Sabbath's End

Sabbath's End
 Black Sabbath circa 1970. L to R: Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, Ozzy Osbourne.

Black Sabbath circa 1970. L to R: Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, Ozzy Osbourne.

By the time Black Sabbath winds down its final tour in February 2017 with a pair of concerts in their hometown of Birmingham (UK), it will have been nearly 50 years since the three remaining original members -- vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, and bassist Geezer Butler (sadly, original drummer Bill Ward is sitting this one out) -- formed one of the most influential, maligned, and misunderstood rock bands of all time. That Black Sabbath managed to carry on after Osbourne's departure in 1978 was largely due to an exceptionally strong follow-up album released in 1980 with Ronnie James Dio on vocals, after which Ward departed and the band eventually sunk into more than a decade of rotating vocalists and drummers, as well as bass players after Butler left in 1984. Those post-1978 albums may have had their moments, but Sabbath was never the same without Ozzy: at its best, Sabbath in the 80s still featured Iommi's inimitable riffs, but mostly they sounded like the other 80s metal bands, careening between material that was stupid, silly, pretentious, ponderous, and dull, often all at once.

Despite a solo career during the 80s and 90s that far surpassed Sabbath's popularity, (in no small part due to his willingness to embrace the most cartoonish aspects of Sabbath's image and perform their most well-known songs during his concerts) Osbourne's post-Sabbath endeavors were, like his former band's, mostly mediocre ploddings with occasional flashes of the old glory. Guided by his wife and manager Sharon's knack for spotting new ways to make money from an increasingly stale shtick, Ozzy's career continued to thrive during the 90s with the creation of the Ozzfest metal extravaganzas, and into the the new millennium with an MTV reality show and other embarrassments.

Despite a couple of one-off gigs (Live Aid in 1985, and Osbourne's "retirement" concerts in 1992) it wasn't until 1997 that the original line-up got back together, with the passage of time, the promise of money, and Sharon Osbourne's business acumen healing past rifts for a reunion tour and live album. A studio album, the first to feature the original line-up since 1978's Never Say Die! was begun in 2001, then shelved as Ozzy became a TV personality. In 2006 Ozzy began working on a new solo album, and Dio and Iommi began working together again under the name Heaven and Hell. In 2009 Osbourne sued Iommi for rights to the Sabbath name. Dio died in 2010, after which Osbourne and Iommi settled their suit, and in 2011, after more than ten years of on and off again talks, a full-scale reunion of the original line-up was announced with plans for a new album and tour.

Things fell apart quickly, with Ward deciding soon after he couldn't agree to the terms offered. In 2012 Iommi was diagnosed with lymphoma. After failing to get Ward on board, the remaining three forged on without him, essentially erasing him as a member of Sabbath in all but a historical sense (see the band's landing page on their website featuring a collage of photos dating back to the early 70s presenting them as a trio consisting of Osbourne/Iommi/Butler -- it's petty, pathetic, and saddening). They hired Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine to play drums on the new record, titled 13 (produced by career resuscitator Rick Rubin), which was released in 2013, 43 years after the band's eponymous debut album. For the tour the band brought in pounder Tommy Clufetos, a session drummer who'd also played in Osbourne's band. By all accounts the tour was a huge success. If Sabbath wasn't really back, it felt like a circle left open since 1978 had finally been closed.

 Sabbath today: Ward, Osbourne, Iommi. Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

Sabbath today: Ward, Osbourne, Iommi. Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY

The idea of another album was floated and then walked back in favor of one last tour, due to Iommi's health issues (he's reportedly in remission at this point) and possibly other factors involving Osbourne's personal and business interests. Another attempt to bring Ward on board failed, and Black Sabbath is now in the middle of an epic final tour, on the road one last time with Clufetos in Ward's seat once again.

Audiences have reason to be skeptical of "final" tours, but given Iommi's situation it's likely this is the end as far as Black Sabbath is concerned. Diehard fans, meaning those who never really accepted the idea of Black Sabbath without Ozzy's vocals (I include myself in that group), have reason to be skeptical about the integrity of such an endeavor without Ward's participation. It's not like he's dead (though he too, has health issues that may have impacted his ability to partake in Sabbath's recent activity), and while 13 was a better album than it had any right to be, it's easy to speculate the album would have been even better with Ward's drumming.

Sabbath's unique sound, the one forged on the band's first four records and gave birth to an entire genre of music and has been spawning countless imitators ever since, consists of four distinct, components; two are immediately identifiable to a casually knowing ear -- Osbourne's voice and Iommi's guitar -- but Ward's jazz-inflected drumming and Butler's thunderous, fuzzy, riffing bass lines (which can also veer toward the outer edges of jazz) are integral to the whole. If its four original members have proven anything since 1978 its that the whole of Black Sabbath is better than the sum of its parts (some would say they proved this in 1970 and never moved forward there, and they would be wrong).

I hadn't been to a Black Sabbath concert since 1980, when the band was touring with Dio in support of the Heaven and Hell album. Prior to that, I'd seen them a few times with Osbourne, including the notorious Long Beach Arena show near the end of the Never Say Die! tour in 1978 which had the Ramones as the unwelcome opening band. In the mid-to-late 70s the best one could say about Sabbath as a live act was that every so often some thunderous, enthralling sludge would emerge amid the overall drug and booze infused sloppiness that characterized their sets. They weren't great, and often they weren't even very good, but they were Black Sabbath, and that was enough. 

