Heavy metal is in a strange place right now. Then again, when is it not? Always the outsider in music genres, its popularity tends to go through long periods of ebbs and flows. Perhaps the buzz around the new Metallica will result in an uptick of popularity, but in the past year, there have been more losses than gains. Legendary Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister passed away in late December. Mötley Crüe closed out their “Final Tour” a few nights later. Then in May, musclebound titans Manowar announced their own farewell tour.
Perhaps the most telling indication that the future of heavy metal is up in the air comes when one of the originators, Black Sabbath, perform their final New England dates ever tonight and Saturday at the Xfinity Center in Mansfield and Mohegan Sun in Uncasville respectively. Inventively dubbed “The End,” the 13 month tour comes to a close next February in Birmingham, England, where Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward got their start 48 years ago. To put it in perspective, Sabbath calling it a day is akin to Madonna doing the same and the effect it would have on pop music; sure, there will always be American Idol winners and Bieber clones who can fill arenas for a succession of years, but who can convincingly fill the shoes of a megastar that can guarantee sold out and top-grossing tours no matter if there’s new music or not?
To be fair, Black Sabbath haven’t been an uninterrupted line of success. They managed to be one of the few bands to pull it off with a second lead singer in Ronnie James Dio, albiet briefly, when band leader Iommi dictated that Osbourne be surreptitiously dismissed. Dio split after just three years though, and the Sabs fell into a tailspin with Iommi as the only constant while putting out utter rubbish like Forbidden and Seventh Star featuring an endless parade of forgettable singers and hired musical hands.
Thankfully, somewhat out of pity but more so about the money, Osbourne was the one to apply the defibrillator when Sabbath had flat-lined in the mid-90s. The 1997 reunion tour was an unmitigated success, but other than two new songs packed with a live release, it was dead in the water. Osbourne no longer needed Black Sabbath, he was doing just fine on his own, thanks, both musically as a solo artists and as a pop culture touchstone with The Osbournes television show featuring the Prince of Darkness bumbling about affably and often needing subtitles while he and his family turned into the Generation X and Y variant of the Cleavers from Leave It to Beaver, featuring flatulence, belching and dogs shitting everywhere instead of straitlaced parents teaching life lessons to their otherwise well-adjusted children.
Mortality is what brought Black Sabbath together again in November of 2011. The band had been working in the studio with and touring again with Dio as Heaven and Hell, while Osbourne and Iommi were mired in a legal battle of the Sabbath name. Then Dio died of stomach cancer in 2010, and things seemed to change. Osbourne had nearly died several years earlier in an ATV accident on his property in England. Ward had suffered a heart attack in 1998 that left him unable to tour with the group. The announcement of a Rick Rubin produced new album, their first with Ozzy in 35 years, and ensuing tour seemed more genuine this time around.
Medical issues and business got in the way once again as Ward refused to take part due to what he termed an “unsignable contract” shortly after Iommi was diagnosed lymphoma. Surprisingly, the 64 year-old pushed forward, continuing to tour while receiving treatment for the cancer and finishing up what would be the band’s final album together, 13. Released in June of 2013 and featuring Rage Against the Machine’s Brad Wilk on drums, the record topped the charts here and across the pond, and paved the way for “The End.”
The idea of a new record was floated and ultimately shot down, again, because Osbourne doesn’t really need it. And why not go out on a high note? Iommi is in remission, but he’s 68 years old. Osbourne hits that mark in December while Butler checks in a year younger. Tommy Clufetos, from Osbourne’s solo band, is on drums. Die-hards are rightly frustrated that Ward isn’t taking part, but like those bitching about Van Halen existing without bassist Michael Anthony, will begrudgingly take what they can get. Mainly because there’s a sense that this is it, there won’t be a Kiss-like fake out which will see Sabbath return in two years touring with Aerosmith. The only question, then, is what does this mean for heavy metal?
BLACK SABBATH + RIVAL SONS :: Thursday, August 25 at Xfinity Center, 885 S Main St in Mansfield, MA :: 7:30 p.m. $29.50 to $188.50 :: Advance tickets :: Saturday, August 27 at Mohegan Sun Arena,1 Mohegan Sun Blvd in Uncasville, CT :: 7:30 p.m. $94 to $2,495 :: Advance tickets