Qudos Bank Arena, Sydney, AUS, 23 April 2016
04 May 2016
There is a nefarious interval, the Devil's Interval, variously banned, feared and celebrated since the 11th century. Diabolus in Musica. The Devil in Music.
In medieval times members of the high church thought music could convey a true representation of the Holy Trinity. It was a deeply felt belief in the capacity of religious music to create proximity to a deity, through the tritone: the musical interval produced by three pure tones - representing Three in One. But the sound is gnarly. While it has its moments in jazz, it’s not something you'd want to hear repeatedly unless you were playing a bit part in a slasher flick. And let’s face it, it never ends well for those people.
When the rules of harmony were laid down at the creation of the Universe, Satan crept in and bastardised the sound and image of the Trinity. The tritone was such a subversive assault on the ears that it led to a belief that there was something dank and evil lurking at the heart of music in its very essence. It was comprehensively banned from church music. Clergymen thought its disturbing effect was "apt to provoke lewd and libidinous thoughts".
The tritone is harmonic and melodic dissonance. It is important to the study of musical harmony in a technical sense. But it has deeper theological meaning that parallels its significance in music. The tritone is restless, unstable. Its volatile character sets it apart. It points to something new, something confronting, something that leads downward into an abyss of unearthly darkness.
That original symbolic association with the devil and its avoidance led to the Western cultural convention of seeing the tritone as suggesting ‘evil’ in music.
But for some the Devil's Interval is a place to call home.
Black Sabbath used the diminished fifth on Paranoid to colour the sonic landscape with doom. And I was lucky enough to be there for the end of days.
Long Beach Californian act Rival Sons opened the night on an upbeat note, more Zeppelin-y citrus than vampiric doom (you may have heard this story once or twice, where Osbourne devours the head of a live bat. He also supposedly snorted a line of live ants on tour with Mötley Crüe when cocaine supplies were dwindling).
Their fleshy riffs and rock n’ roll swagger had a palatably psychedelic, vintage 70s sound; vocals were belted out, the tone melodic, at times ballady, their song Where I’ve Been an apt opener for the seminal act that was to follow.
Black Sabbath formed in 1968, a year of intense political unrest and social upheaval. The young were revolting, students were rioting in Paris and across the world. The streets were on fire.
At this time, the band that was to become the foundation for all heavy metal and stoner rock scared the bejesus out of folks with their riff-heavy, volume slutty, demonic and doomy sound and aesthetic.
Sabbath composed songs dealing with social instability, the perils of substance abuse, interspersed with themes that reflected an ongoing apocalyptic preoccupation with prophesising the horrors of war, as well as a deeply felt derision for authority figures absolutely corrupted by power.
The band displayed a genuinely earthy sense of appreciation and humility before the massive crowd, as well as a deeply felt love of playing together and the nostalgic choice of songs, largely taken from their classic old material.
Ozzy seemed considerably more with it than the wild-eyed and frenetic incoherence that characterised his stage presence last time Sabbath toured Australia in 2013. He was more of this earth and indeed this universe. There was something playful, spontaneous and genuine in his onstage antics, something intangible that he has somehow managed to retain since starting out as an 18-year-old playing gigs in workers’ pubs in Birmingham, practically illiterate and frequently without shoes.
The Geezer Butler bass solo summoned all the feelings, and when they played Nativity in Black the vibe shifted and the crowd were visibly amped.
Drummer Tommy Clufetos brought an electric energy to the show performing an incendiary drum solo which was extensive enough to have given the rest of the band ample time to go offstage, make a cuppa and have a cigarette or three.
The dissonance and expressiveness during their performance of Iron Man pretty much left me speechless. I was trying to take notes and when I looked down at them later I saw all I had managed was “Hand of doom the doomiest doomy riff that ever doomed...”
Classic track after classic track ensued and the crowd sang along without reserve. Fairies Wear Boots to begin with, and then arguably their most potent and memorable track War Pigs, whose apocalyptic landscape of battlefields drenched in blood and littered with the dying, while apathetic and corrupt politicians manipulate like puppets from a distance. Originally conceived as a song in protest of the Vietnam War, the chilling and unmistakable opening chords and lyrics still deeply resonate today, which sucks.
A lot of people expressed scepticism at the idea that the band would actually break up. Final tours are ubiquitous and often bear little relation to when the band stops gigging, or whether they re-form later on down the track.
But there was an unmistakable finality and nostalgia to this show. Something more intangible than the massive screens bellowing ‘The End’ as everyone, still kind of mesmerised, starting shifting and shuffling outwards after the encore. It felt like being in the cinema after the end of an epic all-absorbing movie, when you’re still immersed in it and not ready to return to the light of day or talk to people. It's finishing the last page of a fantastic book and feeling raw and skinned that it is now over and you will no longer inhabit the world of the characters.
I probably did have some lewd and libidinous thoughts. But mostly I felt immensely grateful that I got to see this band that meant so much to me, that meant so much to metal, twice. Grateful that they seemed so grateful to be doing it.
Holding hands with the devil, walking side by side.