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Black Sabbath (live at the Manchester Arena)

18 December 2013

Pantomime season is once more upon us, and the heaviest and most bludgeoning pantomime of all is rolling into town. My first ever concert was Black Sabbath – a scary 38 years ago, and so when a friend who couldn’t make this week’s reunion tour offered me his ticket at a Christmas party last weekend, I was sufficiently inebriated to be unable to refuse.

Arriving at the vast and horribly-named Phones 4U Arena (the largest venue in the EU apparently) in the sober twilight of early evening, I was having serious reservations. I generally avoid venues which are big enough to not be on first name terms with the audience. On top of that, Bill Ward won’t be present and Ozzy‘s lifestyle hasn’t been kind to his voice – oh dear. On the other hand, I felt similarly sceptical about this year’s 13 album, which turned out to be fairly decent, if a little overproduced.

With perfect timing, we entered the arena to the sound of air raid sirens and the curtain raised as Tony Iommi‘s trusty SG extruded the proto-grunge slime of “War Pigs” intro. All cynicism was suspended and for two hours I was a spellbound 15 year old once again, experiencing the greatest band on the planet.

Surprise of the night was just how together Ozzy was – on previous reunions, judging from recordings, his voice had all but disappeared, but tonight he was spot on throughout… although we could have done without his periodic demands that we “go fucking crazy” or “clap your fucking hands”. No thank you Ozzy, we’ll decide how we want to respond. The absence of Bill Ward, certainly noticeable, was far from a killer blow. Mr Nonentity Drummer proved very capable, although lacking Ward’s inimitable swing, and he also had the courtesy to perform the drum solo in “Rat Salad,” facilitating a long overdue trip to the bar.

When Rick Rubin agreed to produce the new album he apparently sat the group down and made them listen to their own debut LP, instructing them to forget everything they’d learnt since. They seem to have taken his advice to heart and the set is drawn almost entirely from their first four records, with just enough songs from the new one to (narrowly) avoid being a mere nostalgia act. It’s the trio of songs from that first album that are the highlight of the evening. When Ozzy announces that they’re going to go right back to the very beginning as the tolling bell of “Black Sabbath” rings out, it’s clear that he’s not just referring to the beginning of the group – it’s the beginning of the most universal genre of music on earth. That monumentally ominous three-note riff, stumbled upon by a gang of dead end kids in Birmingham back in 1969 that constituted the first and best song on the first and best record from the first and best heavy metal group tangibly changed the world. Not always for the better admittedly… as Geezer Butler once said, “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker” (or maybe that was someone else?) …but hey! – here are the originators reclaiming their crown… in person… and they still fucking rock. At the very least, Sabbath are our own homegrown Stooges.

The set veers between the expected – “War Pigs,” “Iron Man,” “Snowblind” – and less obvious early gems like “Behind the Wall of Sleep”, “Under the Sun” and a particularly pummeling “Fairies Wear Boots.” The trio of new songs from 13 manage to more than stand up amidst the time-honoured classics and breathe more deeply when stripped of all the studio overdubs. The only vaguely low points are the aforementioned “Rat Salad” (people still do drum solos in the 21st century?!) and the rather pedestrian “Dirty Women” from 1976’s rather pedestrian Technical Ecstasy. Sadly there is nothing from the under-rated Sabotage‘, but I suspect that was because they were wisely sticking to material that Ozzy’s 65 year old voice could do justice to.

When the numbingly obvious (hey! – that’s what we love about the Sabs) encore “Paranoid” brings the show to a close, I have difficulty weighing up whether this was actually even better than my last Sabbath show back in 1975… might have been the best since Charles Hawtrey in Aladdin in Llandudno back in 1968!

-Alan Holmes-

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