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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.