Black Sabbath review – one last time with feeling

SSE Hydro, Glasgow
The masters of metal are grinding their way through a long, thrillingly loud farewell tour. Though Ozzy Osbourne may have other plans…

The farewell tour is a standing joke in rock. These tours tend to sell well, so artists often do more than one. Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne embarked on a solo farewell jaunt in 1992. Back then he said: “This is absolutely for real. It’s the end of the road for me. I’ve been doing it for 25 years and I want to go home.” It was not so much a howl at the moon as a cry of wolf. Three years later, Osbourne was back on the bus.

Tonight, the peal of a familiar church bell not only introduces Black Sabbath – the song – it tolls the end of Black Sabbath – the band – currently on the final leg of their farewell tour: The End. Foreboding blues rock begins oozing out of the speaker stacks, a malevolently curdled variant that came to be known as heavy metal.

The pace is glacial. The space afforded to each instrument – Geezer Butler’s bonging bass, guitarist Tony Iommi’s sinister tritone intervals, and the freeform drumming of estranged original drummer Bill Ward ably rendered by returnee sub Tommy Clufetos – still feels like a revelation. Most music tends to be saturated in comparison; one of the reasons the early Sabbath catalogue continues to appeal is its slow, alien unfurling. It also sounds amazing loud.

When Osbourne comes in, his always quavery voice is in robust form. On Black Sabbath (the song), he is reliving for the umpteenth time a period when the band – then called Earth – began dabbling in satanic postures. The band’s most enthusiastic dark-sider, Butler, says he once woke to find a figure in black at the foot of his bed.

Since then, Sabbath (Butler is their chief lyricist) have played fast and loose with their spiritual intent, embodying horror film menace and medieval portent, while warning against evil in the small print. That evil isn’t all supernatural, either. War Pigs, enduringly magnificent tonight, remains one of the 60s’ least-acknowledged protest songs, written by just-postwar babies who came of age in the shadow of Vietnam and the nuclear threat. “Politicians hide themselves away,” yowls Osbourne, alongside several thousand Glaswegians, “they only started the war/ Why should they go out to fight?/ They leave that role to the poor.” Also largely unacknowledged is the song’s groovy funk undercarriage and Iommi’s psychedelic guitar work.

Black Sabbath, by Black Sabbath.

For insurance against all the dark forces he has conjured up for nearly 50 years, Iommi’s guitar neck has a series of crosses on it, while Butler’s bass neck has a cross, the band’s latterday winged succubus logo, and the number 13. We know this because the cameras are trained on the two men’s guitar necks for the majority of the gig, a big screen visually amplifying their fingerwork.

It’s not that Sabbath’s storied frontman is a bit player tonight – far from it – but you come away thinking this tour is a hymn to the hands of its musical makers, rather than the antics of Osbourne, who, at peak drug, provided one of metal’s best-known freak shows. Osbourne has his latterday shtick – rocking at the mic – but he can still convey deep existential dismay. It’s a talent somehow undimmed by years of shuffling around in tracksuit bottoms and failing to parent properly on reality TV: a Brummie Homer Simpson idiot-savant.

This farewell has an above-average air of finality about it. Timed to run up to Sabbath’s half-century anniversary next year, The End tour has been reverberating its way around the globe for months, ticking off continents on its way to the band’s birthplace, where it will culminate this week. Someone will probably present Iommi, Sabbath’s most persistent member, with a phenomenally loud carriage clock, and the band will be formally interred as a touring entity. Having beaten non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Iommi wanted to “finish on a high note”, according to a recent interview.

That high note is no euphemism. Sabbath’s last album, 13, surprised many. Produced by Zen metalhead Rick Rubin, 13 wasn’t just a tolerable addition to this troubled band’s patchy latterday discography, it was actively listenable and hit No 1 in the UK and the US in 2013. Tonight’s set list includes God Is Dead? which continues Sabbath’s strain of everyman questioning, while a series of Iommi riffs rattles the old confetti off the Hydro’s ceiling fixtures.

For this final hurrah, could we have done with fewer deep cuts and a few more hits? Yes. Could Clufetos have shortened his drum solos? Most definitely. Words from Ozzy other than “I can’t hear you!” might have been apposite too, given the momentousness of the occasion. Sabbath were not the first band to point out that life was no bowl of cherries, but they matched that dread with the mother of all low-end sound. No valedictory speeches are forthcoming, but then, Ozzy does have some solo dates booked.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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