There are many strange facts to be found when you’re scavenging through the dark history of Black Sabbath, the universally acknowledged uber–lords of British heavy metal. Things like their uncharacteristically campy original name — The Polka Tulk Blues Bland (a nod to a cheap brand of talcum powder found in Ozzy’s mom’s bathroom); the fact guitarist Tony Iommi quit an early incarnation of the band to join prog rockers Jethro Tull (that’s Tony playing along with Tull at The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus); that their name comes from both a Boris Karloff movie entitled Black Sabbath, and the similarly titled first song written by primary songwriter Terry “Geezer” Butler (a song Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford calls “the most evil song ever written”).
Yet the strangest thing about the band rolling into the “venue formally known as Copps” April 11th is the simple fact they’re actually coming at all, and with the fabled original line–up: Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Butler. More than four decades after their genre–defining self–titled debut, Black Sabbath is touring again, this time in support of the first original–member studio collaboration in 35 years, 13 — which just happens to be the first North American #1 album in the illustrious history of rock’s longest–reigning metal band.
Even with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career that has seen Black Sabbath sell over 70 million records, Geezer Butler acknowledges that hitting #1 in the U.S. is still a big deal for a band 40 years into their rock and roll journey.
“It is an important milestone for the band, because when you hit #1 people take notice,” explains the surprisingly soft–spoken Butler. “If we had come in at #27, people would have said ‘oh, it’s just another Black Sabbath album.’ If the charts in the 70s were (measured) in the same way they are now we would have had three or four #1s back then. But this is our first album to hit #1 in North America, and it’s absolutely gratifying.”
The album 13 is actually the 19th studio album released by the various line–ups of Black Sabbath since their eponymous 1970 release. However, it’s the number of “firsts” associated with their perceived comeback that have generated all the recent excitement. The album entered the charts at #1 in 12 other countries besides the U.S. It is the first studio album released by Black Sabbath since Forbidden (1995), and their first recording to feature both Ozzy and Butler since the 1998 live release, Reunion. Additionally, it’s the first studio album with Osbourne since he went solo in 1978, and the first with Butler since 1994’s Cross Purposes. Like the classic Sabbath ballad says, the band has forever been “going through changes.” However, Butler says it’s the similarities shared by these four band mates from industrial Birmingham that brought them back together.
“Since we first started making music, we’ve always been friends,” says Butler, who isn’t often properly acknowledged for his crafting of the band’s dark lyrical imagery. “We have always maintained our friendship. We grew up together. We get on with each other. We’ve always gone on to do other things with other people, but we’ve never really had conflict. Our friendship has always come before the music.”
Sabbath fans have hoped for a reunion of the original line–up for more than three decades, but the return to form on 13 has exceeded expectations. Produced by seven–time Grammy– Award winning producer Rick Rubin, 13 features eight ominous and foreboding blasts of sonic fury that harken back to the band’s trailblazing work of the early 70s. Songs like “Live Forever,” “Dear Father,” “Damaged Soul” and the hit single “God Is Dead” resonate with Sabbath’s signature darkness and despair and not a trace of lyrical optimism – something demanded by Rubin throughout the recording sessions according to Butler.
“There were times I tried to put some humour in there,” mused Butler when asked if there’s any room in the world for a happy Black Sabbath song. “But we had Rick Rubin producing us. And Rick wanted us to go back to the dark sound of the first album. If we came up with one word that sounded happy he’d tell us to rewrite it. It was not allowed.”
The album actually had its genesis in 2001, when the four bandmates first hooked up with Rubin to record. Work was quickly delayed as Ozzy left to finish his Down to Earth solo album, while the others pursued various projects including GZR and Heaven & Hell. When the reunion was confirmed in 2011, the band announced they would also complete the recording of the new album. In June, 2013, twelve years after first reuniting in the studio, Black Sabbath finally delivered on the promise of new music.
The lengthy recording process was a far cry from the early days of recording Black Sabbath albums, when the band cranked out eight albums in eight years. Those eight groundbreaking masterpieces have been digitally remastered and collected into a new box set scheduled for release April 15th. The set contains all of the studio albums Black Sabbath recorded for Warner Bros. Records during the 1970’s, including the self–titled debut (1970), the multi–platinum landmark Paranoid (1970), the platinum albums Master Of Reality (1971), Vol. 4 (1972), and Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973), as well as the gold albums Sabotage (1975), Technical Ecstasy (1976), and Never Say Die! (1978).
Having experienced both the “balls to the wall” recording sessions of the early 70s, when the band finished an entire album in two days, and Rubin’s more calculated and methodical process, the question arises: which recording style does the studio–seasoned bassist prefer?
“I much prefer the way we did it before,” said Butler. “Four albums in two years is remarkable. The Beatles used to do it. When you listen to the two albums they could put out in a year it was amazing. We did it as well – those first two albums. It was easier then because we would have stopped recording after 8 tracks. Rick would have us recording 16 and then pick the album from the best of the lot. We actually recorded the album the way we used to – we went in and played everything live, all together. We wanted (13) to be like a live studio recording.”
As the lyricist responsible for rock classics like Paranoid, Iron Man, Sweat Leaf and War Pigs, Butler has a unique perspective on which of the band’s classic albums best exemplifies Black Sabbath’s place in rock history. Being the writer doesn’t make the decision any easier.
“Depends on what mood I’m in,” he explains. “I will always love the first one. That was the one you could take to someone’s home, show mom and dad, have people take you seriously. But Paranoid is probably the one that really defines the sound of the band at its best.”
Defining the sounds Ozzy makes in conversation, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. Butler laughs when asked if years of working with Ozzy have given him a better understanding of the singer’s particularly incomprehensible brand of the Queen’s English.
“It depends if he’s speaking with a mouth full of food,” laughs Butler, who said he and Ozzy recently hooked up to attend a Bruno Mars concert. “I could never fully understand him; he’s always had a habit of speaking with food in his mouth. And he’s deaf as a post. You have to shout at him.”
With the tour winding down, Butler’s happy to be returning to Canada and a rare visit to Hamilton. “Canada’s always been good to us, always up a show. Never Day Die was recorded in Toronto. I did one of my solo albums in Montreal. It’s going to be great coming back to Canada.” V
Black Sabbath performs on Friday, April 11th at FirstOntario Centre.