Death metal interludes playlist

The classically-tinged interlude is a proud death metal tradition, giving lie to the popular assumption that this is a brute’s music. It is that, without question, and unabashedly so, but as can be sensed from these pieces on an instinctual level, it is so much more too.

Please feel free to add others in the comments.

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Retrospective: Dissection – Reinkaos (2006)

Over the last fifteen years, Dissection‘s returning, and final, album Reinkaos has acquitted itself honorably alongside other neither-fish-nor-fowl albums like Megadeth‘s Youthanasia, Metal Church‘s Hanging In The Balance, Savatage‘s Edge Of Thorns, and Armored Saint’s Symbol Of Salvation. Symbol Of Salvation excepting, all are albums where bands flirted or outright embraced a more accessible ethos compared to their hard-as-nails work in the past: tempos brought to heel, more pronounced use of the blues, and an all-round polished hard rocking sensibility marked a break with tradition and a willingness to engage with different textures and paradigms. Naturally, this has elicited a variety of reactions from fans, from disdain to flippant dismissiveness, but, as opposed to The Black Album, these albums, to me, represent “selling out” done right, with class and musical intent still in tact. And on a more abstract note, they also serve to emphasize how blurred the lines between “hard rock” and heavy metal can be, and how in the grand telling the only distinguisher we have is the spirit with which they are made.

Of course, Reinkaos is nowhere near as experimental as the mentioned albums. Even though a young Jon Nodveidt probably idolized these bands, Dissection came from a different school of thought altogether, more visceral, more austere, more critical of the relatively brighter places it occasionally dared to tread. Appropriately, then, Reinkaos despite sharing many a trait with Gothenburg bands, also retains something of the sinister air found on another transitional album, Samael‘s Ceremony Of Opposites. In all fairness, this is owed as much to the lyrics as the actual music found here, as relentlessly occult-themed as any album in rock history, with no sense of irony, and sung with great clarity and conviction by Nodveidt. In hindsight, Reinkaos, more than any other Dissection album, was intended to be a vessel and a hymn for its creator’s unorthodox views, its palpable aim to represent a life’s guiding principle in no uncertain terms; and it is a more enjoyable album because of that zeal, the habitual cynicism of this time notwithstanding.

Musically, Reinkaos is the natural culmination of the Dissection sound, finally finding its liberation in the atavisms of simpler music that had been threatening it progressively since The Somberlain. Gone are all signs of the flowing, tremolo-picked riffing style on the back of which an entire subset of black metal was founded, now replaced by a far more syncopated, beat-driven approach to songwriting. The former is an oft-underrated aspect of extreme metal and second-wave black metal in particular; in this paradigm, tremolo-picking becomes more than mere technique; it consciously divorces melody from rhythm and lyrics, thereby establishing a very real hierarchy among the parts that make up a song, with musical narrative leading the charge. Reinkaos, instead, being more concerned with developing a lyrical narrative in the manner of popular music, dispenses with this order of precedence and unites lyrics, melody, and rhythm into an accessible form.

It is a distinctly modern form of heavy metal, too; not quite Iron Maiden, more akin to Sentenced‘s run through the mid-90s beginning with Down, measured and never given to excess, an album that came at the fag end of a particular vogue in the genre and one of its better examples at that.

 

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Death by melody: Denial of God – The Hallow Mass (2019) & The Spirit – Cosmic Terror (2020)

Depending on who you ask, The Hallow Mass can be considered a heavy metal album with black metal trimmings, or a black metal album in the original sense of the term, where extra-musical theme and imagery override actual musical technique. Denial of God are an old band, with intentions palpably in right order, but this album fails to do justice to either interpretation. Admittedly, there is such a thing as drawing all the potential there is to be had from a singular idea; doom metal thrives on just such an approach and by the same token no one can accuse Denial of God of failing on account of thematic inconsistencies. The Hallow Mass, however, feels anachronistic and not in a good way; an uncluttered agenda is more than welcome in times such as these, but it is a poor cloak for imagination that never takes wing. Like Deceased but with less lyrical eloquence, Denial of God parcel the album into neat little tales of winter creepiness. The intent is to develop each song at leisure into a sort of soundtrack, part-giallo, part-Ye Olde New England of Lovecraftian lore, but a deficient tonal palette means that motific development is minimal and therefore incapable of shifting listener consciousness through a series of emotional states. What we are left with then is one long meditation in a minor key, interrupted by a few limp-wristed stabs at aggression, an effect that on the whole is depressingly standard-order and evocative of nothing so much as drunkenly stumbling around a cemetery on Halloween night in search of poetic inspiration.

