BILL WARD – When the Bough Breaks (1997 Purple Pyramid)
If anybody in Black Sabbath is an under-sung genius, it must be poor Bill Ward, the drummer on the outs with the legendary band. Not only did he release the cult classic Ward One: Along the Way, but also its lesser known followup When the Bough Breaks. Much more than just a drummer, Ward writes music and lyrics. He also sings lead on every song, unlike its guest-laden predecessor. What he didn’t do on When the Bough Breaks was plays drums — at all. Maybe there is something to this talk from Ozzy about Bill not being able to hack it?
Folks who know little about Bill or Sabbath usually assume it’s all doom and gloom. Track 1’s song title is “Hate”, but fear not, Bill has not changed his tune. Hate is the easy way, not the right way, is the message. Meanwhile there’s a cool sax lick and chunky guitar, and I swear that Bill must have arranged the drum parts because even though it’s not him, it sounds like him. Ronnie Ciago does a fine job on the skins, all over the album. Then, “Children Killing Children” is clumsy lyrically, but backed by lovely music and a heartfelt vocal performance. A pretty ballad with mandolin, dobro, cello and violins is not what many would expect, but When the Bought Breaks is a mellow listen as a whole, and it can’t be pigeon-holed.
“Growth” maintains the soft trend, but it also cascades into massive waves. Bill sings with a high, whispery quavering voice. It lends itself best to quiet drama, interspersed with maniacally heavy rock. That’s what “Growth” is, with a progressive bent and female backing singers. It seems to form part of a suite, “When I Was a Child” emerging directly from it. Though the title misleads, this is actually one of the heaviest tracks — a sludgy heavy metal blues born from the steel mills of Birmingham. The childhood theme is continued with “Please Help Mommy (She’s a Junkie)”. It also continues the blues with swampy dobro…before it transforms in a space age gospel-soul-metal slam dance. It has a hell of a lot more life and rock and roll than anything Ozzy’s produced since then. The sludge remains on “Shine” which I like to think of as ending a side. Oddball Bill rock is the best way to describe it.
“Step Lightly” has a soft touch to it but the heavy guitars leave no doubt. A potent mixture of influences and genres, “Step Lightly” defies categorization except to say it’s rock, but it’s a lot of things. “Love and Innocence” is a strange name to a brief percussion instrumental, and it’s an intro to the song “Animals”. A drummer’s wet dream, “Animals” is a heavy percussion blast with less emphasis on guitar. A fine song, “Animals” is only hampered by a weird tribal-y front section. “Nighthawks Stars and Bars” commences as we wind down. This beautiful song feels like dusk, serenaded by saxophone. Bill wrote a lovely soul ballad here, and the ladies singing on it are incredible. “Try Life” is Floyd meets Lennon with a teeny tiny sprinkle of Sabbath, creating a light concoction of classy progressive rock balladry.
One last epic, the slow building title track (almost 10 minutes) leaves no doubt in mind that Bill Ward is a unique talent. Of all the Sabbath solo records, Bill’s have been the most ambitious. They’ve also been the fewest. Bill’s long awaited Beyond Aston has no release date, but another solo album called Accountable Beasts was finally released in 2015. Meanwhile, of Beyond Aston, Bill says it’s his best since Master of Reality in 1971!
Of When the Bough Breaks, I can only close with this. It takes time. It takes a lot of listening time invested, to pay back its full dividends. When it does, you’ll be glad you bought it. Of note however, there are multiple pressings and the one I have has liner notes and lyrics so tiny, that I fear I might irreparably damage my own eyes if I try to read them.