More Guitar Gawdz Than You Can Shake A Les Paul At
Tony & Ozzy, 1997; photo from Black Sabbath Online homepage
Hell on Earth: Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath)- Part 2Balancing Precariously
by Marc S. Tucker
1975 - 76
The symphonic aspect would remain but more of the guitar base was recaptured in Sabotage (1975), where the lead cut, "Hole in the Sky," shoves the listener's face back into Iommi's raw poly-axe mixturing. "Symptom Of The Universe" keeps it simple, after an 0:49 fluff guitar segue ("Don't Start"), booting the keyboards out for a basic Sab foursome. Osbourne's vocals had been growing increasingly confident, strident, impassioned, and theatrical, giving Tony a run for his money; here, he takes the foreground and refuses to relinquish it. In retrospect, this was probably the seed LP for his impending split. The increase in sheer bravado indicates it. He was gathering his chops for a new incarnation. Ever the '70's stalwart, Iommi's runs in songs like "Don't Start" show how firmly he embodied the '70's guitar ethos. Like Mike Schenker, Mick Box, and other remarkable fretbenders, he strove for uniqueness rather than adhesion to genre norms, carefully weighing his presence. In this song, the change-ups are plentiful and that rare Spanish-oriented acoustic of his closes out the cut amid Mediterranean splendor.
By the time "Symptom of the Universe" came up, it was obvious that Sabotage was a grand resuscitation of elder virtues, the last this titan group would evoke, afterwards declining, mostly racketing around in confusion, until a much needed mercy kill... except for one truly mind-blowing feat, rarely pulled off in any genre. But we'll get to that in a minute.
For the moment, Iommi's sun was in full blaze, returned to the firmament via incomparable discretion. Thank the heavens, he never dragged in another player but only ever crept up his own backside in layered lines - no one had that deceptively restrained simplistic voice and any choice other than himself would've run a very poor second. On his own, Tony equalled and often surpassed what Ken Hensley and Mick Box were doing over in Uriah Heep - whenever Hensley got out from behind his Hammond. "Supertzar" teased the faithful once more, ringing with a PFMed chorale athwart a small symphony and Iommi's distorted heavy playing. Progheads panted for another Concerto for Group and Orchestra (Deep Purple), as that's exactly what this too-short ditty promised to improve upon. It would never come to pass.
An unusual grit was tossed into the opening of Technical Ecstasy (1976) and the symphonic borders were back, not to mention a more mainstreamed hard-rock base, something that had never been this obvious before, the sum effect inducing unease. The Alice Coopery "You Won't Change Me" helped stabilize things for a bit, the guitar lofting high above the squall, but "It's Alright," a quintessentially unSabbathly poke-a-tune that would have been entirely at home on a really bad mid-'60's LP, brings the entire enterprise crashing to the ground. What the hell were they thinking in releasing four minutes of absolute crap? Whatever, it wasn't accidental, as the follower, "Gypsy," is nearly as bad. One needn't have taken the crystal ball out of mothballs to understand Black Sabbath was on its last legs. No one would pair up those songs, let alone even create them, unless they'd run out of steam.
The flip side proved the allegation. "All Moving Parts" is pathetic, Iommi's barely alive, the song's as lackluster as a chart hit, as was "Rock and Roll Doctor," a tune Trooper might've pooted out, clumsy as a three-legged horse. "She's Gone" revivified the guitar-slinger's orchestral sensibilities, though. As drab as the tune wants to be, Iommi's much too tasty in his arrangements to let it subside into tawdry refrains and chart moribundity. All that really saves it are the orchestra's wrenchingly beautiful refrains while the guitarist listlessy picks chord progressions; however, the transcendent glow of that one element is sufficient. It may not provoke admiring passion but does pique interest and provide hope...until the final cut quashes everything.
