With 13, three-fourths of the original Black Sabbath has reunited under the guidance of career-savior-as-producer Rick Rubin. The result isn’t a masterpiece, but it is the best record of new material to bear the Black Sabbath name in decades. Ultimately, its biggest limitation is the one element that’s missing.
In a manner similar to the 1963 Mario Bava-directed film that provided them with their name, it took Black Sabbath a while to gain some critical respect. And when the belated praise started popping up in print, some welcomed it as validation of a truly important band while others dismissed it all as unnecessary.
Those of the latter opinion populated a camp that listened to hard rock/heavy metal enthusiastically and accepted it on its own terms, and they frequently adopted an intensely autodidactic approach, learning how to quickly recognize the good-to-great stuff from the mediocre or worse and largely dismissing the rumblings of the rock music press as antithetical to their interests.
And that was mainly because the scribes populating the rock critic game were in general quite dismissive of hard rock/heavy metal as a whole, with vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward often getting lambasted as cartoonish, unsubtle purveyors of a stylistic cul-de-sac that’s stereotypical main audience was a bunch of dead-end teenagers and twenty-something alcohol-swilling and illicit substance-riddled degenerates. Adding to the problem; as critical esteem for the group rose, their stock with fans started to wane.
But with apologies to those self-taught heavy-rock partisans (though I doubt they’re reading this anyway), the arrival of Black Sabbath brought something truly new and enduring (to say nothing of thrilling) to the rock landscape. It was a sound distinct from their UK proto-metal contemporaries Led Zeppelin, though they often continue to get lumped together as the harbingers of a new threshold in Loud, Dense and Powerful.
That distinctness however, is very important. Along with that significant shared increase in heaviness, Sabbath basically created the template of the Doom-laden and the Sludgy that remains with us to this day (doubters should please investigate the vast discography of the Southern Lord label), and the still-startling progression of Sab’s first four albums (Black Sabbath and Paranoid, both from 1970, Master of Reality from ’71 and Black Sabbath Vol. 4 from ‘72) remains one of the more remarkable runs in the history of the music.
But by now that’s no great secret. Nor is the original group’s lesser second phase (the still pretty damned impressive Sabbath Bloody Sabbath from ’73, followed by a succession of increasingly problematic albums; ‘75’s Sabotage, ‘76’s Technical Ecstasy and ‘78’s Never Say Die!), or the third one that saw the firing of vocalist Ozzy Osbourne and his replacement by Ronnie James Dio, formerly of old-school Department Store cut-out bin staples Elf and Richie Blackmore’s post-Deep Purple group Rainbow.
And for a lot of ‘80s kids, it was this Dio-fronted incarnation of the band (two studio records, 1980’s pretty useful Heaven and Hell and the Ward-less and therefore less interesting Mob Rules from the following year, plus a live LP that spelled the end of this incarnation, the ’82 set Live Evil), that provided their initiation into the whole Black Sabbath experience. Ozzy had rebounded and was riding high (as a kite) as a solo artist while finding time to bite off the heads of birds and bats, just two in a series of acts that made him the enemy of responsible parents everywhere.
While the Dio-era has its devoted core of metal-horns-wielding champions, most listeners rightfully deify those first four discs by the original lineup as the true meat of Sabbath’s matter, and that’s the reason why so much of what’s transpired under the name since ‘83’s Born Again was such a buzz-kill for fans of the group.
If the whole situation in regard to high-profile reunion albums is a very shaky gambit, after thirty years of severe disappointment the prospect of all four principals getting back together to record some new material offered a glimmer of light for Black Sabbath’s career trajectory. If not likely to be amazing, it would hopefully offer an acceptable final chapter.
Signing up Rick Rubin as producer was a promising maneuver, but the bad news of Bill Ward’s bailing due to a “contractual dispute” reduced the excitement considerably, an instance of the putting the celebratory cart before the horse of reality that was actually recording a new record. Though honestly I can’t say I was ever all that wound up by the news of Sabbath’s return.
I was surely interested, but the chances that the reformed Sab would’ve somehow managed a statement that equaled their strongest work always felt like an incredibly remote turn of events. But if a fresh slice of the best seemed out of the question, then a record that served as a correction to their worst wasn’t really too much to ask for.
The good news is that 13, which finds Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave drummer Brad Wilk replacing Ward, is a very solid record, with nary a note in its generous running-time coming anywhere close to embarrassing. In fact, so solid is this 8-song LP that it essentially stands on its own merits; there’s no need to prop it up by contrasting it with the diminished and compromised Iommi-orchestrated returns of the last thirty years or even with Technical Ecstasy or Never Say Die!, the only unequivocally disappointing records in Sabbath’s original period.
