Thursday night at the Woodlands was the first night of the reunited Black Sabbath's world tour, and to say that anticipation was running high would be underselling it a bit. The band is fresh off the release of its first new album together in 35 years, 13, which went straight to No. 1. Clearly, fans were ready for another go-round with the godfathers of metal.
But to add to the intrigue, Tony Iommi, Black Sabbath's legendary guitarist, has been battling lymphoma for the better part of a year now. Iommi's not a young man. For perhaps the first time, his assumed immortality appears in doubt. Long history of retirement fake-outs aside, this could very well be Sabbath's final trek around the globe. Miss this tour, and you might not get another chance.
So despite the success of 13, there was no shortage of questions heading into Thursday night. Could Iommi still go? Would the foursome's magical chemistry still be intact without original drummer Bill Ward behind the kit? And perhaps most pressing of all, could Ozzy Osbourne still sing? After all, he's no spring chicken, and we all saw the state of him in The Osbournes.
Let's leave aside those first two questions for now, because it was the questions about Ozzy's performing shape that jumped out immediately on Thursday. On the tour's opening night, they may have been put to rest for good... and not in the way many of us had hoped.
As has been their custom for some time, Sabbath opened the show with the spine-tingling "War Pigs," one of the most vicious and affecting anti-war rock songs ever written. The wailing sirens were in place, that throbbing bass line packed its usual punch and Iommi's lead was as chilling as ever. So far so good.
Then Ozzy opened his mouth.
He didn't sound terrible, but he didn't sound good, either. He was struggling a bit to find the notes, particularly on the sharp, bluesy choruses. Hey, it was the first song of the first night of the tour -- maybe he just needed to warm up a little.
But then came "Into the Void." And then "Under the Sun." And "Snowblind." Classic Sabbath cuts all, and the Ozz-man struggled mightily to stay in key on all of them. Actually, that's not quite accurate. He was struggling, but he was decidedly not in key.
For longtime fans, it was painful to witness. This man is the voice of heavy metal, not to mention its Id. That voice, sad to say, appears to have left us. Ozzy sounded ragged and tired up there. He sounded old, and even a little out of his depth. Hardly the triumphant return we'd all hoped for.
Now, there are plenty of valid excuses as to why Osbourne wasn't up to snuff on Thursday. Not only was this opening night, but it was hot as shit in Southeast Texas last night, and as humid as the devil's own sauna, to boot. Those conditions might have easily sapped the strength of even a much younger, less drug-addled performer. And who knows? Maybe there was a monitor issue, and Ozzy couldn't hear himself properly.
He wasn't all bad, either. His voice sounded fine on older, murkier cuts more suited to his now very limited range, such as "Black Sabbath" and "Dirty Women." He did a respectable job on some of the new tracks from 13, too, like "End of the Beginning" and "God is Dead?"
But his off-key mumbling stood out starkly on beloved classics like "Iron Man," "Children of the Grave" and "Paranoid." In fact, he kind of ruined them. It was only the piercing, deathless tone pouring out of Tony Iommi's Gibson, coupled with the inseparable rumble of Geezer Butler's bass, that reminded the capacity crowd how chilling Sabbath had once been, when they were each on top of their game live. These are the songs people paid to hear. The band can't very well replace them in the set.
It's certainly possible that Ozzy will get it together on the upcoming dates of this tour. Backing tracks and other sweeteners wouldn't be a bad idea. And hey, maybe he just needs a little time to round into shape vocally.
But in all likelihood, this is going to be a very long tour indeed for the Prince of Darkness. He was simply unable to hit the notes Thursday night. In many cases, he couldn't seem to even find them.
Osbourne's singing has certainly come under heavy criticism in the past, but fans were always able to overlook the issues: These are incredible songs that people want to hear. But that may no longer be possible. If the metal god isn't dead, he certainly didn't seem to be feeling his best.
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If this does turn out to be the final Black Sabbath tour, maybe it's just as well. Perhaps we've asked too much of them already. The band has already lost one unforgettable voice in the passing of Ronnie James Dio. Though Ozzy hopefully has many, many happy and healthy years ahead of him, it appears as though we've lost another.