The Spirit‘s Cosmic Terror is the album Dissection would have released somewhere in between Storm of the Light’s Bane and Reinkaos. Harmonically self-conscious to a fault, with instantly resolvable riffs that don’t insult the intelligence, yet with none of the atmosphere of black swirling magic cold and beautiful that made Dissection so special, Cosmic Terror is a palatable gateway album for the newcomer to metal oblivious of its history. To everyone else, however, the only discussions of note around an album like this are meta-cultural and peripheral to the actual music : (1) that a label releases a blatant clone of a unique and highly-regarded original confirms that nostalgia is a lucrative cottage industry in metal; even more damning, that metal listeners have embraced the label of “consumer” and the cynical exploitation that goes hand in glove with it, and (2) granted that it is no crime to sing the song inside one’s heart, derivative as it may be, as long as it is sung with conviction, still, what sleight of mind, what hubris, what internal compromise makes an individual think such a work worthy of public consumption? What is that impulse to continue undeterred when one is reminded with every beat struck and every note trilled that they have nothing remotely new to offer to the world? It would be cruel to single out The Spirit on this front; an overwhelming chunk of metal released over the last twenty years would cease to exist if the world was the ideal us fools wish it to be, but would that be such a great loss?

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Teitanblood – Death (2014)

Teitanblood came to notoriety with Seven Chalices ten years ago, an album though harsh compared to its contemporaries still containing enough nods to conventional death metal tropes. All that went out of the window with 2014’s Death; on this album, for all intents, Teitanblood became the archetypal modern war metal band, combining the droning repetition of black metal with the short explosions of grindcore. This approach distilled to its basics sacrifices tonal variety and narrative evolution for sonic violence and by now has rendered the sub-genre more or less redundant. And yet, feeling persists among supporters that this band differentiates itself from the grain, that their music is more than its parts and in some way a realization of the extreme potential inherent in death metal and black metal.

The Ajna Offensive/N.E.D. bandcamp stated the following in anticipation of Death: “The second Teitanblood album corrects the misconception about Death Metal being music“. It is a catchy but also needlessly provocative statement and one that is patently untrue in light of the genre’s very musical achievements. But for the sake of argument, let us try and empathize with the philosophical motive behind it; death is decomposition after all, of flesh most obviously but also of identity if one is (un)fortunate enough to leave behind a grave barren of mourners and no legacy to taint. Music…sounds, representative of such an unfeeling perspective on mortality would have to be obliged to live on the precarious ridge between structure and dissolution, of what once was and what will soon not be, navigating a gradient both precipitous and transient all at once. On face value at least, Teitanblood operate within the paradigm of death metal and black metal; do they, then, possess the tools to capture some fragment of this ambitious mission statement? Does their assault on the senses progressively scrape away at the life-affirming qualities that even the best death metal carries to reveal the howling nothingness underneath?

Here’s a paradox that the objective listener confronts when listening to a band like this: he keeps ears peeled for just a tendril of logic, melody, or rhythm to coalesce from an otherwise universal wall of sound, something around which he can orient himself. And yet, that same sort of attentiveness is precisely what does disservice to an album like Death. This is not meant as an insult either; Death is a strongly impressionistic album, coming on in wave upon wave of contracted suggestive energy before which the only recourse is to lie prone and let it wash over. Through this act of surrender or resignation, as the case may be, it becomes possible to siphon out the forces at work: what at first comes across as an impenetrable wall of sound is found to shift by scarcely perceptible degrees and the narrative inertia so all-pervasive before comes to be replaced by a very real movement almost unbeknownst to the listener. He in effect has been displaced in sound, and now finds himself in a place tangibly, if still only tangentially at best, different from the one where he started.

