By Mark Guarino
To any God-fearing critic of heavy metal music, a booth labeled “Bloodfest Ball” would rightfully spark images of mayhem and gore.
But at Ozzfest, the supreme gathering of all things metal, it was all about Barney.
Or some chump dressed as the purple dinosaur, moping back and forth, woefully enduring the constant pellet shots of teenagers who paid good money to hit him.
Next door was another booth offering “Doomsday Darts,” a game involving popping balloon targets for prizes. Then there were the Marines — the Marines! — offering any teenage metalhead the chance to work off a nacho lunch by doing a few pull-ups.
Here was the state of mainstream metaldom, 2001: Add loads of leather and some bad tattoos and Ozzfest was no different than your average family fun fair complete with sno cones and farmer tans.
Ozzfest was started six years ago by Sharon Osbourne, a savvy rock promoter, manager and wife of Ozzy Osbourne, leader of the British band Black Sabbath, considered heavy metal’s originator.
When Black Sabbath came onto the scene in 1970, rock music was in need of a serious jumpstart. The psychedelic movement in San Francisco had seriously burnt out, the Beatles had broken up and soft rock in the form of James Taylor and the Carpenters was taking over. Black Sabbath took its blues rock influences further than Led Zeppelin. The tempos were at funeral march speed, the songs were played in deep, dark octaves and Osbourne sang in a scary wail.
But Sabbath also had something no other band of its time had: a fetish for black humor. Inspired by the occult and horror movies (“Black Sabbath” is the title of an old Boris Karloff film), the band embraced kitschy Satanic imagery, a trick that paid out with millions of fans, millions of creeped-out parents, and a long lineage of imitators.
Sabbath is reuniting on this current Ozzfest, which kicked off its 28-date summer tour at the Tweeter Center Friday. While the tour has helped the band re-invent itself as elder statesmen, Ozzfest itself has become a barometer of how far the genre Black Sabbath invented has come.
Since Sabbath, heavy metal has mutated. The more intense faction, focused on sci-fi fantasy and triple-speed workouts, has gone underground where independent labels feed a cult of protective fans. Mainstream metal morphed into the hard rock of Van Halen in the ‘80s, the grunge rock of Nirvana in the ‘90s and the rap-rock of Limp Bizkit just a few years ago.
Today, metal is yet in another spin. The label this time around is “Nu Metal.” No goofball frontmen like David Lee Roth doing the high kicks here. Instead we have band leaders like David Draiman of Disturbed, the Chicago band that headlined the second stage Friday. His head shaved, wearing tight black clothes, and singing “I get stupefied” with a guttural roar, Draiman exemplified what Nu Metal is all about: serious angst without a single trace of irony.
Disturbed, as well as the 18 other bands that played all day Friday, have married metal to hip-hop, using DJs to scratch beats and singers who also rapped. But unlike hip-hop that frequently uses humor as a weapon, the Nu Metal bands strut around poker-faced and buffed like your average pro wrestler.
But as we all know, pro wrestlers are at their core, expert con men. The same is true of bands like Linkin Park. Fronted by a rapper (Mike Shinoda) and a singer (Chester Bennington), the band played bubblegum melodies that could be from any Backstreet Boys record if the guitar distortion was lifted. The band’s hit song, “One Step Closer” unites a cheery chorus until babyfaced Bennington lashes into a tirade, screaming “shut up” until blue in the face.
Lack of subtlety is a Nu Metal trait, by the way. While grunge rockers like Kurt Cobain toyed with words, these bands say it straight with the finesse of a phone book.
Take Coby Dick of the band Papa Roach. Like a WWF trooper, he sloganeered his way through his set (they played “real music for real people,” he explained). But again, his songs of family trauma felt utterly staged, up to the point his song “Broken Home” trailed off with a mock recording of a family fight, proof, it seemed that the song came from someplace real.
But why would metal even need a reality check, especially in light of Black Sabbath’s satanic mimicry? As anyone who has seen the film “Spinal Tap” knows, metal has always been tongue in cheek about the masks it wears. But as these humorless bands borrow the bleak forecasting of grunge with the party rock vibe of the ‘80s bands preceding it, the message gets blurred in-between.
The only bands Friday that understood the concept of doom as spectacle schlock were Slipknot and Marilyn Manson. Slipknot, an Iowa band of nine Halloween-masked hooligans, played speed metal with no discernable melodies. It was all about stage chaos, with members of the band escaping up aisles (accompanied by a security team, of course) generally acting like characters from a comic strip. With a spine-shaking underbelly to the music, the band harvested nightmarish rhetoric with humorous, if ultimately hollow, gestures.
If Slipknot was like from a comic strip, Marilyn Manson played many characters in one grand opera. An androgynous diva in fishnets and boots, Manson was gawk-worthy at nearly seven feet tall. As his set went on, his presence kept mounting. As if informed by the work of the experimental theatre director Robert Wilson, Manson strapped on stilts and crutches and prowled the stage like an insect, then returned as the head of a puppet being raised to the rafters underneath a long draping funnel dress. The political messages were complex (railing against “guns, god, the government” in “The Love Song” while dressed as a dictator) and his songs were racked with power choruses just as worthy. Slinking through his cover of the Eurythmics song, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These),” Manson was start to finish, riveting.
Almost 10 hours had passed by the time Black Sabbath hit the stage. All four original members were a bit worse from wear — from drummer Bill Ward’s barechested love handles to the teleprompter feeding Osbourne lyrics. The crowd was an easy sell for classic gloom anthems like “War Pigs” “Paranoid” and “Ironman,” with guitarist Tony Iommi’s chainsaw riffing gluing it all together.
Like that beleaguered Barney — or the wax likeness of Ozzy in the concession area available for free photo ops — the reunited Sabbath had more of a novelty appeal in its own festival. Baiting the crowd for more applause, Osbourne was like a favorite grandfather you didn’t take seriously but went to for candy anyway. Though among his latest offspring of commercially choreographed doomsayers, it was nostalgia even the devil would sell his soul for.
Metal mutates once more at all-day Ozzfest