First came the fanfare surrounding the original line-up’s decision to tour and record again. Then came the shocking news that Tony Iommi was receiving treatment for cancer. And then there was the whole Bill Ward ‘will he, won’t he’ saga – an unsavoury aside that threatened to undermine all the positive vibes and wild optimism.
What Sabbath’s Download Festival appearance did do was to strip away all of the above and allow fans and critics alike to judge a legendary band on music alone. And if Ozzy’s typically awkward stagecraft and stuttering banter is more uncomfortable than ever then at least the vocal delivery was dynamic.
Iommi’s playing was similarly vibrant and a rhythm section allying Geezer Butler with Tommy Clufetos comfortably dealt with the array of bass-heavy Sabbath standards. Ward was hardly missed but his absence was a blow to those completionists hoping history could repeat itself one last time.
Of course if Ozzy wasn’t Ozzy then there’s no way his stumbling, bumbling approach would be acceptable in the modern metal environment. Those younger fans schooled on the slick delivery of Metallica, Trivium, Shinedown and more must have wondered what all the fuss was about for large periods of a mixed performance with clumsy links and token pyrotechnics. This was more a set of classics than a classic set.
A strong start, focusing on the opening four tracks from Sabbath’s self-titled debut, settled both band and fans alike but any early momentum was lost during a cumbersome middle section where only War Pigs did justice to metal’s godfathers.
Dirty Women picked up the pace before a spine-chilling version of Children Of The Grave reminded the masses of Sabbath’s penchant for delicious doom.
Paranoid provided a predictable yet pulse-racing encore as one of the most significant shows in metal history was sealed by the genre’s definitive soundtrack. Sabbath’s old guard were good, rather than great – their performance often tentative rather than triumphant. But then nobody ever said this band was perfect.