Thursday, April 23, 2015

FEATURE - Beyond the Beasts: Bill Ward Moves On

Photo by Joel Gausten

If you're a fan of Black Sabbath, there is a very strong chance you've been paying close attention to the Internet over the last few days.

In postings found elsewhere on the Web, drummer Bill Ward and singer Ozzy Osbourne engaged in a very public war of words over events that transpired during and after the ill-fated reunion of the original members of Sabbath in 2011/2012. Unfortunately, the dark clouds generated by the situation have obscured some of the very positive news surrounding not only Ward's health, but his long-awaited return to music.

We're talking two bands and two albums here, folks. But before getting into all of that, let's back things up a couple of weeks.

As many diehard Bill Ward fans already know, Ward made other headlines late last month when he made a special guest appearance at the Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp “Masters of Metal” event at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. Boasting the involvement of other heavyweights like Michael Schenker (UFO/MSG/Scorpions) and Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple), “Masters of Metal” allowed “fantasy campers” to jam with and learn from some of their musical heroes. Instead of showing up and immediately rocking out in Metal glory, Ward decided to give the campers an intriguing history lesson.

I didn't want to do any Sabbath music,” he says. “Normally, when an artist shows up, they play things that they're most famous for or things like that... Instead, I wanted to do things that were influential to me before Black Sabbath. That's an important part of music as well, obviously. We decided to do some regular standard things, some Blues things. We did some Hendrix, Cream... For the drummers there, I wanted to do simple Bo Diddley rhythms, “Not Fade Away” probably being the most famous of them all. I wanted to focus on what things would be nice for drummers to play. We included a Blues song called 'Im Going Down,' which is basically four-on-the-floor... I had two youngsters playing with me; one of them was 10. He played unbelievably good. He was absolutely brilliant!”

Ward was especially blown away by the high level of enthusiasm and skill evident among the various campers who took part in the festivities.

I think the youngest guys were like six, maybe seven years old, and then we had guys about the same age as me!” he adds. “Everybody could rock; everybody was really nice and just so ambitious and so happy to be there. [My time there] was a very high-energy, well-meaning four/five-hour ecstasy of fun. For me, it was very enjoyable.”

Of course, Ward's participation in Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp signified his long-awaited public return to the drums. Mere days after having a shoulder operation in early October 2013, he suffered a perforated diverticulitis and underwent emergency surgery. The illness stopped Ward in his tracks for months.

When I got sick, that took center stage, so my shoulder was almost abandoned by everybody; they said, 'We're going to have to go back to the shoulder,'” he recalls. “Normally, after you have an operation on your rotator cuff – which is not uncommon for drummers who slam – it's usually two or three days of rest, and then you start to work and exercise it and you get back into shape. I've done this before; it's happened before and I worked throught it. As long as you do all the exercises, that's that. But I arrived back in the land of the living back in February of 2014 with a frozen shoulder.”

Fortunately, this setback didn’t derail the timekeeper for very long.

My [current] activity levels are very high; they have to be,” offers Ward, who says that he's now drumming four to six hours a day. “Because I did have something of a busted-up wing, if you like, I've really worked hard on that. But I'm playing at full capacity. By May of last year, I was definitely in shape to be able to play for sustaining amounts of time.”

Ward's time behind the kit these days is divided between his long-running Bill Ward Band (BWB) and a second, yet-to-be announced project (currently a trio) with guitarist Joe Amodea (who is the six-stringer featured in the much-discussed Instagram video made public last week). BWB is the group behind the soon-to-be-released Accountable Beasts, Ward's first solo album in 18 years. In addition to longtime BWB members Keith Lynch (guitar, keyboards), Paul Ill (bass) and Ronnie Ciago (drums), the album will feature contributions by drummer Walter Earl and an array of session singers including Ward's daughter, Emily. Ward's drumming will be heard on seven of the album's nine tracks.

Those familiar with Ward's 1990 solo debut Ward One: Along The Way and 1997's When The Bough Breaks know that the music released under his own steam (and often featuring his lead vocals) is usually a reflection of his softer, more soulful side. How does Accountable Beasts compare to these two previous releases?

