Black Sabbath is dead, long live Black Sabbath

BLACK SABBATH - 13

My attempts to formulate an opinion of Black Sabbath’s 13 have been something of a roller coaster ride. I deliberately didn’t pay much attention to the hype that preceded its release, but the highly publicized sacking of original drummer Bill Ward was impossible to shield oneself from, and immediately left a bad taste in my mouth. The fact that the first album in thirty-five years from the original lineup of the band that invented heavy metal could be derailed by a petty contractual dispute isn’t exactly what one would call a good omen.

However, Black Sabbath are a band that has proven they don’t need all of the original members in place in order to make great albums (see: the Ozzy-less Heaven and Hell, as well as the Ozzy/Ward-less Mob Rules [possibly my all-around favorite Sab album] and Dehumanizer), so I decided to keep an open mind in spite of the initial ugliness. Quite frankly, my tender little metal heart so desperately wanted a good new Black Sabbath album that I had no choice but to be ok with some bumps in the road, even a Godzilla-sized bump like Wardgate. If it weren’t for them, I’d probably be listening to Nickelback and Disturbed or whatever toxic pig-vomit gets played on popular hard rock radio these days; it’s not a cliche to say that I (and every metalhead ever) owe everything to Black Sabbath, it’s the fucking truth, and for that reason alone I was all too willing to forgive any sins, real or imagined.

Then came first single “God is Dead?” and I was fairly pleased with what I heard; the track was no “Paranoid or “War Pigs” to be sure, but it was good enough to pique my interest and hope for the best. Some solid guitar-work from the Riffmaster General Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler’s usual off-the-fucking-hook bass playing were both present and accounted for, making up for the fact that Ozzy Osbourne’s vocals sounded a little stiff (programmed?) and the drumming of fill-in skinsman Brad Wilk (ex-Rage Against the Machine) lacked the much talked about of late “swing” that Bill Ward brought to the table during Sabbath’s early years. I had gone from being skeptical, to anxiety-ridden, to hopeful, and looked forward to purchasing the album when it dropped on June 11th.

But something happened when I listened to the free full-album stream on iTunes. I didn’t care for what I heard and shut it off after four tracks. The songs dragged, Ozzy was in full-on robot-mode, Wilk’s drumming simply couldn’t hang with Ward or even Vinnie Appice. Iommi’s riffs were just ok and Geezer’s bass was actually sounding pretty awesome, but a bass guitar alone cannot carry an album. I felt let down, and took to social media to express my dissatisfaction. I was glad I had been able to stream the album before blowing $15.00 on the “deluxe” edition, which I’d previously had every intention of doing.

This wasn’t the end of the road for me and 13 though. Two key things happened that made me reconsider my position. First, I decided to seek out the album’s bonus tracks, just for the heck of it. I found “Methademic” “Pariah” and “Peace of Mind” to be more readily enjoyable than what I’d heard during my aborted run-through of the album proper, and as a result, the seeds of doubt were planted. Second, I went to see the movie This is the End with my wife, which features 13‘s opening track “End of the Beginning” during the closing credits. I offhandedly said to my wife “This is one of the new Black Sabbath songs,” to which she replied “Really? This sounds pretty good.” My wife is a much harsher metal critic than I am; I’d say she shoots down around 85% of the things I play for her. I can always rely on her to pull no punches and tell me exactly what she thinks of any given band; surely if this wasn’t causing her of all people to cringe, then it was worth revisiting.

I decided if I was going to dive back into what will most likely be Black Sabbath’s final album, I would do it the right way; I went out and bought the fucking thing, brought it home and cranked it up loud. No janky downloads, no iTunes streams through earbuds; Black Sabbath’s music, whether forty years old or brand spanking new, will always be a “maximum volume yields maximum results” affair. Sure enough, that’s when 13 opened up and came to life for me, when Iommi’s patented ground zero devil-riffage and Geezer’s rumbling four-string fuck-thunder came blaring out of big-ass speakers. Don’t get me wrong, the album has its flaws; Brad Wilk’s drumming is far too precise and workmanlike, the production could use a little more of the grit ‘n’ grime of the old days, and the lyrics don’t always live up to the macabre brilliance of “Black Sabbath” or the aforementioned “War Pigs,” but goddamn it if Black Sabbath haven’t put in a fine performance here.

For me, a Black Sabbath album is only as good as Iommi and Butler, the two longest-tenured members and the architects of the classic sound and aesthetic. Iommi in particular sounds re-energized, and his riffs and solos are far more memorable here than on Heaven & Hell’s competent but ultimately rather dull The Devil You Know (which was of course a Black Sabbath album in all but name, featuring the Mob Rules/Dehumanizer lineup). Butler is simply one of the greatest heavy metal bassists off all time, and his playing is one of my favorite aspects of 13, lending the album a deep, dark low-end that might ultimately be its most crucial component. It’s easy to heap praise upon these two musicians based solely on their reputations, but repeat listens to 13 reveal they’ve endeavored to create something fresh and vital rather than coasting on those reputations.

