Metal pioneers Black Sabbath set to bid farewell to Las Vegas

Even in the beginning, it sounded like the end — of mankind, of sunshine, of reassuring hugs, kittens and rainbows (definitely no more rainbows).

How else to describe the first ominous notes ever to rise from a Black Sabbath record like tendrils of smoke from a funeral pyre?

A bell tolls, the sound of rain heralds an oncoming storm, one with earthmover-heavy riffs in place of thunder. Then comes a foreboding lurch, a doomsday trudge, conjured as if the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse had swapped their steeds for instruments.

“What is this that stands before me?” singer Ozzy Osbourne asks.

 

Yes, what is this?

That question must have been posed countless times back in 1970 when the song in question, “Black Sabbath,” opened the band’s self-titled debut in what was the rock ’n’ roll equivalent of the birth of Rosemary’s Baby.

As Osbourne sings of an encounter with Satan, whose eyes blaze like the hell he’s about drag the song’s protagonist down into, his voice escalates from a frightened, tremulous moan to a gooseflesh-inducing wail suggestive of true peril.

“Oh noooo,” Osbourne bellows, his voice trailing off as if he was plunging down a mineshaft. “Please God help me!”

Nope.

You want mercy?

Listen to Yes.

This was Sabbath: They sang of war, the devil and drugs. Theirs was the sound of parental units hyperventilating.

And it all began with “Black Sabbath.”

One could argue that it’s the song that begat heavy metal.

No one could argue that it doesn’t continue to rank among the genre’s greatest all these years later.

If recent set lists hold true, it’ll be the first tune Sabbath plays at their Vegas farewell on Saturday, 44 years after making their local debut at the long-gone Convention Center Rotunda.

Five months later, Sabbath will bring their career to a close with a pair of February shows in their hometown of Birmingham, England.

Bassist Geezer Butler has been steeling himself for that moment when Sabbath will officially be no more, but he still doesn’t sound completely ready for it.

Probably never will be.

“Well, I’m dreading the final show,” the 67-year-old Butler acknowledges. “I have bittersweet feelings about it. I’m glad we’re finishing at the top of our game, and finishing the best of friends, but it will be a sad occasion knowing we’ll never be on stage as Black Sabbath again.

“Sabbath has been my life for almost for 50 years. It’s all I really know. I’ll be a little lost without it. Not only will it be the end of Sabbath, but the end of all our touring crew, which has become like family over the years.”

There are the little things that Butler will miss while touring in this city or that, like the eats at a certain high-end casino.

“Being a vegan, I stay at the Wynn, where they have extensive vegan menus,” he says. “Viva las vegans!”

Mostly, though, Butler will miss being immersed in the culture he helped create.

Prior to Black Sabbath, there was no such thing as heavy metal.

Sure, there were influential hard-rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Blue Cheer, crucial precursors to Sabbath.

But Sabbath was like a rock ’n’ roll solar eclipse, making everything darker, more shadowy, more malevolent.

It all began with guitarist Tony Iommi, deity of the power chord.

The physical pull that Iommi’s riffs exert in song is akin to the inertia you experience when you’re traveling in a fast-moving vehicle and the brakes are slammed suddenly: There’s a split-second pause, the feeling of a brief suspension of time, and then bam! You’re thrust back into the car seat. This same sensation, consciously cultivated, plays itself out time and time again in Sabbath’s catalog, with Iommi playing deliberately, letting riffs swell, breathe, expand and hang in the air before — wham! — the next one comes.

It’s a sound that birthed a movement, a lifestyle, which is what heavy metal eventually became to scads of longhairs the world over. Butler saw it all develop from the inside, learning from others — especially the many bands formed in Sabbath’s wake — that Sabbath was “heavy metal.”

“I think I first became aware when Judas Priest started citing us as their main influence, and they were referring to us as ‘heavy metal,’ ” he says. “At the same time, various rock magazines and papers started appearing, such as Creem in the U.S. and Sounds in the U.K., concentrating on heavier music.”

In a way it’s kind of ironic that a guy like Butler would play such a central role in the birth of such a loud, concussive form of music. He’s a laid-back, thoughtful presence, a genial bookworm. For him, playing heavy music is a way of channeling a different side of himself, of continually tapping into the youthful vigor from which Black Sabbath sprang.

“It’s a way of releasing fantasies and dreams,” Butler says. “When I’m on stage, I feel ageless, and to see so many people into our music is the most pleasing aspect of life. It’s kind of a gentle power.”

This power becomes slightly less gentle, however, when you’re on the receiving end of it, either in a concert hall or through a pair of headphones.

It’s a unique kind of energy, and though Sabbath won’t be generating it themselves for much longer, like all forms of energy, it won’t cease to exist. It’ll simply be manifested in new forms — in this case, the continued evolution of heavy metal.

For now, though, this is it.

When the band concludes its encore on Saturday with “Paranoid,” it’ll exit the stage to a recording of “Zeitgeist,” a tune taken from Sabbath’s final album, 2013’s “13.”

“And very soon / The boundless moon / Will show us light,” Osbourne sings at the song’s conclusion. “And as we crash / We’ll pray and kiss / And say goodnight.”

Goodnight.

Read more from Jason Bracelin at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com and follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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