Black Sabbath

Epic Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


1997 proved to be the year when an event happened that Black Sabbath fans thought they'd never see. For the first time since Ozzy Osbourne left the band in 1978, the original lineup - Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward - were recording and touring together.

Okay, let's put this review on "pause" for a moment. Long-time readers are probably now expecting me to write something like, " Reunion proves they shouldn't have bothered." C'mon, admit it, you're expecting me to take more cheap shots than Mike Tyson during a heavyweight fight.

Sorry, it ain't gonna happen. Fact is, I've been a huge Black Sabbath fan - at least of the original line-up - since I first bought a copy of Paranoid when I was about 14 years old. I've thought for a while that Iommi should have called it a day with Black Sabbath over a decade ago, before the band slid into self-parody with such albums as Born Again and The Eternal Idol.

Reunion shows how much magic there was in that original line-up - and while this is by no means a perfect live album, it does bring Black Sabbath back into the spotlight for all the right reasons. It also makes me wonder what would have happened if all parties had swallowed their collective prides even a few years prior and tried their hand at reuniting.

It's almost a given that for this show - recorded in December 1997 in Birmingham, England - Iommi and crew would focus solely on songs recorded while Osbourne was a member of Black Sabbath. What isn't a given are some of the surprises that Black Sabbath pulls from their capes - who would have bet that their reunion set would include such numbers as "Spiral Architect," "Into the Void" and "Dirty Women"?my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Sadly, these are the tracks that show some of the weaknesses of Black Sabbath circa 1997. "Spiral Architect" simply needs the elaborate instrumentation that the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath version had to really sell it; without the orchestral pieces, this song sounds a bit naked. As for "Into The Void," it sometimes feels like the whole group is going through the motions on this one. Add into this Osbourne bringing his madman persona onto the stage, and it sometimes feels like a carnival sideshow. I lost count of how many times Osbourne screams at the crowd to make some noise, and he uses the word "fuck" more often in a two-hour concert than I do in a week... and I use salty language much like Emeril Lagasse uses Essence.

But lest you think that Reunion is a second-rate production, Iommi and crew show from almost the get-go why they became such a phenomenal band in the '70s. Opening their set with "War Pigs," the whole band eagerly devours this song (despite Ward speeding up the tempo a bit at the start and Osbourne going out of tune briefly), as does the crowd. Just hearing these four musicians tackling a song which defined Black Sabbath for me, and lovingly taking it on, shows me that there is still a lot of magic left in Black Sabbath.

Likewise, tracks such as "Snowblind," "N.I.B." and "Orchid / Lord Of This World" are solid arguments as to why Black Sabbath was so popular in their day, and why this particular lineup should stay together. Despite nearly 20 years of other singers trying in vain to fill his shoes, make no mistake about it, Osbourne is the voice of Black Sabbath. There is still nothing like hearing Butler banging out his rhythms on the bass, or listening to Ward go nuts behind the drum kit. And Iommi? Frankly, his playing hasn't sounded better; it's almost as if he rediscovered something about his approach to the guitar by getting back together with his mates.

Yet one has to wonder how much better Black Sabbath would have sounded, say, in 1985, had this reunion taken place. I understand that Osbourne probably can't hit the high notes at age 50 like he could when he was 30, but I do miss the higher-pitched vocals on "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath". Without them, it's almost like a major support beam has been yanked from the song. Oh, it's still good to hear the band take it on, but it's just not the same.

Reunion also features two new studio tracks from Black Sabbath - and all I can say about these is, nice try. I'll write "Psycho Man" and "Selling My Soul" off to mere rustiness on the band's part, since they both plod along a bit too much and don't have much in the way of excitement in them (despite the closing frenzied tempo on "Psycho Man" - the whole song should have been like that). I hate to say it, but other bands take on the gloom-and-doom aspect so well, it seems like Black Sabbath is chasing them a bit here. One has to hope that the long-promised studio album from Black Sabbath will erase these doubts.

Reunion proves that Iommi, Osbourne, Butler and Ward were a force that could not be stopped in the world of hard rock, and their power is almost as strong today as it was in Sabbath's glory days. Despite a few wrinkles on this one, it's still a disc that is well worth your time.

Rating: B-

User Rating: B



© 2002 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Epic Records, and is used for informational purposes only.