Never Say Die and the Long Demise
1978 - Present
Never Say Die (1978), with its puzzling Hipgnosis cover (had HipG listened to even one Black Sabbath song... ever?), was the last of the Ozzy Era and the opening title cut somewhat presaged the coming ‘Dio Sabbath' (or 'Black Ronnie', take yer pick) interregnum. It was, in fact, though none could know it until ploughing deeper and deeper into what turned out to be a very strange album, a magnesium flare of desperate energies combining for a last-gasp stroke of brilliance before settling into a long rigor mortis. Ironically, the song sounds like it could've been slated as the disc's closer, an oracle on the truest state of affairs. Ozzy's swan song, the LP was mountains better than Ecstasy, sounding like one of myriad 70s bands who came up with a distinctively unorthodox compositional skill but lacked the acumen to even recognize what they'd done, becoming one-shot wonders in music's vast dusty archives.
Iommi entered an unusual short period, shown best in "Johnny Blade," where he's a solo mini-group, playing highly engaged dubbed counterpoints alongside and above his own base, not only on guitar but keyboards as well, though not nearly as cleverly ther. He'd have done better to have ashcanned ‘em. They're grotesquely obvious and out of stock while the guitar itself is sharp and savvy, unlike anything he'd ever done or would do. Hearing the playbacks from Tehcnical Ecstasy must've goaded the guy to make up for so rank an effort. "Junior's Eyes," one of Sabbath's most unique songs, continued that intriguing self-interplay. Iommi's extolling sonics like a professor of futurist studies, fascinating himself with the song's inner design, working it like a Byzantine tapestry. These two cuts alone make the album worth the listen, the definite high point, reminding the fading audience that the man was still capable of genius. His understanding of esoteric levels of play on this strikingly non-Sabbathy disc sit squarely alongside Steve Hackett, worthy of any great variegated guitarist's satchel of triumphs.
"Hard Road" starts sassily, petulantly, not Sab's forte at all but pulled through polymer to emerge as striking. Ecstasy had shamed the boys, then yanked ‘em back into artist roles. Die stands as the group's most unique LP, even, believe it or not, above the debut and only through the contrast, the level of sheer unfamiliarity smacking the ears so resoundingly. It isn't a better LP per se (nothing can top Black Sabbath), it's just ungodly bizarre, thoroughly singular. In sales, the release suffered horribly. Everyone suspected they'd be purchasing a clone of the previous shit sandwich, so this spookily disembodied effort is one of the most overlooked prog/metal/hard rock masterpieces in the canon, doubly uncanny because it was never really obscure at all, sitting right in front of everyone's eyes for 27 years. That's right: masterpiece! Go back to it, listen with new ears, and see if the weird little bastard doesn't deliver a massive jolt. If you don't get rapturously lost in it, check your breath in a mirror, you may be dead.
Die is beautifully played on a level unknown to most rockers, a cousin to Blue Oyster Cult's debut, though that one was more from Mars than this. When you hear the musicians throwing in "Ooo-Ooo" background vocals on "Shock Wave," it's just too bizarre... but itchily cool. The closer on the deal is the heavy proliferation of ultra-swoony Iommi lines, way experimental, atypical, and successful as hell, competely unique. "Generous" doesn't even begin to describe the situation, he was gushing. The Greg Allman organ in "Over to You" even succeeds. There was nothing Black Sabbath couldn't pull off in this incarnation, going so far as to slip in saxes (!!!) for the interluding "Breakout."
What had really happened? Accounts vary. One has it that Ozzy had quit after Ecstasy and was lured back for this; another notes that he merely stopped showing up for rehearsals, never actually resigning, until the group began wooing Savoy Brown's Dave Walker. At that point, Oz re-thought his attitude. Whatever the real story, the band made no secret of having been deeply enmired in drugs. It was miraculous they'd lasted as long as this, so a curious explosion of unrevealed talent isn't all that difficult to discern the origins of. *Ecstasy* had been a dissipation statement but Die was a lover's reunion, estranged partners desperately clawing at what used to be, generating enough heat and friction for a resounding tryst before the inevitable, bitter, regretful farewell.
