After literally a couple of decades of talking about it, but never having it come to fruition, this year we finally saw the first album by the classic seventies lineup of Black Sabbath. Well… sort of. By the time the guys finally got their stuff together and got serious about recording, original drummer Bill Ward decided to bow out. Thank goodness, rather than sub in a drummer from another Sabbath lineup, the band tapped powerhouse drummer Brad Wilk, best known for his work with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. It is obvious right from the beginning that Wilk has been influenced heavily by the band’s early records and understands how to support the others in a way that fits. 13 is an album that harkens back to the first 3 or 4 Black Sabbath albums. At first listen, it almost sounds like going through the process of mimicking their own hits, until you realize that this is the sound these guys built. They are stepping up to claim their rightful place as inventors of these styles. Rick Rubin is behind the controls which is both good and bad. Good, because Rubin tends to bring out the best and most primal in the performers he works with. But bad because the records he’s produced in the last decade tend to have the sound levels pushed up into the red and compressed heavily. Because of this we can’t truly enjoy the space and depth in the sound the guys create here. But in the end the good far outweighs the bad.
The basic album has eight songs, most around the 7-8 minute range. the opener “End of the Beginning” has that grand powerhouse opening like their eponymous classic. Ozzy Osbourne sounds as good as ever, which to be honest is surprising having heard his voice come and go throughout the recent years in concert. The song breaks from slow grinding sludge to a classic swing the band is also famous for. Tony Iommi gives some great licks in this one and Geezer Butler’s basslines lock in perfectly with Brad Wilk’s wall of drumming. Second up is the track “God Is Dead?” which deals with the usual themes: madness, morality, guilt, fear and questioning the spiritual. I am fairly sure the title, especially being the first single, was meant to provoke. But for a single this is quite the progressive track, clocking in around nine minutes and going through several changes. One thing that stacks up differently when you compare this to recent Ozzy albums is the way the songs are slowed down to a crawl for maximum spooky effect. The drum fills and little details in the guitar are given space to breathe this way.
“Loner” storms in with a riff that is similar to the classic “Sweet Leaf”. However the topic is far different, with Ozzy singing about self-chosen isolation driving someone mad and creating their own personal hell. The spacey effects on the solo here from Tommy are a nice touch. This is followed by “Zeitgeist”. This one is obviously designed to recall their stoned psychedelia of “Planet Caravan” using a similar vocal effect. But this time the song appears to be about being literally lost in space hoping for rescue. The acoustic guitar work on this song is intricate and beautiful.
Marching in to start the second half is the heavy stomp of “Age of Reason”. This one doesn’t really sound like an attempt at an earlier song (I could be wrong as I don’t know all the old stuff by heart), but it also goes through some twists and turns. The lyrics seem to be dealing with fears and foreshadowing of “end times”. The backing choir (which I think is just a keyboard effect) is a nice touch to the backdrop. next follows a song in similar theme, “Live Forever”. The heavy swing of this one reminds me a lot of “Fairies Wear Boots” until the chorus change where Ozzy laments “I don’t want to live forever, but I don’t want to die”.
“Damaged Soul” follows next, with a riff that sounds right at home with their classics. Similar themes here… end times, madness, “am I evil?”, etc. What keeps these themes from being boring is that the guys make the music and vocals sound so good and convincing. there’s a real groove here… if you can call it a groove. The bass, the drums, the riff are all tight with each other, but loose in that they sound detailed and interesting. And Ozzy breaks out the harmonica here. Nice because that’s part of what makes “The Wizard” one of my favorite Sabbath tracks. Ozzy makes a happy instrument sound dark. The final song here is one of the most interesting, “Dear Father”, a first person account of a plot to kill an abusive and decidedly evil father. It is on this big finale the album ends.
I was lucky enough to grab the deluxe edition at Best Buy when this was released and it comes with a second disc. I do think it was a wise thing that the extra songs were split off to a second cd. The four songs are really good, but don’t quite fit the sound of the other 8 in one way or another. “Methademic” kicks them off and is by far the best of the set. This one is a bit faster and has a rolling bassline not found in the other songs. It sounds like a *new* Sabbath song rather than an homage to themselves. Lyrically this is more like Ozzy’s solo songs where he warns about the dangers of drugs. The drumming is excellent here as you hear a bit more of Brad Wilk’s personal style as opposed to “how Sabbath should sound”. “Peace of Mind” has a slower riff. While it is good it doesn’t stand out as any better than anything else, so this would have been a nice b-side in the age of b-sides. Plus with being just under four minutes, the music doesn’t have time to sprawl out like some of the other similar tracks. “Pariah” is great track. Good riff, a little more upbeat, thudding bassline, and again this sounds more like Ozzy writing as though it were for his own album than trying to make it sound like Sabbath. Lastly is “Naïveté in Black”, with a title that makes fun of the assumed “Nativity In Black” title fans have bestowed onto “N.I.B.”. The song is nothing like “N.I.B. however. The song is one of the fastest here, bordering on the pace of Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart”, but much heavier.
And that is Black Sabbath in ‘13.
While I would normally knock a band for repeating ideas from their past, these guys have earned it. This is a genre that they created, or at least brought to the masses. If any band right now were to release a song like one from this album, they would be praised for being learned in the stylings of such classic metal. Black Sabbath just came back to remind you that they started it, they own it, and they can still do it and sound damn good doing so.
Check out the videos released from the album:
“God Is Dead?”:
“End Of the Beginning”: