The end of an era, perhaps. Or perhaps not.
What we know as we close 2017 is that BLACK SABBATH completed a presumably final stretch of tour dates that culminated where it all began nearly half a century ago: Birmingham, England. Tony Iommi, who announced around the release of the album “13” that he has been battling lymphoma, is in remission, and is reportedly tending to the band’s recorded works, including a possible follow-up studio album. At this point, Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler have made a proud stand in their elder years, attesting that time may be the enemy for some, but not for those with supreme wherewithal and good fortune. The fact that these guys, Ozzy in particular, survived decades of decadence to climb onstage as monarchs of the heavy metal realm and put on a performance of such imperial quality, well, if needs must, the guys deserve to call it a day. Of course, the Ozzman himself isn’t yet ready to lock the door to his dressing room as he next prepares for another solo jaunt. For now, we have “The End”, a video presentation of BLACK SABBATH‘s seemingly last live show.
Ozzy jokes to his emotional, thunderstruck audience at the Genting Arena in Birmingham, “I nearly said ‘Should we come back and do it again?'” You can imagine the collective gasps of anticipation from the crowd before Ozzy let the proverbial air out of the balloon by following up his cajoling with the anticlimactic retort, “We’re not.” Yet, Tony Iommi himself drops the hint of a possible commemoration show upon BLACK SABBATH‘s approaching 50th anniversary. KISS and the SCORPIONS retracted on their “farewell” oaths, so you never know.
If thisis the end of BLACK SABBATH, at least in live fashion, what a hell of a way to wrap. Iommi and Butler already had the opportunity to say goodbye properly to Ronnie James Dio and the victorious, if short period he regaled BLACK SABBATH during the HEAVEN AND HELL run. It’s obviously a subjective matter, but those performances ring superior to the Ozzy 2.0 run, particularly with Vinny Appice on board to effectively recreate the full “Mob Rules”-era SABBATH lineup.
Not to harp on the obvious, but the lack of Bill Ward due to contractual disagreements really stung, and that’s not to downplay the heroic backup of Tommy Clufetos, who did a magnificent job. Clufetos, who will follow Ozzy back on the road, has also played for other legends such as Alice Cooper, Rob Zombie and others. Yet, Clufetos‘s clean, high-octane thrashing and clubbing gets frequently checked down here so as not to dust his front line, and, to be frank, there’s something about Ward‘s grimy whirligigs that was sorely missed.
Nevertheless, Clufetos deserves no blown raspberries and BLACK SABBATH gave Birmingham, England, and all those traversing from countries around the world, everything they could’ve asked for, reputedly one last time. “The End” may be just that, or it may be a clever marketing gimmick to tide folks over until the 50th anniversary. It is a methodic and powerful performance lightened up by a puckish jumping jack at center stage who panders to the crowd more than convention dictates. Yet knowing this could be the very last BLACK SABBATH show, Ozzy Osbourne was not going to rest on his laurels unless people were clapping in tandem during every song and ralphing their guts back at him in appreciation.
While the Birmingham attendance readily falls prey to Ozzy‘s repeated summons to “go crazy”, particularly on the pickup sections, they send him and the band prevailing tears of both joy and sadness. Some brought inflatable hogs with their own scrawls of “War Pigs” to the occasion. The moment truly feels like a funeral when the show begins with the terrorizing death tolls of “Black Sabbath”, backed up visually with a depicted blaze on the jumbotron and propelling pyrotechnics representing a memorial pyre. The pace is painfully slow, with Tony Iommi‘s doom slides even more barbed than usual. Ozzy attempts to remain malevolent and somber, yet when the opportunity arises, the marauder disappears and the playful man-child emerges, preferring to make the BLACK SABBATH show a happy hour. This, despite the band rumbling through its dirge models “Into the Void”, ““Under the Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes”, “Snowblind”, “Hand of Doom”, “Children of the Grave” and, of course, the perpetual succession of “Behind the Wall of Sleep” with “Bassically/N.I.B. “
“Children of the Grave”, though shoved toward the end of the set, is a hugely cathartic moment, as it is the suspicion of conclusiveness. Prior to, Tony Iommi wreaks havoc with one of his career’s most spectacular guitar solos during “Dirty Women”. Prior to that, Tommy Clufetos wows the crowd with his own theatrics spilling out of “Rat Salad”. Before any of that comes an awesome medley spanning the more expressionistic period of Ozzy‘s original run in the band, “Supernaut/Sabbath Bloody Sabbath/Megalomania”.
Ozzy Osbourne may command much of the attention by attrition, yet it feels like he’s there playing his part while Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler rip away as maestros with psychedelic projections streaming behind them. The two are stoic and diligent, Butler appearing grim on top of focused, though Ozzy manages to break up the usually unflappable Iommi on occasion with tension-breaking silly faces. The second half of the performance is where Iommi and Butler get to freewheel and improvise more. When “War Pigs” arrives sooner than expected, they all but leap at the chance to dress up the band’s masterpiece with tumbling scales. As much of a warning to heed today as back in the Vietnam era, “War Pigs”, “Hand of Doom”, “Fairies Wear Boots” and “Iron Man” serve as reminders of manmade holocaust as once again global political tensions teeter on the brink. The obvious set closer, “Paranoid”, is a moment of rapture to escape the pervading cynicism cast by “Children of the Grave”.
Accompanying the video presentation is a five song EP, “The Angelic Sessions”, re-recordings by the band at Angelic Studios just days after this Birmingham performance. While “Sweet Leaf” is sadly wrung out, the other tracks, “The Wizard”, “Wicked World”, “Tomorrow’s Dream” and “Changes” are passable, if not outright fun. “Wicked World” is another classic sociopolitical tirade of its time, and the down tempo “Changes”, from which Ozzy Osbourne derived a slew of his own solo ballads, retains its moping charm here. Ozzy‘s vocals are still wonderfully bittersweet in this new take.
While new beginnings are hardly the inklings anyone gets from “The End”, it doesn’t quite ring of actual finality, either. There’s incredible mileage left in the tanks of these blues and doom blokes, and though the band doesn’t play at the same rapid urgency as it once did, the heat is reserved for the finessing. In that respect, “The End” is a gallant and sometimes goofy triumph for BLACK SABBATH.