Live Work and Bootlegs
Prior to reading the death certificate, let's look at Iommi's live work, a venue curiously scamped by both band and label. It wasn't until 1980 that Live at Last would finally issue. A bootleg of a ‘73 night, it'd been hounded for by the public and hinted at in various outlets but took a frustrating 7 years to crawl out of label cesspools, 14 years total for any live material since Sab's inception. For a band with a healthy touring schedule, year after year, the absenture was quizzical. Live, though regrettable as an exponent of the recording art, reveals the gents weren't slouches, turning out excellent versions of studio work.
Very impressive, as a matter of fact, for the tunes lost none of their power or weight, gaining magnitudes of both through the heightened distortions natural to live sound. Ozzy was more energetic, infectious in that eternally audience-positive attitude he's famed and beloved for, an unstoppably magnetic machine roaming the stage, spitting out darkness with a grin and waving arms. Live isn't a good recording, not only because it was a true bootleg, hence dirty in the capture, but also because it doesn't reveal what the band's non-sanctioned bootlegs more clearly showed: Iommi could turn into a soloing monster on stage, perhaps no more favorably demonstrated than on Doomsday Recital, a two-fer gloriously life-giving to a legion of manic collectors eternally a-hunt for fodder.
With Live, the listener's bestowed satisfying renditions, but only one brief peek into the other side. The chestnut "Wicked World" was chosen as a showcase, revealing Iommi as... Alvin Lee's brother! S'true. Everyone forgets that Sab issued from blues bands (everyone in England came from a blues combo, it was statutory) and the middle of this tune trots out not only that aspect but also an uber-speed he was secretly capable of, kept under wraps in the studio, sacrificing incredible dexterity for the sake of atmosphere. No doubt the label considered the foursome's live work too divergent but guitar aficionados, those who managed to lay hold of such illicit LP's, loved it. The interlude slowed the pace considerably, derailing the Stygian modus, but, good Christ!, where else were we going to lay ears on this stuff? Deep Purple was making a bundle off improv on their tours, moving trademark jams over into LP's, both being perfectly acceptable to fans, who went gaga in droves, so why not these cats? In any event, the LP closes with "Paranoid," a song to them what "Ride My See-Saw" was to the Moody Blues: an atypically fast short rocker to close affairs up.
In Doomsday Recital, from a 1977 Swedish concert, the truth is revealed. Anyone who attended one of the band's concerts can attest to what occurred. They hit the stage in full fury, Ozzy worked up and ready to rock, Tony pummeling the rapt crowd with pile-driving chords and searing leads, while the rhythm section cooked and churned. Black Sabbath was rivetingly true to their material live, gifting the attendees with faithful presentations. Right from the start, in "Symptom of the Universe," though, Iommi's blazing in wild abandon, giving a hint of what was to come.
Some have opined that label and band sat on the live tapes because the group would oft stick steadfastly to exacting renditions, but that explanation doesn't hold. There was a crucial difference: live, they glowed with cracklingly vibrant energies not possible in the studio. These guys loved what they were doing and showed it in no uncertain way. Even when crafting clones, every single note was pumped and the audient got bonuses, as in "Snowblind" and its completely unexpected live keyboards. An ensemble of consummate pros, Black Sabbath strained to please their fans while maintaining 100% integrity. Iommi towered as the arch-druid of an instrument that had toured infernos and lived to tell the story, nailing his part like a besooted grim blacksmith driven by demons and duty. He never merely played but actually redistilled himself every time he stepped onto the stage.
"Dirty Women," one of their worst tunes, benefits from a guitar/keyboard duet followed by an uplifting solo, but is otherwise the low spot of the set, followed by one more Sab plodder, "Rock & Roll Doctor." With those out of the way, "Electric Funeral," as might be expected, provided exceptionally fertile ground for the master to go nuts, with Ward and Butler emitting lordly pacing, setting up improv'ed repeating rhythms for a wild sleighride. Iommi edges into Frank Marino's territory of conflated central chords packed tight with illuminating leads, spewed out with numbing density and complex grace, providing the segue into "N.I.B." No matter how it's looked at, the release drips with power and authority.
