BLACK SABBATH: REUNION (1998)
1) War Pigs; 2) Behind The Wall Of Sleep; 3) N.I.B.; 4) Fairies Wear Boots; 5) Electric Funeral; 6) Sweet Leaf; 7) Spiral Architect; 8) Into The Void; 9) Snowblind; 10) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; 11) Orchid / Lord Of This World; 12) Dirty Women; 13) Black Sabbath; 14) Iron Man; 15) Children Of The Grave; 16) Paranoid; 17) Psycho Man; 18) Selling My Soul.
It is amusing that the first ever officially sanctioned, contemporary live release from one of the world's greatest rock line-ups should have taken place thirty years past the formation of that line-up — and twenty years past the last time it stuck together (not counting brief hazy quirks like the Live Aid appearance). But it is even more amusing, actually, that this reunion show, recorded December 4-5, 1997, in the band's home city of Birmingham (as if we needed even more nostalgia!), is every bit as good as any good show played in Sabbath history, young or old.
With Forbidden marking a particularly low point in Iommi's, and Black Sabbath's, biography, it may well have been inevitable that they made a conscious try to break away from endless embarrassments and mediocrities and take a single big leap back into the stratosphere. How they all patched up their differences and got back on track once again is a long (but not particularly unique or fascinating) story, so we will skip it and turn right to this Birmingham gig. Is it any good? Should anybody besides hardcore Sab fans give a damn?
Well, first of all, everybody's in fine form. Everybody put on a bit of weight, figuratively or literally speaking, over the years, meaning that Bill Ward has lost a bit of the old-school maniacality (this is immediately obvious on his heavier, but less fussy fills on ʽWar Pigsʼ), but apart from that, Tony is always rock-hard reliable, and the biggest surprise, of course, is Ozzy, who returns to the stage with his former friends like the past twenty years had never happened — getting into the spirit of the songs (many of which he hadn't sung live since the split, although some of the Sabbath classics did, of course, stay in his repertoire) and even consistently managing to stay in tune, health factors notwithstanding.
Second, the setlist alone is like a virtual greatest hits compilation — for obvious reasons, the entire post-1978 (in fact, the entire post-1976) Sabbath catalog is happily ignored, and we get to remind ourselves why this band actually mattered in the first place. I do have my complaints, since they mostly do the big hits, without any big surprises, and also since one of their best albums, Sabotage, is completely ignored (not even a ʽSymptom Of The Universeʼ!); at the very least, they could have dumped ʽDirty Womenʼ, one of the least satisfying pieces on Technical Ecstasy, and replaced it with something more challenging and less predictable. But then again, what are you going to perform for your fans after a 20-year break, if not the frickin' hits?
Third, the final decision probably depends on what you think of Ozzy as a showman. If the endless (and, ultimately, quite gratuitous) assaults on the F-word, the incessant toying with the audience ("let me see your fucking hands!" — Ozzy, why don't you just put on your glasses?), the strange manner of patronizing ("louder! louder! I can't fucking hear you! LOUDER!... [pause] ... here's a song called ʽInto The Voidʼ" — so if they all shut up out of principle, does that mean you wouldn't be playing that song?), and the numerous, but not totally overwhelming ad-libs on the songs are up your alley, the album is a must-have, because the man is clearly having fun rather than faking it. If you consider this irresponsibly clownish behaviour, going against the darkly insane spirit of the tunes, then each and every song will host at least one, and often more, cringeworthy moments for you. On the other hand, it might be worth hearing just for the price of that bit of croaky laughter on ʽBlack Sabbathʼ — "Satan's standing there, he's smiling..." — so 100% Ozzy, could anybody else have produced a demented laugh of that kind?
Concerning the differences between these live versions and originals, only one curious thing caught my attention: the disappearance of Ozzy's sung part during the «brutal» mid-section of ʽSabbath Bloody Sabbathʼ, the one where Tony comes up with one more of his Godzilla-powered riffs. Possibly the original part was too high-pitched for him to recreate it twenty-five years later, but then again, he did downtune the melodies in quite a few other spots, so it is strange — and then, apparently, they just dropped the song from their later reunion shows altogether. One of those little reminders that time does go by, no matter how much you want it to stop.
As a small compensation for the album's inevitable age-related flaws, though, the reunited band offers a bonus — two new songs, sort of a water-test to see if the old Sab chemistry is still in place when it comes to creating, not just re-creating. On ʽPsycho Manʼ, they seem to be trying a little too hard: yes, we know this is a band singing dark songs on creepy subjects, but should their first song after such a long interruption really be a straightforward portrait of a homicidal maniac? Regardless, it follows the classic Sabbath recipé very loyally, with an expected key/tempo change in the middle and then yet another again in the end — I just wish Tony had come up with a better set of riffs. ʽSelling My Soulʼ is more effective, since it is another one of those «autobiographical» Ozzy songs — as long as the man is still crazy after all these years, you can never get tired of sentimental depictions of his craziness, so this time, the lack of a great riff is forgivable. If these tunes fail to come close to the greatness of yore, they at least show that, with Ozzy and Geezer back in the team, the Sabs can fare much better than they did in the Martin years.
With Past Lives now easily available on the market, Reunion has automatically ceased to be the «if-you-only-buy-one-Sabbath-live-record-buy-this-one» choice for fans, especially because Sabbath have always been a fairly conservative band, and Reunion is a particularly conservative live album, specially designed to re-establish the band «as it was». Still, with all these great songs performed with such faith in their greatness, how could this be anything but a thumbs up? Or just buy it in recognition of the human being's inalienable right to say "fuck" at awesomely ever-increasing rates, long predating the golden days of HBO.