Fin De Siecle

Maybe it's all this millennium malarkey, or that much-discussed slump in the music biz, but heavy metal is currently suffering a serious midlife crisis..

Maybe it’s all this millennium malarkey, or that much-discussed slump in the music biz, but heavy metal is currently suffering a serious midlife crisis. Of the younger bands, only Metallica consistently fill stadiums. Everywhere else, nostalgia rules; from last year’s farcical Kiss reunion to events like this – a brazen revivalist meeting for metal’s primeval roots. And when the second biggest live attraction in the US last year was a 50-year-old Birmingham rock quartet who last toured together two decades ago, how healthy does that make the heavy rock scene? But, hey, it’s Ozzy, so we’re not complaining, just wondering where the Sabbaths and Metallicas of the future are lurking.

Not on this conservative bill, clearly. Much fuss is justifiably being made about energetic young Yanks [a]Coal Chamber[/a], managed by Ozzy’s wife, Sharon, who are pretty, punky and heavily pierced but still not quite monsters of rock. [a]Pantera[/a] also looked like heavyweightn thrash contenders a few years back but here they just grunt and grind at half their usual speed.

Anyone remember when grunge was going to save metal? That was an interesting six months. Sadly, THERAPY? are still living there, flogging a deceased carthorse of ham-fisted indie mediocrity to a crowd as indifferent as they are. “This is not shit, this is fucking excellent!” declares Andy Cairns after a particularly painful ‘Die Laughing’. Oh dear. And just how in Ozzy’s name did we get from the Sex Pistols to FOO FIGHTERS; tune-starved popcore lightweights who are threatening to turn into the new Foreigner at any moment? Sorry, but things are hardly looking up when the biggest cheer of their set is reserved for Dave Grohl’s bare arse. Bloody hell. Sure, Nirvana were overrated live but they were never this flaccid.

And so it falls to OZZY OSBOURNE, rock icon from a universe beyond irony, to save the flagging atmosphere. This he does with such consummate ease and self-mocking charm that nobody could possibly begrudge metal’s most fjted survivor his double headliner status. It’s his party, after all, and he’ll arse around if he wants to. His truncated set, backed by a spunky young guitarist and Faith No More drummer Mike Bordin, is hardly classic stuff but delivered with gusto and good cheer. There is only one serious interlude, ‘Suicide Solution’, the song which once saw the singer tried (and acquitted) for contributing to an American teenager’s death. Otherwise, Ozzy clowns and romps and laps up the adoration like an ever-eager but slightly bewildered family Labrador. He remains the Robbie Williams of metal – stupendously naff but impossible to dislike.

After a brief hosing down, Ozzy’s back with BLACK SABBATH, who don’t so much trundle like tired old codgers as rock like uncaged wildebeests reliving their youth. Unadorned by frills, fireworks or fancy stagecraft, they are the anti-Kiss, caveman rockers from Birmingham back to reclaim the toothless old pantomime dame which metal has become without their leadership. The Sabs forged their sound from blues and garage rock, and it still shows in their primal clout and visceral clatter. It’s an unlikely but heartening spectacle – four black-clad 50-year-old dads dragging the music they invented back to its gutsy, gnarly roots. They open with ‘War Pigs’, which remains metal’s definitive tribal thunder groove. They close with ‘Paranoid’, as rudimentary a manifesto of rock’s underlying dementia as anything to emerge from the swamplands of Memphis or the ghettos of Chicago.

Sabbath were urban primitivists, industrial rock pioneers; you don’t need to listen too hard to hear prime-time Who, Stooges, Joy Division or The Fall in these hairy-necked, callous-handed jams. Even more glaringly obvious is the debt owed by Metallica, current Olympian rulers of metal, whose super-heavy grindcore bypasses 30 years of twiddly shite and taps directly into the Sabs source. Admittedly over 90 minutes there are flat periods – when Tony Iommi slips into jazz-odyssey mode or Ozzy indulges in some American-accented enormodome crowd-baiting. But as a reaffirmation of this music’s lost hinterland, when heavy rock was not only worth taking seriously but the true sound of the underground, Black Sabbath still pack a surprisingly hefty punch. If metal sincerely intends to survive into the next millennium, back-to-basics lessons like this may prove invaluable.

Stephen Dalton