Black Sabbath’s Live at Last (1980) has been reissued so often that its Discogs listing shows 81 distinct versions. Those don’t include the Black Sabbath live set Past Lives, of which Live at Last forms its first CD. The second disc is all unreleased live versions, from shows in 1970 and 1975. These consist of some of the big Sabbath numbers that weren’t on Live at Last (“Iron Man”, “Black Sabbath”) and more obscure material like “Hole in the Sky”.
“Hand of Doom” from Paranoid is an unusual though doomy way to open the CD. It rolls from gentle bass to a roaring mania. It is a taut performance largely because of Bill Ward’s enviable swing. “Hand of Doom” was recorded in 1970, but jumping ahead to ’75, Ozzy’s intro to “Hole in the Sky” is cute. It wasn’t out yet. “Listen to it, you might like it, OK?” asks Ozzy. Then, “Are you high? Are you high? So am I!”
Some Sabbath songs are like a brand new bulldozer, unrelentlessly heavy, yet shiny and cool. “Hole in the Sky” is one such riff-monster, an indispensable slab of heavy metal. It’s followed by another new one, and even heavier: “Symptom of the Universe”. Young, wasted Sabbath blast through it — and stay the fuck out of Bill Ward’s way! The drummer is a tornado. “Megalomania” makes it a perfect trifecta of new songs. It’s an epic 10 minutes of different paces, riffs and melodies. Unlike other metal bands, Sabbath often welded two or three unforgettable riffs together into mega-compositions. Look at “Black Sabbath” for example — they could have made two songs out of it, but instead we have one massive monolith. On stage, “Megalomania” is tense and never boring. Ozzy shreds his voice to pieces.
As far as Past Lives goes, these three songs (“Hole in the Sky”, “Symptom of the Universe” and “Megalomania”) are the nugget of gold in the middle. It’s a first official live release for most of them. A live “Symptom of the Universe” was issued by a Tony Martin-era lineup on 1995’s Cross Purposes ~ Live, but that cannot compete with the vintage original lineup.*
It’s only oldies from there in. “Iron Man”, “Fairies Wear Boots” and “Black Sabbath” (with unique Tony Iommi guitar intro) make up for their absence on Live at Last. “N.I.B.” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep” from the first Sabbath round out the set. Nobody did them better than the original band in the 1970s.
Today we have more original Sabbath to choose from that just Past Lives; two complete concerts were included in the recent Paranoid 4 CD box set. Back in 2002, this kind of release warranted bigger fanfare. The audio is not pristine. Flutter, static and amp hum are part of the deal. If you’re into buying archival live material, you know what this is about.
The original digipack release of Past Lives comes with a booklet, a poster, and most importantly a guitar pick. Collectors will probably want to hold out for a version with pick intact, though finding one might be a “holy grail” item. If you don’t care about such things, a simple jewel case release is widely available.
* Sorry Harrison.