BLACK SABBATH: PAST LIVES (1970-1975; 2002)
CD I: 1) Tomorrow's Dream; 2) Sweet Leaf; 3) Killing Yourself To Live; 4) Cornucopia; 5) Snowblind; 6) Children Of The Grave; 7) War Pigs; 8) Wicked World; 9) Paranoid;
CD II: 1) Hand Of Doom; 2) Hole In The Sky; 3) Symptom Of The Universe; 4) Megalomania; 5) Iron Man; 6) Black Sabbath; 7) N.I.B.; 8) Behind The Wall Of Sleep; 9) Fairies Wear Boots.
Unlike its closest compadres in the early days of heavy metal, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Black Sabbath were never a «great» live band — they pretty much gave it their all in the studio, where they sounded every bit as heavy, raw, and «Satanic» as they could sound on stage, and even more so (for instance, that genuinely mind-melting guitar tone that Iommi had himself for Master Of Reality was never properly recreated live). They were also limited by their skills: Ozzy's vocal flexibility, unlike Plant's or Gillan's, was mainly restricted to ad-libbing stuff like "come on you fuckin' fuckers, I wanna see that fucking roof come fuckin' down!", and Tony's «iron fingers», while empowering him in his regular Sabbath schtick, prevented him from fully exploring the capacities of his guitar.
Nevertheless, it goes without saying that such a legendary band has to have a proper live document to its name — and up until the 21st century, the only such document to capture Black Sabbath in their alleged prime was Live At Last, a record released without the band's consent in 1980. They'd recorded the tapes themselves during several UK shows in March 1973, but eventually left them lying around, unhappy with the results; its eventual release was really more like an act of revenge on the part of their former manager, Patrick Meehan. Sound quality was bad, the performances were no great shakes as such, and everybody was unhappy except for the buying public, who still managed to send it up the charts.
Fast forward to 2002, and lo and behold, past wounds have been healed, and now the band members have no problems with the album as long as it's been cleaned up and remastered. Not only that, but half of the second disc is filled up with tracks from yet a second aborted attempt at a live album, this time, recorded in August 1975 in Asbury Park — and then, to round things out, five more tracks are added from an early show (December 1970) in Paris, which had also been filmed and is these days available as the earliest detailed glimpse of a very young, very heavy, very exuberant heavy metal band in their prime.
Naturally, the recommended order of listening would be chronological — start off in the head-spinning era of Paranoid, then leap forward to the drug-heavy, artistically confused period of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and finally make the transition to the last days of Black Sabbath as a seriously creative, trend-setting unit in the era of Sabotage. There won't be too much difference (technically, the sound on the 1970 tracks is noticeably muddier, but we can live with that): you'd expect Ozzy to gradually deteriorate through these years, but I wouldn't bet my money saying that these particular recordings can be used as proof of that. There is only one song here where he comes close to completely losing it — the fast part of ʽMegalomaniaʼ; but this is really not so much due to his being high or anything as it is simply due to the fact that it is, on the whole, a pretty hard song to sing for a singer as «lumpy» as Ozzy. He flounders on the high notes of the chorus, struggles with them bravely, then mentally says «fuck it» and finally just shifts to a much lower range. No wonder ʽMegalomaniaʼ only lasted for, like, several weeks in their setlist, before being jettisoned once and for all.
That said, in the historical and basic-emotional sense the tracks from 1970 are the best of the lot: just as Led Zeppelin's early concerts are usually preferable to their «jet set» period from 1973 on, so it is that Sabbath, in 1970, was not yet spoiled by stardom (not to mention drugs) and certainly not yet bored by the necessity to reproduce the same old hits over and over again. Ozzy, in particular, only begins to display the first signs of his irritable stage antics, and Bill Ward is playing like a madman rather than an experienced professional. It is only the wise Tony Iommi, keeping cool and distanced, for whom time has been beneficial rather than detrimental, as his guitar playing skills only improved through the Seventies (alas, the same cannot be said about his riff-generating genius).
In the Live At Last set, the most interesting piece is an eighteen-minute jam centered around the old song ʽWicked Worldʼ, where, instead of mere improvisation, Tony is weaving in parts of other compositions, for instance, the opening riff of ʽInto The Voidʼ, or a large chunk of ʽSupernautʼ. Apparently, after a brief period of toying with «getting musical ideas out of thin air» in the early 1970s, he'd finally settled upon the simple truth — some people are born to improvise, and some people are born to deliberate, and who's to tell who's wrong and who's right? This way, at least, you get to be thrilled by trying to guess what will come next. Or, for instance, trying to guess whether the coda to ʽHand Of Doomʼ will include all of ʽRat Saladʼ, together with Ward's drum solo, or just the cool riff part? (Answer: just the cool riff part. But they may have edited out the drum solo — besides, there is a drum solo in ʽWicked Worldʼ already).
The 1975 set is interesting in that Sabotage had not yet been released, and thus, they are «previewing» the songs — for instance, only the speedy proto-thrash part of ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ is played, and despite the obvious inconveniences for both Ozzy and Tony (the song really demands two guitars for the coda at least, and do we actually hear backing tapes with recorded synthesizers? Talk about the Quadrophenia effect), I am sure glad they got to include ʽMegalomaniaʼ with its Gothic atmosphere, so cool and refreshing next to all the basic metal monsters.
In its current status as the only official live Sabbath release from the «prime» era, could this whole thing be better? Perhaps. Hardcore fans, well educated in bootleg studies, tend to point out various small flaws in the Live At Last section and, sometimes, to heavily put down the Asbury Park recordings as well. But I seriously doubt that the «live magic of Sabbath» could be pushed up to a significantly higher level than this. Setlists and sound quality could be better (in theory; not sure about how much we have in practice), but not the overall presentation style. From that point of view, Past Lives deserves a modest thumbs up — yet I can still recommend it, like any other Black Sabbath live album from any other period, only to very serious fans of the band.