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Black Sabbath (live at the O2 Arena)

Black Sabbath live December 2013London
10 December 2013

We leave the pub and head down towards Entrance F. The night is cold and dark, breath highlighted as white wisps against the blackness, lights pinpoint bright like stars. It’s perfect.

And now the excitement is building, as the phalanxes of the black-clad, the long-haired and silver jewellery-bedecked are massing. What a truly a rag-tag army it is too, as diverse in its composition as the city we are now in, a polyglot horde descending on the North Greenwich peninsula united by one thing – an unquestioning love of Birmingham’s finest export to the world.* In front of me is a large group of footsoldiers from Colombia, filling the air with excited Latin American Spanish: “Hombre, esto va a ser incréíble! Esta es la mejor banda del mundo!”

Black Sabbath audience December 2013

After a brief goodbye, I watch through the enormous plate glass as Tony and Vito ascend skywards on the escalator, heading up towards the Gods where their tickets have placed them. I feel sad at seeing them go, the camaraderie of the previous couple of hours (a few pints of Guinness – not too many, just enough – the sound of Acca Dacca’s “Hells Bells” blasting out over the pub’s speakers and an animated conversation about music in general and Metal in particular) suddenly now curtailed by a call to arms and the imminent raising of the curtain.

But there is no time for regret. Tonight my destiny lies elsewhere.

I walk through the short stretch of tunnel towards the central standing arena and, just as I emerge into the dizzying whirlpool of light, noise and people, the band make their entrance onto the stage.

“This one’s called ‘Into the Void.'”

It’s Black Sabbath. Live. Onstage. And, much as I always liked and appreciated Ronald James Padovana, visiting new world preacher from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that ain’t him up there – it’s Mr John Michael Osbourne, formerly of the parish of Aston, Birmingham. After 35 years away, Ozzy is back where he belongs, and Black Sabbath are too: up on the stage, with a new album on the racks. And let’s not beat about the bush here, it’s a fucking miracle that the band members are still alive to make these performances. Years, decades, of the most intense debauchery should have placed most – of not all – of them six feet under the cold, hard ground long ago. Yet somehow, perhaps protected by the powers of darkness (or maybe the good Lord himself has a soft spot for them), they prevail, and they are here: Ozzy, Tony and Geezer. Age cannot wither, nor custom stale their infinite variety. Older and more lined they may be, but they are here, and they are magnificent. The one slightly sour note is the absence of Bill Ward, in his day one of Rock’s most superlative sticksmen. There are muttered rumours of contractual issues, whispered doubts around his health and stamina, but for whatever reason, tonight his place behind the kit is taken by Tommy Clufetos, whose CV includes life-affirming stints with wholesome family favourites Alice Cooper and Rob Zombie. But more about him a minute.

Whilst we’re on the subject, let’s be clear about something else as well. Despite the fact that physically Ozzy does look as though he’s strayed out of a high needs sheltered accommodation scheme, and is prone to suddenly issuing a curious ‘cuckoo, cuckoo’ sound, his voice is still unmistakably Oz, in better shape that it has any right to be. And Tony may be living in the shadow of lymphoma (having to return from the tour every six weeks for the administration of the relevant antibodies), but he is still a colossus – he is the riffmeister general and there are 20,000 people here who to a man, woman and banana (more of that in a minute) know it.

The weeks of teeth-gnashing hassle with UPS for delivery of my ticket (see Freq reviews passim) melt away in this blissful onslaught of savage riffery. Thank Christ for Sabbath. Guitarist Scott Ian of Anthrax once quipped, “I always get the question in every interview I do, ‘What are your top five metal albums?’ I make it easy for myself and always say the first five Sabbath albums.” Tonight for the ravenous faithful there comes a buffet of the choicest cuts from these albums – including some surprisingly rare morsels – and a garnish of material from the new album 13: “Snowblind,” “Children of the Grave,” “N.I.B” (“Nativity in Black” or the shape of Bill Ward’s beard, you decide…), “Behind the Wall of Sleep” (one I was secretly hoping for, and surprised when they actually played), “Paranoid;” oh it was manna from riff Heaven, pouring forth like a delicious dark torrent and dribbling down your chin. Recent single “God is Dead” sounded like classic, classic (classic!) Sabbath.

And, and, and! “Fairies Wear Boots.” I said to Tony (Young, not Iommi) earlier that this, always a favourite of mine, was one I would dearly love to hear them play, though if for nothing more than the arithmetic of random sample size determination, probability was stacked against it. But you know what? Sometimes dreams really do come true. Jad Fair was absolutely right about that.

