By Randall Roberts
This post has been corrected. See the note below for details.
9:48 AM PDT, September 4, 2013
If you listened very closely on Tuesday night during Black Sabbath's return to the city, you could hear the Big Bang of heavy metal echoing through the sweat-drenched Los Angeles Sports Arena.
It was buried in the slow, menacing guitar lines of guitarist Tony Iommi, and propelled by Geezer Butler's cavernous bass lines. And it was in the unholy yowl of Ozzy Osbourne, 64, shuffling along the stage like a retired vampire in search of a blood nurse, who long ago moved beyond a parody of himself to become a virtual trademark in black.
Performing songs from the band's first decade (before Osbourne was booted from the group for drug-fueled debauchery, replaced by Ronnie James Dio), Sabbath offered distorted rock music as simple yet as inarguably useful as your basic table or chair. That they all wore black is understood.
In a hot arena that by the end of the night reeked of man scent, four musicians served as support for a feast of doom, cartoon Satanism and sacrilegious sermons in iambic pentameter. The band played the big ones -- "War Pigs," "Paranoid," "Black Sabbath," 'Iron Man" -- and second-degree murderers "Behind the Wall of Sleep," "Fairies Wear Boots" and "N.I.B."
Too, they highlighted their new album, "13," a surprisingly vital and doom-fueled return to form produced by Rick Rubin, and which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart when released in June. A stranger to the band's classic down-tuned catalog would have had a hard time Tuesday night distinguishing the work of 40 years ago from that unveiled mere months ago.
It was as though Sabbath had roamed darkness in search of lost time, only to come on a Stonehenge of bangers arranged just so: "Age of Reason" and "End of the Beginning" delivered enough punch for the near-capacity crowd, who responded with flying devil horns and fist-pumped testosterone punches.
That punch was punctuated by drummer Tommy Clufetos, serving as sit-in for original beater Bill Ward, unfortunately excluded from this tour for business reasons. Though many would envy sitting in that stool, given Sabbath fans' devotion to Ward, it's a tricky position. But Clufetos was a killer addition, and added more than enough urgency to justify his place. His drum solo took an oft-tired trope to inspired, mesmerizing levels.
"Is God dead?" wondered Osbourne near the end of a song of the same name as Iommi dotted out a minor key melody -- only to break into a few raging riffs. "Lost in the darkness, I fade from the light," Osbourne sang, his creepy, high-pitched voice offering menace. "Faith of my father, my brother, my maker and savior/Help me make it through the night." He had blood on his conscience, he sang, damnation on his mind. "Rivers of evil run through a dying land/Swimming in sorrow/They kill, steal and borrow."
On the surface, what Sabbath accomplished was far from rocket science. Their 1970 song "Black Sabbath," for example, is little more than a few minimal notes and drum pops played simply, which, like most of the others, eventually moves into double-time for an energetic jam accented with Iommi's guitar solos. Ditto "Snowblind," the band's 1972 ode to cocaine.
On that song and the others, though, the vastness of Sabbath's influence was on full display. The acrobatic tempo shifts, the wicked solos, Butler's structured bass runs, the defiant, resolute abandonment of all things holy -- these foundational texts can be heard in nearly every heavy metal song recorded since. Whole hard-rock sub-genres -- from black metal, speed metal, doom metal, drone metal and hard-core, were born in the band's wake.
To put it in a context, one of Sabbath's earliest tours saw them gigging the same Hamburg, Germany, venue, the Star Club, where the Beatles only seven years earlier were paying their pre-mania dues by playing songs about falling in love with girls. That's a far (wailing) cry from the message of the band's first release, "Black Sabbath."
There were some stumpers. Why, exactly, the band opted to perform "Dirty Women," from their regrettable 1976 album (the last one before Osbourne was replaced by Dio), instead of, say, "Sweet Leaf," is best left for Beelzebub to explain. Oh wait -- probably because it offered the opportunity to show vintage clips of topless women on the big screen.
Truth be told, young men in tights aren't very menacing. Only with decrepitude, with facing death head on -- Iommi was diagnosed with early stage lymphoma in early 2012, but he looked and sounded fantastic on Tuesday -- can the reality of mortality be fully expressed.
It's easy enough to imagine hell when it's decades away, after all. On Tuesday, Sabbath presented, and questioned, the notion of eternal damnation from the perspective of men who realize full well that the door to the abyss is closer than they'd prefer.
[For the Record, 10:39 a.m. PDT Sept. 4: An earlier version of this post stated that Ritchie Blackmore replaced Ozzy Osbourne as a member of Black Sabbath. Osbourne was replaced by Ronnie James Dio. As well, Osbourne is 64, not, as originally written, 62.]
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