Electric funeral

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

Ultimately, this Black Sabbath reunion is a de facto "Sharon Osbourne Show." She is the one who has assembled the fraying ends and bound together a group of cantankerous personalities. You won't hear a discouraging word exchanged between Ozzy and Tony Iommi these days: nothing about the mid-'70s years, when Iommi made the singer stand to the left of him onstage while the guitarist basked in the spotlight. Nothing about the lawsuit that Osbourne filed earlier this decade against Iommi to reclaim monies he loaned the then-destitute guitarist. Nothing about the years with Ronnie James Dio on vocals; nothing about anyone else but the original foursome, for that matter. Today, it's all business, and everyone wins so long as they play by Sharon's rules.

Backstage, Sharon is in her element, exchanging hugs with Pantera manager Walter O'Brien and Rob Zombie's manager Andy Gould. Her and Ozzy's three children are here--Aimee, Kelly, and Jack--and all of them have brought along their friends from school to see what daddy does for a living.

The strangest element of the whole celebratory atmosphere at the 1997 Ozzfest, at the Birmingham concerts, and now here at the Great Western Forum, is the way that the music of Black Sabbath is received. In its time, Black Sabbath's music was derided by critics as being unrelentingly depressing and mind-numbingly simplistic. This was a music that was played at a torturously slow pace, with chord changes that seemed forced at gunpoint, and above all, it was amplified so thuddingly, ominously loud. To hear it was to burrow one's head in a place so alien and foreboding as to completely sever ties to genteel society. Black Sabbath was a fantastical foray into evil magic, but Paranoid brought real-life themes of war and futility to the bedroom stereo. Master of Reality and Vol. 4 were descents into valleys of psychosis; bitter, strangely reassuring escapes for those for whom social relationships had gone sour, to whom the outside world was too unstable to contemplate. This was intensely personal, place-the-needle-on-the-stereo-and-shut-the-door music.

But at the Forum, air-raid sirens blare, smoke and fog billow, and a capacity crowd roars its approval. Members of supporting act Pantera race to various viewing points to watch their heroes in action. The stage, designed to look staid and classic, is ringed with outsized wooden sculptures and steel plates carved with runes. Ozzy, Butler, and Iommi are levitated from below via hydraulic platforms, while long-lost drummer Ward ambles gleefully toward his kit. During the show, everyone is all smiles, while Osbourne leapfrogs from place to place, dousing the front row with water from strategically placed buckets. When the singer lowers his pants to do his customary "crowd-mooning," his trousers get stuck around his knees on the way up. The cock-up makes Ozzy beam at his own lunacy: "God, it's great to be totally fucking crazy!" he yells.

The whole spectacle seems completely removed from time and place. There are no new songs to be aired tonight; everything played is from the band's first eight albums. From all appearances, though, they're having fun; old wounds are forgotten, or at least forgiven. Osbourne cracks up the stone-faced Butler on "Iron Man" by singing the words in a different key, and when Iommi strums out the stentorian intro to "Children of the Grave," Ozzy does his impression of the Irish jigs he's seen on Riverdance, eliciting even more laughter from Butler.

Listening to the extended musical forays that Iommi takes, spiraling his guitar riffs into orbit, or hearing the venerable rhythm section of Ward and Butler lock into a bluesy groove, one realizes that something essential has been lost to the genre over the years. The years of drugs have made the '70s a far murkier memory for them than most others, and the abuse has turned their frontman's speech into a permanent slur. Thanks to Iommi's powerful playing, the cocaine lament "Snowblind" now sounds sadder and more passionate than ever; a paean to hours/minutes/days horribly, irrevocably lost to the ages.

This tour is a celebration of the music they created while in that haze, undertaken more for themselves than for their fans. In L.A., Osbourne yelled out that the four of them started the whole style of music themselves, back when they were four dirty youths in the Midlands. Now, their music has been placed under glass, an exhibition in some mobile wing of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That it does not suffocate there proves these four old men still know how to play dirty.

Black Sabbath, Pantera, and Incubus perform January 24 at Reunion Arena.

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