Monday, 22 February 2016

Black Sabbath - "The End"

Last night Black Sabbath's "The End" tour hit First Ontario Centre in Hamilton, appropriately named for the legendary band's final road trip across much of the globe.

Support act Rival Sons opened the festivities.  The Long Beach, California band's influences almost exclusively lie in 70s rock, making them sound derivative at times, but there were many moments of excellence, particularly in an extended version of the ballad Where I've Been, where guitarist Scott Holiday offered a soulful solo not heard on the studio version.  Singer Jay Buchanan worked hard to win the audience over, and genuinely stated numerous times their pleasure of being the last band to open for Black Sabbath.  For this audience of predominantly 60-somethings, they were exactly the right choice.

The main dish hit the stage a bit before 9pm, with a dazzling video display that eventually revealed the band's logo, leaving the audience mesmerized before even playing a note.  They soon launched into the title track from their 1970 eponymous album, and the faithful in attendance sang along to every word.

Within a couple songs, it became quickly apparent that it would be an uneven performance from Ozzy Osbourne.  Several gigs earlier in the tour were cancelled with the frontman having a bout of sinusitis, but it wasn't a case of him being unable to sing.  Even though most of the songs were tuned a whole step down, Ozzy sung flat for much of the night, varying from song to song.  The front of house sound technician wisely adjusted the frontman's fader to have him a bit lower in the mix than a lead vocal should be, so that his flaws wouldn't be as apparent.

But there's no hiding from it on video:

"Fairies wear boots, and I don't wear in-ears." -- Ozzy Osbourne {{citation needed}}

In the world of opera music, for example, audience reaction to such proceedings would range from utter disbelief to seeking a refund, but classic rock crowds generally aren't as discerning.  If they cheered after every song Led Zeppelin played in 1977 when 100-pound Jimmy Page (on a diet of little more than groupies and smack) was barely able to play on some nights, then they were going to love every minute of this grand event, shortcomings notwithstanding.  With the ever-familiar concert smells in the air, not only does this iconic singer know he can get away with a lackluster vocal performance, every sentence of Ozzy's banter can contain the F-bomb with impunity.  Being an orator is not in the job description, either.

But he still did have his great moments, like his call and response with the audience in War Pigs.  Being in the middle of a crowd singing the soaring melodies at the end of the Nixon era anti-authoritarian war protest anthem is one of the great concert experiences any rock fan can have, not unlike Hey Jude at a Paul McCartney concert.  It is the same common denominator of bringing people together.  And it was extra special this time, knowing it was the last time.

His movements on stage were classic Ozzy at all times, often prompting the audience to sway their arms during most mid-tempo passages, for example.  But he was the one weak link in an otherwise flawless show.  Visually and aurally, it was everything a farewell concert should be.  Stock footage of the band in their heyday was used at the right moments, and the vibe was one of celebration of music that not only defined a genre, but created one.  The setlist reflected exactly what their audience wanted to hear; all but three songs were from their first three albums.  Their next three long players (particularly 1975's Sabotage) showed a great sense of musical maturity, but it was their self-titled debut, Paranoid, and Master Of Reality that pioneered what is now called doom metal.

Guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist Geezer Butler were completely on their game, executing their parts with a surgeon's precision, replicating the album cuts to perfection.  Filling in for Bill Ward, drummer Tommy Clufetos was a faithful servant to the music, and his solo spot in Rat Salad was a show highlight.  For flare and presentation he gets a 10/10, but it was the polar opposite of someone like Neil Peart of Rush who turns a drum solo into the musical equivalent of a Shakespearean play, complete with plot twists, births, deaths, and an exquisite combination of mainstay sections and forays into the unknown.  Clufetos, by contrast, simply offered sheer intensity and power, finally finishing with an ostinato kick drum signalling the beginning of Iron Man, a very effective way of building to one of the many peaks of the evening.

Utility outfielder Adam Wakeman (son of Yes legend Rick Wakeman) added some keyboard and guitar from backstage, but was only really in the sound mix on a couple occasions, notably not in Dirty Women, which should have a pretty vital organ part.

