Black Sabbath – 13
Release date: June 11, 2013
Amidst all the hype surrounding the reunion of Black Sabbath and the word that they would record new music with Ozzy Osbourne it was difficult not to feel hopeful yet marginally skeptical. “13” marks the band’s first Ozzy fronted studio effort since 1978’s “Never Say Die“. I will readily admit my skepticism meter was higher than most. When drummer Bill Ward was pushed out of the project over finances it made some, myself included, concerned that this was just a money grab. More important it signaled the end to the idea that this would be a true reunion. No Ward, no reunion. It’s that simple.
I’ve heard people voice wonder over whether Tony Iommi, the Lord of the Riff, had any good ones left in the tank, what with almost a half century under his belt and cancer in his body. But we knew he still had a plethora of riffs left, and I’m sure he’ll be writing them till the day he passes from his mortal coil. He unleashes many of his sinister riffs on “13“.
Bassist Geezer Butler remains the preeminent master of the 4-string rhythmic rumble, and I had no doubt that would prove out on “13“. In fact, he sounds as darkly powerful as ever on this record. Likewise he remains the deft lyricist, penning some real malevolent yet intelligent gems for this album.
In Ward’s stead the band tapped Rage Against the Machine‘s Brad Wilk to handle the beat and foundation of the record’s sound. Wilk is a dynamic drummer, and not surprisingly, he did a fantastic job. But… Part of Black Sabbath‘s signature and legacy is Ward’s playing. His jazzy touches and that certain illusive swing he has to his style is missing on “13“, and for that reason alone it diminishes the record’s magic.
And then there’s Ozzy. It seems almost heresy to say this but on “13” Sabbath with Ozzy doesn’t quite work like it should. What made it all mesh and gel in the 70s is all but gone. Butler and Iommi’s playing only continued to improve over the years as their fingers gained graceful wisdom. For Ozzy (and most singers), time and age take a toll. While Ozzy sounds like the Osbourne we’ve come to know and love these last three decades, he sounds decidedly different than he did in his first decade, and moreover, his abilities are somewhat degraded. It is clear listening to “13” that autotune and studio tricks were used to help the Ozzman. Ozzy has been polished up, and the raw, organic, austerity that made the early Sabbath albums so classic is all but gone. Still, this is not the album’s primary flaw.
For that we look to the fifth man; Producer Rick Rubin, who quite honestly has no business working on a Black Sabbath album. His presence here may be the album’s Achilles heal. While he may have begun his career as the “stripped down” method master, he has become the king of laziness and bloat in the studio, and this can be felt in the pores of “13“. The record is refined in places that beg for a raw unpolished feel, and left to wither in places that could use some spit and shine.
The artwork and album title may have been the least inspired of all, but in the end it comes down to the music. When the band unveiled the near 9-minute “God is Dead?” back in April it seemed clear that there is still gas in the proverbial tank. While it did not set the stage for an epic masterpiece it gave us a sense that the album would be more than a late career slab of mediocrity.
“13” offers eight tracks of new material (11 if you pony up for the Deluxe edition) which find Black Sabbath toiling to reclaim their birthright. All of the elements are here; the bluesy ooze, psychedelic nuances, heavy riffs, churning rhythms, baleful lyrics, down-tuned doom, and soul-wailing solos. What is missing, and this is by no means Sabbath’s fault, is the genuine sense of despair. It was that cloak of woe-be-gone, blue-collar, underdog desperation that the Birmingham boys built their legacy on. It goes without saying that once you become a rich and revered icon, you can’t really tap into that stream of somber sentiment. Once you’ve seen Ozzy parading around his mansion in his boxers, stepping in dog excrement and bellowing for his wife, needless to say, that air of foreboding is forever lost.
The album’s first three tracks, “End of the Beginning”, “Loner”, and “the aforementioned “God is Dead?” stick to the tried and true Sabbath formula of thick heavy chords over dirgy rhythms that build to a massive wall of oppression. This is offset on occasion by galloping time changes, and broody sections. It is the proto-metal template which so many bands would later to aspire too.
At the midway point we get a change of pace and something of a nod in spirit to “Planet Caravan” from 1970’s “Paranoid” album. “Zeitgeist” is as Ozzy would say, a trip to the future, through the past. The song is filled with some rather trippy and mechanically altered vocals from Ozzy, acoustic guitars, and bongos. Iommi gets into a jazzy groove, and you can’t help but miss Ward here.
The band brings its weight to bear on the ever-shifting landscape of “Age of Reason”. It is arguably the record’s strongest or at least most adventurous track, and at points feels like a fluid yet monolithic beast.
“Damaged Soul” takes the band back to its bluesy roots while clinging to the earthen sludge of its foundation. Iommi has some of his shiniest moments here, and Ozzy even whips out his ole blues harp.
The album’s closer, “Dear Father” is the most similar to Ozzy’s solo work yet still steeped in the vintage doom that is Sabbath. In fact, one could argue the entire album is perhaps a touch too slow overall. It needs a bit more movement to give the dirge extra impact. Walking from the graveyard, the thunder rumbling, rain chilling our bones, and bell tolling in the distance, we realize as we stand on the doorstep of the nether that these same bells first tolled the beginning of Black Sabbath 43 years before. “13” brings the end to the beginning.