It's much tougher; it kicks harder,” he reveals. “Most of the stuff is pretty heavy on it. It's very current lyrically. I don't intend to be current with anything; I just write the music and allow it to just be whatever it is. But when I listened to it in hindsight - we did the final mastering on January 6 of this year - I thought, 'Oh my God! A lot of the stuff we're writing about is on TV every day. Most of [the album] is about religion; most of it's about war. It's the stuff that makes the world turn 'round every day. It's about people's souls being ripped to pieces. I guess it could be called morbid, but at the same time I'm also hoping it can be called energizing and respectful lyrically. I've worked really hard on trying to produce something that would mean something to the listener who's drawn in by the music.

We got pretty crazy on this one,” he adds. “We just played; it was like, 'Fuck everything.' I wanted to go back to a place that I really know well, and that's playing hard.”

Accountable Beasts' life began around 2008, when Ward sought a creative way to take a breather from Beyond Aston, the solo album he has worked on in bits and pieces since the late '90s.

I tried to do something really stupid,” he recalls. “I tried to go, 'You know what? Let's keep [Beyond Aston] on hold and let's just put out something quick now.' It had been a while, and I thought, 'This is taking a long time; let's just do a quick album.'

Songs were written, plans were set...and then the realities of life took over.

I don't always have a huge budget to do these things, so we do it piecemeal,” Ward explains. “What I thought was going to be a relatively quick album [to] just get it out there to the public turned out to be nothing like that... I spent a year with Black Sabbath in 2011; I spent half of 2012 waiting to see what Black Sabbath might want to do in case they changed their minds. I re-kickstarted the finalization of Accountable Beasts in May of 2013. It took another while to get the final mixes – and of course it didn't help with me getting sick. I lost about five months.”

Heath and issues within Sabbath weren't the only roadblocks, as Ward also had to confront the challenges of ever-evolving technology.

While we're going through this process of trying to make music, times change - but so do electronics, hard drives [and] digital inputs,” he observes. “We [were] looking around and going, 'Oh my God! A lot of the things we started out with are all obsolete!' One of the biggest things I realized is that most people listen to music on earbuds. I was still laboring under the impression that people were going to be listening to this thing on speakers! It dawned on me that we would have to change all the mixes to an earbud mix. In the fall of 2014, I earbud-mixed every single track on Accountable Beasts; we went through everything again until we go it working in the earbud so it will hopefully sound good to the listener from an earbud point of view. I picked up some earbuds for about $25, and we did the entire album on $25 earbuds... That 'quick album' turned out to be an excursion for, what, six years?”

The self-released Accountable Beasts is expected to arrive on iTunes (complete with an extensive digital booklet) within the next couple of months.* Physical copies will also be made available.

Once Accountable Beasts is in the world, Ward will devote time to concluding Beyond Aston. He plans to be in final mixing mode by this September to finish things off. (One confirmed track, “Poppies,” is an emotional anti-war number inspired by the tradition of wearing a poppy on November 11 in honor of those who perished in battle.) Not surprisingly, Ward couldn't be more excited to reach this point with Beyond Aston after so many years.

It's fucking great; it's beautiful, man,” he says of the album. “I hope other people will like it. I think it's one of the best things I've participated in since Master Of Reality.”

The impending arrival of Accountable Beasts and Beyond Aston not only represents the final step in a years-long journey for Ward, but also serves as a reminder of the talents and contributions of his longtime cohorts. Keith Lynch has been a major part of Ward's solo endeavors since before Ward One: Along The Way, while Ill and Ciago have been part of the team for nearly two decades. Clearly, Ward has found a special combination of musicians that works.

The biggest and most important thing is they let me be who I am,” he explains. “I'm all over the place; every time I get up in the morning, I don't know if I'm going to be writing a song or not writing a song. Usually, I'll write something every day or come up with ideas all the time - 24/7 - and they let me be who I am. They let me go to wherever I've gotta go. They know that I'll come to them when I've got something in a rough working format, and then I'll ask them to see what they can do and explode on or where they want to go with [it]. They're very patient, which I think is the most important thing in the Bill Ward Band. They're all good musicians; there's a lot of ebb and flow. They allow me to be me. I need to have that; I need to be able to have the room to say, 'No, let's go here' and try different things all the time.”

