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Ozzfest 2004
PNC Bank Arts Center, Holmdel, NJ – July 16th, 2004
By Ed Rivadavia

Another year, another Ozzfest…but there was actually something special about this 2004 edition: it didn’t suck! In fact, Ozzfest 2004 featured the best line-up in at least five years – maybe ever. Of course I was duly psyched for it, and, metal geek that I am, would have loved to catch every band on the bill. But when I realized Lacuna Coil (the rotating second stage line-up’s chosen openers for my show) would be starting their set at a ridiculous 9:30am – earlier than I clock in at the office – I decided that even my enthusiasm had its limits. Instead, I arrived around 2pm and I can’t say I was surprised when I found the Ozzfest military drill running AHEAD of schedule, making me miss the highly touted Unearth and only grab the final moments of the 20 minute set by hardcore pretty boys Everytime I Die. This really wasn’t enough for me to gauge their music, but I did wonder how such MTV-ready young men would explain themselves if they trapped in a back alley by the members of Agnostic Front…

Anyway, the first proper set I witnessed was by the fast-rising Lamb of God, who, as often as I’ve seen them in the past few years, once again proved themselves an exciting and reliable live entity. Refreshingly in our post nu-metal universe, Lamb of God writes real songs based on real metal riffs (“Subtle Art of Murder & Persuasion,” ”Pariah”), and the ever-improving stage presence of vocalist Randy Blythe easily makes up for drummer Chris Adler’s still hard to get used to, weirdly cavernous sound (the result of skins wound tighter than a jazz drummer, or Maiden’s Nicko McBrain!). The kids seemed accepting enough, happily beating the s*** out of each other at Blythe’s command during manic set closer “Black Label,” and leaving no small expectation for the band’s next album, which, in a surprising turn of events, will be their first for normally metal-shy major label Epic. So let’s hope the suits can figure out what to do with Lamb of God and that they, in turn, deliver the goods.

Next up were New Haven, Connecticut natives Hatebreed – probably the day’s only 100% hairless band!  But regardless of follicle challenges, their competent brand of groovy metalcore fed right into the nu-metal-friendly Ozzfest crowd. Not really my cup of tea, but, to the band’s credit, despite seeming a little one-dimensional at times, tracks like “Betrayed by Life,” “Straight to Your Face” and the sub-Bizkit riot-inducer “Tear it Down,” maintained a high level of intensity throughout their pulverizing set. What’s more, angst-ridden accusations like “Empty Promises” and “Live for This” (containing the great lyrics: “If you don’t live for something, you’ll die for nothing”) resulted in festival-perfect shout-alongs. In sum: Hatebreed may not be perfect, but they’re perfect Ozzfest material.

Speaking of “perfect” Ozzfest material, the lovable mutants in Slipknot would surely also qualify for said distinction, having effectively made their name at the 1998 (or was it ’99?) edition of the festival. Then, as now, they exerted total crowd control with their high-energy shenanigans, inciting the crowd to lunatic moshing while mauling their instruments and various percussive set-ups with everything from drum sticks to baseball bats! Amazingly, their by now old-news gimmick (masked freaks with numbers for names wearing identical black boiler suits) still works; and with 95% of the under-12 concertgoers wearing Slipknot t-shirts, it’s a fair assumption the band is therefore set for success for years and years to come. Of course the gimmick factor also helps disguise the fact that sonic hate-fests like “Spit it Out,” “The Heretic Anthem” and new track “Duality” often blur a troublesome dearth of exceptional songwriting through pure sensory overkill – their often confusing reflection of the numerous band members’ wide array of metallic interests colliding into a nearly dissonant maelstrom of styles. Indeed, who has time to register the music with so many people doing so many things on stage? I for one, quickly grew bored and decided to make a strategic exit when Slipknot instructed everyone down on their haunches before ordering them to “Jump da f*** up!” – yeeeesh!

