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.