Ginger Nuts of Horror
There’s something undeniably melancholic about coming in at the end.
I mean, it’s not The End, and I guess that’s important to note. The tour of that name followed this one, running from 2016 to 2017, and was strictly a greatest hits affair, with setlists comprising entirely of Sabbath’s 70’s output. At the time of writing, there’s no word of an official release from that tour, but you’re not telling me there weren't cameras present at the band’s final Download appearance - or at their ‘final ever’ show in native Birmingham (I put that in quotes because Sabbath have, at time of writing, completed at least 3 ‘last’ tours, to my knowledge - though it’s equally fair to say they’re not getting any younger - someday it’ll be true). I’m sure there’ll be one last blu-ray/dvd hurrah. I’d be almost disappointed if there wasn’t.
Similarly, if it’s ‘final original line up’ you’re after, that ship has long since sailed. Despite initial announcements to the contrary, Bill Ward never returned to the band after their 2005 tour. Not to get too old man/inside baseball here, but that is a huge loss, IMO. Ward’s drumming is a much overlooked, critical part of the Sabbath sound. Tommy Clufetos, his replacement on this tour, is technically flawless, but he can’t come close to Ward’s intense, innate, loose-yet-tight feel, and I notice it, especially during the fills on songs like Fairies Wear Boots. Go back and really listen to what Ward does on those fills on the original recordings (or for that matter, his hip-hop-beat-25-years-too-early on Hand Of Doom), and reflect how sad it is that, either for health reasons or because of contractual wrangles, he sat out the band’s final album and tours.
So this live recording is a bit of an odd duck, for all the above, and for another reason - it was recorded from the tour in support of Sabbath’s ‘final’ studio album, 13, putting it in a unique category compared to any other Sabbath tour of the decade - i.e., one that actually contains new material.
And, I mean, you can see why they’d want to do that. This is, realistically, the only time you’ll get to hear ‘God Is Dead?’ or ‘Methademic’ live, if you weren't lucky enough to be in the room for one of the 2013 live shows. And if you like that kind of thing, this is emphatically the kind of thing you’ll like - and Godspeed to you, my friend, crank it up and enjoy.
For me though - and I suspect I may not be entirely alone in this - I have to admit to finding Gathered In Their Masses a curious, and in some ways oddly unsatisfying experience.
I mean, it’s live Sabbath in 2013, with everything you’d expect that to imply. They open with War Pigs, and, I mean, it’s fucking War Pigs. There’s no arguing with that. This song, like so much of their output from their first four albums, is a gargantuan beast, from the opening air raid siren to closing epic riff. It’s massive in terms of the musical future it maps out - you can hear Maiden, Metallica, Priest, Mastodon, Faith No More (and not just because of their own cover), Pantera, and, you know, basically all metal ever. This band is the source, simple as. But it’s also massive just on it’s own terms - eight minutes and 33 seconds of crunching, heavy-as-hell riffs and doom laden lyrics.
And the production is brilliant, that’s worth saying. Few recordings from the 70’s were as desperate for a remaster as early Sabbath - especially the first two albums, which for all that the guitar sounds deliciously soupy, makes poor Bill Ward sound like he’s playing biscuit tins rather than drums (I mean, playing the everloving fuck out of them, but still). On this live album, the guitar and bass are unleashed, and it’s wonderful to hear. Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler are outstanding musicians, and you can hear every note with crystal clarity.
At the same time, live there’s no place to hide. Just occasionally, a solo gets away from Iommi. Not very often, and never for long, but, well, it happens. Similarly, Ozzy, while generally in fine form (and playing shamelessly, delightfully, to the crowd,) has his moments, like on the closing run down of Methademic, where he’s just not quite in key - as well as timing issues on tracks like Black Sabbath. It’s nothing horrific or unforgivable or anything - and it certainly underlines the live nature of the recording - but it’s the kind of thing that, while you probably wouldn’t notice it in the room, kind of leaps out on a close listen.
That said, when they’re really cooking, as they frequently are, on classics like Black Sabbath, Fairies Wear Boots, and Nativity In Black, it’s pretty breathtaking stuff. There’s a moment in Black Sabbath where Ozzy delivers a chuckle after a key line of the song, and it’s glorious, and his repeated engagement with the crowd, extorting them to sing, clap, chant, or ‘fucking jump’ is lovely, and helps being a sense of the live occasion home.
All that said, well… there’s no easy way to put it, but it doesn’t hold a candle to being there. There’s nothing wrong with the new songs at all, and I get why you’d want a live document that captures them in front of an audience, but as a fan of the original 70’s output, I can’t fairly claim that I’d rather hear God Is Dead? Over, say, Snowblind, or Hand Of Doom. Which is unfair and counterfactual, and I recognise that, but there it is. Like I said up top, I’m sure I’ll get my ‘The End’ box set sooner or later, and that’ll do me fine (especially if there’s a decent bluray of the Download set - because, damn).
I’m left with a nagging sense of not quite knowing what this is for. If you want the greatest hits, there’s a fucking amazing 2 CD remastered box out now (which is even better, IMO, on the 4 disk vinyl). You want live original line up, reunion era? The Last Supper (from their first ‘final’ tour) is out there on DVD, with Ward present, correct, and smoking. If you want 13, go buy 13 - it’s going to sound as good as this (the vocals, if I’m honest, probably slightly better). And, yeah, if you do want to hear 13 live, obviously this one’s for you.
For me? For me, Sabbath are the Mount Rushmore of Metal. Osbourne, Iommi, Butler, Ward. They lit a fire in Birmingham in 1968 that’s burning brighter than ever in 2017, and will never go out. They inspired generations. They moved musical mountains.
I mean, metal as a subculture is one of the most powerful and enduring that we’ve seen in the modern world. Go to any city in the world over 100,000 people, says Henry Rollins, and you’ll find a metal scene. And he’s right. And the reason for that is simple. Metal’s never been fashionable, so it can’t fall out of fashion. It is, like many of its most ardent proponents, a fucking cockroach. It doesn’t give a fuck what you think of it, so it can never be killed. Metal endures, thrives, under the surface and the skin of global culture, an ever present, seething, angry, louder than death expression of humanity. It’s never pretty. It’s never accepted. It’s never respected.
But it doesn’t give a fuck, because it doesn’t have to. Those of us who chose it, who name it as our tribe, know that we’ll always have a place to go. A space where we’re free from the constant side-eye our long hair and leather jackets bring us in the wider world. A place of acceptance, of comradery, of good times and good friends. Metal is the space we have. I don’t fully fit into the world I’ve been born.
Except when I’m at a metal show. Then, I fit like a glove.
And we’re talking about Black Sabbath. The source. The Wellspring. The Manhattan project of the whole bastard tribe.
Who gives a shit if ‘Gathered In Their Masses’ isn’t their finest hour? It’s Sabbath. And when they hit the chorus of War Pigs, or the Outro of Iron Man, or the middle 8 of N.I.B., even here, old men pulling out all the stops, diminished in number, feeling the strain, the fucking music, man, it roars out of them, overwhelms them, creates a monster a thousand feet tall, that’ll kick down them and you and all the walls and decades in between, and make you a believer.
Because they ARE Black Sabbath. And they invented this.
And here and now, in 2017, in my humble opinion, as a fan of the whole genre and many of it’s offshoots, it is my belief that no one - nobody - does it better.
Black Sabbath ARE metal. They changed the world.
And the flame they lit will never burn out.