In the world of music, there are fans, there are pretenders and the genuinely gifted. Nestled within that Matrushka type formation is an even smaller group. The royal few who forge a new wheel out of ash, soot, blood, and heart. Forget re-inventing it. These are the cats that break the ground and sear the path. Standing firmly and proudly in this ragtag group of artists and shamans is a man named Bill Ward. Best known for being an unforgettable and irreplaceable architect that provided the sonic backbone as the original drummer for Black Sabbath, Ward has a small but fairly mighty body of solo work under his belt. It's a discography that has often been enormous in its build, thought, spirit and need, not to mention a proud refusal to be neatly categorized. This first chapter in Ward's solo career began with 1990's Ward One: Along the Way.
Ward's last record prior to 1990 was Black Sabbath's tremendously underrated 1983 album Born Again, which featured lead vocals by former Deep Purple frontman and the Apollo of hard rock himself, Ian Gillan. Ward used the 7 years in between to gestate Ward One, then utilized a wide selection of uber-talented guest musicians including Jack Bruce, Eric Singer, Marco Mendoza and even his former Sabbath bandmate, Ozzy Osbourne, to help craft this stronger-than-steel debut. The music, which ranges from fast-soaring rock ("Sweep") to something more dreamy and exploratory ("Pink Clouds an Island"), provides a finely fitting canvas for Ward's poetic, introspective and smartly composed lyrics. The truth is a fickle thing in this life but Bill Ward's words and expression are a lighthouse beacon shining directly on it.
“Zero at the point of it all.
All my knock down tears have washed me home.”
Ward One opens with “(Mobile) Shooting Gallery,” which is like coming to from a deep restless sleep. Layers of sound wash through the audio, including fragments of police dispatcher reporting a drug overdose. Mantra-like chanting and distorted guitars start to kick in, with the adrenaline about to lace its way through your system right about now. The heart in this song is an over-beating one that is trying to rebuild itself after suffering through the massive rift of addiction. There is some power and thrust sonically, thanks in part to the sweet combination Eric Singer's drums and frequent Ward collaborator and guitarist, Keith Lynch. (Singer himself has played with everyone from Lita Ford to Alice Cooper. He is currently playing and being kind of wasted as the pseudo-Peter Criss in the band Kiss.) Ward himself provides the vocals, showing off that range that is so mighty. The man can sing, to the extent of being able to form his voice near-perfectly to the music that it is fleshing out. “(Mobile) Shooting Gallery” immediately lays down the mental, emotional and spiritual journey that is this entire album.
“Forgive me father for what I am about to do”
The second track, “Short Stories,” is a neat and neatly formed prelude, sporting some simple but effective piano work from Malcolm Bruce (son of Jack, who will appear later on in this album) and vocals from Ward himself.
May close your many open doors.
Might you be cool. Don't get blown away.
Don't hurt you, just hold you and make you happy.”
The third track, “Bombers (Can Open Bomb Bays),” is a dark track with a core of hopefulness through the rubble. Lyrically, it feels like a father trying to guide his son through trauma. There's acknowledgment of the pain in this life, even and especially caused by the self, while stressing the importance of love and humanity. Like so much of Ward's solo work, as well as his contributions to Black Sabbath, there's a blend of edge, texture and a wholesale willingness to go as tonally far as is needed to go. Featuring guest vocals by the Blizzard of Oz himself, Ozzy Osborne, as well as his own then frequent collaborators, bassist Bob Daisley and guitarist Zakk Wylde, with drums by Bill himself, this is one of the strongest tracks on the album. Strong enough to merit being one of two songs that were released by Chameleon as singles. There was also a really excellent music video made to go along with the song, featuring footage of both Osborne and Bill, including some sweet footage of the latter's family mixed in with some aptly edited found footage (think a less arch “Beautiful World” by Devo), as well as shots of Bill's band and the narrative linchpin of two kids watching all of this unfold on a giant screen. Interesting to note that the man in video beckoning the children is saying, albeit in a super-sped up voice, "Come over here, come on. I'm going to show you some great things and I'm going to show you some horrible things, and you're going to have to make the decision about which is which. Come on, here's some bombs..." (Huge thanks to YouTube user SacrifyX for both posting the music video and for deciphering the speaker's welcome of sorts.) This world is violent as it is beautiful, with tears and fists and love, all of this is presented eloquently here.
"Pink Clouds, an island/It insulates me/From letting you know/That I'm quietly dying"
The album takes a darkly dreamy turn with “Pink Clouds An Island.” Floating in an unknown ether, the song has a world music flavor with the percussion, courtesy of Bill, Eric Singer, and an artist credited as Leonice. (It is highly likely that this is Leonice Shinneman, a very respected American percussionist whose style blends East Indian and West African sounds. Shinneman has also played with players ranging from Frank Zappa to Kiss, whose own drummer at this time was, of course, Eric Singer. All roads lead to Detroit Rock City.) Add in some subtle but powerful guitar work from Wylde and eternal great vocals from the man himself, whose soulful voice emoting a man lost and scared. The title itself may sound like a psychedelic creation, but keep in mind that “pink islands” is a well-known term for those going through addiction recovery. It’s a descriptor of the wax and waning flood of high and low emotions re-emerging after having been previously deadened by drugs and alcohol. Sometimes we are at our most brave when we are at our most frightened.
