a real and thrilling strangeness. At times Iommi's guitar and Geezer Butler's bass mud out to where they're practically impossible to discern from one another, hardening into an imposing monolith of sound. Meanwhile Ozzy's vocals sound like he's singing from the end of a long corridor, and, particularly strange for a heavy band at the time, Ward's free-swinging drumming is all but buried in the mix. Compare Sabbath's production to Led Zeppelin's: those guys, wisely, made sure John Bonham's every nuance was audible. But somehow Sabbath's approach worked too, and gloriously.
"Remember they started producing themselves after Paranoid, and their records just got progressively weirder sounding--just layers of room mikes and reverb," says Seattle-based producer Jack Endino, who has recorded Sabbath-influenced bands like Tad and Soundgarden and saw the masters twice during the Ozzy years. "There's some songs where the bass is the main instrument, and it's way distorted and you don't even know it's a bass. Sonically, they were trying all sorts of fucked-up shit. Those almost were indie records."
Except that they weren't made on indie budgets. Reunion's liner notes, written by the editor of the British metal rag Kerrang!, are pretty bad, but they do contain some choice tidbits about Sabbath's creative process during its glory years. "The album cost about $65,000 to make and we spent about $75,000 on coke," recalls Butler at one point. And those are 1972 dollars. He's talking about Vol. 4, which is Sabbath's best record and possibly the best record ever where the band thanks its dealers in the liner notes: "We wish to thank the great COKE-cola company of Los Angeles."
Not coincidentally, after Vol. 4, Ozzy started singing in higher and higher registers. "Hole in the Sky," from Sabotage, for instance, hits the chipmunk frequencies. So it's a sign of something--age, sobriety, or maybe both--that on Reunion's version of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" he can't hit the top notes in the verses, and that the band doesn't even attempt the song's apocalyptic ending, which would require him to go even higher.
"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" is actually a low point of the live material on Reunion, which was recorded on the second night of a two-night stand Sabbath played in its hometown of Birmingham, England, in December 1997--the group's first reunion since a failed attempt in 1993. Some of the performances are pretty good, and in some cases they're also quite useful. It's nice, for instance, to hear a stripped-down version of "Spiral Architect," a motherfucker of a song that was nearly suffocated at birth under stupid--if retrospectively charming--studio tricks like string sections, double-tracked vocals, and acoustic guitar overdubs. Even Ward by and large gets the job done--though there are moments where it sounds like he's being dragged along by the band rather than driving it.
But those moments may be Reunion's most significant. If he's already falling behind during the second reunion show, how far back will he be by the 13th show of the U.S. tour, on Tuesday? There is a physical element to Sabbath's sound that can't be faked or played around, and nowhere is this more important than in the drumming. It's a bad omen that Ward doesn't even play on one of the two new studio songs on Reunion. And it's kind of a shame, because that song, "Selling My Soul," driven by yet another gargantuan Iommi riff, is far better than the other new one, "Psycho Man," which sounds like an outtake from Ozzy's most cartoony solo years. According to a report on www.black-sabbath.com that's sourced to Ward's "production manager," the rhythm track on "Selling My Soul" is all drum machine, because the band felt Ward's tracks weren't up to snuff.
Both new tracks, of course, are buried at the bottom of disc two. As with a lot of old bands still on the road--Cheap Trick, Kiss, and, from the looks of it, Metallica next time around--Sabbath fans will tolerate new tunes in order to hear the good stuff. The difference is that Sabbath is really the only band of its ilk able to gather all its original members and drag its weary collective ass through another tour. Its only conceivable peer, Zeppelin, lost its drummer before it had the chance. Sabbath's best work is a quarter century behind it, and yet very little is as real- or right-sounding as that meld of the heavy and the beautiful, the psychedelic and the earthbound, the sacred and the satanic, the solemn and the ludicrous. There's no way I'll miss this tour--I love Sabbath like a child loves his mother. Which is why I'll probably go home disappointed.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kevin Westerberg.