If you’re a hardcore ’90s metal fan, Plastic Planet will most likely be your drug of choice, but older school Sabbath fans may more likely gravitate to Black Science.
Having been in and out of Black Sabbath at various times throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, Geezer Butler didn’t enter the ‘solo album’ arena until 1995. He had put together The Geezer Butler Band a decade earlier, but no album was recorded as a result. When his first offering, 1995’s Plastic Planet, finally emerged under the band name ‘g//z/r’ (with the three slashes of course representing the letter ‘e’), it is fair to say that it was not exactly what many Sabbath fans of old would have been expecting. When a long-standing member of a major band releases a solo album, the results are very often one of two things: more of the same or a radically different type of music to scratch a different ‘itch’, as it were. Plastic Planet was neither of those things. If you expected a retread of the doomy, golden-age metal of Master Of Reality, then you were off the mark somewhat. If you expected a lighter, more acoustic and reflective album then you were off the mark by so much that you were in a different time zone. Because Plastic Planet is HEAVY. Crushingly so. Not only that, it is heavy in an entirely contemporary way, far more System Of A Down than Sabbath. This could have gone very wrong, in an ‘old man chases trends’ kind of way, but somehow he pulls it off in an entirely convincing manner. There were two albums following that one over the next decade, and this set collects all three, along with a disc of out-takes and unreleased material, but let’s stick with Plastic Planet for the moment, and see what the older fans might make of it all…
The first thing that hits you about the album, with the opening track Catatonic Eclipse, is the sheer overwhelming heft and power. The second thing is the vocals, because this is one of the things which sets the album resolutely in stone as a contemporary, ’90s metal album. The singer on the album is in fact Burton C Bell, from highly influential US industrial metal band Fear Factory, and his presence does a good deal to take the overall sound very much in that direction. Not that it isn’t of a very similar musical ilk anyway, but there are choruses on several of the Plastic Planet songs which would lighten the texture considerably if delivered by a more traditional ‘old-school’ voice. Indeed, Bell’s vocal might be the single thing which most divides the older fans from the more contemporary ones -it isn’t an out-and-out death metal growl, but he does utilise that technique a good part of the time, and his ‘clean’ singing style doesn’t use a great range in terms of hitting high notes especially. Coming from a 1970s Sabbath background, I found it an obstacle at first, but my ears soon became attuned, and he does do a great job in terms of giving the album an authenticity of the time.
The words are all written, unsurprisingly, by Geezer himself, but the music is a collaboration between him and guitarist (and his nephew in fact), Pedro Howse. That first track is one of the standouts, the longest on the album at over six minutes, and a brilliant statement of intent. The chorus here is a prime example of one which could transform the song, as it is easy to imagine Ozzy singing it in his distinctive higher register, a factor which would almost certainly give it more of an echo of vintage Sabbath. Still, that clearly wasn’t Geezer’s intention when he made the album – though it would surely have sounded very different had his first choice of Devin Townsend agreed to do the record! There are several other clear highlights – the single Drive, Boy Shooting encapsulates the ’90s metal scene perfectly, while the cleverly titled Seance Fiction strays more to doom territory, conjuring up the likes of Candlemass in its tombstone-heavy slow grind. Giving Up The Ghost – another with a chorus easy to imagine getting the Ozzy treatment – is a thinly-veiled dig at Tony Iommi and the slightly soap-opera element which was developing around the shifting Sabbath membership at the time. The use of the phrase ‘Desperately Seeking Satan’ is pure genius! Sabbath at this time were recording the Forbidden album which, while not nearly as bad as its reputation would suggest, is certainly not as good as this. Elsewhere we have Detective 27, which cannot fail to score simply by being, literally, about Batman. There are lots of things in this life which are very cool, but very few of them could be described as ‘Batman And Black Sabbath’ cool, let’s be honest! I have to be frank and say that I would declare a mixture of Sabbath and Batman as awesome even if it took the form of a duet for pan pipes and Patagonian nose-flute, but this genuinely is a fine track to match the subject matter. There is a little tailing off toward the end of the album, and it could probably have lost a couple of its eleven tracks and tightened up a bit, but that’s not a major complaint. There is actually a break in the brutal riffing for the final track Cycle Of Sixty, which is restrained and almost balladic, but while it is an excellent song, it would have had more impact for me placed midway as a change of pace, as Sabbath themselves were always wont to do back in the Ozzy years.
