07.04.2018

BLACK SABBATH - THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE 'REUNION' ALBUM

Av Jens Nepper
(Epic Records)

 BLACK SABBATH - BEHIND THE WALLS OF BIRMINGHAM:THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE “REUNION” ALBUM

 

Twenty years ago, a remarkable live album by the then newly reunited Black Sabbath saw the light of day. Appropriately titled “Reunion”, it contained two discs worth of classic song material recorded live at the NEC Arena in the band's hometown of Birmingham on the 4th and 5th of December, 1997, and featured Geezer Butler on bass, Tony Iommi on guitar, Ozzy Osbourne on vocals, Bill Ward on drums, and Sabbath stalwart Geoff Nicholls (R.I.P.) on keyboards. Nicholls, who had been with the group ever since the writing sessions for the “Heaven and Hell” record in 1979, was strictly speaking not an original member of Black Sabbath. However, since he was neither listed as a fifth member of the ensemble in the credits for the album nor seen on stage during the performance, one could argue that “Reunion” marked the first truly official and band endorsed live recording by the four founding members of the legendary outfit.

As brilliant and musically exciting as the past few years had been for Black Sabbath, the fact of the matter was that 1995's raw and unpolished “Forbidden” record had been a commercial failure and that the band had fallen off the radar completely, which was a shame, really. Hard rock and metal fans in general did not care anymore. Tony Martin had provided the band with much stability and credibility over the years as evidenced by atmospheric metal masterpieces such as “Eternal Idol” (1987), “Headless Cross” (1989), “Tyr” (1990), “Cross Purposes” (1994), and numerous shows and tours during his stints with Sabbath. Following the “Forbidden” tour, Iommi must have somehow realized that the only way to regain lost territory and bring his pioneering act back into the limelight properly was by means of getting the original band back together, which is exactly what happened in 1997. Prior to that, Butler, Iommi, and Osbourne had toured together with the latter's solo outfit drummer Mike Bordin (Faith No More), but by late 1997, Bill Ward was finally back in the drum stool. As Osbourne states in in his memoirs entitled “I Am Ozzy”,

 

That summer, we went out on the road. At first, it wasn't the full original line-up: it was just me, Tony and Geezer, with Mike Bordin from Faith No More standing in on drums for Bill. I honestly don't know why we couldn't get Bill to play those first few shows. But I was told he'd had a lot of health issues, including a bad case of agoraphobia, so maybe the rest of us were trying to protect him from the stress. By the end of the year, though, he was back with us to do two gigs at the Birmingham NEC, which were fucking phenomenal. (Osbourne, 331)

 

Apart from sixteen live renditions of Sabbath anthems including “War Pigs”, “Fairies Wear Boots”, “Behind the Wall of Sleep”, “Spiral Architect”, and “Dirty Women”, “Reunion” also contains two exclusive studio recordings, one of which is entitled “Psycho Man” and the other “Selling My Soul”. Strangely, the latter does not feature Ward on drums; a drum computer replaced him, which, frankly speaking, is both puzzling and bizarre. One could easily be led into thinking that band politics or something far more sinister than that (i.e. managers) had something to do with Ward's absence on that track, but then again; maybe there was no conspiracy at all and it simply came down to a purely creative or musical decision. We will probably never know. Both songs encompass everything that makes Black Sabbath such a riveting musical force and they are infinitely catchy, but neither of the two are innovative or experimental affairs, which is to say that they are quite straightforward and harken back to the early days of the band in terms of song arrangements and structures and whatnot. The bottom line is that both serve as wonderful additions to “Reunion” even though they hardly rank among the Sabbath's finest compositions.  

 

Black Sabbath Reunion cover.jpg

 

Although happy with the result, Iommi feels that the entire affair was slightly rushed and that the band ought to have performed more shows before they actually committed to taping and recording one of the reunion shows. As he states in his “Iron Man” biography,

 

We rehearsed with Bill and worked out the show, and then we did a few gigs before going to the NEC to record the Reunion live album on 5 December 1997. We did the NEC too early in the tour, really. I thought we needed to play a lot more first. We had rehearsed, but we had only done two gigs and then suddenly there we were, doing two days at the NEC and recording it. […] It was nerve-wracking, because we knew we were recording it. When you do a regular show, after the last song it's over and done with, but when it's recorded everybody can see and hear it afterwards forever and ever. Also it was a hometown gig, which made us even more nervous. (Iommi, 313-314) 

 