Black Label Society was the first band to take the main stage, and because of that they were unfairly sacrificed to one’s need to recuperate, rehydrate and relax for a minute before facing Ozzfest 2004’s principal onslaught of bands. This moved right along with the arrival of Pantera legend Phil Anselmo’s primary band these days, Superjoint Ritual. As most metal fans know by now, this particular collection of Southern outcasts (including Crowbar/Down/Eyehategod mainstay Jimmy Bower and mini-Anselmo candidate, bassist Hank Williams III) is custom fit to deliver anything Mr. Anselmo (once again sporting a very retro, Cowboys from Hell-era Mohawk) damn well pleases. More specifically, caustic ditties like “Alcoholik,” “Waiting for the Turning Point,” and “Personal Insult” (dedicated to the soldiers serving overseas) comprise a rude, crude, uneasy but effective blend of metal, hardcore and punk, which, surprisingly, almost always work! Of course, whether they work or not becomes a moot point when forcibly shoved down our throats by the ever-controversial Phil Anselmo – still one of metal’s most entertaining and naturally charismatic frontmen, bar none. And, much as Superjoint Ritual is no Pantera (Anselmo’s comment that “We mean to be underground” fooled no one), there’s certainly promise of them getting there eventually. 

The official wildcard of Ozzfest 2004 was up next, and few would argue that Norway’s Dimmu Borgir represented a welcome foreign addition, as well as ultimately deserving their surprisingly prestigious position on the bill. Sure enough, as their creepy intro tape began to wind down, the modern masters of symphonic Scandinavian metal absolutely steamrolled Ozzfest’s quizzical, but accepting audience with explosive opener “Spellbound by the Devil.” Fearing not the sunshine that fell upon their vampiric, corpse-like face paint, armed to the fangs with leather, studs and spiked leggings (probably discarded at Salvation Army long ago by Slayer’s Kerry King), and backed by a seizure-inducing strobe-light show, the sextet in fact appeared to be supremely confident and well at ease in their unfamiliar surroundings. Quite a sight to see, vocalist Shagrath shrieked his case front and center, guitarists Silenoz, Galder and clean-singing bassist Simen Hestæs head-banged about the stage, and drummer Reno and wonderfully creepy keyboardist Mustis haunted them all from atop their risers, the latter’s eerie synth lines slicing like sharp knives through the din. Meanwhile, the Scandinavian invaders drove their mini-masterpieces – climaxing in the positively stunning “Progenies of the Great Apocalypse” – like stakes through our hearts – and we liked it!

Then, as though we hadn’t been frightened enough already, those terrifying banners decorated in SS-like Iron Eagle emblems were unfurled to announce the coming of Slayer, who instantly took the dying afternoon sun and snuffed it out. The first in Ozzfest’s headlining triumvirate of metal giants have rarely been known to bring the full intensity of their live performances to a festival situation; but since the reinstatement of original drumming colossus Dave Lombardo a few years back, the thrash pioneers seem to have found a new lease on death, errr, life. Seriously, no disrespect to former replacement skin-pounders like Jonathan Dette or the great Paul Bostaph, but the bottom line is Slayer simply never sounded “right” without Lombardo’s thick, meaty beats – much like AC/DC never sounded as good with any drummer not named Phil Rudd. And now that he’s had some time to re-acclimate himself to his band-mates’ inimitable pace, skill and precision, all-time thrash classics such as “War Ensemble,” “Die by the Sword,” “Chemical Warfare,” “South of Heaven,” and “Raining Blood” were given the thrashing they rightly deserve. Condensed into a festival-ready greatest hits set (only “Angel of Death” went sadly missing), these demonic masterpieces achieved maximum, brain melting results. And I do mean “melting” since the summer heat was positively roasting the whole amphitheater by now.

Willingly trapped in our sweltering purgatory, we braced ourselves for the imminent arrival of the evening’s biggest attraction: Judas Priest. Make no mistake, everyone here – including Ozzy and Black Sabbath – knew that it was the reunited Priest who made Ozzfest 2004 most special, and as their imposing stage set began being constructed (metal drums, metal stairs, metal platforms standing on metal pitchforks…metal everything!), few concert goers could contain their giddy excitement. But before we go there, a quick trip down memory lane… 

The last time I’d seen a Rob Halford-led Priest live, was at the Rock in Rio 2 Festival, in January 1991 (yes, I’m an old bastard!). That night, a nervous and under-rehearsed Guns n’ Roses were headlining only their second show of the Use Your Illusion tour, and mistakenly forbade Priest – themselves trailblazing unchallenged across the planet on their comeback Painkiller jaunt – from using all of their staging, pyro, and, worst of all, originally allotted playing time. The result was a positively overpowering display by a pissed off Judas Priest, who, despite these backhanded maneuvers, proceeded to hand Axl & Co. their asses. With the crucial difference that Priest in fact had Sabbath’s happy blessing, tonight was to be no different; the jilted ferocity displayed on that South American night long ago merely replaced by cool, calm, commanding execution. 

