NEW YORK, Feb 28, (AFP): When Black Sabbath pioneered heavy metal, the deafening, gloomy guitar sounded fresh but borrowed heavily from the blues. In choosing an opening act for its final tour, the legendary band has come full circle.
Rival Sons, personally selected by frontman Ozzy Osbourne for Black Sabbath’s “The End” tour, has strived to keep the blues in hard rock.
Besides offering a publicity windfall for the California band accustomed to mid-sized clubs, the tour gave Rival Sons guitarist and founding member Scott Holiday an unexpected chance to join one of his musical heroes, Black Sabbath’s axeman Tony Iommi.
While describing Iommi’s influence as more subliminal than deliberate, Holiday identified with Black Sabbath’s constant incorporation of blues riffs into heavy guitar.
“There is a lot of blues in that music, which is great, which heavy metal unfortunately probably seemed to ignore at some point and it’s almost invisible now,” Holiday told AFP.
The blues, the melancholic storytelling music originating among African Americans in the South, has seen a rebirth in fusion form with the rise of a number of retro-sounding US bands.
Garage rockers Jack White and the Black Keys incorporate clear blues elements as do, more recently, indie rock sensations Alabama Shakes.
But Rival Sons’ sound belongs more to the era of classic hard rockers such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, layered with the soulful wails of singer Jay Buchanan.
Rival Sons landed the coveted spot on the tour when the band was invited to play in Los Angeles for an awards show of British magazine Classic Rock.
Osbourne and his wife-manager Sharon, who sat in the front row, were impressed by Rival Sons’ two-song set and sought them out backstage, proposing the tour.
“I’ve always wondered… how in the hell do you get on a tour like that? You’ve got to know someone, or somebody’s got to know somebody, or somebody’s got to be greasing somebody somehow,” Holiday said.
“I know that is really how a lot of tours happen, but it was actually really pure how this one came together,” he said.
Ahead of European dates that include summer festivals, Rival Sons in May will release their fifth album, “Hollow Bones.”
Holiday said it was difficult to categorize the sound and preferred simply to call it rock and roll.
“We tried to make something that is familiar and sounds like us, because that’s what we are and that’s all we can really make in the end, but we also tried to challenge ourselves and our listeners,” he said.
Rival Sons’ last album, “Great Western Valkyrie,” offered a hard edge with often narrative lyricism, with songs that tell of a failed plot to bomb a train a well as 19th-century outlaw Belle Starr.
While Black Sabbath has long been controversial for its fascination with the occult, Rival Sons come from a striking background for a rock band — the members all identify as spiritual, although from various traditions.
Holiday is a practicing Hindu. He politely declined to discuss his personal beliefs, saying he was not out to influence fans, but said that spirituality inevitably affected the music.
“If you’re being honest with your art and your spirituality is a very large part of you, or important to you — like it is for 99 percent of the artists I know — then in some way that spirituality, or those deep beliefs, will merge themselves with your music,” he said.
He acknowledged that the band had to work hard to find “a balance and comfort place” as rockers on the road, where they are surrounded by people who, as he put it, “will not be really inherently following spiritual life.”
“It’s very difficult living a touring life and maintaining a strict spiritual standard,” he said.
Nonetheless, Holiday said the band was savoring the tour, which Thursday brought Rival Sons for the first time to New York’s celebrated Madison Square Garden.
Black Sabbath, whose members are all approaching 70, have vowed the shows will be their last as a band.
“It makes it all the more momentous. Not only do we get to do a Black Sabbath tour, we’re doing the last one. So no one else is getting in the door,” Holiday said.