There are a number of Sab boots, actually, but good luck locating them. The band's missing a huge market here: the audience for that work is very large, impinging as it does into punk and Gen X consumers, who worship them as much as Boomers do. Numerous tribute CD's have proven this. The potential for sales in box sets would prove as attractive to fans as similar continuing emissions from King Crimson, the Velvet Underground, and Rush, ensembles benefitting from large cult bases gratefully snatching up everything committed to documentation. That this hasn't been done is inexcusable. The audience is no longer fooled that tapes might not have been made; we know each and every band in the entire rock catalogue recorded damn near every gig they ever did - hell, we walked past the boards whilst filing into our seats in the arenas - ya couldn't miss ‘em! We then picked up the boots and can see new ones all the time now, decades later, especiallly what's secretly sold by band members to the ‘leggers, straight from pristine sources, - so please, all you bilge rats over at Warners, don't tell us they don't exist, we ain't listenin'. Give ‘em up!
The Wrap-Up and the King's Scepter
Though Iommi kept the band going, scoring a technical triumph in securing Ronnie James "One Song Ten Thousand Different Ways" Dio, the group would never again earn distinction as a creative force. The new band fell ill to Schenker-Box Syndrome, wherein godly forces (and we include the deserving Ward and Butler here, not so much for unique powers as for extraordinary service) sit down amongst mortals, content to surrender brains for brewski and the adulation of louts in pews, tin-ears who wouldn't know symphonic from suet. Black Sabbath had become a Rainbow, a cottage for the once-mighty to continue to accrue much-deserved reward for greatly reduced quality. Tony continued to be an impressive player, no one would dare face him in a contest, not even the braying Nugent, whose conservo rear end he'd kick in short order, and he was most definitely an inspiration to guitarists looking for guidance and ideas, but the fires had banked. Embers glowed brightly, providing warmth, but there would be no further conflagrations.
The later history of the brimstone gentlemen turned out to be not dissimilar to that of Uriah Heep, Blue Oyster Cult, and many groups who'd once filled the heavens with stars but lay down a lot more quietly at night now, adventuring given over for security. One singer after another (Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes, etc.) was hired to replace Ozzy but none ever yielded fruit. The odd loopy singer from Birmingham had, in the final analysis, crawled from the Sabbath cocoon to show that it'd been he who'd provided the prime Sabbath feel, not Iommi, and an ensuing highly successful solo career would cast a shadow on his erstwhile chums.
The home group rapidly disintegrated. After the first Dio LP, Ward left, to be relaced by, God help us, Vinnie Appice. After Dio's sophomore appearance, Butler was gone. The unit was now all Tony's, for whatever good it'd do him. Each album was satisfying as mainstream metal and the Great One still held his own on that level, but it's also true that we could have switched in any of a couple dozen equally talented guys and arrived at the same destination.
Were you to play a cut off Seventh Star to someone not scientifically immersed in heavy metal, and were you to tell that someone that it had been stripped from Glenn Hughes' newest release, it wouldn't occur to your target to remark upon the guitar playing as anything unique. Were you then to claim the guitarist to be any of a scad of quire decent players in the genre, that claim, too, would go unchallenged. That's the difference between Tony Iommi then and Tony Iommi now. He richly deserves his place at the table, on past deeds, not on present, and the recent Black Sabbath reunion CD proves it. The gent's capable of resurrecting the old era, but not with near the authority and grit of yore. It is, after all, 40 years later and most of his generation is happily warm in Miami, sipping on Grasshoppers, or working towards it. Give the guy credit: he's still a warrior but even kings must sooner or later bow to the inevitable. Would that every musician could establish himself so magnificently.
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