Music isn't the only way that Ward has expressed himself in recent times. As previously discussed on this site, Ward unveiled his special fine art series, Absence of Corners, in the summer of 2013. Boasting 15 fine art pieces and billed as “a collection of rhythm on canvas,” Absence of Corners was created by Ward in collaboration with the Los Angeles-based visual art team SceneFour. As described on the project’s extensive (and aesthetically amazing) website (, Ward “utilized a sophisticated formula to create the collection’s visuals, using an array of drumsticks and rhythmic accessories that produce light, much like a painter utilizing brushes and oils. The movements featured within the captured rhythms are then studied and developed into abstract artwork that showcases a dimension not normally seen by the human eye.” Each numbered piece in the collection comes signed by the man himself.

In May 2014, Ward appeared at the Annapolis Collection Gallery in Annapolis, MD for a special two-day event that included public discussions of his art, private VIP receptions for buyers and (on the first night) a celebration of his 66th birthday complete with a vegan cake. In addition to providing an opportunity for Ward to showcase and discuss his various art pieces, the Maryland events offered the drummer a chance to connect with several fans and admirers in an intimate setting.

Meeting everybody, sitting down with everybody, holding hands, hugging each other and doing all of that communication was such an honorable thing to do and be a part of,” he says. “For me, it was just like man... I was on fucking fire, you know? It don't get no better than that, when you're meeting everybody that you love, and you know that they love you.”

Although the Maryland jaunt was ultimately a joyous occasion for Ward, he admits that the experience did come with some ups and downs.

When we did Absence of Corners [and] when we were in Annapolis, I was still in a lot of grief,” he shares. “First of all, I was grieving the loss of one of my best friends; that was Ozzy Osbourne. I missed him so much; it was just devastating to me. When I did the presentations of the paintings, there were some things that I was describing about some of [them]... and I know I was crying. I was still very much attached to all of the things that had held me tightly in Black Sabbath. There was my loyalty [and] love for the band. To create the things that we created together for years and years and years... I was in the grief of recognizing the new reality that I was [no longer] part of that. I don't want to bring up the issue because I've already very clearly stated it publicly, but there were some things that were going on that were really not okay for me. It was really painful to read some of the things I had read. I'm not saying that I've been a victim, as I've been told just recently, or [say this] out of self-pity, because I wasn't in any self-pity, either. I don't live there; I always get up and get going again.”

Despite recent turmoil within the Sabbath camp, nothing can take away how much the band's music has meant to people. Two months ago, the first Black Sabbath album – and the true start of what we all know as Heavy Metal – turned 45. Why does Ward feel this album continues to resonate so strongly for so many?

I believe that the first album has always been current,” he replies. “We were able to put something together that was completely current then and is just as current today. When you've got something that makes sense every day for 45 years, then you've really got something. Unfortunately, some of the things we were talking about, singing about and playing about are never-ending topics. War, hardship, addiction, losing one's self, losing one's soul, looking at things that we have to confront and overcome... it's exactly the same story today. I can put that record on right now – in fact, I probably will – [and] it's still one of my favorite records. The song 'Black Sabbath' is still the rallying point... Black Sabbath is a band you can hold onto and say 'Yeah!' and have something to bring comfort and whatever it brought to the individual listener... I think all of that is still in that album, and it continues to provide nourishment for everyone who can receive the nourishment from it. I think it's just generational. Unfortunately, we have exactly the same hardships - even worse in some cases - now than we did when we did [the album]. Things were really bad when we did that; the world was fucking on fire. And it's on fire now. Put the TV on today; the fucking world's on fire.”

With two new albums ready to go and and two bands to keep him busy, Bill Ward is not about to let his critics have the final word. Looking back at his tumultuous recent past, Ward says he found his greatest inner peace the same way he has since childhood – through music.

Where I've had to find solace is in moving ahead, embracing myself as a drummer and knowing full well that I'm utterly capable of playing,” he says. “In fact, in my trio where I only play drums, I've made it hard on myself, and I did that in Black Sabbath as well. I'm the hardest person on me – harder than my fellow band members could ever be. I find solace in being able to work past my difficulties, put myself in a position where I deliberately or unconsciously deliberately play in a trio where I have to play much harder than I would in Black Sabbath. I'm doing things now with bass, drums and control of cymbals at high speed that we never, ever even came close to doing in Black Sabbath. I'm always striving for the betterment of myself, and I find solace in that.”

*Update 4/26/15Accountable Beasts was quietly and unexpectedly released on iTunes last night. Go here or ordering info. Read my review of the album here. 

Bill Ward and Joel Gausten (photo by Cory Danziger)


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.