Some may consider heavy metal music to be dead, but if they had been at the opening show of Ozzfest 1997, they would have realised that not only is metal alive and healthy, but that it has mutated and evolved into different forms that represent a far cry from its origins almost 30 years ago.
The evolution of metal was exemplified at Ozzfest 1997 because of its diverse lineup, which consisted of underground bands like Drain S.T.H. and Neurosis, who were relegated to the second stage, and platinum-sellers like Pantera and Ozzy Osbourne. Most of all, it heralded the much-touted reunion of one of the most original and inventive metal bands of all time, Black Sabbath, with Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, and Geezer Butler. It was this spectacle that a full crowd had come to watch at the Nissan Pavillion in Manassas, VA.
There were two pleasant surprises for me at the show, and I'll begin with them: Drain S.T.H. is a four-piece band from Sweden. The band, which is all-female, combined catchy riffs with melodic vocals with quite a bit of freshness and intensity, and proved to be a definite crowd pleaser. This is a band with great commercial potential (they have the looks, the hard edge, and the riffs) and I'd definitely keep an eye out for them.
This was the first time I was seeing Neurosis, who have been in the underground metal scene for a while now, and I was definitely impressed. They were the most intense band of the entire show, and perhaps the most intense band I've ever seen. At the end of Neurosis' second set, three of the band members got together and jammed on the drums in perfect syncrony, in a way that would have given King Crimson a run for their money. Both Neurosis and Drain S.T.H. deserved to be on the main stage.
The first band on the main stage was Powerman 5000, who sounded like cheap clones of Rage Against the Machine and White Zombie. This was the band I was least impressed with. They were followed by Machine Head, and although they were better than the former band, the music wasn't something I got into. For both these bands I had problems with the mix and that made it all the more harder to get into them.
Next up was Fear Factory, and their set was surprising as well. The last time I saw Fear Factory was when they opened for Iron Maiden, and the band put on a more aggressive and ferocious show then. This time around, frontman Burton Bell seemed a lot calmer (even though when he was singing the veins in his forehead and neck appeared as if they were going to pop out) and actually smiled every so often. The set they played consisted of Demanufacture, Zero Signal, Self-Bias Resistor, Replica, and Scapegoat. As usual, I was impressed with Bell's alternating vocal style between the growling death metal and the clean vocals.
The best song Fear Factory played, and one which I think heralds a great new direction for the band, was Genetic Blueprint which is a remix of New Breed from Demanufacture (which at least to me seemed different from the remix on the Demanufacture Digipak). This song combined electronic noise in what I considered to be a novel way with the death metal sound of the band. Of course, as was pointed out to me during the show, Neurosis actually did that a bit better.
Type O Negative provided a refreshing change of pace from the manic aural assault of the previous bands. While most of the crowd seemed unfamiliar with their music, they endeared themselves by playing covers of The Doors' Light My Fire and Neil Young's Cinnamon Girl.
I skipped most of Pantera (at least visually) because I don't think very much of them. However, the last bit I caught was interesting for the sole reason that huge chunks of lawn started flying around (à la Woodstock '94) displaying a remarkable complex/emergent phenomenon. I thought the part where Phil Anselmo came back after the band had left the stage and appealed to the crowd to stop throwing the chunks of law around for Ozzy Osbourne's sake, saying they (Pantera) didn't mind it, was cool.
Ozzy Osbourne's solo performance was the longest of the entire festival. Before he took the stage they showed a video with him parodying celebrities (Princess Diana) and movies (Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump). The video was hilarious and was one of the highlights of the day. Unfortunately, Osbourne failed to live up to this level of intellectual humour for the rest of his performance, resorting to a water cannon and pulling down his pants for cheap laughs.
The songs he played, which were all well-executed, included Bark at the Moon, Mr. Crowley, No More Tears, Mama I'm Coming Home, and Crazy Train (played to a backdrop video of the band way back before Randy Rhoads' death and prefixed by Osbourne urging everyone to go crazy for him). A notable exception from the set was Shot in the Dark.
The band supporting Osbourne consisted of Mike Bordin (of Faith No More) on drums, Robert Trujillo (of Suicidal Tendencies) on bass and Joe Holmes on guitar. Bordin and Trujillo, of course, are good musicians. I had never heard Holmes before but he too was really good, playing all the Rhoads' parts with style. All in all, it was a good set, but a bit too long. One of the things I liked in this set was that instead of individual solos by the band members, an extended jam was played that showcased the talents of the musicians collectively better than a solo would have.
Finally, it was time to see the band we had all come to see. Watching Black Sabbath with Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, and Geezer Butler from the third row was terrific. I never thought I'd see the day when Ozzy Osbourne and Tony Iommi would smile at each other. The band riffed through a set consisting of War Pigs (a song that is profound in its impact even today), Sleeping Village (a surprise), Snowblind, Sweet Leaf, Black Sabbath, Children of the Grave, Iron Man, and Fairies Wear Boots. They played Paranoid for an encore.
Iommi was in top form, pulling out riff after riff, and solo after solo. Geezer Butler's bass playing was demonic. And Mike Bordin, who was replacing Bill Ward in the reunion, did a great job on the drums. I cannot express in words how cleanly the music flowed, and how smoothly it came together, even though there were awkward spots here and there. This was a significant moment in my heavy metal history.
While the overall experience was positive, a few things happened that detracted from enjoyment of the show: First, Osbourne's water gun definitely has to go. While it was okay the first couple of times, the repeated dousing of water was annoying, especially when it happened as Iommi was playing a cool solo. Second, the band needs to rehearse more with Osbourne to smooth out the rough edges and get his vocals in shape for a long set (or reduce the length of his solo set). Finally, some moron during the encore decided to jump the stage and the crowd followed Osbourne's instructions: chairs (and people) were ripped apart as Paranoid was played. I acknowledge that without Osbourne this show would never have happened, and I admire his stand for Marilyn Manson (who was asked to be taken off the bill by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority), but I think the show would've been better without the antics of both Osbourne and the crowd.
While Osbourne's vocals were fine during his solo set, I thought he had problems during the Black Sabbath set, particularly during Children of the Grave. I also thought that his movement on stage was a bit awkward. From what I hear, he recently had surgery done on his throat and he has arthritis in his hip.
During the show, I was able to introspect on my tastes in music and how they've changed. I realised that it's a lot easier for me to get into older stuff than the newer stuff, and I realised why this is. Songs like War Pigs and Paranoid are timeless. They've undergone the process of selection from a large population of songs and survived. I've never heard a lot of the mediocre bands or songs from the 70s. A lot of the newer stuff from the newer bands simply hasn't undergone the same selection and it will take a while to sift the wheat from the chaff.
The Ozzfest is set up as a part carnival (Never Never Land), with some games and a very noisy clown who also provided some comedic entertainment. While the T-shirts and food items are terribly overpriced, the bands themselves are definitely worth the price of the ticket. I highly recommend checking it out, even if you're even remotely into heavy metal music, not just to see the reunion of three of the most influential names in rock, but also to check out newer bands like Drain S.T.H. and Neurosis.