Two years later we got a follow-up, Black Science, this time credited to ‘Geezer’ as the band name. Howse is still there on guitar, as is drummer Dean Castronovo, but Bell is replaced this time (owing to Fear Factory commitments) by Clark Brown, and the difference this makes to the album is immediately noticeable. It is still for the most part a satisfyingly heavy album, but Brown’s greater range and cleaner vocal style makes, for me, a more satisfying listen. I can imagine, however, those from a different background lamenting the departure of Bell, who certainly made the material his own in his distinctive style. There is a little more variety of sound and lightness of texture all round with the material this time out, with some techno-metal influences, and even the odd hint of progressive metal, creeping in. All in all, it’s a superb album, and my personal pick of the three here. There is a theme to the album, being loosely based around Geezer’s own nostalgia for his youth, and in particular the TV shows he grew up with – these include Man In A Suitcase (whatever did happen to Richard Bradford?), Mysterons (Captain Scarlet), Among The Cybermen (Doctor Who, of course), Xodiak (Fireball XL5, with its pilot Steve Zodiac) and Department S (the programme which introduced the character Jason King to the world). I suspected that Number 5 would be a nod to The Prisoner (via the character ‘Number 6’), but the lyrics do not seem to obviously bear that out, as it appears to be more of a reflection on the passing of time and the changes to his home environment. A couple of these tracks are real standouts, with the opening Man In A Suitcase a textbook accessible-yet-powerful modern metal song, and Department S and Mysterons also fine examples of the genre. Area Code 51 is, of course, in relation to the Roswell alien theory, and is another cracker of a track. It’s not all balls to the wall, however, with the track Northern Wisdom (I was really hoping that would be about Norman Wisdom, but sadly not!) having an almost poppy feel to its tremendously melodic structure. It’s different, but is nonetheless excellent. One of the heaviest tracks comes with the closer, Trinity Road, which could be a nod back to Geezer’s boyhood, as the Trinity Road in question is located in the Aston area of Birmingham where the Sabbath guys all grew up, and indeed joins on to Ozzy’s home street – but is more likely a reference to his beloved Aston Villa FC, as the Trinity Road Stand is one side of their Villa Park ground. There is one weak track in the shape of the tongue-in-cheek Unspeakable Elvis, which is entertaining enough at first without bearing repeated listening, but the rest of this album is gold.
There was a gap after this to Ohmwork in 2005, as Geezer hooked up with Sabbath again for their successful end-of-the-century reunion, by which time Chad Smith had taken over the drumstool. Released this time under the name GZR, the album opted for a sort of amalgamation of the approaches on the two previous albums, but with slightly diminishing returns. There are real high points here without doubt, with the powerfully textured I Believe echoing Judas Priest’s Beyond The Realms Of Death through a millennial metal filter – this seven minute epic is not only the standout track on Ohmwork but is one of the finest on the whole set. The satisfyingly doomy Alone, the powerful Pull The String and the penultimate Dogs Of Whore are also all high quality, but elsewhere there is a feeling of style over substance, as the likes of Pardon My Depression and the groan-inducingly titled Aural Sects are, as Shakespeare had it, ‘full of sound and fury’ but without quite enough under the hood to sustain them. There is a burst of old school thrash with the pulverisingly brutal two and a half minutes of Pseudocide being a real fist to the face, but neglecting to actually include much of a song along the way. It’s still worth a listen, but is the weakest of the three albums.
A fourth disc gathers together fifteen ‘bonus tracks’ covering demos, alternate mixes, live recordings and a couple of non-album songs. The latter are of the most interest here, with the Japanese Black Science bonus track Beach Skeleton being forgettable, but the unused demo Four Feathers Fall proving to be a real discovery. Over six and a half minutes of delicate and intricate playing, much of it acoustic, it builds up a mesmerising web of sound, thrown into relief by the distant metal screams from Clark, hinting at the anguish engendered by the lyric. It’s a great song, and with a little development it could have been a real standout. I am assuming it was from the Black Science sessions, as the title is a clear nod to the 1960 TV Western series Four Feather Falls, from Geezer’s much-loved Gerry Anderson (indeed, Howse was given the nickname Pedro by Geezer after a character from the show). The disc is rounded out by stonking live renditions of Drive Boy, Shooting, Detective 27 and House Of Clouds from the USA, during a tour which was sadly cut short when Geezer suffered ill health.
All in all, there is some great music here, with the picks being the first two, depending on your metal orientation. If you’re a hardcore ’90s metal fan, Plastic Planet will most likely be your drug of choice, but older school Sabbath fans may more likely gravitate to Black Science. However, those wanting to dip their toes into the ‘here be dragons’ world of contemporary metal without being quite ready for Impaled Nazarene or Cannibal Corpse, may well find Plastic Planet a perfect primer. What is slightly baffling is the packaging of the set, which includes no information whatsoever beyond tracklists and whatever can be gleaned from the original back covers of the albums. This is clearly not a cost-saving measure, as the accompanying booklet is sumptuously illustrated, but contains no words whatsoever! Also history has been somewhat rewritten by crediting all of the albums (even amending the cover art) to simply ‘Geezer Butler’ rather than the original g//z/r, Geezer and GZR. My guess would be that the intention is to let the music stand on its own feet unburdened by the history and line up changes surrounding it, and it always did seem an odd decision to use three different names for what was essentially a continuation of the same band. Some more details fleshing things out would, I feel, have been a good idea however, as those without knowledge of the credits, song influences etc, would be forced to investigate via the internet. A small gripe perhaps, but certainly some great music which has languished in relative obscurity for too long.
A companion release, The Very Best Of Geezer Butler, has also been issued at the same time, for those wanting to explore the music with a single disc cherry-picking the highlights, and this gets them a generous seventeen tracks from across the three albums. The big question here is whether the track selection is a good one, and representative of the real high points, and I can report that it is an excellent choice. All of the really essential tracks are here: Catatonic Eclipse, Drive Boy Shooting, Man In A Suitcase, Among The Cybermen, I Believe, Detective 27, Area Code 51… Okay, I would have left off Pardon My Depression and Aural Sects to make room for Alone and Giving Up The Ghost, but that’s what the main box is for. If a collection like this can hit the mark for 75% or so of its tracks, it’s done a great job as an introductory selection, and The Very Best Of can be approached with confidence. The tracks are arranged in non-chronological order, jumping from one album, and singer, to another, which might have been jarring but actually works very well. All in all, ‘not bad for a boy from Aston’, as I’m sure he would say himself! Check this out, it’s worth your time…