Music

Even on their final tour Black Sabbath still sound dangerous

Black Sabbath are supposed to be soundtracking their own funeral, but they seem alive and well on their final tour. Eulogy by RICHARD S HE, official photos by ROSS HALFIN.

Melbourne’s hosted several farewells to Black Sabbath. First, there was the 2007 Heaven & Hell tour with Ronnie James Dio on vocals, only three years before his untimely death from cancer. When Tony Iommi underwent his own round treatments for lymphoma in 2012, it was hard not to fear the worst. But no – he recovered marvellously, and the next year, Black Sabbath recorded and toured behind 13, their first studio album with Ozzy in 35 years. But as strong as those shows were, they felt more like an ending than a new beginning.

The End marks Black Sabbath’s final large-scale tour. It’s a blessing that all four founding members are still alive – and it’s unfortunate that original drummer Bill Ward isn’t taking part. His absence casts a shadow. Is this the farewell we need? Or is it just another dose of nostalgia?

“At their best, Black Sabbath still sound dangerous”

Tonight’s setlist is very similar to the shows they played in Melbourne three years ago, filmed for Live… Gathered in Their Masses. But from the second the opening chord of ‘Black Sabbath’ hits, the energy in the arena feels different. They’re not playing like it’s their final tour – in fact, they’re more relaxed and more forceful than the last time. It’s easy to forget they’ve been playing gigs since 1968. The obvious hits are pure joy, but the curveballs – especially ‘Hand of Doom’ – hit just as hard. ‘Into the Void’ is easily the highlight – it’s still one of the heaviest songs ever recorded. At their best, Black Sabbath still sound dangerous.

Capture

Ozzy Osbourne’s in fine form tonight. During the songs, he’s the Prince of Darkness – in between, he’s the goofy, childlike dad of The Osbournes. When he’s not headbanging along, he’s throwing his signature buckets of water on the first few rows. He can still just reach those high notes in ‘Snowblind’. Other times, he’s noticeably flat, but who’s complaining? It wouldn’t be a Black Sabbath show if he didn’t miss a few notes. It’s all part of the Ozzy Osbourne charm – who else can you say that about?

When the young Iommi lost two of his fingertips in a factory accident, he had to adjust his guitar-playing style to compensate for his injuries. His guitar strings were too stiff to bend comfortably, so he tuned them lower – and the sound of metal was born. You can literally see the physical origins of heavy metal onscreen, every time the camera zooms in on Iommi’s fretboard. He gets his signature sound by playing many of his riffs uncomfortably high on the neck, often bending the notes ever-so-slightly in and out of tune. Like his Gibson SG, so worn out it’s gone from red to white, he’s irreplaceable. And Geezer Butler still attacks his bass with force, like he’s wrestling with the music. You could spend the whole gig just watching either one of them and never get bored.

Playing drums in Black Sabbath requires a delicate balance. Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine, who played on the 13 album, was too stiff. But most of Ozzy’s past touring drummers rushed ahead of the beat, losing the songs’ sense of heaviness. But Tommy Clufetos, who first joined Sabbath on their 2013 tour, actually gets it. He plays their doom metal songs perfectly – ‘Black Sabbath’, ‘Hand of Doom’ – slowing them to a glacial crawl. He gets a drum solo, and it’s not even boring! But when he picks up speed – think ‘Paranoid’, the drum fills in ‘War Pigs’ – he’s a little too precise, like a lifelong session musician playing to a click track.

“They’re going out on their own terms”

But Bill Ward, like his bandmates, was one of a kind. He was a jazz drummer who played like a train that could derail at any moment. For reasons no one except the band and their lawyers seem to understand, he hasn’t toured or recorded with Sabbath in years. Their war of words has been ugly. Ward blames contractual issues, and Ozzy’s public disrespect; Ozzy claims Ward was too unfit to be playing nightly two-hour sets. What would the real Black Sabbath sound like? The only regret of The End Tour is that we might never know.

Black Sabbath have ended so many shows with ‘Paranoid’ it’s routine, but this time around, it’s become supremely ironic. “I tell you to enjoy life / I wish I could, but it’s too late”, sings Ozzy for the 950th time, but it’s hard to take the song’s misery sincerely. Sabbath are still playing to rapturous crowds, including many 20-something metalheads whose entire musical taste wouldn’t exist without them. A song about losing your mind has become a celebration.

Black Sabbath emerged at the exact time when the dream of the ‘60s died. They were young and idealistic, but they weren’t hippies. They wrote about death and suffering to scare us away from the dark side. Against all odds, they’ve become beloved elder statesmen, and they’re going out on their own terms. When the show ends, there’s no “‘till next time”, no “see you again soon”, but no one seems to mind.

Setlist:

Black Sabbath
Fairies Wear Boots
After Forever
Snowblind
Into the Void
War Pigs
Behind the Wall of Sleep (with Wasp intro)
N.I.B. (with Basically intro)
Hand of Doom
Rat Salad (with drum solo)
Iron Man
Dirty Women
Children of the Grave
Paranoid

Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic who does actually listen to metal. People still don’t take him seriously. You can endure his tweets at @Richaod.

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