Saturday, 4 February 2017

Black Sabbath - Birmingham Review

In the world of metal, there is arguably no band more important and iconic than Birmingham's Black Sabbath. Their self-titled debut album, released in 1970, truly was the birth of a genre and the world of music has not quite been the same since. I, and many many others, owe everything music-related to Black Sabbath and I do not always think people realise just how important the band have been over the years. Despite this, classic Black Sabbath is something I have only really embraced in the last few years. The release of 2013's 13 was the turning point for this, and I finally began to really digest the classic early Black Sabbath albums and look beyond the obvious classics. Before this, my love of Black Sabbath really only extended to the Ronnie James Dio eras of the band, and parts of the Tony Martin era, but getting 13 opened my eyes to the early classics in a way that I had not seen them before. I saw the band for the first time on that tour in Birmingham in 2013, and it was fantastic. I was right at the front and the band played for 2 hours with a set that was packed full of classics and new songs from 13. Since then I have bought every Black Sabbath album and have really embraced the influence and sound of the original, and certainly most iconic, line-up. Black Sabbath have had so many different members and eras over the years and, while my heart will always remain with their 1980s output, I have a real appreciation and respect for their early 1970s classics now and I listen to them regularly. When it was announced that they were going to call it a day, unsurprising given Tony Iommi's (guitar) recent health issues, I knew I had to make one of the dates. Birmingham was always going to be my preference, giving it is the band's hometown, and two shows at the Genting Arena were announced as the final two Black Sabbath shows ever. I opted for the first of the two as it fit in better with other plans I had and I thought it would be easier to get tickets for! I got tickets easily, and was looking forward to it from that moment on!

I was initially disappointed when Californian bluesy hard rockers Rival Sons were announced as the support act for the entirety of 'The End' tour. I had seen the band at the High Voltage Festival back in 2011 and thought that they were quite bland, but in fairness that was six years ago and the band has since become pretty popular and well-liked in their own right with five full-length albums to their name now. I was open to giving them another shot however, and from the off they really impressed. Since that High Voltage slot they have grown into a tight, confident, and powerful live band who were easily louder than Black Sabbath during their entire set and really seemed to win the crowd around by the end. The addition of keyboards to their sound since 2011 really helped, as Todd Ă–gren-Brooks (keyboards/percussion/vocals) washings of retro-sounding rock organ really added to the band's early 1970s hard rock sound. The focus of the band however is clearly the duo of frontman Jay Buchanan, who has a fantastic bluesy voice, and guitarist Scott Holiday. Holiday's playing incorporates lots of tasteful slide solos, which again adds to that 1970s sound. I really like it when a band proves you wrong, and it does make me wonder what I have been missing out on gig-wise over the past six years! It would appear that I have some serious catching up to do!

Despite that set from Rival Sons, it was of course Black Sabbath that everyone was here to see. As the lights went down a suitably cheesy video was projected onto the curtain, and it rose as the band launched into the self-titled track, the opening song from that defining 1970 album. The demonic tritone riff, and Geezer Butler's (bass guitar) occult-themed lyrics sung from frontman Ozzy Osbourne's haunting voice set scene for the rest of the show perfectly as fire was ablaze atop the guitar amps. I have to say however that the atmosphere during this opening number was ruined somewhat by an endless stream of people ambling up the stairs with tonnes of drinks trying to find their seats and just generally acting like mindless drones. It really is not hard to find seats in these venues, they are all clearly numbered, and I find it rude when people leave it until literally the last second to make it to them and talk to their friends loudly disrupting everyone else while doing so! Anyway, this soon calmed down and the rest of us were left to enjoy what proved to be a masterful evening of heavy metal from the Godfathers of the genre. The set was packed full of classics, as you would expect on a farewell tour, with all but one song (and a short instrumental medley) coming from the band's iconic first four albums. Early highlights for me were the foot-stomping Fairies Wear Boots, with that excellent psychedelic instrumental intro, and a personal favourite in the form of After Forever, a song not played on their 2013 tour. Much of the set was the same as the last show, but the songs are all so classic that this hardly seemed to matter. The opening riff of Into the Void is still one of the most metal things of all time, and seeing Iommi play it again, despite being quite near the back of the venue this time, was a treat. The crowd was easily at their loudest of the evening during War Pigs where Osbourne often held out the microphone to allow the crowd to sing for him and they more than answered the call into service.

There was a bit of an off moment when Osbourne was announcing Beyond the Wall of Sleep that they are only playing the classics as 'no-one gives a shit about the new album'. While this might be true of many fair weather Sabbath fans, I am sure there were many in the Genting Arena that bought and enjoyed 13 very much. It topped the album charts after all so someone must have bought it! It is a shame that many older bands feel they have to just play the classics over and over to appease the casual fans. A song or two from 13 would have been a really welcome addition to this current setlist in my opinion. Plus, it is not as if Beyond the Wall of Sleep is particularly a stone cold classic anyway! N.I.B. is however. Butler's wah-drenched bass intro is legendary and when the band launched into the song proper the crowd were singing the riff along with Iommi. After Hand of Doom got a rare outing, there was a chance for Osbourne to have a bit of a break as the band ran through a short instrumental medley of Sabbath riffs, that ended with the instrumental Rat Salad and a monster drum solo from Tommy Clufetos. While of course it is a shame that founding drummer Bill Ward has not been with the band since the very early days of their recent re-grouping due a number of well-publicised financial reasons, there is no denying that Clufetos is an absolute monster of a drummer. On the subject of session musicians, we cannot forget keyboardist Adam Wakeman who plays his limited role (keyboards were never a big part of Sabbath's early sound) from the side of the stage - although he did nip on briefly for a wave when Osbourne was introducing the band. Iron Man followed the drum solo, and again saw the crowd singing along with Iommi's riff, before Dirty Women, the one song played not from the first four albums, brought about a bit of a proggy change of pace with a lengthy Iommi solo. The heavy classic Children of the Grave brought the main set to an end which saw plenty of headbang and movement to what is probably the heaviest song in the early Sabbath canon. There was of course time for one more as the crowd went 'fucking crazy' at Osbourne's instruction and they all trooped back out for Paranoid which became the band's unexpected big 'hit' back in the early 1970s. The setlist was:

Black Sabbath
Fairies Wear Boots
Under the Sun
After Forever
Into the Void
War Pigs
Behind the Wall of Sleep
Hand of Doom
Supernaut/Sabbath Bloody Sabbath/Megalomania/Rat Salad
Drum solo
Iron Man
Dirty Women
Children of the Grave

Black Sabbath's influence on the world of music cannot be overstated. They really did change the world and all the bands I love today would not be around if it was not for them. I am glad that I got to see them do their thing one more time before they call it a day, and in their hometown in front of a sell-out crowd to boot! Thanks for all the music.

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