Metal immortals face mortality

Black magic and interstellar travel. A sorcerer as metaphor for a drug dealer — and the subsequent mental illness induced by his wares. Nuclear holocaust. And of course lots and lots of Satan. Such is the subject matter with which Black Sabbath long ago established the thematic template for heavy metal music and all of its unholy legions of sub-genres from doom to black metal.

But another common if under-appreciated thread running through the legendary British band’s corpus concerns the triumph of faith over nihilism. “I was brought up very religiously — a strict Catholic. It’s sort of bashed into me” admits Geezer Butler Sabbath bassist and the group’s main lyricist. “Sometimes I totally believe in God and everything and other days I think it’s a completely ridiculous fairy story. There’s a total conflict within me-self.”

Granted Butler is in a very different place these days than the occult-obsessed lad who penned those songs. Like many of metal’s forebears he and the rest of Sabbath grew up under the smokestacks of Britain’s industrial midlands. In their case it was the city of Birmingham a rather bleak place where Butler says only football religion and ultimately rock ’n’ roll offered much in the way of diversion.

These days though Butler calls Los Angeles home and his biggest concern at the time of this interview is what to pack as he leaves California’s 80 degree weather for the considerably colder climes he’s sure to encounter as Sabbath embarks on the Canadian leg of its tour. As evinced by his Twitter feed (@GZRmusic) he’s still a football fanatic but other passions have waned: you’re more likely to find the committed vegan leading a boycott of stores that stock foie gras than dabbling in the dark arts.

Yet many of the old themes persist in the music of 21st century Sabbath the words to their recent Grammy Award-winning “God is Dead?” reading like a decidedly more cynical update of the 1971 “After Forever” which admonished non-believers that “God is the only way to love.” If anything concerns with the unknown seem a little more pressing now as the band members approach their pension years facing a host of maladies: the contractual dispute with original Sabbath drummer Bill Ward which left him out of their reunion efforts; Ozzy Osbourne’s recurring struggles with addiction including an alleged recent relapse; guitarist Tony Iommi’s ongoing battle with lymphoma.

And of course the recent passing of Sabbath’s second singer Ronnie James Dio whom Butler and Iommi had been touring with as Heaven & Hell in the late 2000s clearly illustrates just how close to “After Forever” they are now.

“When Ronnie died that really brought it home to us” explains Butler. “You realize you’ve only got a certain amount of time left on this Earth. I don’t think we would have done the album if we hadn’t realized that. You think you’re going to go on forever and then when things like that happen it brings you right down to Earth — you realize you only have a certain amount of friends in the world….”

The album Butler refers to is 13 the first with Osbourne since the singer was famously turfed from the group in 1979. Unlike so many other reunion efforts of late it’s better than anyone could or should have expected — eschewing as it does the more studio-intensive indulgences of their later records for that very basic but classic down-tuned drone which first ominously heralded their arrival on the rock scene in 1970. Butler credits producer Rick Rubin with helping the band return to form.

“He said before you even start writing I want you to listen to the first album you ever did — forget all the stuff that came later: pre-metal pre-heavy rock and all that kind of stuff… listen to what you did back then” recalls Butler. “We were sort of confused at first. We thought that was like 40 years ago — we can’t possibly go retro and start thinking like we used to when we were 18 or 19 years old. But we gradually learned what he was talking about. What he meant was go in the studio and play live like you’re playing in a little club…. Keeping it simple and keeping it to things we can play live.”

Tellingly this stripped-down back-to-basics approach that recalls the days of their absolute youth serves as a sobering reminder of just how much time has passed. Says Butler “A lot of the album was about realizing you’re a mortal person on this Earth.”

BLACK SABBATH perform on Sunday April 20 at the Saddledome.