A little over two years ago, as I write this, the band that really defined what became heavy metal called it a day after a farewell world tour that wound up in their home city of Birmingham England. Dubbed The End this final Black Sabbath concert was captured on film by director Dick Carruthers and, now the hype and fuss has died down, I’ve finally given it a watch.
The set list is, as you might expect, exemplary, drawing entirely form their 1970s prime and hitting pretty much all the major touchstones they could fit into just under two hours. I’ll admit there’s tracks I would have liked to hear that weren’t included (Sweet Leaf for one) but it’s hard to be picky with a show like this.
Performance wise the concert is tremendous, with the core remaining trio of the band, Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar) and Geezer Butler (bass), flanked by Tommy Clufetos on drums (replacing Bill Ward after some rather public legal disagreements in the lead up to their final album 13) and, off stage, Adam Wakeman adding keys and second guitar when needed.
While Geezer and Tony are on it throughout, during opener Black Sabbath, it did look as if Ozzy might not be having one of his ‘good nights’ as he was not only out of time but seemed to be having trouble engaging with the rest of the band. As they launched into second track Fairies Wear Boots these fears evaporated and from then on all three were on top form.
The dynamic between them on stage is fascinating and, based on what I’ve seen from their prime, has changed very little with Ozzy the energetic focus running around the stage and encouraging the audience to shout, sing, clap and wave along.
Iommi and Butler meanwhile look like friendly uncles letting this kid have some fun while nailing a string of riffs and bass lines unparalleled in heavy music with an apparent ease that one can only marvel at it.
Across the set both take their moments in the spotlight (as does Clufetos on a drum solo that doesn’t work that well on film but gives the others a chance to have a break) but leave most of the showing off to Ozzy.
There are points where Ozzy’s antics, if they’d come from someone else, could easily have strayed to the wrong side of ridiculous but grounded by the rest of the band and the songs they never quite do, making for something amazingly energetic for three men well into their 60s who’ve all survived everything life could throw at them.
While all the tracks are great there are a couple of highlights.
After they settle into the swing of things Snowblind was a surprising one as it never really struck me on record but here sounds tremendous.
What feels like the second portion of the set then gets going with War Pigs not just sounding but looking huge as the whole audience join Ozzy is singing along, some with tears in their eyes, while the big screens behind the band show a montage of war imagery intercut with the band and pyro explodes left, right and centre.
Hand Of Doom is possibly the strongest moment of the whole thing with Ozzy’s voice on the verge of breaking and real emotion pouring from him, while Iommi’s guitar has, as it does throughout, an earthy grit that matches Ozzy – this is one of my favourite things about the band (but I won’t get into too much guitar geekery but suffice to say old school pick ups and an SG never sounded better).
Geezer’s tour de force of course comes on N.I.B. but throughout he is, as always, the often unsung hero, creating the atmospheric proto-stoner and psychedelic grooves that so often provide the counterpoint to Iommi’s driving guitar, and of course a lot of the lyrics to their classic came from his undeniably esoteric mind.
The finale features a storming version of Children Of The Grave, complete with many giant balloons bouncing around the arena (something I’ve never quite understood, Metallica had them on the Death Magnetic tour and they made as little sense in person as they do in film) followed by the inevitable encore of Paranoid that, while both obvious and not my favourite of their songs, really was the only way to end things and it does so in a triumphant way.
Visually the film looks great too.
While shot and presented in sweeping, modern, high definition and looking amazingly crisp and sharp on blu-ray, director Carruthers throws in a healthy dose of retro moments harking back to those old TV performances you see on documentaries about the band.
These often work in conjunction with the big screen in the live footage in a very impressive way and it genuinely does help tie the live performance and the film together in a way I’ve not really seen done, certainly not this successfully.
Along with this we get some split screen, in fact I think there could have been more of this without it getting in the way, while a judicious use for slow motion has a really nice effect on some moments without feeling too artificial.
The other thing that really brings the whole film to life are the shots of the crowd.
This being the last ever Sabbath show it’s understandable that this is an emotional experience for many, not just on stage, particularly as it seems a fair number of the crowd had made the pilgrimage to Birmingham specifically for the show and Carruthers captures this with close ups of the crowd at just the right moments putting as much passion into singing along as anyone and at points even being moved to tears as they hear these songs in this way for, supposedly, the last time.
All this comes together to make The End one of the most satisfying, enjoyable and engrossing concert films I’ve seen and it certainly acts as a fine send off for one of the most revolutionary bands of the rock ‘n’ roll era while acting as a reminder of quite how stacked their back catalogue really is — now where’s my vinyl?