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.)

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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