The Gospel According to Presents…’Play It Again, Sab: A Brief Overview Of The (Largely Unnecessary) Reunion Phenomenon
Mr. Brodsky takes a look at the new Black Sabbath album and finds he has a lot to say about the album, rock and roll, rock and roll reunions, and the state of making money in the rock and roll machine. Jonny boy makes some poignant points about the influence of income on the average rock and roller’s decision making.
This past Wednesday, I toiled in the garden for a few hours. My cousin and I uprooted a sizeable section of my mother’s backyard so that we could plant some daffodils, hostas, and other miscellaneous flora that I wouldn’t be able to tell you the names of even if I heard them again – one of them sounded something like ‘Euronymous’, but if I was burying the long-dead guitarist of Mayhem, I’d probably have noticed that.
But, a bouquet of Øystein Aarseths or not, there was metal present.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure and context, I’m not much of a ‘metal guy’. I think that metalheads are simultaneously the least intelligent and most opinionated people on Earth; I have thought on several occasions that the world would be a better place if serial killers exclusively targeted them. When recent studies linked metal being one’s strongest musical preference to relative unintelligence and conservative political opinions, I was upset that someone wasted actual time and money collating such common-sense data: I’d rather see tax dollars going toward less obvious fare, like proving that the sky is blue or that fire burns.
But, instinctively, there’s something about a good metal record that complements manual labour – perhaps because it’s the only sort of work most metal fans are qualified for -, and as such, I put on one of my absolute favourite LPs, genre notwithstanding: 1973’s Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath (the comma is mine – I like keeping things grammatically correct because I’m not a metalhead).
That record has all the hallmarks of a great album: smart sequencing, strong performances, a unique production sense – it only happens to be metal (and metal in 1973 had a very different connotation and standard than it does now). It avoids the pitfalls that plague its predecessor, Vol. 4 – namely that record offering little in the way of diversity (while Changes and FX are very different than anything the classic Osbourne/Iommi/Butler/Ward line-up would, the other 8 songs are fairly mundane and homogeneous) – but, given that even early metal fans were myopic idiots, the canonical consensus seems to be that SBS was an over-ambitious mistake that cost them fans, causing them to take an artistic step backward with the still-excellent but less colourful Sabotage in 1975.
Anyhow, as happened to many bands before and since, personnel changes to plague Sabbath after two more albums that many metal fans consider poor (whereas I consider them severely underrated and, in the case of 1978’s Never Say Die!, a masterpiece that never got its due), and though the band remained consistently active through 1995, they were dead to most of the world until a brief tour in the late ‘90s that spawned a nothing more than an interesting if not occasionally-laughable live record (Ozzy’s first vocal parts on War Pigs are brilliantly out of key and time) and two studio tracks that neither added nor subtracted to the band’s legacy. Having made some money again, they no longer had to feign friendships for the PR machine and parted ways. No harm, no foul: kids got to see a concert they never thought they would and no new piece-of-shit record materialized to (further) belittle the artist’s legacy.
That’s the sort of reunion I can live with, and luckily, that’s what happens about half of the time: the Police, for example, made no secret of their reunion being motivated by capital, candidly admitting to the press that they all still hated each other as they toured sold-out arenas around the world in promotion of a concert video from Japan (no new material!). When Omar Rodriguez-Lopez of the (thankfully) recently-deceased Mars Volta was asked by Rolling Stone why At The Drive-In reunited after a highly-publicized and acrimonious 2001 breakup, he conceded that the promoters’ offers got too high to turn down.
Somewhere, a bunch of rock ‘n’ roll ‘true believers’ (read: young boys, young men, or middle-aged men with hair like mine who don’t possess even my limited social graces or the luxury of procuring complimentary sex) are sad about this, but I couldn’t care less: I’d rather hear the truth than have a bunch of old men (and the occasional woman) feign to be motivated by passion and integrity, like they still have something ‘vital’ to share. Most above-average bands who make conventional music (you know, acts that don’t whack off onstage or release a 7” of poop noises) have about one or two great records in them, tops: coming back from the dead only increases the chances of you further being disassociated from creating great art by the combination of your aesthetic being less relevant (if not irrelevant entirely) as well as your compositional skill being handicapped by rust or exhaustion.
Even with cult acts that didn’t achieve a high degree of mainstream success or household name status, enough of an audience exists now for nearly any act who put out a great record or two and disappeared: When Slint reunited for a couple of brief tours in the mid-aughts, I got a fake ID three weeks before turning the legal drinking age just so I could see them. When Jeff Mangum came out of reclusion and played the second night of his comeback tour at a local church, I paid a stupid price for a ticket – and now that Neutral Milk Hotel are active again, I’ll do the same thing if they announce a realistically close show. When Godspeed You! Black Emperor announced their intentions to reunite, my heart nearly exploded between the euphoria I felt at my finally having a potential chance to see them (I did, twice, and they were incredible) and the anxiety of my worry that they might put out a lacklustre reunion album and destroy what was previously an elusive near-perfect run (they did, but I got over it).
