Rain falls. The sound of thunder shakes the ground. Church bells toll ominously in the distance. Suddenly, splitting the deluge comes three unmistakable notes: the devil’s interval. At this moment on Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut, rock and roll revealed its darker side and heavy metal was born.
“When I first started playing that, the hairs stood up on my arms,” begins Tony Iommi, Sabbath’s guitarist, all-time father and unquestionable creator of the heavy metal riff. “That’s when we knew we had something so different, we knew because we felt it inside.”
“That was the benchmark of where Sabbath started and where we were going…”
Where they were going was to produce eight studio albums in as many years and define the heaviest style of rock music known at the time. With the original lineup of Iommi, Geezer Butler (bass), Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), and Bill Ward (drums), Sabbath set themselves apart by turning a mirror on humanity and embracing the unpleasant elements of existence in an era of unfettered optimism.
“At the time, in the Seventies, it was all peace and love,” Iommi explains. “We were coming out with the reality… There were always bad things that were happening in life but people overlooked it.
“Those things are still happening, it’s still the same.”
Iommi insists it’s this critical view of life that has allowed Black Sabbath’s music to endure for nearly half a century.
“It’s honest music and I think it’s a basic sort of music where people can get a grip of it and it’s timeless, you can play the first album and it’s still relevant to today.”
After 1978’s Never Say Die, the original foursome disbanded and Sabbath would become a who’s who of musicians for two decades, with Iommi as the only constant contributor. Although many albums were penned under frontmen Ronnie James Dio, Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes and Tony Martin, none achieved the notoriety of an Ozzy-fronted lineup, despite Dio’s arguably more diverse vocal abilities.
“Well it is a shame [that the later lineups weren’t as popular], but I mean it’s great to be back with the original lineup with Ozzy and Geezer, it’s been really good.”
The Dio lineup is often revered as musically equivalent or even superior to the Ozzy years, with Heaven and Hell (1980) charting higher than the previous two Ozzy releases.
“You know we had a great time with Ronnie, we had a good tour and a good album, and here we are here with Ozzy and we have a great tour and a great album,” Iommi states in his famously blasé demeanour. “You just have to take it as it comes really.”
Iommi maintains his cool optimism about the current lineup and holds no resentment for Bill Ward’s absence.
“It would have been great to have had him on the tour, but again Bill has to do that when he’s ready. We can’t make Bill come on the tour,” he sighs, adding that he’s still in contact with Ward and that all members were brought closer together by Iommi’s illness (he was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2012, for which treatment has been successful).
Replacing Ward for the time being is Ozzy’s solo drummer Tommy Clufetos, formerly of Rob Zombie and Ted Nugent fame. Iommi explains that despite massive shoes to fill, Clufetos has been up to the task.
“It’s a difficult job to come on with us and play because you know you’ve got people who were hard Bill fans and to have somebody come in, they don’t like it,” he acknowledges. Many in the Ward-or-bust camp argue that such a lineup is scarcely original at all, but according to Iommi, Clufetos has improved at replicating the bombastic style that gave all those early albums their rhythmic character.
“We’ve sort of moulded him into what we want and he’s been very obliging and, you know, comes up and says ‘Do you want me to change anything?’ and he’s got the style of how we play now and it fits in perfectly… and people have got around to accepting Tommy and it’s very good.”
Clufetos’ drawn out drum solo amidst the set has the added bonus of giving the aging band time to rest.
“It started off as a short drum solo and it’s gotten longer and longer and longer,” Iommi laughs. The issue of keeping their energy at performance-high levels has indeed become a bit of an issue for the band, who besides Clufetos are all in their mid to late sixties.
Iommi, 66, admits, “I do get tired with all the travelling, but you just have to try and work it out and take a rest when you can. That’s what I do: I try and eat right and not drink over the top and try and be careful.”
The matter of age has had the most marked effect on Ozzy, whose decreased vocal range was a major factor in determining the set list.
“Some of the songs we did in the past, the vocals were very high and, you know, you can’t do that now, it’s impossible,” Iommi elaborates. “Your voice drops as you get older and you can’t do it the same and Ozzy has that problem, so we pick it around what we think the fans want to hear and what we want to play, and what Ozzy can sing.”
Ozzy’s loss of range was a key criticism of the new album 13, although the album did earn the band number one on the Billboard 200, their first at top billing. Iommi believes the tracks from the new album fall in naturally with the classic material, stating, “We do three or four songs from the album which really do fit in well with the old stuff.”
For Sabbath’s reunion to be so successful bodes well for heavy music in general, for their eventual passing will truly pass on the torch to future generations, although Iommi is weary of modern metal’s over-the-top attitude.
“I find bands today some of the metal bands go over the top with it and try and overdo it, you know. We were a bit more subtle in that I think: about how life is, and the dark side, and messing with the dark side, the dangers against it… some bands today just get so engrossed in trying to make an impression by pouring blood all over them and god knows what else. It’s sort of lost its direction somewhere.”
However, Iommi becomes audibly emotional when he reflects on their illustrious career and concedes that the future is in good hands.
“It’s nice to know we’ve done something and created a genre of music, and we’d like it to live on.
“This music, if it’s maintained in the right way, it will never die.”
See Black Sabbath at the MTS Centre (Winnipeg) on April 16, the Scotiabank Saddledome (Calgary) on April 20 and at Rexall Place (Edmonton) on April 22.
By Ian Lemke