The plus side of the songs being tuned lower was that their sound became even more dark and mysterious.  The main guitar riffs in N.I.B. and Into The Void sounded like pure Satan, just as the doctor ordered back in 1971.

The last song of the set proper, Children Of The Grave, was the only one to be performed in the original key, which is actually tuned down a step and a half on the album.  The band left the stage, with Ozzy sounding tacky as ever while guiding the audience in a "one more song!" chant.  They finished with the staple Paranoid, and the otherwise stoic Iommi cracked a smile towards the end.  He may not have been quite as pleased thirty seconds later, though, as Osbourne forgot the lyrics of the entire last verse, despite having a teleprompter at his disposal.

The fans couldn't have cared less.  Black Sabbath were bidding their farewell, and respect for the music and its creators was all that mattered in the end.

Three and a half stars out of five.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Dream Theater - The Astonishing

We can safely say hell has frozen over.

Rolling Stone had ceased to recognize the mere existence of progressive rock until literally last year, where Rush were finally given their first cover story after Britney Spears had her seventh.  And now they're actually writing about a current band in the genre (the article is well worth the read).  Dream Theater has existed for over 25 years, more or less innovated a genre of music (progressive metal), and sold ten million records without a hit single.  Love them or hate them, they have an audience; a dedicated and passionate one that will fill up theatres anywhere in North and South America, and arenas in Europe and Japan - a feat that few artists have ever achieved.

Their strongest albums are almost indisputably Images And Words and Scenes From A Memory.  But lately their biggest flaw has been their almost constant need to put their technical ability before good songwriting, lately to the point that they've almost become a parody of themselves. I've always thought that they could use some healthy outside interference, kind of like Rush did ten years ago with Nick Raskulinecz.  Enter veteran producer David Campbell, whose CV that includes Michael Jackson, Adele, Justin Timberlake, and Muse would make your computer crash.

After a couple listens of The Astonishing, above all else I hear a band bravely making a huge departure from their sound with mixed results - but mostly good. The concept is king, and the technical wankery is restricted to a minimum, as it's always complimentary to the story. Refreshing.

For the first time, singer James LaBrie is the star on a Dream Theater album, with keyboardist Jordan Rudess a close second.  LaBrie sings all eight characters in the story convincingly, and perhaps for the first time, Rudess displays his gifts as an arranger in full.

Also, National Geographic recently recognized his goatee to be an entire ecosystem.

John Petrucci is more of a writer than guitar hero here (which isn't to demean his contributions on the axe, but to highlight his compositional abilities), bassist John Myung holds his own as always, but drummer Mike Mangini comes across as pedestrian, which may sound unusual given his technical prowess and feel in other situations (think Extreme).  His sound is so processed and artificial that it almost sounds like a drum machine.  This is my only major gripe with the album.

At their best, Dream Theater are remarkable at what they do, which leaves me all the more sad that Mike Portnoy isn't on it.  Now estranged from his bandmates of 20 years, his playing has a balance of technicality and personality more than pretty well any living rock drummer, with the possible exception of Danny Carey or Neil Peart.

At over two hours long, this album is unlikely to draw hoards of new fans to the Dream Theater fold. But it may finally make people realize that there's far more to this band than long songs where guys play fast. This is the exact opposite. There are thirty-four tracks, and none over eight minutes in length.  There is depth in the storytelling, ultimately making this a great example of a 21st century rock opera.  It may not rival Tommy or The Wall, but if you're into progressive rock and willing to invest the time, you'll very likely find it to be a rewarding listen.

However, like so many double albums, some listeners may find themselves wondering how much stronger it would've been as a single album with a dozen less tracks (people have even said this about the White Album, never mind a Dream Theater album).  There are many hooky songs here (like The Gift Of Music and The Beginning), but they may get lost amidst the many ballads.

So I'm not sure if it can be called "Astonishing".  But it is still very good.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars - their strongest outing since 2009's Black Clouds And Silver Linings.  But their best days are likely behind them.  Albums like Images And Words and Awake are scenes from a memory (see what I did there?).