A farewell tour by a veteran rock band is kind of like a hypochondriac relative who insists that this is the year that the end will come.
But then the next year arrives and they’re still there, the same as always.
So when Black Sabbath, the pioneering British metal band, named their current world tour “The End”, it felt definite, but then again, who’s to say, really? The End is actually more like a long goodbye, stretching throughout this year in North America, Europe, Russia and reportedly some more dates in 2017.
The beginning of The End happened Friday in Chicago at the United Center, where the band played a two-hour set of snarling hard rock songs, played according to the rules of strict minimalism but always with brawny execution. With founding drummer Bill Ward sidelined due to a contractual dispute, his former bandmates represented their 47-year history through a setlist that combined signature songs from their first four albums with a few rarities and even something new.
For this farewell, there were no tearjerker moments, no screening of an overhead highlight reel, and certainly no reminiscing from the stage. Instead, singer Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler, and guitarist Tony Iommi appeared on a stage of fog dressed in black as veteran princes of darkness. They’ve been playing those roles since the beginning, in doom-laden rock songs about social injustices, war profiteers, the despondency caused by drugs, and real world demons that are just as relevant today as they were in the psychedelic 1960s.
While the band are typically credited as a pioneer of heavy metal, the show made clear that their music surpasses such a pithy definition. In an early song like 1970’s Hand of Doom, you can hear how influential the band were in dynamics, tone and structure. You can hear what bands like Nirvana embraced decades later, mixed with the prog-rock twists and turns that defined Sabbath’s own era.
Even at this late stage in the game, Black Sabbath remains a genre of its own, combining space jazz and prog-rock, gothic imagery and riff-heavy thunder. A relatively new song, God is Dead?, confirms they haven’t softened: the sludgy ballad ponders issues of faith through razor-sharp tempo shifts and a primal backbeat.
Some songs were not for casual fans. One from the band’s landmark fourth album, Under the Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes, is expansive in its structure but sonically dense. From that same album, Snowblind replicates the hedonistic days of its era through galloping tempos and an unrelenting surge of notes fired from Iommi’s guitar.
Throughout the decades the bandmates have played together, they have had no visible exchanges on stage: each musician remained relatively solitary in his own section. Where they were inseparable was in the music. Iommi and Butler locked together, heads down, created the sound that defined this band; Iommi ran through a dictionary of riffs and Butler responded with a bass line underneath.
The distortion of Butler’s bass introduced NIB, which Iommi then joined for a funky blues duel; later, for Dirty Women, Iommi escalated tension through a three-note pattern that Butler answered. In their hands, a classic such as War Pigs did not lighten its tone of apocalyptic terror. Iommi’s flawless technique was especially inspiring; he announced a cancer diagnosis in 2012 and this tour is partially considered a final testimony to his legacy. Not knowing about his condition wouldn’t have diminished the experience of watching him perform: nothing suggested he had lost any skill or held anything back.
Then there was Ozzy. His tenure as a reality television dad has long distorted his mythic stature onstage. Here he was a centerpiece clown, occasionally hitting flat notes but giving all his remaining energy to the audience.
“Thank you all for your loyalty over the years,” he told his audience. Then, after the final song, he dropped to his knees and bowed down.
This article was written by Mark Guarino in Chicago, for theguardian.com on Saturday 23rd January 2016 17.41 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010