This transitory nature, this movement by stealth as it were, paired with an intentionally muddy production, makes it easy to dismiss Death as elevator music; monolithic riff shapes and drums more felt than heard, like the dread footsteps of a steed of the apocalypse, induce a nervous lassitude in the listener not usually associated with music so vehement. Death invites no participation from its audience, only submission, an observation that applies to both this album and the biological process itself. Is this then the parallel that Teitanblood/N.E.D. imply with their grandiose statement, that the subject is to inevitably become nothing more than a mute spectator to forces beyond his control, swept along in their wake with no agency of his own?

Make no mistake, Teitanblood care about things like structure, rhythm, and even an understated sense of melody, subverted as those musical aspects may be by adherence to a self-denying niche of the genre. The disintegration of sound that Teitanblood are purportedly after on Death, this slow verging on decay, is best achieved by a juxtaposition of convention with chaos, by more intricate riff-play that remains in synchronization but only just. The riffs on Death are broad and bludgeoning, to be precise, and share equal space with colorless quasi-noise, but the combination always tends towards a final resolution and a descent into apprehension. That they achieve this end by employing diverse techniques like accruing eddies of drone, ritualized percussive breakdowns, or ambient industrial electronica is besides the point; Teitanblood on Death are in fact playing ambient black/death metal, in vision and in execution, whatever theoretical conflicts that might give rise to.

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Ossuarium – Living Tomb (2019)

Ossuarium demonstrate the existential crisis that has beset many new death metal bands. Like bargain-bin patchwork quilt, their influences cover the gamut of popular stylings in contemporary metal: from cavern-core dissonance to ambient tinkerings to somewhat bathetic transformations into Candlemass-lite doom and even the ill-advised groove of metalcore, Living Tomb is an album birthed into confusion and schizophrenia. Perhaps a democratic distribution of songwriting duties is partially responsible for this state of affairs: when everyone has an equal say in proceedings, regardless of the merit of what they’re actually saying, the outcome is liable to be fractured.

This is most clearly seen in repeated fade-outs of sections for new, unrelated riffs to emerge. While cessation of hostilities to make a lateral break in narrative is a much-cherished facet of death metal, this temporary relaxing of contiguous logic has to be used not only with economy but also intent and aggression to match what has gone before. It certainly is no pit-stop or lay-and-pray strategy or some miraculous fountain for inspiration lacking. It also isn’t something any amount of drone, distortion, or clean notes gilded in portent can hide.

But there is an abundance of feeling in the scene that atmosphere trumps all, that because death metal as a genre contains the word “death” in it, any musical styling of a suitably morbid flavor can be shoehorned into this music. Great death metal – all great metal, in fact – however, sustains itself on a precarious balance between both style and genre, an idea that seems lost on bands like Ossuarium. Torn between styles, and then when they do choose one, oblivious to the effect their execution can have – for example, something as elementary as the disconnect caused by using a diminished fifth and a perfect fifth in the same cavern-core song – Ossuarium need to take a step back and meditate first on what they want to convey, and then select with great precision the tools they can use in that expression.

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Garroted – Of Damnation And Abyssal Terrors EP (2018)

Roiling, churning, riff-intense progressive death metal is what Garroted play on this their second recording. The band should be praised for overcoming the distractedly frenzied nature of debut demo In The Court Of Nyarlathotep; the new songs have an equally high work-rate in riffs, but from all appearances, the band now thinks of their songs as a greater composite on the way to achieving a specific mood. Accordingly, riffs are developed as variations on an original theme and then led by the nose across the breadth of the EP through many permutations. This most certainly is not background music; like Deeds of Flesh, it demands the listener’s fullest attention lest he become inextricable from its dense riff mazes.

The payoffs are diverse, on both intellectual and visceral levels. The first two songs, ‘Otherworldly Subversions: Parts I & II’, are essentially one composition, split in two halves through clever changes in tempo and differently oriented groups of notes. The rhythm guitar technique is greatly influenced by early Morbid Angel and bands verging on death metal like Sadus, meaning it is fiercely syncopated with phrases rarely reaching the kind of extended development synonymous with black metal. Yet, just like with those bands, these songs are not without an acute melodic sense, rather so that that sense is only reflected in a shattered mirror, each shard encapsulating an insinuation in the desired direction.