Ah yes, just as Slayer’s show had seemed to light the furnaces of Hell all around us, Priest proceeded to cool us in icy stainless steel – following the electrifying opening tandem of “The Hellion” and “Electric Eye” (Halford making his entrance through the band’s giant eye backdrop) with a slew of mid-paced metal anthems (“Metal Gods,” “Heading out to the Highway,” “Touch of Evil”) that seemed to consciously avoid Slayer’s addiction to speed. It worked, and while more unexpected song choices such as “Beyond the Realms of Death” and “The Sentinel” had die hard fans screaming their heads off, the colossal “Victim of Changes” was only marred by an unnecessary solo by Glenn Tipton, who simply can’t stand relinquishing the spotlight to his guitar sparring partner K.K. Downing for more than a second. Such small qualms aside, there was little to fault to be found in additional standards like “Breaking the Law” and “Green Manalishi”; nor the triple-threat encore of “Hell Bent for Leather” (requisite Harley and all), “Living After Midnight” and “You’ve got another thing Comin’.” Personally, I could go the rest of my days without ever hearing the last two again, but there’s no questioning their required presence in tonight’s excellent re-acquaintance experience between band and audience.

Finally, it was Black Sabbath’s turn to shine, and their obvious desire not to – leaving all props at home in exchange for a bare set-up containing only their drums and Laney amplifiers – made for a pleasantly intimate performance as opposed to Priest’s stadium-sized display. Opening with nothing less than the seminal “War Pigs,” the legendary foursome of Ozzy, Iommi, Geezer and Ward stood close together, all of them dressed in the requisite black (although in Ozzy’s case, the Prince of f***ing Darkness was comfortably attired in sweatpants and trainers). And yet, during first few numbers “N.I.B.” and “Fairies Wear Boots,” Ozzy looked very much the worse for wear, and with Geezer and Ward also blowing a clam or two, it came down to ever-reliable sheriff and riff-meister Tony Iommi to pace about the stage in concern, occasionally shooting worried glares at his cohorts over the odd missed beat or out of tune bit of singing. Thankfully, everything seemed to finally click for Black Sabbath when Iommi hit that stomach-churning bent string that characterizes the colossal riff of “Into the Void.” In the space of that moment, all present had been officially welcomed to Heavy Metal University, first subject: Doom 101; and beautifully sluggish monstrosities like “Black Sabbath” and the incomparably droning “Iron Man” soon followed suit in providing additional lessons.

Now there was no questioning Black Sabbath’s metal supremacy, and, by the time Ozzy told us to “GO MOTHERf***ING CRAZY!!! for the 20th time that night, the four grandfather figures before us looked significantly younger and sprightlier than when they’d clambered into place an hour earlier. Living caricatures of their fans’ teenage fantasies they may be, but few were those cynical enough to resist Sabbath’s charms at this late hour, as Ozzy clowned and raged around the stage (head regularly dunked in his trusty water bucket), Iommi improvised his soloing codas, Geezer Butler attacked his bass, and the extremely geriatric looking Bill Ward pummeled his kit with heroic effort and control. Taking no prisoners, the foursome plowed right into the scariest peace song ever written, the classic “Children of the Grave,” before teasing us with the opening strains of “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” on their way to as apocalyptic encore of “Paranoid.” This proved more than suitable a finale for the tenacious, but depleted audience who waited this long before racing to their cars…and, from all appearances, most of them did!

Thus ended what must surely qualify as the best Ozzfest in many a year, and, in terms of the headliners, quite simply one of the greatest metal line-ups ever. Think about it: in order to top the pure metal quotient of Sabbath, Priest and Slayer, next year’s Ozzfest will have to round up no less a threesome than Sabbath, Iron Maiden and Metallica…here’s hoping they at least try. 

Bonus: Ozzfest 2004 Main Stage Photo gallery - Click here for photos of Slayer, Superjoint Ritual, Black Label Society and Dimmu Borger from the August 14th Ozzfest!
 


Ed Rivadavia is an industry veteran and contributor to the All Music Guide.

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