Past Lives is ostensibly Live at Last with some additional odds and ends. It was from the latter, originally released by Warner Brothers during the post-Ozzy Sabbath years in 1982, where the entire first disc of the set is culled. Never considered a true representation of the original line-up at it’s peak, Live at Last was murky, sonically lacking and hastily thrown together to capitalize on the sudden solo success of the ousted Sab’s frontman. Unfortunately, not only was it sound deficient, but the dates of the recordings were listed wrong, and the Oz Man’s first name was misspelled so badly, it made him look like a misguided Australian (Ossie anyone?).
Fortunately, Divine Recordings have given new life to what once was Live at Last, retooling it to sound fresh, while taking away none of the depressive heaviness so integral to the Black Sabbath sound. The opening crunch of “Sweet Leaf” is so devastating, it’s no surprise that C.O.C., who begat Down, currently finds their sound rooted in these early ‘70s sounds of sludge. In this case, it was shows at the Hard Rock in Manchester and at The Rainbow in London, both from 1973.
Lesser known songs stand out, as in the powerage of “Killing Yourself to Live”, a track key in showcasing guitarist Tony Iommi’s dexterity with its multiple changes. The brutal low end of drumming of Bill Ward and bassist Geezer Butler prove that there has never been a better rhythm section in metal. Whether slowing the beat to sickening speeds, or pulling the song together when it threatens to fall apart, it’s clear that Ward and Butler were the heart of Sabbath.
The highlight of Past Lives is “Wicked World”, a nineteen minute jam full of enough feedback and gloomy riffage to satisfy the most hardcore doom metal fans. Proving that they were indeed a jazz blues band when it came right down to it, Sabbath free flows in and out of changes in tone, meter and heaviness. Iommi drops a funky solo that screams of the influence Chicago blues had on the Birmingham native. The song then mixes in the meatier parts of “Into the Void” and “Supernaut”, leaving little question that this was live Black Sabbath at their most powerful.
The second disc doesn’t fare nearly as well. Attributed simply to being “live at various locations and dates during the seventies”, the performances are less than stellar. Many are marred by Osbourne’s terribly out of tune vocals, most notably on “Hole in the Sky” and the dark epic “Megalomania”. As a band, there are times when Sabbath barely manages to hold it together, becoming discombobulated and flailing in different directions yet inevitably meeting at some sort of middle ground.
Together, the two discs compliment each other well in an odd and circular way. The first being more refined and polished, showing the band in fine form, while the second is truly the antithesis, a true basement tape, complete with missed cues and a fuzzy, muddled sound. Both are representative of what Sabbath was in the ‘70s; if they weren’t on, they were off and on the verge of destruction.