Black Sabbath live December 2013

Being the O2 Arena, the complex multi-image back projections were working overtime, and featured some lovely Christian-baiting imagery – vintage footage of American God-botherers picketing the band’s ‘70s shows (“Sabbath = Satan”**), lines of cocaine being chopped up with credit cards, nuns masturbating candles (though in truth I think they were Nigel Wingrove nuns rather than your bona fide (boner fide?) Brides of Christ), and some delightful clips from Ken Russell’s psychedelic and über-neglected sex kitsch version of Bram Stoker’s final fever dream Lair of the White Worm, all Messiahs being crucified whilst the aforementioned White Worm wraps itself around him in a death embrace and Amanda Donohoe attempts to penetrate Catherine Oxenberg with an enormous strap-on dildo. It also features imminent new Dr Who, Peter Capaldi, though pound to a penny parents probably won’t be rushing out to buy that one for their kids come Christmas 2014… During “Dirty Women,” Ozzy is at one point even sandwiched between two giant Betty Paiges though, knowing Ozzy, that seemingly-infeasible sentence probably actually once happened.

Tony (Young, not Iommi) later points out perceptively that one of the great things about the show is that Sabbath have resisted the urge to change the sound of their material in light of all the developments in Metal and its thousand shard-splinter sub-genres that have taken place since they last bestrode the Earth. They don’t make their sound more extreme or more abrasive or more gut-wrenching. They don’t need to. It was so perfect the first time around that absolutely nothing needs adjusting. It’s a horrible, dirge-like, monolithic wall of riff. There is nothing that could be more perfect about the Sabbath sound, and generations – and I mean generations – of bands have taken what they did, and run with it. That’s a good thing, and it means that Sabbath have no need to change, because all those others, lo unto the ages, are just variations of Sabbath.

That’s probably a sweeping generalisation that doesn’t encompass all the finer granular differences of Metal sub-genres, and for which I would be howled down by fans of Death, Speed, Black etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. but it’s just plain, darned, evidently, indisputably frackin’ true. When Ozzy says, “Right, we’re going to take you back to start, with one of our earliest compositions” and up rears the gigantic, evil head of “Black Sabbath,” its huge, grinding tritone riff threatening to stomp all over you like a brontosaurus, there is no doubt, no doubt at all, that this is ur-source. And we are mainlining big time, hoovering up the pure, unadulterated goodness.

Now this being something of an old school evening, the aforementioned Monsieur Clufetos furnishes us with a drum solo. Whilst the three original Sabs temporarily relocate backstage for some Horlicks and a quick sit-down to relieve the lumbago, the young whipper-snapper performs a truly monstrous solo. It is vile, abhorrent, an offence against nature. I love it. At one point the double bass drum polyrhythms are coming so thick and fast that the whole thing starts to resemble the slowed-down Walter Murch Bell Huey helicopter blades from Apocalypse Now. This kind of thing was once prosecutable under the Year Zero Act of 1976, but its repeal by a more broad-minded judiciary some years ago means that consenting adults can now indulge in it without fear of exposure, ridicule and ruin. After nearly collapsing the space-time continuum with his frantic efforts, Clufetos strips it back to a single kick drum beat, pounding away slowly. Like the time distorting effect on perception of an imminent car crash, a split second before impact time stops momentarily and I realise what is about to happen…“I am Iron Man…” I can feel the cold sweat trickle down my back.

Black Sabbath live December 2013 (human figures for scale)

For the encore Ozzy tells us: “This is the deal. We’re going to play another one, but if you go really fucking mental, we’ll play more.” The audience duly obliges. Ozzy adds “C’mon, go mental, it’s Christmas”, and his brilliantly unlikely seasonal cheer (“Happy birthday little baby Jesus”) is infectious and touching, like Anton LaVey inviting you round for mulled wine and mince pies. At this point, even granite-faced Tony (Iommi, not Young) cracks a smile. Man, to see the Master coax these riffs from his guitar is, there’s no other word for it, a privilege. Whether they hold it together again as a band for much longer, or even manage to dodge the razor edge of the Grim Reaper’s scythe blade, at least for now they have returned to sit atop the Throne of Darkness once more. All hail.

Afterwards I wait for the crush to thin out a little before attempting my egress. A guy who doesn’t speak any English asks me via the ever-trusty medium of mime to take a photo of him on his phone in order to record his presence at this historic event for posterity. Afterwards he proudly displays a prized relic of the event – a piece of the true plectrum. The Master threw a handful out into the audience at the end of the show, and this lucky chap managed to nab one. I give him a thumbs-up gesture – May the Spirit of Iommi be with you Brother. Just then a man walks past in a Budgie T-shirt (he’s a Heavy Rock fan, not an ornithologist), and just as I’m pondering the fact that such a sight is not one you see every day any more, a man walks past dressed a banana. He stops for a moment and adjusts the tip of his curve, just on the top at the stalk. Now you have to take your hat off to a man that goes to a Black Sabbath gig dressed as a banana.

Tony (Young, not…oh, you get it by now…) and I sink a few pints of decompression Guinness afterwards and discuss the benediction we have just received. We both agree, it was absolutely bloody marvellous.
We finally leave the O2 at midnight, and from nowhere thick, freezing fog has descended. It couldn’t be better, and all I can hear in my head is the immense sustain of a Gibson SG.

-David Solomons-

* Alongside Stevie Winwood.
** And thank God for that.

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