w/ Andrew W.K., Aug. 8, 7:30 p.m., $69-$139, Mohegan Sun Arena, 1 Mohegan Sun Boulevard, Uncasville, (888) 777-7922, mohegansun.com
Black Sabbath: the name sounds as grisly and intimidating as it did back in August 1969, when four Birmingham lads shed the hippie-ish moniker Earth (another Brit band was using it, thankfully), climbed a Workington stage wielding a song based on a tritone (the so-called "devil's interval"), and lit a match under acres of accumulated psychedelic kindling and preachy country-rock undergrowth.
Guitarist Tony Iommi unleashed that tritone on the world nearly 45 years ago: did he invent "heavy metal" at that exact moment? The case can be (and has been) made. Early Sabbath records, no matter what you choose to latch onto, don't seem to age; the pared-down riffage of "The Wizard," the pent-up stomp of "N.I.B." and the proto-jam-band "Warning" from the very first, self-titled Sabbath record (1970) were highly prophetic. Paranoid (1970) — with "War Pigs," "Paranoid," "Iron Man," "Electric Funeral" and the rest — broke the world. Through the '70s, Sabbath got even darker and druggier, and the wheels eventually flew off. But they left behind some beautiful wreckage: listen to "Wheels of Confusion" from Vol. 4, or "Megalomania," from 1975's Sabotage ("Why doesn't everybody leave me alone?" Ozzy wonders). In the string-laden ballad "She's Gone," from Technical Ecstasy (1976), we hear precursors of Ozzy's (and everybody's) '80s power-ballad-heavy schtick, but somehow it's touching, knowing something pure and honest — the original Sabbath — would soon self-destruct.
Mayhem ensued. (I loved the Dio years.) But wouldn't you know it (and hell yeah!), John Michael "Ozzy" Osbourne, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler are gigging again (without original drummer Bill Ward, regrettably; ex-Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk fills in) behind 13, an album of new material produced by Rick Rubin (who else?). It's a return — a self-conscious one — to the tics, quirks and leftover dust of what's been called the classic Sabbath sound. There are church bells and rain sounds. Five of the eight songs clocking in at over seven minutes. And while the record doesn't open with a tritone (that was saved for "God is Dead?", naturally) the opening riff of "End Of the Beginning" arguably creates the sign of the cross. Upside down.
Butler's lyrics and bass playing haven't lost ground. Ozzy still sounds like a depraved, dishonored preacher. And Iommi — despite ongoing radiation and chemotherapy treatments to battle cancer — sounds as bluesy and fucking demonic as ever. Black Sabbath will perform at Mohegan Sun Arena with special guest Andrew W.K. (dark party!) on Aug. 8. Iommi spoke to the Advocate from a Houston tour-stop about playing with his old bandmates and working with Rubin on the new album. [Note: this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.]
When you step onstage with Ozzy and Geezer, do you still get the same feelings you did 40-some years ago?
It's a great feeling. You can't beat that feeling of walking onstage, especially with your old mates, you know. I think it's better than it was 40 years ago.
What's better about it?
You know, we've been through a lot of experiences, family things and so on. I think when it comes back to the original guys again, it feels really comfortable. You do get — it comes along with age, I suppose — anxieties and different other things. But when you get onstage and start playing, it all settles down.
Sabbath has always been a band of the people. And yet, the critical response to the new album has been incredibly positive. Do you get the sense it just took certain people a while to catch up with what you've been doing?
It could be, or otherwise it's because they haven't heard us for so long as the old lineup. But it really has been a great, fantastic response.
I read that the way Rick Rubin works is to encourage a sense of jamming, to get you guys playing and to see what speaks to him and what does not. But the sense I got is that you went into the studio with some songs that you and Mr. Butler had written already. How did that dynamic play out in the studio?
I think we were pretty open to stuff, but we did keep it more or less to our path. We'd go in with a song, and Rick might go, "Oh, why don't you maybe change the middle bit?" or something like that, or put in another verse or something. We tried those things. It was an exchange of ideas, really. If it didn't work, we'd say, "Oh, no, we didn't like that," and then we'd have another go at it. Rick's thing was more about getting the vibe going, making sure that the feel of the songs, for him, was right. We'd play, and then he'd maybe say, "That was good, but let's do another one... Can you make it a bit slower?" So then we'd do that, and he might say, "Yeah, that didn't feel right. Can you do another one?" until he got one that felt right.
When you play live now, how do the new songs fit with the more classic Sabbath material? Was there ever a temptation to play the whole album for one set, then classic songs for a second set?
I think the songs fit in great with the old stuff, and it's also great to have new songs to fit in, because we haven't had any for so many years. As far as the whole album: we haven't tried that yet. We are playing four songs off the album, but I'd be up for doing the whole thing. That's how we recorded it, so that's how we can play it. It's an album that is not impossible to do, if you know what I mean. We didn't go in the studio and put loads of stuff on. It IS live, so we could go on and play any of those songs.
Do you think Sabbath fans can expect more new music in the near future?
I don't know. It's a question that's been asked a few times. I don't really have an answer for you. At the moment, we're playing it — because of my [cancer] treatments and stuff — I can't commit to doing another two years, or anything like that. I have to play it as it comes now. While I'm doing it, I'm really enjoying it. If the rest of the year goes well, then we'll look at it and see if it's possible to do another album. It would be very nice to.