The surprising strength of 13 almost got me to see Sabbath's 2013 tour, and had they played anywhere in Northern California but the nightmare that is the Shoreline Amphitheatre I would have gone, and I gave some serious thought about seeing them at the Hollywood Bowl before abandoning the idea. When The End tour was announced it wasn't hard to pull the trigger on catching one of the dates, and the timing worked for me to catch the show at the comically named Jiffy Lube Live, an amphitheatre in Virginia roughly 40 miles outside of D.C. which can hold 25,000 people. 

 Black Sabbath in Bristow, Virginia, August 21, 2016

Black Sabbath in Bristow, Virginia, August 21, 2016

It must have been a near sell-out crowd, or at least it looked that way from our seats in the orchestra front section. As expected, the male to female ratio of the audience was somewhere between 10 and 15 to 1. Unexpectedly, but amusingly, there were some entire families of Sabbath fans in attendance. Less surprising was the presence of some members of the Hells Angels and numerous father/son duos, including one seated behind us wearing matching Vol. 4 t-shirts (nearly everyone wore a t-shirt from a concert or featuring a metal/hard rock band, and I overheard heard the merch vendors were selling out of certain sizes even before Sabbath took the stage -- the lines to buy t-shirts were easily three times as long as the lines for beers) .

Going in I knew the setlist would be a disappointment. Unlike many Sabbath fans, and the band itself, I like much of the material on last two Ozzy-era albums from the 70s, Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die!. I also think Sabotage is the band's best album (with the debut close behind), Vol. 4 is hit and mostly miss, and I would be quite happy to never again hear anything but the title track from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. So in my perfect world, the setlist would be comprised of two tracks from every 70s album, plus two from 13, for a total of 18 songs which would have included "Hole in the Sky," "Symptom of the Universe," "Back Street Kids," "You Won't Change Me," "A Hard Road," and "Junior's Eyes." Instead, the band's setlist has more or less been cast in stone for the tour: 13 songs, all but Technical Ecstasy's "Dirty Women" from the first four albums and dominated by tracks from Paranoid. It could easily be subtitled "Tony's Greatest Riffs."

The band's stage manner hasn't changed much since the 70s. Osbourne still exhorts the crowd to clap and "go crazy," or bobs his head to the beat when he's not singing; his only acquiescence to the ravages time are amusing feints in place of pogoing. His voice remained strong and mostly in tune for about two thirds of the show before showing signs of tiring. Curiously, there's a guy who comes out to the side of the drum kit between every song to exchange a few words with Ozzy -- maybe he's telling him what song's next or asking if he's got enough Gatorade. It happens between every song -- someone answer that little mystery please.

For many, Ozzy's the center of attention, but musically this concert was all about the formidable powers of Iommi and Butler, who, thanks to the surprisingly well-mixed sound for such a large outdoor venue, sounded much better than I expected. In fact they sounded awesome. Iommi remains a stoic presence on stage, acknowledging the audience by moving close to them at far end of the stage, offering up a nod, smile, or occasional wave between songs. He seemed in his element, reveling in the massive riffs of his youth. Who knows how many times he's played these songs, driven by riffs that decades later still retain their ability to hit like a sledgehammer? If he's bored with it all it doesn't show: nothing was hurried, and he played even the most tired tracks ("Iron Man," "Children of the Grave") with precision but without revealing any sense that it was all rote by now, even if there were few moments of improvisation to be found.

Butler, on the other hand, let loose. Age may be slowing his body, but not his fingers, which were often a blur as plucked out bass lines that are as much a part of the band's sound as Iommi's guitar and Osbourne's vocals. Throwing some jazz into the bottom of "War Pigs" and "Behind the Wall of Sleep," Butler might have had the most workman-like demeanor on the stage, but musically he sounded like he was having the most fun.

Which brings us to Tommy Clufetos. Was Bev Bevan or Eric Singer not available? Did no one stop to think about how much fun it might have been to offer Ginger Baker a million dollars and see if he'd bite? Sharon could have set up another TV show starring Ozzy & Ginger and doubled the gate revenue-- imagine what a hoot that could have been. Obviously Clufetos knows the drum parts to the songs, but his playing lacks subtlety and nuance. He's a Bonham-style banger without Bonzo's wit. Among Ward's gifts was a jazz player's sensibility to create that tiny empty space just before where the beat should hit or the cymbal crashes (see "Black Sabbath" or "Fairies Wear Boots"), and then enter it sideways. Clufetos pounds his way in, and the result plays this weird trick on the ear making the beat of the song sound slightly slow and off. He took a lengthy drum solo during "Rat Salad," ostensibly to give the band 10 minutes to go backstage and get some oxygen. The first half sounded like a rip-off of Peter Criss' "100,000 Years" solo played a twice the speed of the original before settling into a testosterone-driven pummeling that went on and on and on. Clufetos beat the shit out of his kit, the majority of the audience ate it up, and I was pleased when it was over. Bill Ward, you are greatly missed.

Still, Sabbath at this late stage might sound better than they ever have, and for about an hour and forty-five minutes they did their legacy proud while giving the fans what they came for. They're not going quietly into the void, and if this is truly the end, it's one befitting one of the world's truly great rock bands.

Top photo of Tony Iommi ©Getty Images/Kevin Mazur.