Channelling Black Sabbath

Lit eerily red from below, mist crept over the stage, curling around the gravestone adorned in cobwebs and creeping up the legs of the figure standing before the crowd.

Adorned in a fringed top and heeled boots, the singer amped up the audience, shaking a wild mane of hair and laughing evilly.

It was Friday the 13th and this was the scene in the Jarvis Street Saloon on a cold winter night of January 2012. But it could just have easily taken place somewhere in London on another Friday the 13th in 1970, when the legendary Black Sabbath released its self-titled debut album.

Lead vocalist Janelle Langlais with bassist Mike Trainor (l) and Mike Millar on drums PHOTO: Rick Massie

In homage to these heavy metal pioneers, four Whitehorse musicians have formed A Bunch of BS, a Black Sabbath tribute band that primarily covers the group’s “Ozzy era”, or the first eight albums.

While Black Sabbath cover bands are hardly few and far between, A Bunch of BS can bask in the novelty of being Whitehorse’s only one – and in one more thing: their unconventional choice of a female lead singer.

Janelle Langlais takes the stage by storm, surrounded by mikes. Her vocal microphone on a stand becomes a dynamic prop, while another hovers over the drum set.

Then, of course, there are the other ‘mikes’ – her bandmates Mike Millar on drums, Mike Trainor on bass and Mike Smith on guitar.

Originally hailing from all over Canada, these four experienced musicians met through a network of mutual friends, driven to collaborate by Millar’s lifelong passion for playing the music of Black Sabbath.

“We’re on a mission to bring Sabbath back,” he says. “It’s got such broad appeal; it’s not just for metalheads. I’ve been waiting ten years to do this music. It’s just, ‘Wwhat would I want to see?’ That’s the impetus for this.”

They may have only played two official gigs and a handful of parties so far, but even that’s been quite an adventure, according to Langlais. The foursome is fully committed to the act, bringing costumes and props to channel Black Sabbath’s dark, theatrical performances.

“We want to entertain,” Langlais says, “not just with the music, but with the theatre. I love playing in costumes.

“Last show I came onstage wearing a grim reaper cloak, but during the end of the song I took out a hunting knife and cut off the cloak, and underneath was this all-white fringed Ozzy outfit. I sewed the fringe on myself,” she adds with a mischievous grin.

Onstage, she belts out the songs in perfect Ozzy register, carrying the show with wild antics and shouts out to the crowd, occasionally backed by harmonies from Millar.

A few times throughout the show, the lights were toned down as the group took on one of Sabbath’s slower, earlier songs, reminding all present of Sabbath’s origins as the blues band called Earth.

All four musicians are finding themselves learning more than they ever expected as they delve into some serious background research on their heroes.

“I’ve always loved Black Sabbath,” says Langlais. “But I’m finding that when you go into the lyrics, it’s all very real and true, and still applicable today. Geezer [Butler, the band’s original bassist and lyricist] was very political with his lyrics, but there was lots of unintentional humour, too.”

“It’s fun,” says Trainor, “I grew up playing metal and punk, and I’ve always been a Sabbath fan.”

Smith sums it up: “It’s a good distraction from our real jobs. I get to rock out and wear snakeskin pants!”

Still, covering such a legendary band isn’t all fun and games. Both Smith and Millar have both found that diehard Sabbath fans will often pick out small mistakes.

“If you do a solo wrong, the headbangers notice,” says Smith. “They stop and glare!”

“These guys know all the songs by heart… and they know ALL the lyrics!” Millar adds.

Despite the pressure, A Bunch of BS has done well so far, packing the Jarvis Street Saloon on the night of the 13th, and keeping the dance floor full all night.

Contrary to their name, they take a “no-BS” approach to their music and performance, a quality Langlais attributes to the original band as well.

“They weren’t professionally trained,” she says of the members of Black Sabbath. “They weren’t even particularly good to start out, but they weren’t restricted by rules and that’s what makes it magic.”

The approach taken by A Bunch of BS seems to be working. Langlais says most of the feedback so far has been gratifyingly positive, and when it comes from some lifelong Sabbath fans, that’s really saying something.

She adds that turnout for the shows has been impressive, considering they have only been advertised through posters and word-of-mouth to this point.

As for future plans, “We’re not going anywhere,” she says.

“We’ll only continue to grow. We want to ride it out for as long as possible. We just want to bring back good music!”

Willow Gamberg is a former What’s Up Yukon intern who writes about music and other arts-related topics.

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