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This is the true, original Black Sabbath, captured live to tape in their dead and gone 1970s glory, so what's to complain about? Couple of things, I guess, even from an Ozzy era Sab worshipper such as myself. For instance, why did they open the record with "Tomorrow's Dream"? Why does the first stoner metal song ever written come after a rather mediocre tune? Well, fuck it, because I can simply drop the needle straight onto "Sweet Leaf", light up, and head for the riff-filled land.
The inclusion of songs like "Killing Yourself To Live" and the crushing "Cornucopia" are a Sabbathian dream as those deeper cuts are rarely available in any compilation, live or otherwise. The opening lick of "Cornucopia" is one of the most punishing riffs in the entire Sabbath riffalogue, and it's a goddamn shame that it's so commonly overlooked. At least Type O Negative understood the meaning of it all, as they would sometimes tease their live audiences by just sticking the tip of that one in there. Ah, this piece of wax is truly a Sab nerd's delight.
Side A is rounded out with the first death metal song known to mankind, I think you know it, for it will crush all of humanity from here to eternity: "Children Of The Grave". That's right, I make no bones about worshipping at the altar of the Lords Of This World. I digress, and alas! I was at first deceived by the track list of side B, as all the sleeve will tell you is that three songs are there, and two of them have been performed at probably every Sabbath show ever.
The reason you should buy this album is for "Wicked World," for it is so much more than just that classic and jazzy little number. Yes, Tony wanks it for an extended amount of time. Whatever. The reward for the true fan is the tasty riff cornucopia (see what I did there?) of "Into The Void" (which, in case you didn't know, is the heaviest riff EVER, period) and "Supernaut", but hark, what is this that jams before me? The Sabs have got the blues, mates! I had never heard this one before, and I don't know what to call it, other than glorious! Spellbinding! Providential! Over the blues-driven genius that is Iommi-Butler-Ward, Ozzy commiserates with us about a no good woman who done him wrong. I fucking love this! And all I had to do was happily hand over $5 to my local record store for this live slice of riff cobbler, performed by none other than the inventors of the riff!
The stage is where a band can really prove its true potential and skill, after all, the studio provides many tricks and traps to make the music recorded there so perfect and immaculate. That’s the reason why live records have always been essential for any heavy metal/hard rock group (pop, disco and other genres obviously don’t require such level of musicianship), they give the change to those fans that can’t go to the shows to check out how good their admired heroes really are, deprived of the studio paraphernalia. In the 70’s particularly, many live albums became popular and iconic like Ted Nugent’s Double Live Gonzo!, Kiss’s Alive or Judas Priest’s Unleashed In The East. It was surprising it take so long for Black Sabbath to put out their first concert LP, though it came too late, released without the band’s knowledge.
The set-list is plenty of classics, starting with the casual accessible ones as “Tomorrow’s Dream” to the darker atmosphere and admirable complication of “Cornucopia”. Yeah, you guessed it right, these gigs must be from the Vol. 4 era, according to the several cuts performed from that record (actually 11th & 16th March 1973 at the Rainbow and Manchester), so the band was in state of grace, in the middle of their golden age and ready to impress. However, classics as “Snowblind” here don’t offer many surprises, in general all this stuff is following a nearly exact execution to the original studio ways. That methodology becomes clearer and evident on “War Pigs” or that early version of “Killing Yourself To Live”, both similarly focused and played as on the studio LPs. Those lengthy ones could’ve been easily arranged in some alternative way, introducing some improvised jam or unexpected sequence, though these guys prefer to embrace the genuine cuts patterns strictly. Riffs are showing no difference or modification, pickin’ parts either, not even Ozzy’s modulation is distinct, no additional charisma or grace is added to the original song verses. So there’s uniformity in that aspect, they push away progression or ambition on stage, making simplicity omnipresent as it was on the first studio records (Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was the inflection point, more technical). Of course, there ain’t much you can modify on the straight structures of “Paranoid”, for instance, but some changes or new riff series would’ve been welcomed on more diverse tunes like “Children Of The Grave”. Iommi and co. seem to be specially determined to keep the configuration of those heavy numbers untouched, not a wrong choice after all, I guess they didn’t want anything to interrupt the continuity of those mighty riffs. Can you imagine “Sweet Leaf” being modified to reach 30 minutes of jamming? I can’t.