But it’s here that we segue into that other, more unfortunate type of reunion: the one where the band continues to stick it out and release a slurry of new crap, no matter how greatly it would serve the best interests of their legacy to either call it a day or limit their activity to touring. The first band that comes to mind is The Rolling Stones. Now, most people aren’t aware that the band haven’t been continuously active through 1962 to the present – there was a 3-year period in the mid-late 1980s where they ceased to exist – between the abortions that were Dirty Work (anybody that claims to dislike Harlem Shuffle is lying, though) and Steel Wheels. It’s no secret that the band largely exists in a bubble of blues-rock and internal rivalries that’s only punctured by the occasional ill-suited collaborator (Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift on this latest tour?): given that they were long past their expiration date during their initial disbandment, that anybody could conceive that they possibly had anything to offer behind a greatest-hits night out would take an especially deluded type of fan; given that fan is an abbreviation of ‘fanatic’, this is sadly enough of an occurrence that the Stones managed to hike up ticket prices to unprecedented rates, and they pump out a new record or compilation every few weeks as an excuse to tour.
What these bands lose sight of is that they’re the last vestiges of ‘rock stars’ in terms of legitimate performers who have the momentum of being considered ‘important’ acts by the former promotional machinations of the industry. The media has hammered it into the skulls of the unthinking lowest common denominator that they’re supposed to like the Stones, and they do. It’s this mentality that has lead to Rolling Stones giving unconditional five-star reviews to the countless stale acts who continue to pollute the arenas and casinos that themselves litter the planet while underrating current and pertinent artists, if not neglecting them altogether: seriously, if I see another mediocre modern-day Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty album get five stars, I’ll bite off David Fricke’s cock myself.
And this takes us back to Black Sabbath – while they released 11 studio albums (one under a pseudonym) of middling-to-poor quality after Ozzy’s departure from their fold in 1978, the people had a clear desire for more material with the original frontman. The reason seems to be unclear, given that any attempts at expanding their sound during his tenure were met with derision from critics and fans alike, why was the world obsessed with getting more of the same?
13 – a confusing title given that this is the 20th Black Sabbath album (27th if you include sanctioned live albums) – is a sterile, repetitive affair that suffers due to a scenario wherein nobody can be truly satisfied (if they make progress, it’s alienating, but if they play to expectations, is unexciting) in addition to time and excessive usage of narcotics wearing on Ozzy’s vocal range, reducing it to a three-note spread that even a Carlos Santana guitar solo would roll its eyes at. Speaking of famously-mustachioed guitarists, Tony Iommi remains Tony Iommi – a miraculously inventive player who is sadly now relegated to self-plagiarism (hey, kids; who can count the most re-used Ozzy-era Sabbath riffs? – the root-octave-tritone motif from their classic eponymous song gets used twice!) so as to make a Black Sabbath record that Blacks the proverbial Sabbath for Black Sabbath fans to go all ‘Black Sabbath!’ over – people apparently not realizing that if they want to hear the War Pigs riff, there’s a really remarkable song that already used it. Geezer Butler’s presence as a bassist is severely underutilized (and his lyrics are horrible this time around – you can sense his utter and total antipathy), and Brad Wilk (note the initials) doesn’t try at all to be like Bill Ward (you know, the member who sat this out – ‘classic line-up’, my ass) does a great approximation of a faceless 1990s’ alt-rock drummer (though I do love those early Rage Against The Machine albums… although Dr. Zoltan Øbelisk would disagree).
And this is the real problem with 13 – it’s an alt-rock album. You know – the pitifully mundane genre of music that most adolescent radio-digesting metal fans gravitate to, often misidentifying its angst as genuine tension and drop-tuned guitars as heaviness. Considering that Sabbath – not being irredeemable dreck like Stone Sour – know what they’re doing, it’s an above average alt-rock album, much in the way that you can identify a smart retard, a tall dwarf (more on those soon – watch your Stuff That Doesn’t Suck listings for details), or a decent pilsner: being exemplary at a flaw still doesn’t mean that you measure up to a genius, a giant, or a beer that’s worth drinking (seriously – fuck pilsners and the Kölsch they rode in on).
Anyhow, what else is notable? After 8 agonizingly undynamic songs later (unless you bought one of the deluxe editions like I was obligated to because of obsessive-compulsive completionism), 13 ends with the bell chimes that first introduced the band in 1970: lets hope they meant this as a bookend, a declaration of surrender, a white flag. This record is listenable, it is pleasant, and I don’t hate it inasmuch as I resent it – it is one more in a series of unnecessary reunion albums by bands who had nothing new or vital left to offer early into their original run. It is unnecessary, it distracts people from other music that is more deserving of time and attention, and it proliferates the big music industry promotional sector lie that the only relevant music is made by old men who would never have been signed today (even if they were new bands putting out the exact same albums that made them famous the first time around)… or Justin Bieber.
Fuck this shit, I’m sticking with Paranoid.
Afterword: The preceding article purported to be about 13, the new album by Black Sabbath. If you are upset that it was barely discussed (or are a metal fan and want help learning what the big, scary words mean), keep in mind that if it didn’t have Black Sabbath written on the cover, you wouldn’t have anything to say about it either. Don’t let my opinions anger you: please continue to enjoy your sad, narrow reality – it certainly provides me with no shortage of amusement or comic material. Cheers.