It's pretty much a given at this point that Ozzy Osbourne is going to die onstage. Nothing short of the Grim Reaper himself can keep the man away from that spotlight. Through 45 years of professional triumphs, personal trauma and drug-induced mania, the original heavy metal wailer has effortlessly cultivated a deep love affair with his audience that keeps him returning to the stage for more and more and more. It's been the most successful addiction by far in a career chock-full of 'em.
Two years after the singer last crept through Toyota Center with his solo band, Osbourne's unkickable habit returns him to town next week with the star-crossed crew that started it all: the mighty Black Sabbath. The reunited troupe is celebrating the release of 13, its first studio album with Ozzy since 1978's rather perfunctory Never Say Die!
It's no accident that the new batch of tunes sounds and feels like a band coming full circle. After the band tried and failed to deliver a new Sabbath album in 2002, producer Rick Rubin signed on this time, pushing Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler to recapture the loose, bluesy spirit of their earliest collaborations.
"Rick said, 'I don't want you to think of a classic heavy metal album,' and I'm like, 'Well, what the fuck do you want,' you know?" Osbourne says. "It took me the longest time to understand what he was saying. He said to the four of us, 'Forget all the other albums. I want you to concentrate on dropping into the vibe you had on the first [Black Sabbath] album.'
"I suppose on the first album, we hadn't written that many songs and it was just like a jam on a song or two, blues on a song or two," the singer continues. "He didn't want a structured album in the sense of a verse, a riff, verse, riff, middle and solo. He didn't want that all the way through. He wanted that freedom that we had on the first album."
With more than half of the new songs clocking in at more than seven minutes long, the arrangements on 13 are given ample space to breathe and moan. Even after so many decades of hard use and abuse, Osbourne's voice sounds full and clear on the record, cutting through Iommi's thick riffs like a newly sharpened scythe. Not since he left Sabbath in the first place has the singer's trademark whine been so unadorned by studio effects and manipulation.
"I specifically kept my vocal line in a comfort zone," Osbourne says. "I considerately chose a range that was comfortable to sing on stage as well as on the record, because a part I've got up in the stratosphere through trickery in the studio, I knew I could never pull it off on stage. My voice used to go out all the time when I used to smoke, so I quit and I haven't smoked a cigarette or dope in a long, long time."
Ozzy's voice should sound especially fresh at The Woodlands next week -- it's the first night of the tour. After waiting 35 years to hear new music from Iommi, Butler and Osbourne, fans are snapping up tickets just as quickly as they did copies of the new album. Incrediby, it marks the band's first U.S. No. 1.
"When it went No. 1 in England, America, Germany and New Zealand, I'm like, 'What?!'" Osbourne says. "I mean, I'm still kind of pinching myself like I'm going to wake up from a dream. If it had happened in 1972 after Paranoid, I wouldn't gone, 'Oh yeah, ok,' but now after 45 years of the road we get our first no. 1? It's kind of a hard thing to swallow.
"Why now, you know?" he continues. "We've been around a long time in one way or another. I don't know and I don't want to know. It never ceases to amaze me and surprise me. It's just great!"
Now that the band has returned to its roots to great success, might it now be time to go out on top? After a long career featuring countless retirement fake-outs, it's not possible to say with any certainty that this will be the final U.S. trek for Ozzy and the lads. But it might be. Each of the three founding members is zooming straight past "old" toward "ancient," and Iommi is battling lymphoma after a diagnosis last year.
"He would come down to the studio every day, and we'd say, 'Tony, are you sure you're ok to do this, man? Are you ready?'" Osbourne says. "And he goes, 'Oh, I'll do it.' And not only did he come down, he came up with the goods. And I thought, 'My God!' Believe me, I know from first-hand experience with my wife that treatment for cancer is not like doing a line of coke and going to a disco. It knocks the crap out of you!
"He's just the greatest guy on the face of the earth at coming up with this stuff," he continued. "He's the most underrated guitar player on the planet."
To hear Ozzy tell it, working together in the studio may have been almost as therapeutic for Iommi as all of the chemo he endured back in England.
"We just clicked," the singer says simply. "You know when you're in a band and you're on to something which is working. We didn't have to force it, it just came naturally. When it comes out naturally, you get that tickling feeling in your spine; it's a spiritual thing."
Just how long might that evil spirit carry on? While the hard-bitten band is understandably taking things one day at a time, Osbourne has long since learned never to close the door on Black Sabbath.
"You know what? It's taken 35 years to get to this point!" the singer said, laughing. "Let's see how we get on with this. I'll put it this way: I'm up for it. If the guys are up for it and we've got the goods... I'm not saying I will, and I'm not saying I won't.
"Let's just see what happens."
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Black Sabbath and special guest Andrew WK perform Thursday, July 25, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2005 Lake Robbins Dr., The Woodlands. Gates open at 6:30 p.m.