Metalheads know the story already; in the early ‘80s, after being ousted from metal godfather Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne bounced back and went on to a highly successful solo career that eventually turned him into a beloved pop culture icon, the “Prince of Darkness”, as it were. His early solo career endeavors were bolstered mainly by the creativity and enthusiasm of a young guitar virtuoso named Randy Rhoads, who tragically died in a helicopter crash while on tour in 1982. Ozzy and camp chose to continue on with the tour, replacing Rhoads with Brad Gillis from opening act Night Ranger for the rest of the tour.
And it’s at this point in this story that we arrive at Speak of the Devil, not to be confused with the rushed and since-renounced album of the same name. The original was a two-LP live set of Ozzy’s band performing Sabbath covers from the 1982 tour, which was released due to mounting label pressure. It has since gone out of print, replaced with this, which is the video of one night on the same tour.
Overall, this is a rather disappointing release. The audio and especially the video are definitely not up to snuff in terms of the quality that you are probably now used to seeing on DVD releases. Instead, it feels much more like an old VHS release that someone just happened across in the vaults and decided to release. The instruments sound distant, even muffled, and much of the nuances of the musicians’ playing is difficult to make out in parts (especially the keyboards, which are buried in the mix throughout almost the entire thing), which is a shame when you’ve got musicians as capable as these.
The DVD has no extras or special features to speak of, unless you count bassist Rudy Sarzo’s short essay in the booklet, a glowing self-assessment of the performance, where he indulges in such a ridiculous amount of superlative language that one would expect this to be the greatest thing ever committed to tape. It’s not.
The biggest problem is with Ozzy’s vocals. They are so upfront in the mix, so dominant that they only heighten the fact that everything else sounds like it was recorded from behind a wall. Furthermore, his vocals sound suspiciously as though they were recorded in a studio and stuck into the mix. It sounds like they are double-tracked, and not in that natural sense of echoing in the stadium, more like there was significant studio trickery going on. This wouldn’t be all that surprising since so many ‘live’ albums are in fact anything but.
It’s a well-known secret that practically anytime a band or a singer releases a live album, there has been quite a lot of work put in to making it sound its best, i.e., overdubbing or completely re-recording parts. Well, it certainly sounds like that was the case with Ozzy’s vocals (the band sounds like their original parts are intact, though). The effect of laying studio vocals over a live band is very, very distracting and makes the whole thing just sound fake, like a cop-out. And whether or not Ozzy laid new, studio vocals over the top of his performance here, the sad truth is that there are places where he is extremely pitchy, warbling off-key a number of times.
The band more or less plays very well. Sarzo and Tommy Aldridge were a fantastic, tight rhythm section that often extrapolated their parts with interesting little fills and flourishes. Don Airey’s keyboards are hard to make out, but what we can hear sounds decent enough, even if his tone throughout tends to be that of the extremely dated string-synth sound that was popular and cutting-edge at the time that this was filmed. Gillis, while a powerful and capable guitarist, is unfortunately not quite up to the task of filling the shoes of the late Rhoads (few people would have been, so it’s not really Gillis’s fault). He is certainly a fine player with ample dexterity, but his playing lacks the absolute finesse and taste of Rhoads. This is notable in the extended guitar solo/drum solo in the middle of the set, where his playing tends to sink into excessive, self-indulgent technical exercises that are simply aping Rhoads’s style rather than forging his own distinctive voice as an instrumentalist, which he would do later in his work with Night Ranger.
And speaking of the guitar solo/drum solo, as fine a player as Aldridge is, drum solos are almost always boring as hell. This one is no exception. If we’re being honest, no one who isn’t a drummer, on drugs, or is a drummer on drugs would ever want to sit and listen to a drum solo, but in the post-Zeppelin years of hard rock excess, that kind of excess spilled over onto the stage.
The track selection is decent, sampling Ozzy’s first two solo albums, Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman, with a few Black Sabbath numbers thrown in as an encore. A number of Ozzy’s early solo songs are still metal classics, like “Mr. Crowley”, “Over the Mountain” and of course, “Crazy Train”, all of which are presented here. However, a few of his other songs have not aged quite as well, notably the rather embarrassing paean for ecological responsibility, “Revelation (Mother Earth)” and tracks like “Steal Away (The Night)” and “Believer” that sound rather generic.
The Sabbath songs end up sounding dull and dumbed-down, played with the peppy fervor of an ‘80s metal band rather than the monumental doom that very few bands outside of Sabbath’s original lineup were ever capable of (hearing “Paranoid” with keyboards over it may very well ruin the song for you). As such, the songs suffer and sound like highly substandard covers despite the fact that the original vocalist is singing them. The good thing, though, is that it highlights just how damn good Black Sabbath was. They were not as flashy, but they were masters of taste. In comparison, as good as Ozzy’s band is, it seems like they are more interested in showing off rather than playing to serve the song.
As for Ozzy’s performance, he seem rather tired, like he is going through the motions rather than truly letting loose. And that’s completely understandable, given the circumstances that led to him only recently replacing his guitarist. He gets a little more lively in the second half, though (he undoubtedly slipped backstage during the solo breaks and indulged in some type of, shall we say ‘performance-enhancing agent’). And Ozzy’s weariness leads to the question; why was this concert in particular chosen for release? It certainly isn’t representative of Ozzy’s best work, or his best working band, or his solo career, or of anything really, besides some musical excesses and wonderful stage design (Spinal Tap will be much funnier after watching this).
Indeed, the circumstances leading to releasing this are unknown and, in light of the obvious tampering with Ozzy’s vocals, somewhat suspect. There just doesn’t seem to be much point in getting this unless you’re an Ozzy fanatic and you need to own this, since nowadays, Youtube is a treasure trove of live concert footage, much of which is undeniably better than this. There are most certainly better releases, official and otherwise, that highlight not only Ozzy in better form, but the classic lineup with Rhoads on guitar, with superior sound, to boot. So not only do the performances captured herein seem excessive, but the entire notion of releasing this DVD seems so, as well.
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