Be Here Now: Black Sabbath's The End Tour
Having lived in metal-loving Scandinavia for a couple years now, I’ve been exposed to the glories of a genre that always escaped me in the States. As with learning a new language or acquiring the palate for something you once didn’t have a taste for, what I once received as abrasive, thoughtless, impenetrable noise was decoded as a rich and diverse landscape.
Turns out, heavy metal is pretty badass. I don’t necessarily love it all, but I can understand it, and in terms of the live experience it may even be my favorite. Metalheads are some of the most passionate and focused music fans of any genre I follow and every metal show I’ve attended has been a church-like experience.
Metal offers true musical community that makes crowds at pop, rap and indie shows I attend look like scene-concerned posers. There’s a connection between the performers and the crowd, and from fan to fan, that is so vivid and direct; one that’s renewed every time – be it for a song, a solo, a crescendo – the headbanging masses raise their devil-horned fists in unison to confirm: Yes. This is metal.
So if my conversion to metal has been a quasi-religious awakening, this past weekend’s Copenhell festival in Copenhagen, Denmark was the completion of that process.
Now in its seventh edition, Copenhell is a metalhead’s answer to Disneyland. Featuring food stalls with names like Hell Burger, The Devil’s Thai Food and Bloody Sweet Churros, the grounds include stage-mounted flamethrowers, a burning church and a very special area called Smadreland (“Smashland”), where visitors are given a giant hammer and safety glasses and encouraged to beat wrecked cars to bloody smithereens. There was even a certainly well-intentioned protester holding a life-sized cross yelling at kids in Iron Maiden T-shirts that they’re going to hell.
While Copenhell’s lineup was nostalgically stacked with legendary acts like Alice Cooper, Scorpions, Megadeth and Copenhagen’s own King Diamond – all of whom delivered marvelous performances – there was one unquestionable headliner: Black Sabbath.
No matter how you tell the history of heavy metal, it always begins with Sabbath. When the band released their self-titled debut in 1970, it was the heaviest thing anyone had ever heard, as if you concentrated Led Zeppelin’s loudest moments and doused it with a caustic oil made of down-tuned guitar and prophetic lyrics about the occult, political corruption, drug abuse and the horrors of war. As the Stooges are to punk rock, bigger, louder and heavier bands would follow in Black Sabbath’s wake, but they set the canon.
Billed as Sabbath’s final tour, The End is a victory lap for the band that invented metal in Birmingham, England 46 years ago. With singer Ozzy Osbourne reunited with guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler, the tour touts the band’s original lineup, although founding drummer Bill Ward’s name has been carefully omitted due to both health issues that prevent him from touring and a 2013 falling out with the band while recording their 19th album, 13. (He’s even been cropped out of old band pictures on their website).
With a kind of majesty and grace that seems impossible for a band with such a messy history, Black Sabbath delivered a magnificent midnight mass to a transfixed congregation of black-clad men, women and children of all ages. Like any proper farewell show should have, the setlist contains all the classics, including definitive renditions of “Black Sabbath,” “War Pigs,” “Iron Man,” “Paranoid,” “Snowblind” and “Children of the Grave.”
The tour’s urgent finality has much to do with the health of Tony Iommi, who has battled with lymphoma since 2012. As the band’s principal songwriter and only constant member through the years, Iommi is the heart and soul of Sabbath – not to mention one of the greatest riff guitarists of all time – and by his flawless performance you would never guess he could be ill.
As Black Sabbath’s main lyricist, long-serving silent weapon Geezer Butler dutifully blared his bass like a decorated general firing his firearm with the precision and stoic confidence acquired only through a lifetime of service.
Crazy-eyed as ever, Ozzy Osbourne grinned and led the masses through the set’s entirety. Having been first introduced to Ozzy as the babbling, intoxicated personality portrayed on MTV’s The Osbournes – an era Sabbath fans do their best to pretend didn’t happen – it is redefining to see the Prince of Darkness masterfully performing the skill that actually made him an icon. And at 67 years old he can still wail with the same piercing power of Sabbath’s ’70s recordings.
For a recent convert, seeing Sabbath was Confirmation to seal my heavy metal Baptism. For the crowd at large it may have been closer to a day at church, if three of the original Apostles were delivering a guest sermon together.
If this is truly The End for Black Sabbath, all bands should hope to go out with such much love, respect and appreciation. If Sabbath changes its mind and rides again (maybe invite Bill Ward?) I think everyone would be more than okay with that too. A band this timeless has no expiration date.
[Images Credit: Copenhell]