That end is found in ‘Into The Shivering Forest‘, a decidedly atmospheric note to sign off on. Built on past achievements as well as nods to conventional heavy metal and black metal, this song is of a kind with the band’s extra dimensional thematic aspirations and works well in this setting. But bands like Tribulation have previously done the same before reneging entirely on their metal credentials. The test for Garroted now is to not lose touch with their identity as a death metal band and use external influences, if at all, with restraint.

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Ares Kingdom – By The Light Of Their Destruction (2019)

By The Light Of Their Destruction

On their new album, Ares Kingdom have traded the anthemic qualities of their first three albums for a deliberately spacier and obscure sound. Appropriately, the band has mined its own past for inspiration; as on Order from Chaos‘ farewell An Ending In Fire and previous side-project Vulpecula, the themes on this album are astronomical, tracing constellations and star clusters across the night sky and connecting them with their etymologies in mythology. The approach proves a natural fit for the Ares Kingdom sound which, despite its roots in speed metal, has always evoked in the abstract the rise and ruin of great endeavors. It is also a tacit acknowledgement of the deep-seated human need to balance the secular with what Robert Graves described as the mythopoetical, in the absence of which the one becomes pedantic and the other fluff.

The guitar tone on By The Light Of Their Destruction is fat in the middle and dissipates progressively towards the edges, which, to use a fitting celestial analogy, is not unlike the sun’s corona jutting out from behind a lunar occultation. The effect is decidedly ambient in the sense of a broad wash of static bleeding into the music at all times. It also signals a departure from the songwriting approach of at least the last two albums; where songs on those were structured along conventional heavy metal formats, and built around identifiable melodies, By The Light Of Their Destruction feels looser on purpose and instinctive in nature. It is a fine example of what I like to think of as “body metal”, something the Miller-Keller combine has always excelled at. Think ‘Angry Red Planet‘ or the breakdown in ‘Forsake Me This Mortal Coil‘. The cue here is to ride a groove and a riff for all its worth, not because of a shortage of ideas or as a gratuitous end in itself, but as a very real form of psychosomatic release. To enter this pocket of expression is to become a vessel and a servitor to whatever channels musical inspiration works through; to relinquish it prematurely feels like self-mutilation.

In the band’s trajectory, however, By The Light Of Their Destruction will occupy a curious place. It is mostly without the rousing highs of Incendiary or the greater melodic accessibility of The Unburiable Dead. Neither is it made to sound of a piece as a suite of songs like those albums. The straight line of progression from Return To Dust to The Unburiable Dead appears broken, but perhaps this is a mixed blessing: lamentable, because seemingly lost is the pinnacle of album-wide cohesion and narrative achieved on The Unburiable Dead; welcome, however, is the resurgence of a more feral vibe. Whether this is because, as word goes, these songs were based on ideas culled from old demos is for the band to answer, but the way forward will require a balancing act of some skill.

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Norman Mailer’s The Naked And The Dead

Published in 1948, Norman Mailer’s debut novel The Naked And The Dead remains an incisive depiction of the soldier’s state of mind. The book is set on an island in the Pacific theater, as the United States tried to roll back the Japanese threat in the final stages of the Second World War, and thrusts the reader into the trenches alongside members of a platoon. The plot, consisting chiefly of the American effort to take control of the island, is thin, and little more than a backdrop against which we get to know the platoon and the motivations that drive the military chain of command. In this, Mailer is remarkably successful, and by the end we are intimates with the motley bunch, privy to their hopes and fears. Some characters emerge in a more sympathetic light than others, but not one is unequivocally evil. Mailer seems to be saying that their actions, heroic or cowardly, cannot be judged in isolation, that the way they react in the face of adversity is a composite of their experiences in combat but also from their lives before the war, and that the strength of their survival instinct is in direct proportion to the optimism with which they regard a future after the war.