“Up to the rafters/Watch the candlelight glow/Follow your heart, see where it goes”
Even as the blackest skies rise before dawn, there’s always room and need for illumination. “Light Up The Candles (Let There Be Peace Tonight)” is all about that need, serving as a beautiful and humble song-plea for a better world, both externally and internally. Musically, it is sweet and coolly textured. In lesser hands, it would be at risk for being flatlining-mellow, but when you have cats like Ward and Jack Bruce at the helm, there is literally zero danger of that happening. Bruce handles both bass duties (naturally) and lead vocals, sounding authentically plaintive.
“Patience, patience wearing thin/Don’t guide me through where you ain’t been/It takes a whole damn lot to wear me down/And right now friend, I’m about to stand my ground”
The sturm-und-drang comes down fast and furiously with “Snakes & Ladders.” This is where I should try to craft a fancy pants descriptor that basically means, this song rocks like fuck but you know what? This songs totally rocks, with some tasty bass playing from Marco Mendoza and Bill Ward bringing some real guts to the vocals and drumming. “Snakes & Ladders” has all the teeth of a man regaining power through anger. Not the kind of anger that lingers and seeps like a cancer, but the kind that fuels and rebuilds heart and will. It possesses great angst with a furtive rush of emotions, coupled with some brilliant and haunting lyrics.
“I see dead men playing/I hear cries for many/I see tears and then some/I hear hope, I’m hoping”
The next song, “Jack’s Land,” is a quietly muscular piece with atmospheric synths with Ozzy taking the lead vocals for the second and final time on the album. It’s got an opus type feel and is the tonal-sonic twin of “Bombers.” The key difference is that in exchange for a parent/god figure trying to look out for the fragile, “Jack’s Land” is coming from the fragile himself. Speaking of fragile, there’s the next track….
“There’s no more excuse any more since the fire/The whole house has burned down”
“Living Naked,” from the incredibly heavy intro to the flesh-flayed-bare lyrics to the very title itself, is a heart-smart song that feels like it is from the viewpoint of a survivor that is nervous and ready to move on to the next point in life. Acknowledging the past pain and “terror” while saying goodbye to it, which is the precise thing we all have to do is grow. Picking at a wound will never heal it but cleaning it and then leaving it be will. Also, this is a world that should be grateful to have a man and artist like Bill Ward in it.
“I am at night an undertaker/I do thy dirty work for thee/And after doing, ask this question/What in the hell are you to me?”
The next track on Ward One is “Music for a Raw Nerve Ending.” The title alone is blatantly fantastic and the song matches it, with its mountainous dark valleys and mountains. The synths are iron bearing lodestones here, creating a great contrast with the soft and rhythmic vocals. This is a drums and gravitas kind of song.
“Breathe out and when the hounds get hungry/Come marching with a mad dog’s cane/Hang on, Hang on”
“Tall Stories” marks the vocal return of Jack Bruce, who contributes another great vocal with a jazz-blues flavor. (Or blues-jazz for you Spinal Tap fans out there.) The lyrics speak, albeit with some poetic obfuscation, about a young man coming of age in a band amidst a murky landscape that can be terrifying to navigate when you are fragile and soul-blind. That said, there is a strange but wise jubilance about this song. There is light in the charnel house. It’s also a great lead up to Ward One’s next track.
“All fall down, it makes no difference/God Almighty holds the balance here/Get out, get out, get out of here”
“Sweep” is the entire album building up to one hell of an adrenaline rush of a tune. It’s majestic and just flat out rocks. We get Bill back on vocals and drums, which is universally the sonic sweet spot. That cat playing AND singing is a present, plain and simple. (Any Black Sabbath fan can attest to this by citing “It’s Alright” off of Technical Ecstasy and “Swinging the Chain” from Never Say Die.) This is Bill presenting us the light and dark of living. Life is beautiful and wonderful and painful and scary. We live through it all and we live through it all together. To quote the man himself, “Those being very small, have been heard to say that being small’s OK.”
“After the darkest day/I have been heard to say/Nothing feels better than/ Being so close to you”
Like a torn and worn traveler marveling and teary-eyed at the calm after the storm has hit the seaside, “Along the Way” is heavy easing into quiet. What difference can one small person make in the face of the ever-expanding miasma of life? Turns out, one that is resolutely immeasurable. With that, we hear Bill whisper goodbye as the album comes to a close.
To call Ward One: Along the Way a strong debut is akin to saying that water is wet and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. It’s interstellar and a fine showcase for Bill Ward’s multiple talents. It’s rare to find humility and restrained ego in most successful musicians and that is doubly so for a musical game changer like Ward. There might have been drummers that had similar influences to Ward’s around the time of Sabbath breaking through but there was no one that sounded like him. But there is way more to Ward than being one of the architects of heavy metal, with his ability to share creative space and let others shine equally alongside him being one of his finest qualities.
Ward One is an uncompromised and unlimited work that is a reminder of the beauty that happens when an artist doesn’t let himself get fettered with the battered morals and corporate bullshit of the record industry. It’s a complete crime that the album has been out-of-print for years and given that Ozzy Osbourne has become more of a brand and less of a collaborator over the years, there are potential legal issues that could prevent the album from going back into print. Let’s all light a candle and hope that justice will persevere in that. You can hear it currently on YouTube or spend a decent to a sizable chunk of change on a used copy. After that, check out Ward’s other solo works, including the absolute metal masterpiece Accountable Beasts and his brand new band, Day of Errors.
Remember, artists like Bill Ward are to be treasured and supported, not just because of their monstrous talent but because their art reminds us why life and being here is so awesome and magical. You are never alone when you have great art.
Special thanks to Ralph Viera. It was his video review of this album on his The Eternal Idols YouTube channel that connected me to this superb album. Ralph rocks!