Listen to Black Sabbath on Rhapsody

By: Dennis Cook

Heaven And Hell :: 04.24.07 :: HP Pavilion :: San Jose, CA

Outside the arena that normally hosts San Jose Sharks hockey, a lone wack job paraded with a huge sign that announced eternal damnation for fornicators, murderers, and worst of all – based on the oversized font – homosexuals. Heavy metal will always draw finger pointers like this but in an era where rock is pretty domesticated it’s good to know there’s still a subset that can angry up the blood of both fans and its detractors.

Machine Head by Dirt Junior
The slaughterhouse grind that greeted me did make me feel my soul might be in peril. That distress only quickened my steps into the auditorium where Oakland’s Machine Head had churned up the biggest mosh pit of assholes and elbows this side of Altamont. “If you know this next song I want to hear you scream it till your eyes pop out,” barked lead singer/guitarist Robb Flynn, a former member along with lead guitarist Phil Demmel of SF underground metal lords Vio-Lence. When things looked truly out-of-hand on the floor, Flynn muttered, “Fucking beautiful.” Machine Head have the technical savvy of Voivod but the ball-rattling buzz of Pantera and Motorhead. Around since ’94, they may be a slow grower but this take-no-prisoners set shows they’re ready for the big time. Every other teenager had a Machine Head shirt on, and it’s always the next generation of metalheads that point the way.

All night I was struck by how metal acts excel at cool logos, memorable graphics and other conceptual stuff that deepens the connection for the listener. By actively playing to rock’s innate tribalism they imbue everything with a richer symbolism than the mainstream or indie sphere. Before I got too thoughtful, I pounded whiskey and watched a balding Dr. Johnny Fever look-alike amble past the bar wearing a scrolling LED belt buckle that read, “No Fat Chicks.” The dudes-to-does ratio was 10-to-1 but that’s no surprise at a gig with the testosterone level of a junior high locker room.

Lights out and I threw the horns for Megadeth. I offered the Devil’s salute out of respect for surviving 25 years in a game that eats its young but within minutes found myself pumping for real. Dave Mustaine has one of metal’s classic silhouettes, a lion’s mane and his trusty Flying V guitar. The opener plowed the phrase “No one is safe” into our skulls, and laid waste to any doubts about Megadeth coming back strong after their 2002 hiatus (Mustaine had surgery for radial nerve damage in his left arm). In fantastic voice, Mustaine introduced songs from their forthcoming United Abominations (out May 15), saying, “What would life be without little political songs?” New one “Washington Is Next” shows his anger hasn’t subsided a lick since he penned the line, “It’s still we the fucking people, right?” The set closing “Peace Sells” made it clear this is the best lineup since Megadeth’s mid ’80s heyday. Better still, the heaviness and speed are leavened now by Blue Cheer boogie, UFO flash and Humble Pie strut. This thrash/speed pioneer remains in fighting form.

Tony Iommi
It took about five seconds of Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler dueting in the shadows to remind me Black Sabbath truly are the heaviest motherfuckers on Earth. Even before the Valhalla shattering drums of Vinnie Appice or Ronnie James Dio‘s great elfin wail swept us off to chromium seas, the simple, perfect picking of Butler’s bass and Iommi’s guitar let us know that these old dudes have no intention of releasing heavy metal’s mantle anytime soon.

Out of respect for Ozzy, the quartet is touring as Heaven And Hell, taken from the title of their first collaboration in 1980, an album as hugely influential on metal as Iron Maiden‘s The Number of the Beast or Judas Priest’s British Steel. That Sabbath was still able to reinvent the wheel a decade into their career with a new singer was pretty impressive. After the superb studio follow-up (1981’s Mob Rules) and a dodgy live album (1982’s Live Evil) it seemed Sabbath’s pairing with the former Rainbow/Elf singer was over. A lackluster reunion album and tour in ’92 did little to inspire future hopes. Well, we were all wrong. Having seen the reunited original Sabbath a couple times, I wasn’t expecting to have my dick knocked in the dirt. But that’s just what these middle-aged masters did.

“>Ronnie James Dio
Sabbath has always understood the theatrical appeal of metal better than most of their peers. The stage set looked like a hunk of Disney’s Haunted Mansion with a big ass drum riser in the middle. The background shifted from album covers to hyperdrive fantasias to sulphuric flames. Pinpoint spots made it rain during “Children of the Sea” and soared into outer space during the magnificent “The Sign of the Southern Cross,” just one of many deep album cuts they explored. In fact, they stuck to Dio-only Sabbath including a number of freshly inked numbers that hold their own. The easier route would have been to spice things with “Iron Man” or “War Pigs” but this outing is clearly about a special chemistry unique to this quartet.

Few bands do big entertainment like Black Sabbath/Heaven And Hell. The combination of archetypal riffing, instrumental prowess and epic/cartoon storytelling is, to say least, stimulating. Dio is simply the best metal vocalist of all time. His bright tongue has lost very little luster in the years since he introduced us to the “Man On The Silver Mountain” (1975 if you’re curious). Butler played bass like Dave Schools‘ grandpappy, which fit Appice’s wonderfully busy percussion. Stock still at stage left, Iommi quietly reminded us all night that his tunings and crazy picking style birthed this freakin’ genre. That may sound like hyperbole but I doubt that any of the musicians watching slackjawed stage side would argue with me.

Like some sort of Black Sea Scroll, Sabbath sketches the past and the future of metal for anyone willing to be an acolyte. That primal force was far more readily apparent with Dio at the helm than the never-lucid Ozzy Osbourne. It’s almost unfair to compare the shambling reality show star to one of metal’s royal purists but the pudding, sirs, is where the proof lies. I’d see Heaven And Hell again in a heartbeat but think twice about checking out Black Sabbath proper again.

JamBase | San Jose
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