Throughout, the rigors of military life on the island are interrupted with vignettes from each character’s past. The most detailed of these belong to Lieutenant Hearn and General Cummings; Hearn comes from an aristocratic family but has wandered off to become the stereotypical bourgeois liberal, idealistic, insubordinate, and flirting with communism. Cummings, on the other hand, is an authoritarian, brutal in his assessment of human nature,  and philosophical over the nature of conflict. In one passage, he draws a Spenglerian analogy between the parabolic arc of the mortar shell as it travels from out of the cannon towards its target, and the life-and-death cycle of civilizations and that of the individual human being himself. At another time, in what today reads as a prescient analysis of future world-power dynamics, he describes how war is essentially a tool for converting a nation’s inherent potential energy into real and concerted action. German expansionism during World War Two owed chiefly to this latent potential, her excesses no more a result of a moral vacuum than that of the limited physical resources at her disposal. Cummings predicts that the next hundred years or more will belong to America, on account of the sheer energies, both material and political, unleashed in the service of the war. He postulates that America will become increasingly convinced of her “manifest destiny” as a global hegemon, and orient all of her institutions towards that end with the ambition and ruthlessness befitting of a true empire.

The exchanges between Hearn and Cummings crackle with homosexual tension and comprise the intellectual heft of the book. It is the other members of the platoon, however, the average grunts in foxholes, that humanize this narrative. Collected from across the breadth of American life, they are in many ways postcards from that country’s experience; the frontier mentality, respect for hard graft, casual racism, and beatnik irreverence, all find expression in their banter and reminiscences. Some of them are wizened veterans of several campaigns, convinced after witnessing so much senseless death that the bullet with their name on it must not be long in coming. Others are young men newly drafted with dreams of moving up the army hierarchy but quickly robbed of those illusions. Nerves taut and bodies broken, most of them verge on giving up at one time or another, but the one note of optimism that emerges from their precarious condition is that men, despite all their prejudice, forge a brotherhood in the face of shared tribulations, to lend some of their reserves of strength to those who have none left.

Two passages of special note stand out, and both revolve around the premise of death, in the abstract and as a real thing. In the first, Gallagher’s wife dies on the mainland during childbirth. In a sequence of events that feels macabre at first but eventually achieves a poignant climax, he continues receiving the letters she wrote him leading up to her labor. The post, however, delivers on a slow and sporadic schedule, often a long time after the letters were written. Gallagher receives news of his wife’s death from the chaplain and goes numb, only to be greeted with fresh dispatches from her not long after. As time goes on, he synchronizes the post’s time table with her letters, until the day comes when he knows that the letter in his hands would have to be the last one she ever wrote. He avoids opening it to delay acknowledgement of what has already happened, knowing full well that he won’t put his wife to rest until he has read her last words.

The other account is a vivid and protracted description of what a slow death by degrees might feel like. Shot in the stomach during an ambush, Wilson alternately hallucinates and lapses into agony; his physical world achieves strange dimensions and his fevered mind scrambles his memories. His litter-bearers are tormented by his pain, flinching at his screams as if his wound were their own. Exhausted as they are, they deliberate whether it would be better to give him up for lost, but they are called to see within themselves and realize they are made of nobler stuff than they thought before. These men, the salt of the earth, may be too coarse to articulate their impressions in the manner of a Hearn or a Cummings, but they receive those impressions all the same, more or less as a mist that works its way into their subconscious unbeknownst to them to evoke an equally powerful emotional response.

There is a curious intimacy to these parts and they are written with delicacy. And yet, for all the existential issues it deals with, and despite its 700-pages length, The Naked And The Dead is a surprisingly breezy read. Mailer uses a lot of dialogue in the vernacular to speed things up, but even his scene-setting and military set-pieces, of which there are copious quantities, are not without a certain rhythm. Some have accused this novel of clunky character development; that complaint may have some basis, seeing as how Mailer tries to distribute time more or less equally among a large ensemble. It may be helpful, however, to view these characters as archetypes and receptacles for experiences shared by all participants to conflict through time. Faces change and contexts vary, but the humanity underneath stays the same. Seen in that light, the experience itself becomes an overarching character in its own right.

 

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Randy Rhoads and the Diary of a Madman

Ozzy Osbourne’s first four albums, and especially the two with Randy Rhoads, present a strange dilemma for metalheads. While they resuscitated Osbourne’s flagging career after being dumped from Black Sabbath, and though they are fondly remembered for Rhoads’ contributions to heavy metal guitar, they have generally been consigned to an ever-receding smudge – nostalgic, if slightly redundant, but no more – in the rear-view mirror. Most metalheads might even recoil at calling these albums “metal”; which is unfortunate, really, and a case of not judging the past on its own terms and worse, judging it based on the present. Metal sensibilities may have been coarsened beyond recognition over time, but for 1980 and 1981 – 1980 and 1981! – parts of Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman feel like a veritable revolution for heavy metal, and not just in any conciliatory, mealy-mouthed “heavy for its time” way.