But if all those lowlights can be avoided in appreciating what 13 has to offer, a lot of interesting points of comparison can be made with their quality work. There are obvious similarities, but just as prominent are immediately graspable differences. Opener “End of the Beginning” makes clear before a minute has elapsed that no faulty assessments have been made regarding the era they’re striving to rekindle (the title sorta gives it away), but the track also doesn’t overplay this circumstance and attempt to sound like music found in a time capsule.
Far from it, actually; Rubin’s production has come under criticism by some for succumbing to the modern trappings that have been referred to as the “loudness war.” And that accusation might be valid, but the manner in which this record was recorded also causes it to sound quite contemporary. And in this case, that’s preferable to an attempt to recapture the still rather astounding production qualities of their early work, especially Paranoid (which I consider to be the band’s flat-out masterpiece, audible string-friction and all.)
Going that route with 13 could’ve easily spelled disaster, for I can’t help but suspect that the sound Rodger Bain managed so skillfully on Sab’s first three records is simply beyond the ken of most producers these days. And if the detractors have a fair point about Rubin’s technique (after a bunch of listens their charges of “too highly compressed” do feel accurate), in this case I’ll take it over a better scenario that’s only hypothetical.
What “End of the Beginning” does bring is huge riffs, an engaging full-band dynamic (even if the guitar is way up in the mix) and a singer that kinda miraculously for a man of his genre and all its associated excesses is still in possession of considerable talent. And a little over halfway through the song’s eight minutes Iommi throws down a killer solo.
The following track “God is Dead?,” besides holding some fine bass thundering by Butler, is partially notable for Ozzy’s vocals being somewhat reminiscent of his early-‘80’s solo albums. But simultaneously it also locates a very ‘90s-like musical aura. Again, that’s largely due to Rubin’s involvement, but it’s also structural; not until over six minutes have elapsed do they kick out a signature Sabbathian breakdown, but when it finally comes it doesn’t falter.
“Loner” is the first song on 13 to really grab that first LP by the scruff with the intention of shaking loose a little bit of overt inspiration, for the track is fairly suggestive of their debut’s “N.I.B.” However, it’s varied enough to largely avoid the pratfall of people paying homage to their own discography. It cooks up an acceptable level of heat and holds another good solo from Iommi.
The record then shifts gears into the restrained acoustics of “Zeitgeist,” which attempts to wed the sub-psych glide of Paranoid’s “Planet Caravan” to the more boldly pop environments of Vol. 4’s “Changes.” In so doing, the song is no great success, but it also doesn’t muck up the program, and it’s also the first song on the disc where Ward’s drumming isn’t missed (Wilk supplies hand percussion on the track.)
The second side opens with “Age of Reason,” and any worries over creative fatigue are quashed, for it’s here that 13 takes on a small but palpable rise in quality. And as it progresses the vibe is still very ‘90s, but if borrowing from the decade where their influence was possibly the most widespread, they still manage heights that most of their Grunge-era descendents were clearly incapable of reaching.
For instance, “Live Forever” is loaded with big riffs, but it weds them to a dexterity that’s never sluggish (a big problem with Sab-influenced bands), even as Wilk’s presence makes it clear that any LP marketed as a Black Sabbath album that lacks the Bill Ward drum sound can only be so good. To be fair to Wilk, he acquits himself pretty well throughout, but in the end he simply lacks Ward’s untutored brilliance.
When Ward began drumming with Black Sabbath, the rock era was less than fifteen years old. While lacking in pronounced virtuosity ala Ginger Baker (on Paranoid in particular he’s often fascinatingly loose), his highly distinctive style was the direct opposite of what Wilk offers here.
Ward was a groundbreaker/inventor and Wilk continues to be basically a student, a guy who’s listened to a whole lock of rock’s history and borrowed some things consciously while absorbing others through osmosis. But if student, he’s also not an effective copyist; as a result his playing is quite different from Ward’s. He doesn’t really harm 13’s final product but instead just limits its overall potential.
But that’s what makes “Damaged Soul”’s defying of the odds so tasty. If Ozzy’s harmonica brings to mind “The Wizard” from their debut, overall the song is more of an attempt to remind folks that Sabbath began as a dusted blues-rock band. In so doing, Iommi burns like a blow torch, Butler throbs like a broken big toe, Ozzy emotes and huffs like a vacuum cleaner made flesh, and Wilk even gets in a few good licks of his own. It’s easily 13’s best track, and its inclusion vindicates the whole endeavor.
Closer “Dear Father” finds them messing around with a (one more time) decidedly-‘90s rhythmic chunkiness that falls into the Soundgarden/Rage style, and while a definite comedown from the heights of the previous track, it’s far from a washout.
And 13 is more than just an acceptable coda to this band’s dysfunctional saga, it’s actually a good album on its own terms. If the thunder, the falling rain and the foreboding toll of that bell at the record’s close are an indication of Black Sabbath having indeed made a full career circle, then they pulled it off far better than their audience had any right to expect.
GRADED ON A CURVE: