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Prince of Darkness
zzy Osbourne's solo catalog is a mess. In addition to his eight studio albums, he boasts five live albums and four compilations (three best-of’s, one rarities), the most recent being the two-disc The Essential Ozzy Osbourne. With the exception of 1987's Tribute, none of these is highly recommended. That's no reason to stop trying, though. With Ozzy's cachet at an all-time high following his reinvention as a harmless old burnout, wife/manager/exploiter Sharon Osbourne has decided that the iron will get no hotter: time for the inevitable box set.
Whether Ozzy is worthy of the box set treatment is beyond debate. His career rebirth following his unceremonious ousting from the legendary Black Sabbath was nothing short of remarkable. Having fronted the band generally credited with inventing heavy metal, Ozzy should have been a lock for a solo deal, but initially found no takers. Sharon discovered him wasting away in a Los Angeles hotel room, quickly running out of money, drugs and name recognition, and determined to rebuild his act from the ground up. He stole Randy Rhoads, widely recognised as L.A.'s top unsigned metal guitarist once Van Halen had a deal, away from local favorites Quiet Riot, and, along with a few other leading lights of the era (Ratt, QR, VH), set about pioneering the Hollywood power metal sound that would come to dominate mainstream hard rock throughout the 1980s.
The too-brief Rhoads era was arguably the most creatively fertile of Osbourne's career, including the Sabbath days. His first two albums, written and recorded at breakneck pace, were flush with instant classics, and have tended to dominate the comps and set lists ever since. Nine tracks from the pair open Prince of Darkness, many of them among Osbourne's most familiar standards ("I Don't Know", "Mr. Crowley", "Flying High Again", etc.).
Following Rhoads's tragic death, Osbourne stumbled about for a few years. First he released a live album of Sabbath songs with Night Ranger's Brad Gillis on guitar, but Gillis was just a temp. The album is ignored by the box set. Eventually the competent but undistinguished Jake E. Lee signed on as Rhoads's long-term replacement, and Osbourne released two fairly pedestrian albums over the next four years. (This would be the last time Osbourne would release two consecutive studio albums without a best-of or live set in between). The collaboration produced exactly one enduring Ozzy standard (the title cut from 1983's Bark at the Moon, included here in a decent live rendition) and a whole lot of filler. Seven cuts make the box set, and it's maybe three too many, particularly considering the quality if some of the live versions (more on that in a moment). The selections seem odd as well; "You're No Different"? But no "Shot in the Dark"?
Following Lee's departure, Osbourne recruited Zakk Wylde, who remains his best guitarist since Rhoads. From the talk-box wankery of the ass-kicking "Miracle Man" (inexcusably omitted from the box) at the opening of No Rest For the Wicked, it was clear that Osbourne had been reinvigorated creatively by his partnership with Wylde, whose forceful swagger propelled the new material and breathed new life into the old numbers on subsequent live albums (check out 1993's Live & Loud, on which Wylde dominates the second disc and makes a few of the older numbers his own). Wicked was followed in 1991 by No More Tears, Osbourne's strongest release since the Rhoads days by a long shot. It contained one of the finest songs of Osbourne's career in the undeniable classic "Mama, I'm Coming Home", his first hit since the early days to reach far beyond his core audience. Tears is represented on the box by no less than five tracks, the most of any album save the debut. While the two remaining studio albums haven't quite matched it (how could they?), Osbourne and Wylde have maintained a consistent quality control in their time together, and continue to produce surprisingly worthwhile music. The retrospective portion of the box closes with "Dreamer", the excellent lead single from 2001's Down to Earth.
Considering that the two-disc Essential was released just two years ago (with no new studio material in the interim), why bother with a box set that contains a two-disc career overview? Osbourne (or, more likely, Sharon) tries to alleviate the redundancy by throwing in a few alternate versions, which sometimes works, but also leaves one wondering why the album versions are even there. Of the 29 tracks, 13 are from the albums; does anyone in this set's target demographic really need the studio version of "Crazy Train"? It's on, by my count, three previous compilations; surely even newfound fans of his TV show own one of them. But the sneakiest rip-off here is the live cuts from the first few years. Live versions of the classics, instead of just the same old studio cuts: great, right? Yeah, unless you already own Tribute, whence most of these were taken. Really, they don't have any other live tapes from the Rhoads years in a vault somewhere? They recorded just enough for Tribute and that's it? The performances are excellent, of course; Tribute remains Osbourne's best live album. But even inferior versions would have at least been new material for the serious fan.
Things get a little better on the second disc, when we get a few live versions that I don't recognise from the previous albums, but some of those are, frankly, pretty bad. All three songs from The Ultimate Sin are represented in live form, but the title track in particular features one of the worst vocal performances I've ever heard on a commercial release, with Osbourne barely having enough breath to sing and sounding a few lines of coke shy of actually being awake. Seriously, a bootlegger would have hesitated to put this out.
Elsewhere there are some alternate takes that are at least interesting from an archival standpoint. Almost all of the Tears material is in the form of "demos", but don't come looking for Ozzy-and-his-4-track; for acts as rich as Osbourne that means polished studio recordings with fewer overdubs. Still, some of them are well worth hearing, in particular "Mama", which features a bare and affecting vocal performance which demonstrates just how much feeling Osbourne can convey with his limited range when the layers and processing are stripped away. There's also a version of "See You on the Other Side" (a personal favourite, I must confess) with a saxophone solo and a gospel choir cluttering up the mix. I prefer the original version, but still found this one pretty intriguing. These are just the sort of nuggets the box ought to contain; alas, they are far too rare.
Which brings us to the third and disc, comprised entirely of non-album cuts. And if it's rarities ye seek, be careful what you wish for. A collection of collaborations with various other artists, the disc basically gathers Osbourne's guest appearances on compilations and other artists' projects. For the indiscriminate completist, it's a goldmine. For the discerning listener, it's torture. We have an uninspired run through "Iron Man" with Therapy? backing Osbourne up. Why? We have a half-assed Sabbath reunion track that adds nothing to their canon. We have a track by odious L.A. funk-metal supergroup Infectious Grooves with Osbourne on backing vocals, singing exactly one word. Who cares? Then there are two tracks with various members of the Wu-Tang Clan, on which Osbourne sounds as though he wandered into the wrong studio and simply began singing into the nearest mic (a scenario that's actually not that hard to imagine). Doesn't Osbourne have any rarities or outtakes recorded with his own band, other than the few on the second disc?
Lastly there's a fourth disc of newly recorded covers. With the exception of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man," which is so perfect it seems as though it was written specifically for Osbourne's voice, and the Beatles' "In My Life," the song selection is wholly uninspired. "Sympathy For the Devil"? Are we trying to be as obvious as possible? There is no reason for this to be on any box set. This should have been released as a standalone album, in which case it could simply be judged as a half-assed covers album, not an incongruous part of a larger whole that doesn't make much sense to begin with.
There is a time and a place for an artist to attempt to reach a broader audience, and the career spanning box set is not it. A box set should appeal first and foremost to an artist's core fan base, the ones who have followed him or her for years and will appreciate a collection that sheds new light on their favorite material, i.e., alternate takes, b-sides, live versions, etc, of the classics. This set contains about half a disc worth of that. Instead, the set seems torn between throwing the loyal fans a bone and roping in the new fans who know him primarily as the perpetually confused father figure on his TV show. Which is why, on the third disc, we are treated to an embarrassing retrospective of Osbourne's many misguided attempts to cross over to one audience or another. And which is why, rather than giving us "Close My Eyes Forever", Osbourne's hit 1988 duet with Lita Ford, which any Osbourne fan in his or her right mind will tell you belongs on this box more than any track on the third disc, the set instead offers up a cover of "Born To Be Wild." Featuring Miss Piggy. Pathetic.
Ozzy Osbourne has one of the most loyal fan bases in popular music. Long after the masses who giggle at his bumbling TV persona have forgotten about him, those fans will still buy whatever he puts out, and will continue attend his concerts in sell-out numbers as long as he decides to keep touring. Those fans deserve better than this.
(P.S. If you're new to Ozzy and looking to dive right in with a four-disc set, try this one: The Blizzard of Ozz, Diary of a Madman, Tribute, No More Tears. All aboard!)
Reviewed by: Bjorn Randolph
Reviewed on: 2005-04-12
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