What’s interesting about the riffing on 13 is that in spite of what the pre-release hype may have lead you to believe, Iommi didn’t just reach back to the Ozzy-era of Black Sabbath to conjure up some six-string hellfire and brimstone; there’s stuff here that sounds like it could’ve just as easily been culled from the Heaven and Hell or Mob Rules years, especially on more uptempo material such as “Loner” and “Pariah.” It’s only natural that he’d bring all forty-plus years of riff-craft to the table, whether Rick Rubin sat him down and forced him to listen to the first album or not. One doesn’t simply shut off a lifetime of thoughts, ideas and experiences, and I can’t help but think that at least some of those expressing disappointment over this album are under the entirely false impression that this is something an artist can do as effortlessly as flipping a switch. The original Black Sabbath were naive kids that stumbled onto something great, but once the genie is out of the bottle you can’t just force it back in on command once you hit retirement age.

In listening to the interplay between Iommi and Butler on 13, it’s hard to believe that there isn’t some kind of telepathic Vulcan mind-meld shit happening between these two. The slower tracks like “End of the Beginning” and “God is Dead?” really let one get a sense of just how well they know each other musically, but it is on the epic doom-blues jam “Damaged Soul” that the duo truly recaptures that old black magic. The track seethes with forlorn menace, and is the most organic-sounding number on 13; if you told me the Sabs had improvised this thing in the studio I’d believe it, such is its fantastic sense of groove and looseness. While I wish there was more of that looseness to be found on the album, Iommi and Butler make up for it elsewhere by sounding equally apocalyptic and morose; the depressive, endtimes feeling on the album is palpable, and one can’t help but wonder if Iommi’s ongoing battle with cancer hung over the sessions like a reaper’s scythe.

Adding to the melancholy that permeates 13 is Ozzy, the album’s wild card. While I have no doubt that there is some “studio magic” happening with his vocals, The Prince of Fucking Darkness™ sounds better here than on his recent solo stuff and 13 is arguably the best thing he’s lent his pipes to since No More Tears. When Ozzy lets his advancing age show, it lends the new songs a sense of true gravitas; there is a line in “Methademic” where he sings “I can tell you’ve sold your soul and hell is where you’re going” and follows it up by quietly chuckling and saying “I’ll see you there,” and it is in spots such as this one that he sounds like the withered old soothsayer he should be embodying on a Black Sabbath album at sixty-four, as opposed to the youthful yet utterly mad prophet of Paranoid or Master of Reality.

“Methedamic” isn’t the only spot where Ozzy reminds us why he’s the definitive Black Sabbath frontman, even if he isn’t the most technically proficient singer to pass through the ranks; the aforementioned “Damaged Soul” finds him sounding as legitimately mournful as he often did in the old days, fully immersing himself in the tortured spirit of the hypnotic, Robert Johnson-on-steroids-and-codeine dirge Iommi and Butler whip up, even adding some surprisingly awesome-sounding harmonica to the mix. On the ultra-mellow “Planet Caravan” sequel “Zeitgeist,” his voice has some minimal spacey effects on it, but with only the clean, stark instrumentation that accompanies him (acoustic guitar, bongos, synth), he’s able to bring the goosebumps on his own during the chorus as he laments “lost in time I wonder will my ship be found,” proving there’s still some gas left in the tank.

As I mentioned earlier, the album undoubtedly has its flaws, but go back and listen again to those first six classic Black Sabbath records and I guarantee they’re not as untouchable as you might remember them being. Each one has at least one interlude that adds absolutely nothing to the overall listening experience (“Rat Salad” or “Embryo,” anyone?), or one track that’s a complete dud (“Solitude”). At least on 13 Sabbath spares us the interludes and gives us eight full-on songs, twelve if you count the bonus disk (and you really should). The fact that none of those songs hit you as instantly as the band’s ’70s material is to be expected; chances are you weren’t the jaded, grumpy, seen-and-heard-it-all metalhead you are now when you first heard “Iron Man” and “Hand of Doom.” I know damn well that I wasn’t.

That said, the more I listen to 13, the more I find myself internalizing these songs and wanting to hear them again, and that’s even as I’ve continued to re-listen to the vintage Sabbath material for comparison purposes. Some may disagree, but I do truly believe that songs such as “End is the Beginning” “Age of Reason” “Zeitgeist” and especially “Damaged Soul” capture at least some inkling of the original Black Sabbath, albeit with modern production values (did you really expect the suffocating fuzz of Master of Reality?) and played by men in their sixties with nothing left to prove, one of whom may very well be staring death itself in the face, as opposed to a bunch of drugged-up twenty-somethings out to conquer the planet. It’s not “the best we could hope for” or “not bad for a bunch of old men;” it’s a sturdy, well-written album that can’t help but be endearing in spite of its imperfections, and for me personally, that’s far more than enough.

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