Despite the criticism leveled at the album by Iommi, one could argue that it sounds disciplined and focused, and any mistakes or flaws merely add to its spontaneous feel as well as its overall charm and organic vibe. Interestingly, Ozzy lists it as one of his favorite albums and certainly one of the albums that he holds most dear and is quite proud of, partially because there were no overdubs or studio trickery involved and that everything sounds just as it ought to sound:

 

Even though I've always played Sabbath songs on stage, it's never as good as when the four of us do them. Today, when I listen to the recordings of those shows – we put them out the following year on an album called Reunion – I still get chills. We didn't do overdubs or anything. When you put that album on, it sounds exactly as it did on those two night. (Osbourne, 331)

 

Some fans that your truly have encountered over the years feel that the set list is a tad predictable in that it hardly contains any surprises or obscure songs. However, given that the original members of the band had just gotten back together, the prevalent line of thinking probably was that a set consisting of their greatest and most treasured hits was the only way to go. There were talks revolving around a brand new Sabbath album containing original material too, but that idea never materialized. The success of the 1997 shows in Birmingham was more than enough to convince the band to tour the following year, as touched on by renowned rock chronicler and author Mick Wall: “As it transpired, there would only be the double live album, simply titled Reunion, and accompanying DVD, both of which sold well enough to encourage the band to return the following summer for a spate of European festival” (Wall, 331).

As to the aforementioned “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul”, the production duties were handled by Bob Marlette (Alice Cooper, Quiet Riot, Seether). Marlette also mixed the “Reunion” live tracks and the result is a most satisfying one in that the album comes across as monstrously heavy and bombastic yet clear and full of texture. Again, Iommi felt that those two cuts were rushed and somewhat unfocused affairs:

 

Bob Marlette used programmed drums, just so that I could put the riff ideas down. That's how we did it with 'Psycho Man': I played a riff and he put a drum to the riff, and then we'd build it up like that. Ozzy came down and disappeared and came down again and went and sat in the other room and got a sandwich and fell asleep and whatever else he did. Quite often he dozed off on the couch in the control room while we were putting the song together. […] But when Ozzy was awake at our own session he'd be all enthusiastic: 'Oh yeah, I like this!”. […] We wrote the songs and recorded Ozzy's and my bits in one day. It was too fast, we never had time to live with them, but the guy from Sony Records was standing outside, waiting to hear them. We got Geezer and Bill to come in later to put their parts down. And that was it. We had the two tracks, 'Psycho Man' and 'Selling My Soul', but I wasn't pleased with them. It could've been so much better if we'd had more time to work on them. (Iommi, 315-316)

 

Given that the patchy and less than stellar “Live at Last” album (1980) was never recognized as an official release by the members of Sabbath, “Reunion” is in many ways the first proper live album featuring the original members of the band. As we all know, “Reunion” did not mark the end of the mighty Sabbath; its ferocious howl of doom and gloom could still be heard in and around arenas all over the globe nearly twenty years later when the band embarked on its The End tour. To mark its 20th anniversary, do me a favor and pull out the CD version, locate your favorite armchair, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and give “Reunion” a spin or two and revel in its majestic aura, the euphoric and rapturous audience reactions, and the magnificent interplay between Butler, Iommi, Osbourne, and Ward.

 

Track list:

Disc 1

1.      War Pigs

2.      Behind the Wall of Sleep

3.      N.I.B.

4.      Fairies Wear Boots

5.      Electric Funeral

6.      Sweet Leaf

7.      Spiral Architect

8.      Into the Void

9.      Snowblind

Disc 2

1.      Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

2.      Orchid/Lord of This World

3.      Dirty Women

4.      Black Sabbath

5.      Iron Man

6.      Children of the Grave

7.      Paranoid

8.      Psycho Man (1998 studio song)

9.      Selling My Soul (1998 studio song)

 

Line-up:

Geezer Butler – bass

Tony Iommi – guitars

Ozzy Osbourne – vocals

Bill Ward – drums (except for “Selling My Soul”)

Geoff Nicholls – keyboards (on live tracks only)

 

All songs were written by Butler/Iommi/Osbourne/Ward

“Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul” were written by Iommi/Osbourne

 

Produced by Thom Panunzio (all live tracks) and Bob Marlette (studio songs only)

Mixed by Bob Marlette

Released by Epic Records, 1998

 

Works cited:

Iommi, Tony (2011). Iron Man: My Journey through Heaven and Hell with Black Sabbath. Da Capo Press

Osbourne, Ozzy (2009). I Am Ozzy. Sphere/Little Brown Books

Wall, Mick (2014). Black Sabbath: Symptom of the Universe. Orion Books Ltd

 



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