“What is that stands before me? Feathered and black / That points at me?” As those words rung out across the grounds of Jiffy Lube Live – and seemingly across all of Northern Virginia – on Sunday night, a chill ran through the air. The damp grass stood straight, the gusts in the trees fell silent and goosebumps sprouted across thousands of people as Ozzy Osbourne invoked Black Sabbath’s opening hymn for the final time for the DMV.
Sabbath, the prototypical metal group founded by Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward almost 50 years ago in Birmingham, England, is closing the cover on its grimoire of heavy, haunting music. “The End” tour, which stopped by Bristow’s Jiffy Lube Live on August 21, promises to be the formal end of the band’s activities – confirmed vocally by Osbourne during one of his regular “I love you all” song breaks. For most of rock’s original vanguards, the farewell tour exists either as one last ego trip or the chance to prove that you’ve still got the chops to keep up with the whippersnappers selling out at the clubs these days.
Most farewell tours then fall on their face because it becomes clear that the rock stars are trying very hard to be rock gods, and that their chops have indeed faded with age. And while the basic symptoms of “farewell tour syndrome” were present among the three original members of Sabbath, joined on drums by Tommy Clufetos of the Ozzy Osbourne Band, the godfathers of heavy metal showed a vitality and potency that few of their contemporaries can.
Part of this lies in the members’ apparent immortality. Osbourne, Iommi and Butler’s physicality as performers has not changed much since they sent teenagers screaming out of theaters in the early 70s. They stand, clad all in black cloth, leather and golden crosses, rarely moving, as if they are anchored in spot by the weight of the dark powers they conjure in songs like “Black Sabbath,” “N.I.B.” and “Hand of Doom.”
Speaking of such conjuring, what dark ritual did these sorcerers of sound perform to maintain their gifts? Iommi’s guitar riffs conjure darkness that is impenetrable, Butler’s bass thunders like hellish knights across the plains and Osbourne’s bone-chilling wails echo into the deepest recesses of the mind. Cannibal Corpse and Death may always be more brutal, and Norwegian black metal bands may be actual Satanists, but Black Sabbath still perform music with unmatchable menace.
In fact, watching Sabbath today is like a crash course in cultural trends toward horror. Sabbath was truly scary when they emerged with their witchcraft woes in 1970, but like the images of skeleton fields that accompanied “Children of the Grave,” we’ve grown to accept such art as part of the fabric of 21st-century life. Should we be mad then? Has Black Sabbath helped make us numb to what we could find awful in the world?
It’s easy to blame an outfit like Sabbath, as many in the U.S. have certainly tried during the band’s career. But that is failing to see the point of the genre of horror music they helped create. In the encroaching darkness of numbers like “Hand of Doom” and “Children,” Sabbath reflects the dark reality that we are often confronted with, and tend to ignore in our everyday lives. It’s a reminder that there are truly horrible things in the world.
But there’s also a real beauty in Black Sabbath’s sermon of darkness. The chill that runs up your spine when Iommi launches into the menacing riff of “Into the Void,” or when Ozzy unleashes that punishing vocal wail – they’re nice reminders that you’re alive.
Strange as it may sound, a world without Black Sabbath will be a darker one. Just be thankful for the time and chills the band gave us. Amen.