Gig review: BLACK SABBATH – 02 Arena, London, 31 January 2017

Black Sabbath - DOWNLOAD, 10-12 June 2016

Gloomy, doom-laden and portentous. And that was just the weather at North Greenwich station. A busker was smashing out ‘War Pigs’ in the ticket hall on his Gibson SG. Quite a crowd of gig-goers had gathered and he finished with a decent round of applause. At least there was this, if the Sabs couldn’t deliver.

But first, support act Rival Sons. The vast auditorium was at least two-thirds full and the Long Beach rockers stepped right up to the plate.  The band’s brand of bombastic blues-inspired hard rock was infectious and energetic enough to create a buzzing atmosphere. The sound was top notch. No half measures with the volume knob.

‘Secret’ was typical of the eight-strong set. Belted out with gusto, and vocalist Jay Buchanan always the focus of attention, strutting and writhing out front. ‘Pressure And Time’ stomped along on a murderous bassline and ‘Tied Up’ from last year’s ‘Hollow Bones’ featured a powerful Scott Holliday guitar riff underneath a catchy vocal hook.

There’s a lot of Zep and a little of the Doors about Rival Sons. Sometimes it’s a bit too obvious. ‘Fade Out’ could stand accused of rank pomposity. And yet ‘Open Your Eyes’ even with its massive ‘When The Levee Breaks’ drum track came across really well, keyboards to the fore and Buchanan’s voice knitting everything together.

This lot may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they nailed a tricky opening slot and ‘Keep On Swinging’’s big, fat, bluesy vibe was a great way to close out.

The End tour seems to have captured people’s imagination and there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the venue after the support act cleared away. Mercifully, no-one was kept waiting long.

Other-worldly sequences began to flicker on the giant curtain. The house lights dropped. A burning Black Sabbath image hung above the stage. Somewhere a storm was raging; a bell was tolling. The curtain fell to reveal Tony Iommi grinding out the iconic, distorted notes that once ushered in the era of Heavy Metal.

Dramatic stuff. But that’s as it should be. Drama is in the DNA of this band’s music, lyrics and style. If ever there was a place to milk the fact, surely it is the final shows on the final tour of a 50-year career that broke the mould.

The demonic opening riff to ‘Black Sabbath’ faded and a chant from the crowd rang out in time with Ozzy, “What is this that stands before me”. Almost as if the fragile front man might need the support of the audience.

In fact, the voice was remarkably intact, phrasing nigh on perfect and timing all present and correct. If there was a pre-gig sense that the fans might need to cut Ozzy some slack, the feeling had dissipated early into that first killer track. This was right on the money.

He’s not desperately mobile though. The lumbering around the stage has been a bit of a trademark since sometime in the ‘80’s. These days he has to amble back to the mike stand so he can read the teleprompter.  It matters not a jot.

Tony and Geezer are pretty static too. Luckily the visual treat is ensured by the big money staging. Multiple screens for close ups and CGI enhancements; state of the art lighting; and enough fire to make any loitering Satanists feel very welcome.

Perhaps the stand out renditions were always going to be the best known cuts from the first couple of albums – just because of the impact they had on the audience. ‘War Pigs’, such an influential classic, was sung lustily. The screens highlighted punters in full cry, and more humorously, those who didn’t know the words. ‘Iron Man’ and its landslide of a riff gave the same tingle across the auditorium.

Yet it was the lesser known album tracks that shone a light on the quality of the gig. ‘Fairies Wear Boots’, is no more than a simple blues shuffle given the Tony Iommi treatment to become a full blown metal boogie gem. ‘Behind The Wall Of Sleep’, again is built around an infectious blues riff, and belted out with abandon.

There has always been more to this band than the doom and chug of their popular reputation. ‘NIB’ got some heavy funk into the house. Geezer was outstanding and Ozzy tackled the tricky higher vocal passages with certainty and aplomb.

‘Snowblind’ was a revelation of freeform arrangements and prog overtures. Ozzy’s vocal is almost uplifting on the middle eight before an imperious Iommi solo. The keyboard gave the track an added dimension and Adam Wakeman, son of Rick, was later introduced as the band’s touring keysman.

The darker stuff just about won through though. ‘After Forever’ a relentless grind of shattering power; ‘Into The Void’ a highlight of unholy detuned guitar blackness.

There was a snatch of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and ‘Supernaut’ in a riff mash up just before ‘Rat Salad’, which hinted at the strong material they had left out. Eye teeth would have been exchanged gladly for an airing of the mighty ‘SBS’ one more time. Or maybe they could just play the whole thing properly and dump the ridiculous, overlong, monotonous Tommy Clufetos drum solo  Arms folded in mock disgust.

The pace was soon picked up again with a driving ‘Dirty Women’ and a set-ending epic ‘Children Of The Grave’. If we didn’t already know it was a party, hundreds of purple balloons spilled from the rafters at that point and blew onto the stage in a surreal passage of Top of the Pops imagery.

‘Paranoid’ provided the super-fuelled encore, though Ozzy defied convention by not actually leaving the stage and instead shouting ‘Do you want some more?’ This was the only way to end, of course, and the song inspired riotous scenes of actual standing up in the expensive seats. That’s rock ‘n’ roll 21st century style and proof that Black Sabbath retain their credibility to The End.

Review by Dave Atkinson

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