The lines between hard rock and heavy metal, especially in our music’s incipient stage, were frequently blurred, but even from that nascent, coalescing slop, the things that stand out as metal, if only sporadically, are ambition, aggression, and a heaviness, of both sound and soul: ambition, to aim for the stars despite every possibility of falling flat on one’s face; aggression, in how one attacks life; and heaviness, like a weight that settles ponderously into the fabric of perception and subsequently colors one’s outlook towards that life. Music being emotion filtered into co-harmonious frequencies, the best metal bands found a way of transferring these abstract ideas to their instruments; hence the inherent drawback in analyzing heavy metal along purely analytical lines.The stuff of nobleness is frequently found beneath the surface, in the interstices, of a true metal song, and it is from there, like a slow-spreading dye, that it proliferates to inform our sentiment about the music.

It is often seen that people who acquire even a cursory, first-hand knowledge of that which they once admired as simple fans turn around to rubbish the legitimacy of those same past achievements. So is observed in the case of Randy Rhoads, who is derided for post-humous popularity as in the case of others that died young, for bad guitar tone, for unnecessarily busy playing. He is compared with greats that went before, Ritchie Blackmore, Uli Jon Roth, Eddie Van Halen; sometimes he is even compared with those that followed in his footsteps, and, in both cases, found wanting in taste and sensibility.

Someone else may be better qualified to comment on those criticisms; Rhoads undeniably built on the blueprint laid by those exemplars, but that is par for the course for all history; evolution occurs on the shoulders of giants past, after all. But Rhoads’ unique creativity took flight every now and then in the midst of these albums’ more populist overtures, and in those moments, the fault-lines between hard rock and heavy metal loom almost as large as chasms. Attacking the guitar with a young vitality that was almost unheard of previously – perhaps people like Michael Schenker and Glenn Tipton captured some of the same crunch and energy – Rhoads’ playing was the kind that has made successive generations of metalheads bunch their fists and tense their muscles into rigid knots; empowering and not a little confrontational in its choice of notes, phrasing and punctuation, and just all-around hustle.

That constitutes aggression, but what of ambition and heaviness? Paeans have been written to Rhoads’ study of classical guitar, how he transplanted those influences onto a heavy metal aesthetic, thus inspiring, alongside the other guitarists mentioned, every shredder to come along in his wake, and how, in Ozzy’s hilariously inebriated recollections, he was planning on using “chords with embedded notes” on their third album. But in all seriousness, Rhoads was also a composer and a song-writer par excellence who, despite the proactive nature of his playing, somehow managed to arrange his parts with delicate economy. No better example of this exists than the eponymous ‘Diary of a Madman‘, a song perhaps inspired by Black Sabbath‘s ‘Supertzar’, but unlike that next of kin, it betrays its operatic aspirations long before operatic accoutrements make themselves felt,  and then proceeds to make several devastating dents in the emotional continuum. From its manipulation of meter to control over how and when to transform the pastoral into the visceral, this song is a classic whose semi-balladic format has inspired every heavy metal band since, often with equally poignant results.

And then, presiding over all of it, is Ozzy and his banshee’s wail of a voice. Nasal, reedy, quivering, vulnerable and yet somehow guilelessly trusting these weaknesses to the hands of those who choose to hear him. Ozzy Osbourne. A husk today of what he once was, ridiculed in all quarters for his excesses; probably – and I speak from sentiment, not fact – an unwitting participant in humiliations orchestrated by others. Ozzy Osbourne. Not fully together anymore, but still capable of moments of astoundingly naive honesty. What proves a singer’s true mettle? Virtuosity? Sense of restraint and melodic placement? Longevity? To varying degrees, yes, but surely, most importantly, it has to be to what degree he elevates his band’s music; it is incontrovertible in my opinion that any song Ozzy has ever participated in has been the richer for it. More so than turning his obvious shortcomings into strengths, those shortcomings have existed alongside his strengths, and have helped humanize him like no other singer in the genre. Ozzy Osbourne. There will only ever be the one.

 

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