Back then, most of their peers were trying so hard to make their performances on stage epic and alternative from what the studio material offered. The biggest expression of pretention and talent could be found on Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple’s shows, who easily turned an originally 4 minute studio track into half an hour of progression, extended solos and pure improvisation, even interpolating other compositions or covers. Actually, Black Sabbath did a similar attempt on the splendid “Wicked World” medley here, which includes excerpts from “Into The Void”, “Supernaut” and more, featuring a pretty lengthy solo by Iommi unleashed and admirably inspired as usual, plus a rather poor humble solo by Ward (as usual too). But that’s an exception in a set-list that prefers staying loyal to the studio schemes, which doesn’t mean necessarily this performance was mediocre or generic at all. The execution might not be particularly original, inventive or unpredictable, though all energy, intensity and power of the band are captured in these versions, making them vibrant and memorable. Fortunately, sound quality is pretty decent, especially Iommi’s guitar texture is so rough and heavy, Ozzy’s vocals far from perfect but fitting the lyrics ideally (the “Cocaine!” line on “Snowblind” this time hasn’t been censored) and that simple rhythm Butler-Ward section as discreet as always, superb for the concept of this music, all contributing to make it so unique, peculiar and solid. That system made a contrast with the stunning difficulty and spectacular display of King Crimson, ELP or Yes, intentionally different and simpler, setting the rules for future subgenres, for the NWOBHM kids specially who’d soon get tired of so much pompous complexity, demanding heavier straighter live music. So you see, Sabbath were also ahead of their time in that point.
Are you looking for 40 minute long songs, plenty of bluesy jams, endless guitar and drum solos? Do you like it progressive, technical and impossible? Then you’ve chosen the wrong live record, because Black Sabbath followed a completely opposite direction. Sometimes perfection and difficulty don’t equal good music, a fine brilliant cut doesn’t have to be that long to be consistent or convincing (if we refer to the 70’s when all was so epic), those guys proved it being competent and effective on stage. However, Live At Last came too late as I said, in the wrong time when the genuine line-up had split-up already, when the British scene was completely different from the trends of the time when these compositions were originally played. The fact the band didn’t give permission to this record to be released is the clearest sign of something going wrong with it…pick up Past Lives instead, it has all these tunes and some extra better ones.
It's a shame that Black Sabbath never managed to record a live album of a standard they were satisfied with during the strongest part of the Ozzy era. Until Past Lives came out, the closest thing we had was this quasi-official release - not a bootleg, because it was released by people with the legal rights to the recordings in Europe, but not approved of by the band.
The sound quality is pretty raw, but is above bootleg standards - it's more or less average for a live recording from the era. Musically speaking, if you've had the original albums on heavy rotation this album isn't going to reveal anything particularly new or revolutionary about the material on here - Killing Yourself to Live has different lyrics because it hadn't yet been finalised as a composition but the instrumental side of the song has been more or less pinned down at this point, Wicked World turns into a medley, and Ozzy repeatedly shouts "COCAINE!" during Snowblind rather than whispering it once. In fact, it's Ozzy's performance that changes the most from the studio albums here; the album provides ample proof that during his prime Ozzy was an insanely extroverted frontman on a mission to make sure every single member of the audience has a great time.
Buyers should be aware that the first disc of Past Lives is exactly the same as this album, so there's no good reason to buy it separately when you can get Past Lives and in effect have a bonus disc of additional performances with it.
A fair time back now this was my first Sabbath album, back in the days when I was trusting in the myths that "live versions are always better than studio" (sadly not always true). Starting off with this album was probably not a good idea, but after amassing a fair quantity of studio material (most of it post-Ozzy, but never mind!) and listening to this album over the course of a few years, one can say that this is still a fine album. Not as good as some of the legendary ones in Metal history, and not quite as good as Live Evil imo, but still a fine album.
On the whole the songs are faithful to their studio counterparts, bar Killing Yourself To Live (because this was recorded before Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was released - all these tracks were recorded in 1973) and Wicked World, which becomes an 18-minute monster containing jazz improvisation and a bit of Supernaut. The songs sound a lot beefier in this live environment, and chances are you should know the songs already.
Ozzy's crowd interaction is limited to introducing a few of the songs, but listening to these songs makes you think he HAD to be stoned when he was singing them. The way he shouts "We love you!" and random points over the album is precious, although my personal favourite is "Alright everybody, clap your hands!". Don't ask me why, it's just the way he says it...