Electric funeral

Black Sabbath has reunited, but has it cost its members their souls?

It's January 6, 1999--not January 6, 1979--and in the VIP room at Los Angeles' Great Western Forum, rock stars are doing whatever rock stars usually do whenever they're presented with an unlimited supply of liquor and old friends. It's a very metal crowd: Paul Stanley of KISS kindly, patiently accepts accolades of praise from members of such up-and-coming bands as Coal Chamber, Soulfly, and Static-X. It's all bimbos and hairstyles--how very rock.

Suddenly, word spreads that the headlining band, Black Sabbath, is due on stage in three minutes, and the room begins to clear out. Hell, by the time the group launches into its opening number, the Forum Club's bartenders take the exodus personally--this just doesn't happen in L.A., where free drinks are more important than, well, anything. Then again, Black Sabbath demands your presence. While concert promoters are moaning about the dearth of stadium-friendly acts from the malnourished '90s, this lineup--the first time the original quartet has toured the States in 18 years--effortlessly fills arenas.

Yet the timing seems off somehow--these guys are 10 years too late. Sabbath may well indeed have spawned heavy metal, with Tony Iommi's creaking riffs and Ozzy Osbourne's cackling vocals. But to lay the blame upon them for the overwrought vapidity of the genre would be misguided. These were not anthems of sword-swinging glory, or baybee-baybee heavy-petting heart-pounders. Black Sabbath's albums--among them Paranoid, Master of Reality, and Vol. 4--were overrun with songs of doom, schizophrenia, drug-taking, and the misuse of power. The band's truest sons weren't Whitesnake, Mstley CrYe, or Ratt at all, but the heavy music of the '80s underground, from the Meat Puppets and Black Flag to (more recognizably) Soundgarden and Nirvana. This was primordial music more suited to the SST label, not to Geffen or Metal Blade.

When the grunge groups were copping to the Sabbath influence earlier this decade, Ozzy Osbourne felt no need to look back. There had been a war of words between him and his former chums from Birmingham, England, and even pondering a reunion was painful. His '80s albums had all gone multi-platinum, while Tony Iommi in turn was guiding Sabbath down a lane of increasingly diminishing returns: Substituting no-names for Ozzy had betrayed the respect of the fans, and his torpid material had besmirched his reputation. Osbourne had even nixed recording an album with his friend, producer Rick Rubin, because Rubin was clearly set on making the heaviest album Sabbath had never made, while Ozzy was intent on putting the sound of Sabbath far behind him.

The turning point came when Osbourne had decided to retire from the road in 1992. The tour for his No More Tears album was coming to a close, and to start off his retirement, he invited the original Black Sabbath (which includes bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward) to support him in Costa Mesa, California. On the final night of the tour, the original Sabbath lineup closed the evening with a four-song set. The touring days of Ozzy Osbourne appeared to be over, however; the tome of darkness slammed shut.

But it turned out that Osbourne isn't the retiring type. The doddering singer is a simple man with simple pleasures: Like the flower needs the rain, Ozzy Osbourne needs to perform. Sharon Osbourne, his wife and manager, has made her husband her business, and he in turn eagerly handed the reins over to her.

Sharon created the Ozzfest for him. A traveling heavy-metal show that in its three years outgrossed Lollapalooza, the Ozzfest serves the dual purpose of providing Ozzy with his own forum to cast out his devils and giving Sharon power. Young metal acts need the showcase more than ever these days: MTV shuns them, and the Ozzfest is an invaluable avenue to provide them exposure. In the end, Ozzfest would make Sharon Osbourne the most popular girl in the concert business.

All would be Eden, were it not for the fact that Ozzy and Sharon have simply run out of options for his solo recording career. She wants her husband to be happy, and neither of them can afford to throw an album into the indifferent maw of the current record-buying public. Each album has to be an event. Ever since the Costa Mesa dates, there have been persistent rumors of a full-fledged reunion and tour in fan sectors. Now it appears that the Osbournes have realized, after the labored and protracted birth of Ozzy's last studio album, 1995's Ozzmosis, that there was only one option left.

So they tested the waters two years ago. Ozzy, Butler, and Iommi headlined the 1997 Ozzfest as a reconstituted Black Sabbath, with Ozzy's then-current drummer Mike Bordin replacing Bill Ward. Since Ward was the member who had maintained the closest contact with Osbourne after the singer left the band in 1979, it surprised many that he'd become the one left out. It transpired that once Ward had heard of the reunion, he made too many demands, and was deemed expendable by Sharon Osbourne. That tour was a raging success, and when the drummer was again asked to join the team for two dates in the band's hometown of Birmingham later that same year, a humbled Ward had to take the bait. (Ward suffered a mild heart attack following the Birmingham shows--which yielded the band's first "official" live album, last year's rather enjoyable Reunion--so erstwhile Sabbath drummer Vinnie Appice is on retainer at every show, just in case Ward's ticker starts to unwind again.)

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