[31 May 2007]
While Ozzy Osbourne hasn’t released a brand new studio album since 2001’s Down to Earth, the Prince of Darkness has been busy. Since 2001, rock’s elder statesman has been on a non-stop crazy train with several personal and professional whistle-stops along the way.
Within the past five years, both Ozzy and his family have had their share of health problems and upheaval. In 2002, Ozzy’s wife, manager, and the driving force behind his career, Sharon was diagnosed with colon cancer. Once Sharon had went into remission, Ozzy himself suffered multiple fractures in an ATV accident that also caused bleeding in his lungs. Before his accident, Ozzy had saved one of the family’s numerous dog’s from a coyote attack that had claimed at least one other of the Osbourne’s menagerie. As if that wasn’t enough to deal with, two of Ozzy’s children had undergone rehabilitation for drug and alcohol problems.
While these have undoubtedly been setbacks, there are also the mixed results to consider in the form of The Osbournes, the MTV reality series that focused on the family life of Ozzy, Sharon, and two of their children. While the show was successful in its first few seasons, the novelty wore off and even incurred a backlash from Ozzy’s fans. Apparently, many fans were affronted to learn that their bat-biting hero was not a full-time Prince of Darkness, instead seeing Ozzy as a real person, an average family man plagued by hearing loss, aches, pains, and shaking due to damage from his past drug and alcohol abuse.
Personally, I find it somewhat reassuring to know that metal gods are, in fact, human; that there remains some link to the same reality of that of their fans instead of being locked away in their obsidian towers, complete with Dungeons and Dragons refugees hovering above their spires, encased away from the real world. Perhaps in certain testosterone-fueled mosh pit circles, it may not pass muster to show weakness or appear “soft”, even if you are pushing 60.
What many young whippersnappers don’t necessarily realize that while angst has its beautiful and glorious place in the music of youth, age-acquired wisdom, and life in general bring their own truth and a different breed of anger and regret with it.
It would seem that Ozzy is the latest among the ranks of popular artists to resurrect the long-dormant genre of protest music. Instead of the sweet, gentle tones of Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, this new breed of protest music is electric, angry, fueled by the current, dire state of the world (and a good thing, too, considering fossil fuel prices are fast-approaching hourly-wage rates per gallon).
Ozzy seems to have come full circle, with Black Rain, and particularly its title track, harkening back to Sabbath-era tunes like “War Pigs”. Stylistically, there is a heavy blues base to “Black Rain” much in the vein of Sabbath. A stomping beat created by guitar, bass, and drums stamp their footprints all over the piece and an interlude of Middle Eastern-tinged guitar further drives home the song’s overtly political statement.
“The Almighty Dollar” carries a similar message but a more complex structural style. The track condenses the scare factor of An Inconvenient Truth into a seven-minute track. An act in three movements, it begins on a slow, plodding, industrial note before winding down with an eerie piano interlude mid-way through, conjuring images of a bleak, treeless landscape, either scorched beyond recognition or overrun by melting polar caps obliterating all forms of life. An angry, guitar-wracked coda finds Ozzy musing, “Death, doom, and disaster / The point of no return / No earthly life ever after / Is it too late to learn?”
While many of the songs on Black Rain reflect an anger and mistrust of the government and various other Powers That Be, there are still many personal pieces on the disc. The two requisite power ballads on the album, “Here For You” and “Lay Your World on Me” deal with Ozzy’s wife, Sharon’s battle with cancer but could also apply as Ozzy reaching out as a pillar of support to each member of his nuclear family in their times of trouble.
Not everything on Black Rain is entirely doom and gloom. There are some rather upbeat tracks on the Ozzman’s latest outing. Both the album’s first single, “I Don’t Wanna Stop” and “Not Going Away” seem to be something of an Ozzy manifesto, turning his AARP status on its ear, reinventing the acronym as an All-Access Rock Pass.
“Not Going Away” rips into the listener’s ears like Mike Tyson after a hunger strike, showcasing the unmistakable guitar work of Zakk Wylde. Ozzy has a knack for picking up some seriously solid guitar players, versed in both technical expertise and a personal flair in creating a distinctive sound, Wylde having played with Ozzy on every album since 1988’s No Rest for the Wicked. Not much about Wylde’s playing has changed since 1988. On one hand, this is a good thing, with not much of his ‘80s playing style needing improvement. While Wylde’s guitar work on Black Rain, is impressive, it is inconsistent at times. There are moments where some of his fretboard pyrotechnics seem slightly out of place on some of the songs. Then again, maybe it’s all a delicate balancing act, pulling back enough to let the Ozzy and the other musicians on the disc shine.
Rounding out the musical ensemble on Black Rain are Mike Bordin, formerly of Faith No More on drums and Rob Zombie’s old bassist, Rob “Blasko” Nicholson. Bordin has cred out the ass and Blasko is starting to gain recognition as one of the go-to guys of rock studio/touring musicians.
Somehow, Ozzy manages to coax a precise sound out of whatever musicians he happens to be working with on each and every album. While Blasko has a certain style of playing, reminiscent of a burlesque bump-and-grind, it’s been slightly modified to suit the thunderous bass rumblings that compliment long-time guitarist Wylde’s squealing vibrato of a playing style.
And then there’s Ozzy himself. At the age of 58, Osbourne is arguably one of the best, if not one of the most distinctive voices in all of rock and/or metal. While he doesn’t possess the range, versatility, or operatic, pitch-perfect clarity of Freddie Mercury or Paul Stanley, there is something comforting about Ozzy’s slightly nasal, throaty intonation and the way it rises above and cuts through heavy guitar riffs with a strange mellifluousness. In spite of his lack of quadruple-octave range, his voice is highly expressive and conveys all of the emotions within a given song. Oddly enough, Ozzy’s singing voice is much more coherent than his speaking voice. Nevertheless, there is still a bit of vocal sweetening sprinkled over the top of Black Rain, particularly with a few heavy overdubs on Ozzy’s vocals at times, most notably on the chorus of “I Don’t Wanna Stop”.
While he doesn’t quite have the wide-reaching, cross-genre appeal of Johnny Cash, particularly in the Man in Black’s later years after finding both God and Rick Rubin, it would seem that Ozzy is fast approaching the iconic status of Cash in the latter part of his career, bringing his message to an entirely new generation of fans in a similarly personal way. Upon first glance, Osbourne would appear to be the antithesis of Cash. Looking deeper, the two musical icons share quite a bit of common ground. Both are beloved figures who lived hard and conquered addiction and personal tragedy. Whereas Cash wasn’t quite as forceful in hammering out his message and thoughts on life, Ozzy seems to take more of a Neil Young-esque approach in warning against the dangers of excess, be they personal or planetary. Nevertheless, there is something comforting about the methods of all three of these men, encapsulating a kindness and concern for their fellow man in spite of outlaw status. (Because let’s face it, you don’t get any more outlaw than peeing on The Alamo.)
With the yearly Ozzfest summer tour assembling a horde of metal and hard rock acts at various stages in their career, Ozzy has a platform to be able to impart his wisdom to the young audience within his reach. And for those who can’t attend, Black Rain will suffice nicely.