Yes I know it has been well over a month since the release of this and it is yesterday’s news for most of you; but I have a very good reason for leaving things so long. The thing is, I’m a devoted Black Sabbath fan and have been since I were a wee lad. As such I desperately wanted to avoid bias and predictable knee jerk reactions, of which there have been many so far, ranging from the blind diehards with variations on “Sabbath rules, fuck the haters!” through to the endlessly pessimistic with “Ozzy’s shit and the album is awful”. I’ll admit, in the build-up to the release I was very worried after hearing the snippets that had been offered as teasers, but I decided that I wasn’t going to make any rash judgements. I was going to live with the album for at least a month and let it soak into my conscious before I made any form of judgement, and for once I was going to make sure I had the time to do so, as there was no record label chasing the editor and no editor chasing me as this is my album bought with my own money, (no need to act so surprised, us journos aren’t just all about the freebies you know!). Anyway, I don’t feel any guilt for the delay given that it’s taken them 35 years to get back together to record this one.
Firstly you have to applaud the approach that they took with the album, which was to return to the roots of Sabbath and the sound of the early albums. Of course whilst that is what everyone really wanted, it’s a hell of a tall order in the great scheme of things. How exactly do you recapture the sound of a hungry young band when 45 years have passed by, bringing with them all manner of success, riches and experiences? With the greatest will in the world, you can’t just hit the reset button. In addition to this as you all well know by now, this is not the full original line up as Bill Ward was dropped prior to recording, and there are a number of schools of thought on that. The announcement of Brad Wilk as a replacement did come as something of a shock though. Did no-one think to call Vinny Appice? Bringing in Rick Rubin to oversee the production was a sign that they were definitely taking it seriously, but Rubin is also a man who divides opinion, and his production has proven to be one of the most controversial aspects of this album for many. Personally, I’m still undecided on that aspect, but on the album itself, I think I finally have settled on an opinion.
The first few seconds of the album sets aside any concerns that this would be a watered down and commercial take on the Sabbath sound, and solidifies the claim that they would be returning to their roots, as the ponderous doom laden opening riff to ‘End of the Beginning’ harks back to the opening strains of that original Black Sabbath album. Time has not been kind to Ozzy’s voice, and whilst he was never a great singer in the manner of RJD, he did have a very charismatic tortured blues style in those early days, eventually shifting toward the ‘autotune and adenoids’ sound of recent years. Here, whilst the toll of 40+ years cannot be undone, it’s pleasing to hear Ozzy not sounding quite so annoyingly nasal and with a voice that is as close to his earlier clean sound as he has managed in 20 years, although that being said he does sound like he is concentrating too much on each syllable so much that it sounds as if it has been learned phonetically. As with any classic Sabbath track you get two songs for the price of one, with the first act of the song coming in the form of pure doom punctuated by Iommi and Butler’s masterful ability to unsettle the listener with a tone that deserves a Hammer horror movie all of its own, and the arrival of the 2nd act is marked by a classic Iommi swinging blues riff which is enough to plaster a beaming grin across the face of any Sabbath fan. It’s one of those tracks that with a youthful Ozzy at the helm would have fit seamlessly on ‘Master of Reality’.
‘God Is Dead’ was the first track to get an airing and it both excited and disappointed me in equal measures at the time, but it’s a perfect example of why I wanted to wait before making a judgement on this album, as I now think it is an excellent Sabbath track. It’s lyrically clunky as ever, (that ‘Gloom-Doom-Tomb rhyming triplet is criminal), but let’s be honest now, the majority of Dio’s lyrics were nonsense too yet we let him away with those. The track follows the same format to the first one, with another outstanding Iommi riff that carries enough energy to even drag seemingly impromptu excitable exclamations out of the Ozzman, really turning the clock back in the process. ‘Loner’ is closer to what I was expecting from the album. It’s a perfectly reasonable song that draws as much from early Sabbath as it does Ozzy’s early solo career, with the end result being close to what Sabbath came up with back in 97 when they teased a few new tracks on us then. Taking no chances, they dive back into the back catalogue for ‘Zeitgeist’ which could well be called ‘Planet Caravan Pt.2’, and it is a mellow and chilled out track as the track on which it is clearly based, and contains what is probably Ozzy’s best vocal performance on the album, spaced out effects notwithstanding.
Tracks like ‘Age of Reason’ and ‘Pariah’, (the version being reviewed here is the special edition with bonus tracks), have that identifiable Sabbath sound, but like ‘Loner’ it sounds like a modern spin on the sound, whilst ‘Live Forever’ with its galloping riff and the mournful blues of ‘Damaged Soul’ are classic Sabbath through and through, and with Ozzy on the harmonica it really could be 1970 again. Final track ‘Dear Father’ is another blast from the past, and whilst the lyrics primarily seem to be an attack on child abuse in the church, the music would suggest the final closing of the book of Black Sabbath, returning in its final moments to the opening sounds of that first Black Sabbath album. The rainfall and the distant bells. The sound that kick-started a whole movement. Arguably the Genesis moment for heavy metal. The bonus tracks are well worth seeking out too, with ‘Methademic’ deserving particular praise.
So in terms of songwriting and composition this is as close as we can expect to early Sabbath given the passage of time, but there are a few nit-picks that I have. Firstly, the choice of Brad Wilk as drummer utterly perplexed me at the time, and after hearing the album even more so. There is no personality in the drumming at all. With none of the flair of Ward or the power of Powell or Appice, he sounds as if he is on rent-a-beat duty, and that is exacerbated by the production. Whilst you could argue that Rick Rubin has succeeded in his mission statement for the album, which was to strip everything back to the bare bones to make it sound like 1970 again, the mix is too flat, with the exception of the drums which sound strangely muted, almost as if he is hitting cushions at times. Also, the guitar and bass needed a bit of a boost in my opinion. If you take the sound that they had on ‘The Devil You Know’, the music had a real kick, and the richer guitar and bass sounds were the cause.
Whilst I was dubious and a little nervous when they announced that they were finally going to record this album after so many false starts, I agree with their sentiment that if they didn’t manage to get together to do this now, then it would most likely never happen. Despite some initial reservations on my first few listens, I have grown to love ‘13’ more and more with every listen and whilst it may not be their best, it measures up favourably alongside the rest of their back catalogue. As a lifelong fan of heavy metal (and doom in particular), I am ever aware that the music I love would either not exist or sound very different without the contribution that Black Sabbath have made over the years, and that has enriched my life immeasurably. To try and add to the legacy after so long was a big ask, but after the success of the Heaven and Hell project with Dio, and now ‘13’, one thing is certain to me. Time may pass, and music styles and tastes will change, but Black Sabbath will live forever.
(8/10 Lee Kimber)