In its prime, Black Sabbath was the quintessential English heavy-metal band. Emerging from the industrial wastelands of Birmingham in 1968, Black Sabbath eschewed the blues-based virtuosity of Deep Purple or Cream, opting instead for songs that were nasty, British and short. Granted, such Black Sabbath classics as "Iron Man" and "War Pigs" boasted guitar lines simple enough that the average house pet could play them, but that was an essential part of their appeal. Black Sabbath, after all, stood for rock 'n' roll aggression at its most basic: Any sort of musical sophistication would have seemed almost an intrusion.
Unfortunately, such innocence was not to last. Although singer Ozzy Osbourne stuck close to the basic bellow he began with, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward eventually developed a taste for lengthy instrumental jams that showcased their semicompetence at the expense of the music itself. Black Sabbath slowly evolved into self-parody until Osbourne left the lineup in 1978.
Osbourne may have saved some face by bailing out of Black Sabbath, but it's hard to imagine that his departure was simply a matter of personal dignity; after all, his post-Sabbath publicity stunts included biting the head off a dead bat. Instead, what he went after was a version of the Sabbath sound that could accommodate the flashy fretwork then fashionable, but avoided the instrumental excesses of Iommi and company.
With the help of guitarist Randy Rhoads, Osbourne solidified that sound on 1981's "Diary of a Madman," but with the guitarist's death the following year, Osbourne foundered, and subsequent releases have seemed like a series of bad jokes.
Thus, it's something of a surprise to hear how fresh the singer sounds on "The Ultimate Sin" (CBS Associated OZ 40026). It isn't as if there's anything particularly new about what he's doing; in fact, most listeners will be glad to hear that he has backed off from the embarrassing balladry that made "Bark at the Moon" such a laugh. But though Osbourne sticks to the tried and true, he does so with an enthusiasm that utterly reenergizes his approach. "Secret Loser," for instance, plays off the whiny singsong delivery Osbourne perfected in Black Sabbath, but infuses it with an affecting combination of self-pity and defiance.
Partial credit for the singer's revitalization surely belongs with producer Ron Nevison, who gives Osbourne's voice considerable presence without overwhelming the instrumental balance. But the real spark behind these songs is guitarist Jake E. Lee, a musician who understands how to show off without detracting from either the singer or the song.
Notice the way "Never" is powered by a stuttered rhythm riff that reinforces the vocal line while leaving plenty of room for Lee's fleet-finger fills. As did Randy Rhoads', Lee's playing style owes much to the work of Edward Van Halen, but the difference is that where Rhoads aped the Van Halen technique, Lee manages to approximate Van Halen's overall conception. Granted, Lee is sometimes lacking in originality -- would Van Halen ever cop a lick as blatant as the "Black Magic Woman" figure that opens "Fool Like You"? -- but he more than compensates through energetic, blissfully virtuosic overkill.
Tony Iommi knows a thing or two about overkill as well, but where Osbourne and Lee imbue their music with the giddy self-indulgence of a Steven Spielberg special effect, Iommi bludgeons the listener with all the subtlety of a slasher flick. Mind you, that approach has its virtues, but precious few of them turn up on "Seventh Star" (Warner Bros. 25337-1), the new Black Sabbath album.
It ought to be mentioned, by the way, that this is now "Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi," which, given the otherwise all-new lineup, is rather akin to billing Wings as "The Beatles Featuring Paul McCartney." Iommi does serve up the usual Sabbath signatures, from the relentless rhythm riff of "In for the Kill" to the warped blues of the title song. But in the end, the generic vocal style of singer Glenn Hughes merely underscores how cliche'd those devices have become, for this new Black Sabbath has no firmer grasp of what made the band great than any of its imitators.