By: Jaime’ En Fuego, Phoenix Concerts Examiner
Too often singers get all the attention!
Not to open a backing musician diss session on them for being undeserving or anything, it’s just that their presence does occasionally overshadow others onstage, especially if that voice is the only thing being brought to the musical table. The amazing architects of ‘Heavy Metal’ in BLACK SABBATH embody an excellent example of this dilemma because one of history’s most revered riff writers EVER, guitar godsend Tony Iommi, played second fiddle for years to whoever was raucously rocking the microphone like a vandal. Upon forming in 1968 the self-proclaimed ‘Prince Of F*cking Darkness’ OZZY OSBOURNE served as frontman for eight straight sensational studio servings with Sabbath, yes even Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! bear their merits, concocting some crazy catchy vocal melodies and staging spectacular showman skills yet actually only writing lyrical contributions to just a handful of songs as bassist Geezer Butler usually shouldered the weight of that responsibility. When the Ozzman departed to drive his own Crazy Train off the rails as the Snowblind 70’s ceased a replacement chosen by the British rockers was the drastically different but nonetheless daringly dynamic Ronnie James Dio, an American ‘Elf’ with a voice the size of a silver mountain fresh from his stint in Richie ‘DEEP PURPLE’ Blackmore’s group RAINBOW. He helped to usher in a new renaissance for Sabbath with thunderous vocals on back to back classic cuts Heaven And Hell then The Mob Rules along with an accompanying 1982 live double album whose mixing caused constant contention when the members weren’t busy ‘Killing Themselves To Live.’ The conflict quickly caused the duration of Dio’s stay to be monumentally more miniscule than Ozzy’s as he soon sought out to pursue a career with his namesake band as well, going on to savor similar solo success as his vocal predecessor while Sabbath’s fortunes began to take a turn for the worse.
What followed over the next decade was Tony Iommi finally taking the helm of his own ship but struggling with where exactly to take it. First there were the perplexing pair of dreadful ‘one and dones’ with two different DEEP PURPLE castoffs, neither of which were initially intended to be released under the BLACK SABBATH name. Attempt numero uno on 1983’s Born Again came complete with OG Sabbath rhythm section of Butler and percussionist extraordinaire Bill Ward’s return surprisingly conjuring some killer cryptic sounds only to be ruined by the nerve-wracking singing of Ian Gillan which was a tremendously terrible fit from the start. When the former ‘Masters of Reality’ are desperate enough to cover “Smoke On The Water” during a tour that featured an onstage replica of Stonehenge that SPINAL TAP would mercilessly mock the very next year it’s no wonder everyone but Iommi immediately bolted for the emergency exit. The guitarist’s solo collaboration with another DP veteran Glenn Hughes came next and was also never intended to be a Sabbath record, one listen makes that incredibly apparent, but just like with the previous effort they bent over backwards from record company pressure to concede and use the familiar moniker in a ploy to boost sales. It didn’t work however and the borderline ‘Hair Metal’ offering was largely ignored, in turn spurring Iommi to recruit a formidable DIO clone named Tony Martin and harken back to a heavier approach in hopes of regaining some lost momentum. Ironically enough when it’s all said and done Martin will go down in history as the vocalist second only to Mr. Sharon Osbourne to have sang on as many studio records for Iommi, making five appearances with Sabbath sandwiched around the ‘blink and it was over’ reconciliation with DIO himself for 1992’s Dehumanizer, the band’s best release until reuniting with the ‘Holy Diver’ for a second time in the new millennium. The problemo by that time being that after a few aborted attempts at recording new material with Ozzy, the reality star’s wife had decided that despite being the sole constant member Iommi shouldn’t be allowed to even use the Sabbath title without the presence of some Ozzmosis on hand.
