Song of the Day: Black Sabbath “Air Dance”
While not nearly as acclaimed as their earlier recordings, the last two albums that Black Sabbath cut in the late ’70s with Ozzy Osbourne, before they parted ways with the iconic singer, found the band radically re-imagining their sound. While the band was already experimenting with texture and tape experiments as early as on their Vol. 4 album, released in 1972, the group subsequently turned things up several notches. Though the music was still ostensibly riff-based, Technical Ecstasy (1976) and especially its follow-up, Never Say Die! (1978) saw the band bring in keyboards and really start moving in a complex prog metal direction. The latter album also boasted one of the group’s best cover shots, emblazoned with two menacing-looking RAF pilots in full flight suits and masks.
“Air Dance” from Never Say Die! is probably the very peak of this more musically expansive phase by Black Sabbath. While the song is introduced by a classic, heavily chorused guitar riff, the core of the song is built around a shimmering, almost jazz piano line that is augmented by gentle acoustic guitars.
The song moves through a number of complex movements and time signature shifts, with Ozzy turning in some of his most evocative song lyrics about an aging ballet dancer. The song is bittersweet in its sentiment and offers something of a softer, more introspective and even cerebral side to what many regard as the first heavy metal band.
The outro to the song also finds that the influence of Santana was strong with Sabbath at the time. It is flavored with an almost Latin-tinged rhythm, extended guitar riffing and a hyperactive Moog synthesizer line. Never let it be said that Sabbath could only play the hard stuff, this is a masterclass of shifting textures, dynamics and musical styles.
Never Say Die! was unfortunately critically savaged as “too musically scattered” and the rest of the band split with the increasingly drug and alcohol troubled Osborne shortly thereafter. When they re-emerged with new singer, Ronnie James Dio in 1980, they had re-embraced their hard rocking first principles, only now with more of a gossamer production shimmer on top. It is entertaining to wonder where they might have gone musically had the experiments on Never Say Die! proved more of a critical success. To that end, “Air Dance”, for my money, remains one of the group’s very best songs.