Black Sabbath occupies an interesting spot in music history. The band is credited by many as the genesis of heavy metal while at the same time being one of the few spared by the retaliation against it that was the first wave of punk. Yet it is also just as widely know for peaking early—despite the resurgence during the Ronnie James Dio years, the band’s most memorable hits still come from the first three albums—a Spinal Tap-esque rotating cast of members (Tony Iommi being the only constant), being a prime example of the harsh toll drugs took on bands of that era, and constant infighting both public and private that continues to this day. Black Sabbath’s story is, in the theatrical sense, something of a tragedy, despite the retrospective acclaim.
As such, Black Sabbath: Symptom Of The Universe—the latest in a line of biographies, memoirs, and so forth about the band and its members, this time penned by former Sabbath publicist, rock journalist and biographer Mick Wall—is not an uplifting story, as it chronicles the trials and tribulations of the band. While by the end there is some form of reconciliation, reunion, and admission of drug abuse and strong-headedness, the reunions are never complete (the week of the book’s release, drummer Bill Ward was still taking to Facebook with complaints of “unsignable” contracts), the returns never quite recapturing Sabbath’s former glory.
Symptom Of The Universe will not tell readers anything they don’t already know. Drugs played a major role from the very start, likely driving both the creativity and downfall of the band, egos forced people apart, and Ozzy Osbourne went on to be a continued success, very much owed to the hand his wife and manager Sharon Osbourne played in all of it. At times, the chronicle can be almost as tedious to read as it must have been to live for the band: more drug problems, yet another lead singer, one more incomplete reunion show.
But the anecdotes make it a chronicle still worth reading. Of particular note are some of the song origins, the relationship between Sharon and her manager father Don Arden, behind-the-scenes looks at the band’s most infamous moments, and rumination on the occult theme. And while there has been plenty written on Sabbath, what Symptom Of The Universe offers is something comprehensive, following the story chronologically from inception to current day, taking the time to branch out and tell abridged versions of what some of the individuals (most notably Ozzy and Dio) accomplished outside of the band.
So while Black Sabbath: Symptom Of The Universe may be the story of an influential band from Birmingham that never quite found its footing in achieving unbridled superstardom, it is a memorable tale nonetheless. That is owed, in large part, to Wall’s closeness to the band, which allowed him to be there for a good chunk of those moments, as well as the time to cull from in-depth, formal conversations with Sabbath’s members. And who doesn’t want to hear another “So this one time Ozzy…” kind of story?