Heavy metal, in my opinion, is one of the most aptly named sub-genres of popular music. Considering the menacing guitar riffs of Metallica, the screaming overdrive utilized by Eddie Van Halen, the abrasive, guttural vocals of the Motorhead’s late Lemmy Kilmister, and the down-tuned guitars of thrash metal outfit Slayer, the genre encompasses some of the “heaviest” sounds in rock music. Heavy metal has been that way since the very beginning. Indeed, there has never been a riff heavier than the one featured in the world’s very first heavy metal song. In 1969, British blues rock band Earth composed a song entitled “Black Sabbath,” inspired by the gore of the 1963 horror film of the same name. The main riff features a creepy tri-tone interval, also known as the Devil’s Interval because it sounds so evil. In fact, the song sounded so bloodcurdlingly wicked that the group decided to assume the song’s title as their band name. Thus, Black Sabbath was born, and with it, the genre of metal music. Almost half a century later, when metal’s pioneers opened Madison Square Garden on Thursday with “Black Sabbath,” that main riff shot chills down my back as if I was hearing it for the very first time.
Earlier that morning, my buddy John and I skipped class in order to make the journey from Boston to New York City to see Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, and Ozzy Osbourne on their farewell tour “The End." Drummer Bill Ward is not touring with Sabbath due to animosity with other members of the band, especially Osbourne. Session drummer Tommy Clufetos is instead filling in on the skins for the tour.
John and I barely caught our MegaBus after initially going to North Station instead of South Station, but after a five hour trek, we arrived in NYC. We headed straight to MSG, after a pit stop to drop our bags off at the Colombia fraternity house where we were staying.
Blues rock band Rival Sons opened up the show with a handful of concise, tuneful southern rock tracks. Lead vocalist Jay Buchanan wailed like the love child of Chris Daughtry and Robert Plant, but worked the stage with a swagger akin to Jim Morrison. Overall, they were a very entertaining but slightly generic heavy southern rock outfit. Check ‘em out.
Suddenly, the arena went dark. Images of bloody hearts, satanic gargoyle monsters, and fiery explosions were projected on a canvas that eventually fell away to reveal Black Sabbath in the flesh. The band began playing the aforementioned “Black Sabbath," featuring Tony Iommi’s signature guitar trills, Geezer’s plodding bass, and throbbing drum fills from Clufetos. The Prince of Darkness himself emerged, adorned in a black cloak. Ozzy looked more like a walking corpse than ever, but his singing didn’t sound half bad given his age, excessive drug use, and limited vocal abilities. His presence, however, was as imposing and ominous as ever. As he began to sing the song’s famous first lines (“What is this that stands before me?”), the crowd could not help but erupt in wild, senseless applause. At the end of the verse, Ozzy fearfully screamed “Ohhhhh, nooooo,” in genuine distress over his impending doom. Then, he presumably shifted characters to Satan, responding to the former character’s plight with a gleefully deranged “Yes” as Iommi’s heavy guitar reentered with the main riff. In that moment, I felt as if I was witnessing the musical incarnation of evil itself.
Only one song in Sabbath’s setlist—“Dirty Women” from 1976’s Technical Ecstasy—did not come from one of the group’s first four records. Although they omitted a few classic songs, namely “Sweet Leaf” from Masters of Reality and “Wheels of Confusion” from Vol. 4, on the whole Sabbath played only fan favorites.
“War Pigs” from Paranoid was a highlight of the evening. Ozzy opted to let the fans sing much of the verses, perhaps because every Sabbath fan knows the words to the song, or perhaps he was just too exhausted to sing it himself. Geezer’s syrupy yet forceful bass playing shone on songs like “N.I.B.” and “Hand of Doom." The moody, groovy bass line beginning the latter song prompted a fan seated behind me to yell, “That could be in a rap beat!” I silently agreed.
Iommi’s thick, crunchy guitar tones filled every nook and cranny of the arena. His riffing was so dense that I often found myself scanning the stage for a nonexistent second guitarist. A few songs in the set were brought down a whole-step in pitch to assist the 67-year-old Ozzy with higher notes. This down-tuning caused Iommi’s guitar to fall slightly out of tune about halfway through these songs, most noticeably on “Paranoid." Despite this, Iommi more than made up for it with his wailing guitar solos on “Hand of Doom” and “Into the Void," which actually sounded better live than they do on record.
From a purely technical standpoint, Clufetos gave a flawless drum performance, perfectly executing the ferocious beats and thunderous fills characteristic of early Sabbath. He did, however, lack the loose, effortless swagger that can be heard in Bill Ward’s playing. Clufetos drums tightly and precisely, sounding more like a Bill Ward impersonation than a drummer with his own distinctive style.
After finishing their set with a tenacious performance of “Children of the Grave,” Black Sabbath bid their fans farewell and left the stage as is customary before an encore performance. Normally, bands will wait at least five minutes before they re-emerge onto the stage. This encore was a little different, however. As soon as he stepped off the stage, Ozzy began chanting “One more song! One more song!” into the microphone, still in his hand, until the audience joined him. Not even a minute passed before Sabbath was back onstage, performing the electrifying fan favorite “Paranoid." Maybe Ozzy wanted to get the encore over with so he could go to bed or do drugs. Maybe he just hates waiting. I like to think, however, that even after all these years, he just can’t get enough of the stage.
Whatever the reason, the odd encore was quite representative of the concert as a whole. There was no fluff, no bullsh*t, no filler. Black Sabbath gave their fans exactly what they wanted to hear: a setlist consisting entirely of classics that sounded as vicious as they did when heavy metal was still in its infancy.