It looked like an impossibility a few years ago, but three-quarters of the original Black Sabbath lineup finally got around to recording and releasing a new studio album a few months ago, and then launching a world tour.
For founding members Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi, the reunion was decades in the making; the Rick Rubin-produced "13" (Vertigo/Universal) is their first Sabbath album together since 1978. Still, it was nearly derailed by Iommi's struggle with cancer and a legal tussle with founding drummer Bill Ward, who eventually pulled out of the reunion. He was replaced on the album by Rage Against the Machine's Brad Wilk and on the current tour by Tommy Clufetos.
Iommi, who along with his bandmates is one of the primary architects of heavy metal, talked frankly about the turmoil as Sabbath was beginning a tour that brings it Friday to the First World Bank Amphitheatre in south suburban Tinley Park.
Q: How's your health?
A: Not so bad, dare I say. I'm still under treatment. That's not going to go away. I work our tours around my treatments. Each time we get a break, I go back to England and have another treatment. It will be ongoing till next year. It's an antibody treatment, intravenous, and makes you feel the same way as chemotherapy does. It's an awful feeling for a few days.
Q: Has it affected your ability to perform?
A: The shows have been good. I just have to work out my days so I don't exert myself too much. It's important for me to get rest. Unfortunately, I'm in the wrong job to get rest. There are times when I get really exhausted. You just have to push through. Once you get onstage, the adrenaline takes over.
Q: The Black Sabbath album seems like it had been in the discussion stage for 10 years. Did you ever think it would come out?
A: We wrote some songs about 10 years ago, but it never went any further. Ozzy was doing (his reality TV show) "The Osbournes." Nobody was into it properly back then. It was just too casual. The only way to do an album is that everyone would really want to do it, everybody had to be 100 percent into doing an album, and it took a while to get there. Once we did, we worked quickly. I don't like to sit around pondering things. The actual recording time was only a few weeks.
Q: How did you get involved with Rick Rubin?
A: Rick has always been a fan. He always wanted to do a Black Sabbath album. When it came to doing an album, I said to the guys we do need a producer. I knew I didn't want to do it, and I thought the band shouldn't be doing it. Rick was the obvious choice because he had expressed interest.
Q: The music has a bluesier hard-rock feel with some jazz elements, similar to the way Sabbath sounded in its very earliest days. Was that something you were trying to achieve?
A: When we sat down and talked to Rick, he played us our first album at his house (the 1970 release "Black Sabbath"). We thought, "This is weird." But it was his idea to create that vibe of the early days. You haven't got 10 guitars and five vocals on a track. It's all basic. He said, "I'd like you to look at this as a follow-up to your first album 40 years out." Which is bloody hard to do! You get into a way of recording and it's hard to change. But it was good to do that, because you got the raw band, the raw sound. We wanted Ozzy to sing like he did in the early days, in a lower register, so we could do all the songs on stage.
Q: Why didn't things work out with Ward?
A: We went in full-heartedly, the four of us, and then Bill changed his mind. It threw us a lot. We weren't expecting it. Lawyers got involved; he didn't talk to us personally. It was a big shock when he pulled out. Between him and his lawyers, they wanted a certain thing and we couldn't do it. There may have been other issues, but I don't know. I don't know if he was worried about playing the songs, but it just seemed weird that he backed out. We couldn't come to an agreement to get him back, and I said to Bill, "We have to get on with it. We can't sit around waiting for you."
Q: Did anything surprise you about working with Rubin?
A: A lot of things surprised us about Rick. He has a very different way of working from what we're used to. He'd leave us to it, we'd write songs, he wasn't involved with the writing at all. We thought, well, this is strange. He just pops in now and again. He left it all to us, until we got into recording, then he'd start to make suggestions. He had his reasons for waiting. ... Over the last 40 years, we got into a pattern of putting in the backing track, then working out the solo, then adding the vocals. We'd do it in pieces. This time, Ozzy was singing in the booth in back while we were playing. Everybody was in there all the time and involved. Over the years it got to the stage where everyone would do their parts, and I'd be in there on my own, doing the guitar parts. It was never a joint effort, until now.
Q: A lot of bands used to working a certain way for so long would've been upset. Were there disagreements with Rubin?
A: At first Rick wanted 30 songs and I told him, "You got no chance of that." Sabbath has never done 30 songs for anybody. We'd never done more than eight or 10 an album. But in the studio, he kept pushing us. Rick put Geezer under a lot of pressure: "We need lyrics for this tomorrow." Bloody hell, but we needed that. We went in with 10 songs, but other ideas came up in the studio — (the acoustic track) "Zeigeist" and the blues jam ("Damaged Soul"). We ended up with 16 to choose from at the end. We recorded the album in Malibu (Calif.), in Rick's studio. We'd have weekends off, and one Friday evening, he emailed me, "Do you think you could come up with an acoustic track with Ozzy?" On Saturday, I came up with the idea for "Zeitgeist," and on Monday I played it in the studio for Rick and the other guys and we recorded it. It was that off-the-cuff.
Greg Kot cohosts "Sound Opinions" at 8 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. Saturdays on WBEZ (FM-91.5).
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, 19100 S Ridgeland, Tinley Park
Tickets: $22.50-$135; ticketmaster.com