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LIVE REPORT: Black Sabbath
Jamie Thomson , July 7th, 2014 15:22

Fronted by a youthful Osbourne, Black Sabbath headline the BST festival in Hyde Park. Jamie Thomson reports, photo by Jesper Hedlund

It begins with a siren, announcing that the wait for this hugely anticipated segment of the British Summer Time festival is over, and all those questions that had been bouncing around a feverishly excited social media are finally going to be answered. Questions like: "Is this the last time Black Sabbath will ever play live?" (No, probably not.) "Will errant drummer and founding member Bill Ward make an emotional return at this last-ever gig?" (We've already covered the "last-ever" thing, but no. Not going to happen.) And "am I really going to get to see Sabbath for £2.50?" (Well, yes you are, my friend, but you'll be so far back in the arena, stuck behind any number of different VIP and Premium sections hogging the front of the stage, you'll wonder why you bothered.)

Taking to the stage for opener 'War Pigs' – these are air-raid sirens, see? - Ozzy Osbourne bounce on and begins pogoing as soon as he grabs the mic stand: "Awwwriight! How the fuck are ya!?!?" This is a slimmer, sprightlier Ozzy than I've seen in years – if you don't pay too much attention to the unforgiving HD screens behind him, he looks 10 years younger than he did 20 years ago, and is dynamic with it. And although 'Into The Void's vocals are fumbled a little, he is a million miles away from the shambling figure jogging between autocues in a sequinned muumuu that I'd winced at so often in the past. He still has – and will probably never lose - that ungainly over-the-head handclap that looks out of time even when it isn't, but here he is channelling vintage footage from the 70s, rather than those sad echoes from the 90s.

"This is a song about a little pastime we used to do. You know what I'm talking about." And thus 'Snowblind' – their paen to the perils of cocaine abuse – rings out. It's the first time band and singer are all on the same page from the get-go, and it sounds magnificent. But credit must go to the researchers and archivists that put together the (very literal) footage for the backdrop. In among the vintage Hollywood portrayals of people hoovering coke up their noses – from Charlie Chaplin to Scarface's Tony Montana and beyond – a picture flashes up, just for a second, of an extremely gakked-up Ozzy in all his neck-vein-bulging, eye-popping, teeth-grinding glory. Nice.

A new song, 'Age Of Reason', from the entirely creditable 13 album, sends chunks of the audience off to the Portaloos and bars. Five minutes later, the tolling bell that signals the start of 'Black Sabbath' sends them scurrying back, only to be told by security – struggling to work out what wristband allows you to go where in this ridiculous rat-run of staggered viewing areas – that they're trying to get into the wrong section. Thus, the vintage SFX of pealing bells and heavy rain is joined by plaintive cries of "But I've just bloody come from there!" echoing around Hyde Park.

The giant screens are now showing sheets of rain on a black background (which, if nothing else, is tempting fate a bit given the stormclouds that had been hanging around central London for the last couple of hours). And, as Osbourne approaches to the mic to howl "What is this that stands before me?", some keener ears in the audience prick up: is he using Autotune? I can't tell for sure, but his voice sounds remarkably different and more processed than before. As if by way of apology, this kicks off a run of four stone-cold classics from their earliest recordings, followed as it is by 'Behind The Wall Of Sleep', 'N.I.B' and 'Fairies Wear Boots' from Paranoid, all dashed off effortlessly.

Tony Iommi is the quiet star throughout all of this. A Jason King-esque figure of regency curls and tasteful black suede, he is the embodiment of refinement and composure, apart from the odd dandyish waggle of his locks, or satisfied smile playing across his lips when a really good bit comes up. Very occasionally, he allows himself a slow, pursed-lip nod of approval as his hands glide up and down the neck of his guitar, like a master craftsman appreciating the stain on a nicely-varnished piece of wood, not – you know – a man recreating the riffs with which he changed the entire direction of rock music some 40 years ago. It is a wonder to behold.

But this early-days saunter confirms that they are unlikely to stray from the set list they've been touring for the last year, and any chance of an hearing an outlier is diminishing with each song. A shame because, outdoor sound being what it is, the bluesier nuances of these older tracks are getting lost in the wind, and the mind is starting to wander – you really want the lumpen idiocy (in a good way) of Sweet Leaf or the primal chug of 'Symptom Of The Universe' to grab the occasion by the scruff of the neck.

'Iron Man' is the track assigned to this task, following an entirely superfluous drum solo, where the Not Bill Ward of the occasion, drummer Tommy Clufetos, takes what seemed an age to really drive home that he is Not Bill Ward. Attempting to lead the crowd in a terrace chant of Iron Man's stomping monster riff, Ozzy sings it in the manner of Otto from The Simpsons, and a good couple of notes out of tune. The massed response is mostly: "Erm ..." To their credit, the crowd takes a second to compose themselves, and sings it back in tune, righting a song that is dangerously close to coming off the rails before Osbourne has the chance to sing an actual word.

By now, the skies have finally begun to open – and with 'God is Dead?', a 10-minute track from the new album, probably not the best enticement to stick around and get rained on – people start to stream towards the exits. For those that brave the elements (and, really, it is hardly a deluge), the reward is a monumental-sounding 'Children Of The Grave' and, to round it all off, a firework-laden 'Paranoid'. But buggering off home early when it starts to piss down? Sounds like British summertime to me.