Mrs. Osbourne is no stranger to injecting venom into her husband’s business battles but this type of bitterness was a far cry from how smoothly things were going in the late 90’s when BLACK SABBATH‘s four founding forefathers of Metal were riding high on an extensive world tour that made them millions and a Reunion album that housed the first two new tracks from those Birmingham boys in 20 years. “Selling My Soul” and “Psycho Man” were both serviceable enough, albeit slightly uninspired efforts that felt totally rushed for release, so Rick Rubin was briskly brought on board with high hopes to bring about some improved output for what was supposed to be a full-length effort in 2001. Tours continued to captivate over the years but with the exception of one intriguing track called “Scary Dreams,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=735w63a53nc heard here and played at various Ozzfest appearances that year which blew the Reunion selections out of the water, progress on finishing a real album kept stalling constantly due to Ozzy’s hopes of resuscitating a solo career that seemed laughable after becoming so loveable as MTV‘s favorite father on The Osbournes. Commend Iommi and the other bandmates for remaining good sports throughout the circus of ridiculousness, though it was inevitable they would want to commence creating once again and that came in the form of a real reconciliation with Mr. Ronnie James Dio. In fact it was one that went so smoothly that after similarly following suit by including three new songs on a compilation of tracks from 2007’s Dio Years an entire record of fresh ferocious radness entitled The Devil You Know was released just two years later, making the delays with Ozzy that much more maddening for many Sabbath purists. So as not to further incur the ire of the Osbourne camp the Mob Rules/Dehumanizer lineup that consisted of Dio, Iommi, Geezer and journeyman drummer Vinny Appice rechristened themselves after Sabbath’s first post-Ozzy album, and HEAVEN AND HELL were essentially born again. Anyone who saw the tours knows how tremendous they were, as documented on the Live From Radio City Music Hall DVD, which made the sadness that struck soon after so much harder for fans to swallow. While preparing to begin work on a follow-up record together DIO was suddenly diagnosed with stomach cancer in late 2009 and just six months later the voice of one of Metal’s mightiest men was silenced forever. Yet it was this tremendous tragedy that proved sometimes positive things can somehow arise from negativity and that death often brings about rebirth.
In the wake of DIO’s sudden passing pointless problems like lawsuits over band names appeared pretty paltry in the grand scheme of things. While it’s unfortunate that it took something so severe to repair tattered friendships amongst men that had known one another since their youth sometimes something so catastrophic it can’t be completely comprehended is what’s necessary to compel someone to look truly inward. Perhaps it was the realization about how short and precious all of our time here is that spurred not just a bold burying of the hatchet amongst everyone involved but also the motivation to decide this is something we’ve wanted to do for a long time so let’s get it done. Now or never! Still that old cliche’ about how “Nothing good comes easy” had to rear its ugly head when just two months since announcing to the world at an LA press conference their plans to tour once more and finally finish that album with Rick Rubin from over a decade before Tony Iommi himself was diagnosed with a serious form of blood cancer called lymphoma. It was some of the cruelest news imaginable to possibly come at that point and time since recording/touring plans had to be postponed so Tony could return home to England and immediately begin intensive treatments of antibiotics and radiation to combat the cancerous cells. To make matters worse, seemingly unsympathetic to the situation or presumably more concerned with the business end of things even in the midst of such uncertainty, original drummer Bill Ward suddenly decided to boycott the reformed lineup’s endeavors until he received a restructured contract presumably paying more. Upon refusing to budge on the situation he was replaced by Brad Wilk of RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE and AUDIOSLAVE fame that while not quite of the exact same mold of Ward in his prime of greatness still did a splendid job recreating the sparse style the legend was known notoriously for. The blessed thing being that Iommi and his bandmates didn’t just finish the album many fans, along with Sabbath themselves even, never thought they’d see but are together today to present this record to their legions of worldwide fans, which Tony literally finished writing and recording all throughout the cancer treatments that no doubt sucked the energy right from his body constantly. Somehow the mighty musician still soldiered on because like mentioned earlier it was ‘now or never’ from their perspective and no guarantees of any kind were given them. In the end they assertively accomplished what they had sought out to do all those years ago with Ozzy on June’s release 13, craft a rollicking record which feels like a real throwback, or time warp if you will as evidenced by the opening track “Beginning Of The End” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tj1pWjG0Wws, and it even topped the United States’ Billboard charts which was a feat the group had never previously accomplished. It manages to honor their early influence exceptionally and at the same time stands toe to toe with their brilliant swan song with DIO as well, serving as a testament that the resiliency of the voices which have provided those wizardly words over the 45 year career of BLACK SABBATH are equally as important as the men behind the instruments but especially Iommi’s. Because after everything he has overcome if anyone is the REAL ‘Iron Man’ of this band it’s him!
After forever BLACK SABBATH are touring behind their first album with Ozzy Osbourne in 35 years and they return to the desert at downtown Phoenix’s US Airways Center on Friday, August 30 at 7:00pm. Never say die indeed!
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