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Opinion | The Prince of Darkness delivers another rocker

Heavy metal icon Ozzy Osbourne has released a new album after a decade. Charged with adrenaline and searing guitar riffs, it’s like a trip back to metal’s early era

Ozzy Osbourne performing live with Black Sabbath in Oslo in November 2013.
Ozzy Osbourne performing live with Black Sabbath in Oslo in November 2013. (Alamy)

Had it not been for a friend who alerted me, I would have missed Ozzy Osbourne’s latest album. Even though it came out in February, I got to listen to Ordinary Man, his first solo in 10 years, months later. Osbourne, 71, famously the lead singer of Britain’s pioneering heavy metal band Black Sabbath, has been having health problems—injuries from a fall and a form of Parkinson’s disease. So, for legions of fans of his erstwhile band and him, Ordinary Man is an album worth waiting for. It could well be his last. Many musicians in recent years released their end-of-career albums when they were ill (by all accounts, Osbourne is very ill). Famously, there was Leonard Cohen’s You Want it Darker; David Bowie’s Blackstar; Gregg Allman’s Southern Blood; and Sharon Jones’ Soul Of A Woman. All of them were laced with premonitions of an end about to come.

Osbourne, known as the Prince of Darkness in his heydey, has a dozen solo albums besides his recordings with Black Sabbath, beginning with the first one in 1980, Blizzard Of Ozz. Black Sabbath are widely recognized as the vanguard of heavy metal; they were possibly ahead of their time. Their self-titled debut album, which turned 50 this year, went on to become epochal but critics were surprisingly sceptical when it came out. I have read that some very revered reviewers of the time were caustic in their criticism. Famously, Lester Bangs, the highly influential American rock critic (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous), wrote that “the whole album is a shuck".

Well, they were proved wrong. That album lay down the road for heavy metal in all its variations. Over the years, heavy metal bands have all followed the track that Black Sabbath opened upand for many enthusiasts of the heaviest kind of rock music, listening to Sabbath is a kind of rite of passage. Paranoid, Iron Man, War Pigs and so many other songs by the band have each continued to garner hundreds of millions of streams on any platform they are found on. Ask any heavy metal musician today which band influenced them most and the answer is likely to be Sabbath.

Ordinary Man is not Ozzy’s best solo album. My vote for that would go to Diary Of A Madman, released in 1981. By that year, the clique of friends I used to hang around with had meandered into hippie territory as far as our music tastes ran. So (and I say this with much sheepishness) we had a kind of nose-in-the-air attitude about heavier genres of rock. It was our loss actually that we had scant regard for Black Sabbath and Ozzy. But I did listen to Diary Of A Madman and its mind-scorching guitar riffs by the late Randy Rhoads, Ozzy’s epic ballads and (for its era) good production quality were enough to set things right: Heavy rock mattered.

It is unusual but I would recommend listening to Ordinary Man from back to front. Start with the last track. It’s titled Take What You Want and features the American rapper Travis Scott. Yes, it’s a sort of rap meets heavy metal track. The one just before it is yet another unexpected one. Titled It’s A Raid, it features and is co-produced by the rapper and producer Post Malone. Many among heavy metal purists, Black Sabbath fanatics and Ozzy’s legions of fans have reacted adversely to infusions such as on these two tracks but both are enjoyable songs and, presumably, they could draw in younger millennials to Ozzy and Sabbath’s vast body of work.

Make no mistake though. As you climb up the song list on Ordinary Man, you start moving into serious metal territory. There are musicians from Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N’ Roses and even Elton John featured on Ordinary Man. To be honest, however, John and Osbourne do a duet on the album’s piano-driven title track that is a bit sub-par compared to the rest of the album. Some tracks sound as if they are off some pristine Black Sabbath albums, harking back to that band’s heady days. Under The Graveyard is one such, as is the album opener, Straight To Hell.

On Ordinary Man, Osbourne sounds remarkably adrenalin-charged and the album is like a rewind to the angsty, angry, loud and riff-laden days of heavy metal’s early era. But even with the high energy levels, there is an element of foreboding. You may likely sense the fear that might underlie the mind of a veteran rocker who is in his career’s fading last phase. Yet, Ordinary Man, for lovers of uncompromisingly heavy rock music, is a gift. The power ballads, the frenzy of the lead guitars, and Ozzy’s back-to-the-early-days style of singing make it an essential album.

Even before the covid-19 pandemic struck, Osbourne had cancelled his 2020 tour for health reasons. In the past, the Prince of Darkness was known for his outrageous antics on stage—he once infamously bit the head off a bat that someone had thrown on stage. His tours in more recent years have been less dramatic but always steeped in energy. It is not certain if he’s going to perform live in coming years, nor whether another album will be forthcoming any time soon. So Ordinary Man will have to be our latest status check on an extraordinary rock icon and influencer.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.


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