Yesterday the news broke that Ozzy Osbourne has put his differences to one side (or solo ambitions at least) to reunite with Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and put Black Sabbath back on road to headline Download Festival at the historical home of hard rock and metal Donnington.
Sabbath posted a mysterious 11.11.11 message on their website’s main page last week, sending the month long speculation that a reunion was close at hand into overdrive, and today it finally happened.
The band last reformed in 1997 and stayed together, on and off, until 2006. During that period, Ozzy spent a considerable chunk of his time focusing on other endeavours including his solo album Black Rain, which would cause the singer to walk out on Black Sabbath recording sessions scuppering the band’s plans to release a new album. Sadly, Ozzy’s decision to focus on solo material also coincided with the success of the Osbourne’s reality TV show which returned the legendary band to the spotlight, sending a legion of new fans scurrying their way; it appeared that, by not following through on a new album, a real opportunity had been missed.
In the midst of Ozzy’s newfound superstardom and Black Sabbath’s slow dissolution was a headline set at Download Festival in 2005. It was one of the performances that helped the festival reconnect with it’s Monsters Of Rock roots showing the world that this veteran band were anything but washed up as they mixed brutally heavy tracks with Ozzy’s incessant banter and crowd engagement tricks.
In 2006 a Rhino Records compilation effectively forced the Sabbath split; Black Sabbath: The Dio Years was released and a new single from that album, “The Devil Cried”, reached the Top 40 of the mainstream rock charts, convincing latter day Sabbath front man Ronny James Dio and guitarist Tony Iommi it was time to take the show on the road. Legal issues, as well “false advertising” concerns convinced the collective to adopt a new name, Heaven & Hell, but not before Bill Ward would quit the band, citing creative differences. Vinny Appice was roped in on drums, which was actually a shrewd move, as he had previously drummed on the Dio Years’ albums Mob Rules and Dehumanizer and gave the new band a more distinct period specific identity.
The band released one album under the Heaven & Hell name, The Devil You Know, which receive remarkable critical acclaim (including a 9/10 review from Metal Hammer) and saw a return to the classic 80s dynamic of Dio & Sabbath going head to head with a solo Ozzy Osbourne. Sadly, this new Sabbath off shoot would be short lived, as Ronny James Dio would fall ill and die on May 16th as a result of metastasized stomach cancer. Leaving Iommi, Ward and Butler in the wilderness once more.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Black Sabbath invented metal: sure there was a rich tapestry of riffs, tracks and aesthetics that had foreshadowed the metal formula, but no band brought it all together in one definitive package quite like Sabbath. Their self-titled debut is a masterpiece, not renowned for its hits (although “N.I.B” is a fearsome anthem), but it’s tonal and thematic hegemony. Black Sabbath was ungodly heavy, with each crunching riff you can practically feel an iron grip upon your shoulders driving you slowly, but relentlessly, down. The assault has a wonderful grinding quality, if forces the listener into submission through it’s sheer weight (hence heavy metal).
Far from a mere collection of lumbering riffs, Sabbath’s debut was wildly ambitious, exuding morbid atmospherics at every turn. The title track, for example, starts with heavy down pour of rain and marries an ominously encroaching riff to the lone chimes of a church bell. Ozzy far from a passenger proved just as vital as Iommi and Butler, firstly he looked the part, and secondly he wailed (constantly out of his own range) giving his voice a hauntingly shrill quality, somewhere between a beaten banshee and crowing preacher. Black Sabbath were of course of their time, and “The Wizard” and “Evil Woman, Don’t Play Your Games With Me” have the swagger of post-Zeppelin blues-rock, but they both remain some how bleaker and more despairing, no matter how delicious Butler’s basslines and Iommi’s licks happen to be.
Four months later, in the winter of 1970, it was time for Sabbath to move on from cultish atmospherics and into the world of genuine hit making. Paranoid put all the pieces together and codified the Sabbath formula in an album that seamlessly placed freak out inducing hammer horror jams (“Faries Wear Boots” and “Planet Caravan”) alongside genuine pop singles. “Paranoid” was a relentless character study, “Iron Man” was a one riff monster, and “War Pigs” (despite it’s laughable opening line) was a lurching goliath that permanently set in place metal’s counter culture, anti-authority, outsider persona.
From then on in, the Sabbath of Osbourne and Iommi would release two more classic LPs, Masters Of Reality and Black Sabbath Vol.4, albums that didn’t particularly forward Sabbath artistically, but rather highlighted Iommi’s remarkable riff writing capacity and Osbourne’s flair for atmospherics.
Off record, Sabbath did pretty much everything right, the photo shoots were suitably gothic, recalling occult séances and the imagery of classic British horror, decrepit Tudor country house, decaying woods and wraith-ish pale figures dressed in black. The band themselves dressed head to toe in black, and became magnets for outraged reaction and critical disdain (a bias that wouldn’t be shaken for the best part of twenty years).
Today we recognize that Sabbath, along with Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, set in place all the archetypes that would codify the heavy metal genre up until the arrival of punk and second wave of British metal. Sabbath’s influence has distilled down the years to the point where, like The Beatles, pointing out their influence on any one metal band is practically redundant.
As time progressed and Black Sabbath struggled to produce the great albums of their early years, the band perfected their live act, and with the fear factor thoroughly removed, they embraced the kind of showmanship and feel good crowd interaction that all stadium sized headliners at one point or another rely upon. Force of personality and the sheer scale of their sound took hold, allowing Sabbath, and Ozzy via Ozzfest, to become the great grandfathers and caretakers of all things metal, using their name, and their legacy, to elevate others in return.
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